Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Mississipi River - Lanark County Ontario 1985

Mississippi River
Lanark County, Ontario - September 1985
(Yes, the other one)

“Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody”
Mark Twain

Brian and I stared back at each other from across the kitchen table as my drumming fingers sent ripples throughout our coffees. Having packed our car and secured the canoe hours earlier, daylight now seemed unreasonably distant. Highly caffeinated for this late hour, those coffee cup waves taunted us into an early departure for our Mississippi river sojourn.

Certainly a midnight run avoiding metropolitan Toronto’s maddening rush hour traffic had greater appeal than joining weekday road warriors, white knuckled at the wheel, foaming from the mouth, spewing profanities as they inched closer to a “have a nice day” at work.
We were off…

With the lights of Toronto soon fading in our rear-view mirror, Brian and I cruised along a darkened Hwy 401, tapping the floorboard to the tune of Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’. Curtains of iridescent auroras began to drape the northeast sky as the miles tugged at our horizon. Lost in conversation, tunes continued to blare from the speakers while we remained enthralled by nature’s shimmering northern light show. Cresting a rise in the highway, I suddenly felt myself violently shoved into the passenger door, then just as quickly thrown back. Streaks of red and amber danced in the windshield while the pungent smell of rubber accompanied an unnerving screech as Brian fought to regain control of the ‘fishtailing’ car. In that split second of sheer panic, we glimpsed a scene that defied all logic. There, in the center of our lane stood a gentleman armed with a camera perched upon a tripod, timing exposures of the northern lights!! So mesmerized by the spectacle that he had left his driver’s side door agape with taillights still jutting onto the asphalt. As our adrenaline rush subsided we realized that we had just witnessed a contender for the year’s ‘Darwin Awards‘, usually awarded posthumously to some fool who, through actions of their own, unintentionally removes their DNA from humanity’s gene pool.

In planning a canoe trip, one would think the adventure begins when a paddle first breaks water. Events along route were beginning to convince us otherwise. On our Albany River trip, I had collided with an unfortunate cat as it attempted to cross a darkened highway. Regretfully, the feline forfeited it’s ninth life under the frame of my chevy as it bounced out the other end. On our drive to the Missinaibi River, we were rewarded with a free lunch outside of Flint Michigan, then later kept awake outside of Hornepayne Ontario by the same ‘on time trains’ Gordon Lightfoot once sang about(1). One year previous we found ourselves dodging an unhitched cabin-cruiser as the boat spun it’s way down Hwy 401 during our midnight run to the Spanish River. At times I was convinced that raging wilderness rapids spewing boiling white water presented less danger than offered by our country’s roadways.

Bridge Spanning Mississippi River At Watson's Corners Road

With bearings set for McDonald’s Corners, we traced our route along Hwy 12 to where a turn north on Watson’s Corners Road delivered us to Dalhousie Lake. Stowing our car alongside an iron frame bridge which spanned the Mississippi, Brian and I paused momentarily to admire the rising sun, grateful for this new day after the harrowing experience encountered in it‘s earliest hours. Stifled yawns gently reminded us that our day was far from over and camp lay somewhere downstream.

Brian At Dalhousie Lake Jump-off For Our Mississippi River Trip

The name of Ontario’s Mississippi had been derived from the local Algonquin name ‘Mazinawzeebi’, meaning “painted image river”. Lake Mazinaw‘s granite cliffs, emblazoned with ochre pictographs served as the headwaters for Mississippi’s eastern journey. At some point in history, it’s pronunciation drifted from the Algonquin to the Americanized ‘Mississippi’(2). Our stay on the Mississippi was to be a short relaxing stopover prior to continuing to the Ottawa River on which we would be rafting two days hence.

On this trip ‘relaxing’ meant our canoe’s ballast was a large cooler filled with icy cans of our favourite beverage, requiring a portage around every obstacle encountered. To lighten our load, it was decided to empty a couple cans prior to departure and document our salute to the river on film…after all, this was our vacation.

Yuri On Banks of Mississippi River

Brian On Banks Of Mississippi River

Although we had chosen to explore a short portion of the Mississippi, the journey could easily have been extended in either direction. Joining numerous lakes, the river cut a swath through Ontario’s cottage country, rural farmlands and secluded townships. Framed by mixed forests of sugar maples, hemlock, beech, white pine and balsam fir, the river meandered eastward over rapids of limestone and shale before the geology transitioned to the igneous rocks of the Canadian shield.

Mississippi River, Ontario, Canada

With September’s arrival, frosty winds swirling blazing colours were but weeks away. Taking full advantage of this last burst of summer’s warmth we leisurely canoed along Mississippi’s sparkling waters. Gentle rapids offered a refreshing spray or a walk within the cooling current as the Grumman was lined through shallows.

Brian Lining Grumman Canoe Over Mississippi River Shallows

Mississippi River Rapids

Clamouring up an earthen bank with packs, paddles and of course our progressively lighter cooler, we followed the canopied trail as it lead to a grassy clearing. Some distance from the river stood a weathered hewn log cottage. Lowering our canoe while hoisting a ‘cold one’, Brian and I took a break mid portage to catch our breaths.

Grumman Canoe Below Portage

Brian Walking Past 'Skippy's Rustic Cottage On Mississippi River

A slamming door caught our attention as we turned to watch a gangly young man hurriedly stomp towards us. Spiffily dressed in a white polo sport shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts, knee high socks and canvas deck shoes, the nebbish fellow approached us with a wagging finger. (If only he had been holding a martini glass with pinky extended, the image would have been complete.) “Gentlemen, you do realize that you are trespassing on private property?!” he blurted with authority. “ Sorry, we’re just portaging around the rapids below, we’ll be gone in a few moments”. “Well, you have no right to be here!” Brian, lacking the patience to argue with this fellow we later came to nickname ‘Skippy’, dryly stated “The Canadian Inland Waters Act states that river voyagers must, by law, be allowed free access to one chain length(3) inland from any navigable river regardless of property ownership.” Now, to this day I have no idea as to whether Brian stated fact or whether he just dazzled Skippy with his bafflegab, but it was wonderful watching this fellow’s mouth drop as he backed away and retreated up the hill to his cottage. Brian looked rather please with himself as he finished his suds and I stood in awe, having watched the philosophy of ‘if you can’t convince them, confuse them!’ put to useful practice.

Drifting down the Mississippi, we continued to chuckle over our encounter with Skippy while we searched for a suitable campsite which wouldn’t infringe on anyone’s good nature. An open meadow on the north shore looked promising and after a quick scouting we hauled our gear ashore and erected our tent. The remainder of the afternoon was spent lazing about in the sun, periodically dosing off, waking only to shoo off some flying nuisance or to raid the cooler. We led no less of a carefree life on our Mississippi than Huck Finn did on his.

Meadow Camp On Mississippi River

With morning’s arrival Brian and I loaded our alarmingly depleted cooler into the Grumman to start our return journey. The gentle current offered little resistance to our upstream progress. Stopping for a quick lunch, we pulled our canoe alongside the partially sunken remnants of a dock. Collapsing on shore amongst some inflated inner tubes, we were in the process of preparing a snack when the shouts of children at play began advancing through the trees. Fearing that Skippy’s riverside relatives might be plotting revenge, we were on guard. Paying little attention to their unannounced visitors, a group of naked children came bounding out of the forest, nonchalantly passing us as they splashed their way into the river. Playful shoves and peels of laughter were exchanged as they cavorted about the water.

Yuri & Brian At 'Hippie Commune' Landing On Mississippi River

“Hey man, what’s happenin’?” Following their charges, two scruffy adults sauntered barefoot and shirtless from the forest. In stark contrast to our previous day’s encounter, we found ourselves welcomed rather than rebuked. Here we had stumbled upon a ‘throwback’ to the hippie era of the sixties. A lost commune of 'flower children' clinging to a simpler way of life. Self sufficient through resident artisans and farmed produce, their children were educated on site in classrooms constructed within reclaimed school bus shells. Sharing a few items from our cooler earned us an invitation back to the compound for that evening’s corn roast. Regretfully we were too far removed from our car if we wished to make our rafting engagement the following day. As the kids disappeared bare-assed back into the woods, we wished our new friends “Peace”, or whatever as we pointed our bow back upstream.

Skippy failed to greet us as we passed by his homestead on our return journey. Pausing to reflect on our encounters of the last day, I felt a greater kinship with the down to earth, dishevelled hippies than I could ever have with the highly polished, high-society, highly annoying Skippy.

Camp was pitched within a sun filled grove of saplings on the south bank of the Mississippi. With stomachs full and cooler empty we prepared to batten down the hatches in preparation of the storm clouds gathering in the west.

Final Night's Camp On South Shore of Mississippi River

I would greet the following morning, my 31st birthday, in damp darkness as we broke camp and ferried our gear to the river. A thin blue horizon eventually sliced through the foggy darkness as we continued to canoe under a light rainfall. In all the years that followed, no birthday gift could ever match the joyful experience offered by that rainy dawn!

Reaching our car at Watson’s Corner Road, we tossed our sopping gear into the trunk, lashed the Grumman to the roof for the final time this season and headed off to our rafting appointment with Ottawa’s river rapids.

Note: A more elaborate description of our final morning’s trek up the Mississippi and our rafting excursion later that day can be found in a separate post entitled 'Mississippi River, Lanark County, September 6th, 1982'.

(1) Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics from his tune ‘On The High Seas’ questioned “was it up in Hornepayne, where the trains run on time” - which through personal experience we can attest to being true. The full account of our experience can be read in ‘Chapter One’ of my Missinaibi River posts.

(2) Of course the “Americanized” Mississippi is itself derived from the native Ojibwe word ‘misi-zibbi’ (Great River).

(3) Chain: A unit of length which measures 66 feet or 22 yards. There are 10 chains in a furlong and 80 chains in on statute mile.
Slide Show of Mississippi River Canoe Trip
(Music: Gordon Lightfoot - 'Whispers Of The North')

Mississippi River Location - Road Map
(Click on Map to Enlarge)

Mississippi River At Dalhousie Lake - Map
(Click on Map to Enlarge)

Longitude & Latitude Coordinates of Mississippi River, Ontario
(Paste all that appears in Red in Google Earth to be taken to the Location)

Jump-off Location at Watson’s Corner Road Bridge
44°58'22.60"N, 76°32'25.24"W

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