My boyhood was largely spent playing in the waters of a single, massive drainage. Down the road from the small white country house my parents built, was a creek where I caught countless tadpoles and marveled at their transformation. "Polliwog Pond" is the name we gave to where the creek backs up, and where we spent most of our time trudging through muddy water and cattails.
When I wasn't in upstate New York with tadpoles, I was catching crayfish in the clear waters of a small Canadian lake. Each summer, my family would travel to the cottage my grandparents owned. While the 4-hour car ride was torture, that place was the glory of my youth. There, I learned to swim. I fished, I paddled canoes, I learned to drive a boat, and I caught an ungodly number of crayfish in the purity of boyish entertainment.
An epiphany many, many years later made clear that the water at our Canadian cottage eventually intermingled with the waters flowing around my ankles in Polliwog Pond. It's in the Saint Lawrence River that these two remote bodies of water meet and talk on their cold, blue descent to the Atlantic Ocean. Watersheds are the simplest of miracles.
In 2014, my older brother, Dan, and I began emailing a long chain of thoughts about what it would take to get a canoe from our hometown to our grandparent's cottage. While a bird can make the trip in 150 miles, it's 250 miles by water. At face value, a 250-mile trip doesn't daunt. Add a 4-mile urban portage through Rochester, my ambivalent ten-year-old nephew, Jackson, 100 miles of Lake Ontario waves, and consider yourself daunted.
Dan, Jackson, and I aren't complete novices. In 2016, we paddled a section of the upper Missouri River. Jack was only eight years old. At night, he slept soundly beneath behemoth cottonwoods while Dan and I bit our nails at the incessant lightning, wind, and not infrequent sound of gunfire. The equanimity borne of naivety and trust in a father is amazing to witness. From Fort Peck, Montana to Williston, North Dakota took us eight days. Jack saw some modern mountain men (guys who spend their weekends drunk at historic forts in soiled leather clothing), and he saw where one of America's most iconic rivers, the Yellowstone, meets the Missouri and is tamed by its relatively placid waters. If he could handle that trip at eight years old, we knew he could handle much more by ten.
This year, 2018, the stars aligned. Dan and I put the finishing touches on the route and logistics, and set a tentative start date for our long-discussed trip from our small New York town to our small Canadian lake. We found a Wenonah Itasca canoe for a remarkable price in Portland, Oregon, and it made a long journey of its own to New York. This is a boat, later named Emma, for which I have no bottom to my praise.
In late June, the day came, and we three found ourselves starry-eyed and optimistic, pushing off the muddy banks of the Genesee River bound for Canada and what was bound to be a great adventure for our lives.
And most of it was.
We met the first real stressor of the trip early on day two: portaging miles through downtown Rochester, New York with a boy and a near-20-foot green canoe. The stares we drew were remarkable. It was brutally hot. Nobody wanted to engage us. The impatient urbanites didn't have the courage to even honk at our laborious street crossings, such was the absurdity of our presence. At one point, our canoe hull had deformed around the cart and vital pieces of the homemade cart had gone missing. The time was getting on and the stares continued unabated; morale was waning early.
The portage was a trend-setter, and the trip turned out to be unbelievably difficult, both psychologically and physically. Lake Ontario was a demanding piece of water. Jackson had no idea what he had signed up for. We paddled when we could, and didn't when we couldn't. Our routines were built around weather windows and, sometimes, the caprices of a ten-year-old boy. It rained frequently, and frequently the waves exceeded four feet and our collective skillset.
Once across Lake Ontario, the difficulties eased. Opting to portage on our wheeled cart across Wolfe Island added 7.5 miles of walking, but it was much faster than the 20 miles of paddling around the enormous island in the mouth of the St. Lawrence. From there, we entered the Rideau Canal System, a must for any paddler in the vicinity. The lakes, rivers, locks, and canals connecting historic Kingston to historic Ottawa vacillate between wilderness and jet skis, a sometimes difficult reconciliation to make.
Nonetheless, Canadians are generally spectacular, and this trip into the cottage will always be my most memorable. Do yourself a favor and paddle a canoe through an antique lock system once in your life.
Thirteen days after setting out on the Genesee River, we paddled up to the dock we have all known intimately for the entirety of our lives. Grandpa was out on the patio and hobbled down to the water with tears in his eyes. There were some whoops of joy and some cold beverages. We succeeded. We were stinky and exhausted. We were happy.
Taking the Twinn Tarp for a Paddle
For this trip to be a success, many small pieces needed to come together–from digestive tracts, to personalities under pressure, to gear. One of my most versatile gear choices for this trip was my Gossamer Gear Twinn Tarp . When we sat out passing showers, I pitched this off trees and canoe paddles. I dozed under it when shade was hard to find. I pitched it as a makeshift rainfly for my tent on wet nights. Every time I set up the Twinn Tarp, I was impressed.
At 8.5 ounces, and a packed size of approximately 9.5"x4", the Twinn Tarp packs a lot of options. While waiting out strong winds and sideways rain on Lake Ontario, I pitched this against my brother's tent. I rolled out my bag and took an afternoon nap as monster waves crashed around us. The waterproofness of this tarp was incredible, as was its strength and packability.
If I can talk Dan and Jack into circumnavigating North America when he's 12, we'll undoubtedly bring our Gossamer Gear Twinn Tarp along for the paddle.