by Will Nash '20
I keep my eyes fixed on the lead canoe as we inch forward single-file, five little red canoes bobbing in the middle of the Hudson Bay. The prows rise up and plunge down into the deep troughs of waves coming inland from the Arctic Ocean. In the stern, I feel like the helmsman of a Viking longship, both hands angling my paddle, holding a steady course into unknown waters. The bow comes down with a smash. A mist of saltwater leaps into my face, sparkling in the spotless sun.
Eighteen days have passed since we last saw civilization, but that number holds no significance for us. Canoe tripping has become our only reality, a reality of daily exhaustion and extreme beauty. This morning, we said goodbye to the Harricana, the faithful river that bore us 331 miles over foaming rapids and through dark forests. We turned one last bend labeled on our map as “Last Stand”, and the banks on both sides disappeared, replaced by the waters of the Arctic Ocean, stretching uncountable canoe lengths towards the horizon. We had completed the first part of our trip, but a collective exhale would be premature: the crossing of the Hudson Bay awaited.
As the tide came in this morning, we were forced to tie our canoes to our waists and haul them behind us while we trudged through the knee-high surf for hours. Now, it is early afternoon and the going is easy. Our canoe is propelled by the inexorable current of the bay ebbing away into the ocean. On either side, the sight of open water is intimidating after extended time on a river, but the canoes in front and behind keep me anchored. Far ahead of us, I see little shimmering dark specks protruding out of the water. As each stroke takes us closer, the specks coalesce into solid rocks, littering the raised sandbar that stretches like a highway out into the bay. When the water is too shallow for paddling, our leader Arik gives the signal for us to disembark. We haul our canoes slithering over the last few inches of sandbar until they are completely beached and stand there, surrounded by the odd rock formations while our leaders take scope of the situation.
Crossing the James Bay, the southernmost portion of the Hudson Bay, is always a two-day, sometimes a three-day affair. Because of the complex tidal patterns, the Bay becomes a beach at low tide when all its water flows out into the Arctic. Depending on how fast they move, trips are always trapped by the tide somewhere on the Bay. We knew that we would run aground somewhere as the tide moved out into the ocean; it was just a matter of where and when.
Each of us spreads out along the narrow sandbar in preparation for the eight hours we will have to wait before the tide comes back in and floats our canoes. The mood is that of ambivalence: knowing that an event will happen does not make that event any more pleasurable. I walk the mere twenty feet across the sandbar to the other edge and dip my feet in the water.
“Will, come back over here! We’re going to try something different.” Arik’s voice carries over the sand with a note of urgency.
Gathering us all together, he explains his beautiful, simple plan: we portage our canoes over the sandbar, put in on the other side, and ride the outgoing tide to our campsite, leaving nothing but sand and rock piles in our wake. The ingenuity of the plan dawns on us, and lethargy gives way to action as we hurry to unstrap and unload gear from the canoes. Wanigans—bulky wooden boxes carrying food—are hauled up onto backs, their weight balanced on the canvas strap that rests against the forehead. Rucksacks holding dry bags are shouldered, and canoes are flipped up so that the thwarts rests upon our neck. We scramble up and over the sandbar and load our gear into canoes on the opposite side in fetid green algae that clings to our legs and clothing.
We pile in and lever our paddles against the water simultaneously. The canoe springs forward. We paddle each stroke with a sense of urgency, impelled by the knowledge that any slackening of the pace could mean getting beached again. Mixed with this urgency is a giddy excitement. We’ve cheated the Bay. Paddling never felt so good.