Madawaska Valley, ON: Being A Beginner Again
Algonquin laughs at people who rush it, people like me.
What I lacked in time, I made up for with an open schedule, an over-abundance of trail mix, and a powered down cell phone – distraction free to escape non-road-trip-friendly international data charges. For me, it wasn’t about covering all the ground between the Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River, paddling the 2,400 lakes, or mastering all 7,653 square kilometers (metric, eh?) of Algonquin Provincial Park’s canoe routes. My detour through Canada was all about confirming Algonquin’s reality and doing the best that I could – a wandering foreigner trying to keep his head above water. It’s a canoeist’s paradise but the Instagram location tag that I’ve appreciated from afar for years has held only a slightly more stable place in my reality than Narnia, Neverland, and Santa’s North Pole.
My confirmation of Algonquin’s reality started at the French-Canadian border outside Jackman, Maine with a text message from my cell service provider.
Maybe that last one isn’t a direct quote.
“Damn. I took care of this last week” I exhaled to the uninterested cat while sipping a now-warm Gatorade to counteract the remnants of the previous nights’ New Hampshire keg party.
A short, expensive call to resubmit my international roaming plan followed by an uneventful cat border crossing put me in French Quebec – ten hours of Trans-Canadian Highway in front of me, zero English on the road signs, and gas prices in quarts that rivaled that of the US gallon.
Bring it on, Canada.
Familiar Faces and Unfamiliar Prices
A couple of hours, wrong turns, and state-of-American politics jokes on local public radio into the true north, I found a familiar face to comfort me: a footlong Spicy Italian with lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions on white – though north of the border Subways calls these Pizza Subs.
“That’ll be $10.75” I struggled to interpret through the French accent and skewed currency value.
Between gas prices, national park camping fees, and a four-dollar over-charge on my lunch, Canada came out swinging for my wallet.
All B-Roll, No Action
On location, I fill most of my downtime collecting B-Roll photos – signs, landscapes, beer, etc. These compliments to the action shots do more to tell a story than grip-and-grin fish photos or hero draw shots but are virtually useless without action shots.
In Canada, all I got was B-Roll.
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With only hours in Algonquin (not cat-friendly), hours on the surrounding lakes (cat-friendly), and a late-evening crash course reminder of how much I still have to learn with a paddle in moving water, my camera spent most of the time packed away safely in the dry bag or the car.
It was a decision made effortlessly then; it’s a decision I regret now.
The smallmouth bass were few and far between but fought harder than their lazy American counterparts. The lakes were plentiful, wildlife-packed, and crystal blue. I can tell you; I can’t show you.
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I flat-water paddled, portaged, and hiked aimlessly between Rock Lake and Whitefish Lake. One lake at a time; lather, rinse, repeat.
There was no time wasted setting up a tripod or a self-timer. I just didn’t get the photos I should have, the photos that are now exactly 2,861 kilometers (metric, eh?) away.
The flatwater lake paddling – while undocumented – was my speed, a speed I would come to miss later that evening a little further southeast on the anything-but-calm swells of the Madawaska River.
Practicing Being a Beginner
Being unprepared is an uncomfortable feeling.
Nobody likes pop quizzes, unexpected toll booths, or watching a fastball go by when you’re expecting the curve. Playboating in the big-for-me, dark blue hay barrels on the Madawaska with the Rapid Media writers, marketers, and paddlers, I was the scared kid peeking at my neighbor’s quiz, the nervous driver searching for lost quarters under the seat, and the frozen, motionless batter – pants down, bat still on my shoulder.
When I’m home punching riffles on the Brazos or fifty miles into a sixty-miler on the seemingly flat Colorado, I’m comfortable – slightly more confident than average. From the lens of the content coming from the trips, I’m an expert. From the point of view of my slightly-right-of-beginner paddling friends, I’m good. From the rear view of the old timers paddling past me, I’m getting there quickly.
When I compare myself to the Rapid Media crew on their home waters, I’m an embarrassed, soaking wet beginner doggie paddling to save face.
We’re not in Texas anymore, Dorothy.
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Being a beginner is uncomfortable; it’s a muscle that doesn’t get flexed much in the tight confines of a geographically padded comfort zone. But learning how to be a beginner again isn’t a bad thing. What started as nerves, discomfort, and embarrassment quickly turned to relief after a harsh slap in the face from reality: I’m a beginner here; enjoy being a beginner.
Smiling ear to ear while uncomfortably teeter-tottering in the flat water on the five-inch rocker of a Mohawk Rodeo whitewater canoe, I opted for sitting and watching the action from a rock above the eddy line before eventually finishing with some lessons in rolling and paddling a Jackson Karma. I spent more time underwater than I did above, swallowed buckets while missing lines, and temporarily dislocated my shoulder botching a long boat roll.
I didn’t find mind blowing content, stories of rugged adventure, or fun social media posts in the big swells of the Madawaska; I found a humbling lesson in being a beginner again and a newfound desire to stop fishing in my comfort zone and start playboating in the uninhabited space outside.
The following morning, I booked it south to Toronto after a three-times too big poutine lunch, a text reminder from AT&T that my 1GB of free roaming data was on the verge of leaving me naked and afraid, and two ice packs: one for my now-relocated shoulder and one for my paddling pride.
Thanks to everyone who made my five-day rip through ‘the 6ix’ too good.***
- Algonquin Park – You’re beautiful. I miss you. I’ll be back soon – without a cat – for many months and all 7,653 square kilometers.
- French-Canadian Gas Station Attendant – Thanks for hanging in there with me, my American ignorance of small town Canadian pump-and-pay best practices, and my American cash.
- Rapid Media Crew – Lessons and a whitewater kayak have been on my mind since I left. It’s always a blast working with you. I look forward to more stories, photos, and time on the water soon.
- Doug and Dale Vlaskamp – Cammi used to be content with her set up in the packed car. The three-story jungle gym you let (me and) her free range spoiled (me and) her. Thanks for the free health care, Tim Horton’s donuts, and delicious Canadian beer.
- Dylan and Julian Vlaskamp – Wherever I wind up down the line, I’ve got a couch or two open for you both to crash. Until then, keep making your parents and all of your stateside family proud.
***While comical and well-placed, a canoe blog may be the wrong crowd to expect a stretched pop-culture Drake (Canadian rapper) reference to click.