It was 7 a.m. and the morning light cast a golden glow. Tall grass was covered in glistening dew, and the calm water was blanketed in fog. There was a peaceful silence as my partner and I ferried loads of supplies from the car to the shoreline. We packed with relative ease, then slipped into our kayaks and pushed off onto the Chikanishing River.
Less than 24 hours earlier, I had been home in Golden, British Columbia, a small mill town in the interior of the province, landlocked by three mountain ranges. It was there, over the winter, that my good friend Rob had clued me in on the pleasures of paddling in eastern Canada. Together we planned a trip to Georgian Bay, on Lake Huron, for the two weeks after Labor Day. When we arrived in September, everyone was either back at school or chained to a desk at work. We had the place virtually all to ourselves.
Starting in Killarney Provincial Park, we made our way along the Chikanishing out toward the bay. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that it is fresh water; the sheer size of Georgian Bay is breathtaking, and I had to take a sip of water to convince myself I was not on the ocean. Our plan was to spend the first couple of days paddling around Philip Edward Island and then meet up with some friends on the Fox Islands before the two of us headed down to the French River.
We paddled all day across serene waters, our laughter and conversation echoing off the steep cliff walls, and it seemed as though nothing was wrong in the world. We camped on a little island in the middle of Mill Lake with a beautiful view, but it was well into the night before either one of us fell asleep. We were still pumped from our first day and wanted the next one to come as quickly as possible.
When it did, we continued leisurely to Beaverstone Bay, at the end of Collins Inlet. Upon leaving the protection of the narrow waterway, we were pounded almost immediately by the howling wind coming in from the larger water. “This is awesome,” I yelled as we battled our way into the ferocious headwind. Zigzagging up the shoreline, we made camp on a spectacular island, and then heard on the radio that a big storm front was moving in.
In the morning, there was an eerie calm. We set off in the open bay with a watchful eye on the weather. The storm was on its way, but the barometer was dropping slowly and we thought we weren’t in any immediate danger. Paddling steadily, we made good time rounding the exposed side of Philip Edward Island and continued heading west among small islands until we located a spot that we agreed was semi-stormproof. As we started to set up camp, the first drops of rain began to fall. We spent the better half of the day expecting the storm to let loose at any minute, but it merely rained on and off all afternoon.
We were sitting under our tarp at dinner when the first lightning struck out on the bay. It was far away, but the thunder rumbled ominously across the water and the wind began to shriek. We crawled into our tent and during the next five hours were pounded by heavy rain, gale-force winds, thunder loud enough to make you jump out of your skin, and forked lightning that was too close for comfort. We didn’t get much sleep, but our camp held true. In the morning, it was still dry inside the tent, and all our gear and both kayaks were in good shape.
With the barometer on the rise, good weather was in our near future. After a late start, we were on the water once again, paddling in big swells left over from the storm.
With each wave I watched Rob completely disappear and then pop up again on top of the next one. We paddled quite a distance from shore to avoid the boat-eating rock shoals. Traveling behind Rob, I watched a wall of water grow and come straight at me. I paddled harder, but the huge wave broke flat across my chest, knocking me backward as the bow of my boat pointed skyward. With a death grip, I braced myself and prepared for the next wave. Every so often, from the crest of a wave, I caught a bird’s-eye view of Rob working just as hard to remain upright.