The easiest way to paddle a canoe solo is to turn a tandem boat backward and sit in the bow seat, facing the stern. This puts you nearly in the center of the canoe, where you can most effectively control the boat. No need to buy a separate, solo craft for solitary trips, no need to make customized foam saddles, install thigh straps, or glue D-rings to the hull. Just flip the boat around, get in, and paddle off.
There is a forest fire haze in the clear July sky when I turn my canoe backward and set out alone into the English River country of central Ontario. I have one week. I want to be by myself. My work at a small college puts me with groups of students or in meetings with faculty non-stop. When I’m not teaching, I’m advising, signing forms, attending committee meetings, justifying proposals to the dean, planning for the next class. My need to escape has burgeoned into an insistent yearning, an urge close to panic, something longed for and also feared. Can I still be content with myself?
A day earlier, I drove north around the western rim of Lake Superior, then further north and west, past the Boundary Waters and Quetico crowds. I had no idea where I would end up. At a Natural Resources office in Dryden I stopped to browse a set of canoe route descriptions. I settled on a five-day loop combining rivers and lakes and portages, picked up the necessary maps and supplies. I ignored the protocol of notifying authorities. No one knows where I am, which is precisely the point.
It is hot and windless, the deerflies biting, and I break a sweat in the gravel parking lot getting myself organized. Once on the water, only 20 yards from shore, with the noise of traffic still humming, I already feel quite alone. The feeling is both exultation and anxiety.
A short distance down the lakeshore I nose the canoe into a small creek and start up against the current. The water is shallow, pushier than it looks and the channel is a narrow, twisting slot through weed beds. The canoe weaves and jerks in response to my strokes; the hull squeezes through a bristling breach in an old beaver dam and then glides easily into quiet water above. The channel opens into another lake. It is a looking-glass passage; the parking lot, the smell of car fumes, the picnic-table flies, all less than a mile away, have vanished.
I shift from my knees to the canoe seat. The breeze blows down the lake at an angle, pushing the nose of the canoe off course. I heave one of the packs forward to trim the bow lower and switch to paddle on the windward side. The canoe strikes a balance between wind resistance and paddling momentum, so the boat moves slightly crabwise down the shoreline.
I am alone. I say this, internally, in time with my strokes. Alone. Alone. Alone. It is a thing I need to assert, to work at achieving. I am not alone comfortably. I am not yet free of the habit of conversation, errands and busywork, the clutter of society. The wind is freshening all the time, roughening the lake with small chop, and the canoe’s angle becomes more and more crablike. It is good to focus on the effort, as if exertion and sweat might purge the awkwardness of transition.
When I slide the canoe down a polished ramp of bedrock into the lake, the hull enters the water as if it is tearing through satin, ripping it without a sound.
At the first portage I work myself hard, half jogging with the pack over the rough path on the first trip and then not allowing myself a break from the canoe grinding against my neck on the second one. When I reach the far side, I dunk my sweaty head in a pool. When was the last time I spent a day without speaking? How long has it been since I spent eight waking hours without bumping into another human? Why, even now, do I mentally cast everything in terms of sharing this with someone, having stories to tell?
When I stroke away from shore, moving farther into the country, I have a new mantra. Be here, I say. Be here. Be here. Be here. At the end of the day I am still foreign, as if I have been pinned onto the landscape like a colored flag on a map. I cook and eat my dinner, tidy up camp. Sit and think. Look ahead on the map. In the end, I slip off to the tent early, the sun an hour or two from the horizon, because I have done everything I can think of and am bored sitting still.
Well into the second day, with the sun high overhead, I scout another portage trail around a rapid. Partway across, following an impulse, I leave the path and work through the brush toward the din of whitewater. First I study the rocky constriction to see how I might run it in the canoe. I could do this, I think, though I know I won’t. My eyes ride the current, move down a tongue, past the edge of a ledge, into an eddy, across to a pool, and out the final train of waves. With a partner, I’d go in a shot, but it is not a chance I’ll take alone.
I don’t leave. Not yet. The turbulence draws me closer, out onto a sun-washed, water-smoothed point. The fast water runs past my toes. I sit there, take off my boots. My pale feet rest against the warm, rust-colored stone. A whitethroat sings behind me. Canada, I think. I could be blindfolded and dropped out of an airplane, but if there were whitethroats singing their straight-ahead tune, I’d know it was summer in the north country. I close my eyes and lie back. The drumming water comes through the rock and into the soles of my bare feet. The air is charged with the sound. I am pulled into the funnel of noise, pummeled by it, full of it, as if the beat of water and warmth of sun and smooth rock have taken over the work of my heart.
Maybe I lie there a long time; maybe it is only a few moments. I have no idea, but when I rouse, the internal discord is gone, replaced by the uncluttered authority of a whitethroat and the blood rush of falling water.
Far away in the glove compartment of my truck, my watch is ticking. The band of untanned skin on my wrist blends, day by day, with the freckled, summer-weathered skin around it. There are other, more immediate measures to go by—the shoulder ache of a 20-mile day, the drowsiness of midafternoon, the hunger of a two-lake, one-portage morning—and 18 hours of sun besides. More and more I am woven into the pattern of place and season. A tern tilts above the head-high reeds along a lazy, tight-coiled stretch of water. The cattails and rushes clatter in jabs of wind. A beaver slaps water when I slip past a domed lodge.
Three days running, afternoon winds shove the canoe sideways, kick up waves, and blow me against riverbanks. Along one protected corner of willowy shore, in a restful, windless sanctuary, a cow moose suddenly erupts out of the thickets. Her velvet tan nose quivers at arm’s length. Deerflies cling to her ears; muck rises up past her bony knees. Although she is rigidly still, the loose skin under her neck sways back and forth as we look each other over.
Then she plunges along the riverbank next to the canoe, in water to her chest, knees rising clear out of the spray. She runs like this long enough to leave an impression of confusion and fear before she finds an alley into the brush and disappears. The sounds she makes, crashing off, last only a few seconds. The abrupt, intense moment with the moose fades over an exhausting and occasionally scary afternoon beating into the wind. I battle through swells, using islands and points for cover, down the length of a lake to a small gumdrop island. There I call an end to the slog and make camp.
I am pulled into the funnel of noise, pummeled by it, full of it, as if the beat of water and warmth of sun and smooth rock have taken over the work of my heart.
In the tent that night I resolve to rise when I hear the first bird sing at daybreak. This is both a pragmatic impulse to beat the rising winds, and also an inexplicable desire to participate in the chill magic of dawn. I fall asleep with that prompt for an alarm, and not much confidence that anything will wake me, much less the first twitter of the day.
But damned if I don’t jerk awake in the cold darkness to a sound. I lie there, listening, and sure enough, it repeats: a subdued call, answered from the other side of the tent. A promise is a promise, I think, sitting up, even if I am the only one who would ever know I didn’t make good.
The horizon is barely gray. Stars are still out and the air is cold, but I dress and start the small stove to boil coffee water while I pack. It doesn’t take long. I dress warmly. The air is still, the day hushed. I savor the hot, black coffee in my chipped enamel cup.
When I slide the canoe down a polished ramp of bedrock into the lake, the hull enters the water as if it is tearing through satin, ripping it without a sound. And when I slip away in the cool, gray light toward a dim point of land, it is as if I am pulling a long tear through sheer, tense fabric behind me. The grudging reluctance I woke with evaporates like the stars fading in the pale morning sky. In half a mile I glide from night to day. Mist coils off the sparkling water and hangs in the backs of coves in small clouds. I close my eyes and keep stroking. I think that I would like to know what it’s like to paddle blind, really blind, so that this travel would be more swimming than riding and day would be only the warmth on my face and a diffuse glow in the darkness.
As it happens, this day, the winds never do rise. In the afternoon, after lunch, the water is a platinum stillness in the heat. I am drowsy. My head nods and I jerk awake. How could I fall asleep paddling, I think. But I slip to my knees to find a more stable position in case I do.
I think about home to keep my eyelids open. I picture the house I rent in the small Wisconsin town, with its green front porch and bowed-out walls. I see the friends I go dancing with on Saturday nights. I list the classes I teach and the courses for next semester. I dredge up the faces of students, visualize the way the college president strides across campus between meetings.
All of it is utterly familiar and also absolutely strange. I have been on the water less than a week, but the images that come to me are more than distant; they are unconnected. This place I have entered—full of moose and wind and loon chicks—where I have come alone, has no point of contact with the images I run across the mental stage. In this week I have slipped gears and landed in another dimension, so that conjuring my other life is an exercise in abstraction.
—Alan Kesselheim has been a contributor to Canoe & Kayak for more than 20 years. He is the author of nine books and hundreds of magazine articles. His latest book, co-authored with Susan Wicklund, is This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor (Public Affairs).