Canada's 150th birthday, July 1, 2017, looked dire for cross-country canoeist Mike Ranta and Ontario-based photojournalist David Jackson. The pair had been windbound for over a week on Cedar Lake, a massive reservoir where the Saskatchewan River empties into Lake Winnipeg, in northern Manitoba. They were out of food, camped in a swamp, and reduced to drinking tepid "shadfly mud water," recalls Jackson. "It was pretty nasty."
Jackson awoke in the middle of the night—as much by the need to relieve himself as a palpable sense of calm. The lake was glassy, reflecting shifting, multi-colored curtains of northern lights. Jackson set up his camera and started taking photographs. Ranta saw an opportunity and started breaking camp. That magical night paddle has been one of the greatest highlights of Ranta's third cross-Canada paddling epic. (Watch exclusive C&K interviews following his 2014 and 2016 expeditions.)
After a lengthy weather delay on northern Manitoba’s Cedar Lake, Ranta and Jackson awoke to northern lights and calm conditions, setting the scene for a magical night paddle.
In late July, as he and Ranta set off on another night paddle at the south end of Lake Winnipeg, Jackson takes my phone call and reflects on how rogue weather has shaped the journey. Sprawling Lake Winnipeg is noted for its shallow waters that, with winds, can produce large, breaking waves in short order. "It's taken us over two months to paddle a stretch that Mike completed in less than one month on his previous journeys," notes Jackson. "On Lake Winnipeg alone, we've been windbound 14, 15 days. That's longer than most people will ever go on a canoe trip!"
In mid-July, it became obvious that this year's incessant winds and lengthy layovers would make Ranta's goal of paddling from tidewater in British Columbia (where the pair launched in early April) to the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, virtually impossible. "We were really pushing hard right across Saskatchewan," says Jackson. "But when Mike realized he needed to readjust his goal"—to aim for Atlantic saltwater at Quebec City, shorter distance—"that lifted a huge weight off our shoulders. The trip became more about interacting with the people, which was always Mike's primary objective this time around."
“Prairie winds they blow this year,” says cross-Canada canoeist Mike Ranta. On his third west to east cross-continental journey, Ranta was delayed by over a month on the Canadian prairies.
"It's evidence that on my previous trips I've been really lucky with the weather," adds Ranta. "In a way that's good, because it shows to people that on these trips success isn't assumed. You have to deal with Canada…Prairie winds they blow this year."
Jackson and Ranta found much-needed relief in the Cree community of Easterville, as they finished their northern lights paddle in the wee hours of July 2nd. The warm welcome—and generous assistance with food and freshwater—captures one of the biggest highlights of the journey for Jackson. "People in so many small, First Nations villages have offered us moose meat and walleye," says Jackson. "Mike has noticed huge improvements in most of the communities—new infrastructure, paved roads and youth centers." Perhaps because of these investments, "Mike says people are more receptive this year," adds Jackson. "You see that in my pictures: Mike in these small communities with the whole town gathered around him. That's been very inspiring for both of us."
"Mike's energy is infectious when he's in a crowd," says Jackson. “He's a man of stories. That's his greatest gift."
With so many weather delays, Ranta has taken to whittling small canoes from pieces of wood. The crafts have become perfect gifts for the people he meets along the way. "Mike's energy is infectious when he's in a crowd," says Jackson, recalling a day at a beach on Lake Winnipeg. "It doesn't matter who it is—a beautiful woman in a bikini, a young child, an old man or a Syrian refugee—he can strike up a conversation with them and make a connection. He's a man of stories. That's his greatest gift."
As for Ranta and Jackson's joint story—their cross-Canada journey—the photojournalist insists that despite the challenging weather, "we're having a blast." Once they finally wrap up Lake Winnipeg, the pair moves onto the "voyageur highway"—along the Canada-U.S. border to Lake Superior, south of Ranta's hometown in Atikokan.
Stay tuned for our next update as the paddlers enter Ontario.
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