I can lose myself, staring at the stars. And find my way, too.
I can recall with painful clarity a dark summer night a few years ago, lying on my back at a campsite, staring at the Milky Way. Satellites shot by as I watched, unblinking. Everyone else was in tents, sleeping. I was looking to the heavens and grieving a loss.
I had no strategy. I hadn’t decided this was the way to deal with troubles. It just felt right to lose myself in the blackness and points of light. Perhaps part of my brain knew it was a way to make my problems seem small, compared to the grandeur and scale of the universe.
I can’t remember how long I lay there, thinking. I remember being cold but not caring. I remember hearing feet approaching and reluctantly breaking my staring contest with infinity. Bringing my eyes back to earth I spotted the source of the footsteps; a fox, who froze and locked eyes with me momentarily, before skittering off into the bush.
Last year, I wanted to paddle to the stars. I tried to organize what I hoped would become an annual canoe trip during the Perseid meteor shower. There were clouds and complications. The trip didn’t happen.
I hung on to the idea however. Something about it appealed to me. Perhaps it was the notion of an annual tradition, a date to look forward to every year (the Perseid meteor shower always returns in mid-August).
This year, I cast aside the canoe connection (sort of) and convinced a friend to invite me to a cottage on a very quiet lake.
The Saturday was dismal. The clouds conspired to ruin the show.
Sunday was past the peak but promising.
The day started with a magical sunrise. I paddled through the morning mist knowing the forecast for that night was in our favor.
That night, were were treated to an amazing show. The streaks in the sky were many and bright, the best, my friend said, he had ever seen from his cottage.
I had the familiar, humbling sensation of feeling small compared to everything above me.
Gratitude was the emotion in play that night. For I knew I was lucky to have many things in my life, including a pal willing to accommodate my wishes.
Nature was kind too. It wasn’t just the clear black sky that created the sense of serenity.
To my delight, there were more meteors than mosquitoes. I wouldn't mind if that became a tradition too.
You may have to look carefully, but there is a meteor in the shot below.
The button below is a link to the CBC.ca story that forced me to wait by the river near some blueberry bushes (see previous post). It's about Jesuit and Indigenous paddlers on a very long canoe trip ... with more than one destination.
I love going north on a story. The landscape and the people are always compelling. I have just returned from northern Ontario. I will post links to the pieces when I have completed them.
This post is about a small moment on a long day.
I was scouting a location for a shot. An important part of my job is, with the producer, helping a camera operator (shooter) find the right place to record the most compelling material. It's a team effort. I shoot stills and, occasionally, video. Sometimes we agree to split up; on this shoot I shot still images from one location while he shot video from another. The day before, I shot video and stills from one vantage point while he and the producer went downriver to get a boat to get the action from a different angle.
My research at this spot required a short hike through the trees. No complaints. Yes, there were bugs but down by the water, I found a huge patch of wild blueberries.
It was a lucky discovery. We were working through lunch to get the job done and were forced to wait by the river for quite awhile. But I had a beautiful crop of blueberries at my feet. They were delicious.
But wait. There's more.
The ideal location for the shooter and his video camera, we all agreed, was on the other side of the river. So he clambered down a steep slope. I passed him his camera and tripod. The producer climbed down to give him water.
Then he discovered he was surrounded by ... raspberries.
He ate. I ate.
The action finally happened.
We got different angles. And different berries.
I didn’t know this part of the river. The water was unusually high and the current strong. There were rapids and falls I had never seen before and I was alone, on a solo paddle.
I had heard of another solo paddler, on the very same route, who had been tossed about and had given up. He was finally found and rescued – at one in the morning.
The challenge was appealing. It’s part of what draws me to paddling. But I had rented a canoe and I wasn’t comfortable with the way it handled.
I don’t blame the boat. It is a proven design, light and capable, a good canoe for these waters.
But it would have performed a lot better carrying two paddlers or a heavy pack. I was by myself, without much gear, on a day trip. I should have added some weight (probably water bags; easy to empty before every portage and refill before setting off again).
I had one other not very serious reservation about the rented canoe, but more about that later.
I was careful to study the map and scout the river as I paddled. I portaged more than was strictly necessary, making sure I put in well clear of rapids and rocks.
It was worth it, despite the unbelievable onslaught of bugs.
I stood in awe before a compact and powerful waterfall, the water from the swollen river roaring through a small opening in a wall of rock.
On more silent stretches of the trip, the forest rang with bird calls. There were frogs everywhere. A young eagle flew over me.
I saw no one.
I found, on the quiet water between the rapids and portages, the serenity I can only achieve in a canoe.
But it had been a challenge, and so back at the outfitter, when I turned in the canoe, I jokingly chided the staff.
I had enough to be careful about I told them; an unfamiliar river, a canoe I didn’t know.
And after one portage, I had noticed that I had ended up with what could easily be considered the most evil boat in their fleet …
Not a bad canoe, a grinning staffer countered. One, he said, that would probably be perfect for crossing a different river.
There are some things that unite us all.
In Naujaat, a hamlet on the Arctic Circle, one of those things was a roving polar bear. He was close to town and had been spotted by several people. So when a few of us wanted to go on a hike, we had to have someone with a high-powered rifle to go with us.
You can't tell from the picture below but the man with the rifle who was protecting everyone is also wearing a Montreal Canadiens toque.
We got to the whale bones. There was no polar bear seen. The story is what happened on the way back.
First, some background.
I went to Naujaat to watch the first harvest from an innovative greenhouse. It's a pilot project, an attempt to bring fresh, low cost, healthy food to northern communities.
I filed online, radio and tv (some links are at the end of this post).
But while doing interviews, taking pictures and recording video, I was struck by all the Habs shirts, caps and logos in Naujaat. It was well after the playoffs were over, the height of summer, a period of almost continuous daylight.
It was fun and familiar (I grew up in Montreal). And surprising.
Yes, I spotted a kid with a Calgary Flames shirt and someone else sporting a Canucks logo. I even saw Oilers star Connor McDavid's name scratched into the side of building.
But Naujaat looked like Montreal Canadiens town.
On the walk back from the whale bones, however, that changed.
I had said goodbye to my companions. I was alone, me and my backpack full of gear. I was heading to the hotel for a good night's sleep.
Coming towards me, there was a boy and girl. I guessed they were both about 12 or 14 years old.
Like everyone else in Naujaat, they were friendly and curious about the man with the microphone sticking out of his backpack.
"What's your name?" the boy asked. Everybody knew that phrase. I had been asked that question dozens of times during my stay and I was pleased to chat. We exchanged names and stopped.
Problem was, aside from some very basic phrases, we had little in common and a pretty serious language barrier.
The silence between us was full of goodwill. But nobody had the right words.
The boy, I noticed, was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs hat. So, after a bit, I gently flicked the bill.
"Toronto," I said. And then I shook my head, trying to sum up the team's dismal finish in the previous season and long championship drought.
"Montreal," I said emphatically, playing on what seemed to be the local favorite.
It worked. Just not the way I expected.
The girl, unlike so many others in the hamlet, was apparently not a Montreal fan. Or perhaps she was keen to defend the honour of her younger brother, if that's what he was.
She thought. She found words. A way to taunt.
"Montreal," she said slowly and carefully, "is stupid."
She paused, waiting for a reaction.
I didn't give her much. I rolled my eyes in mockingly. I shook my head dismissively.
This inspired her. But not in English.
Out came a torrent of words. She had a series of Montreal-centred insults, I was sure. She seemed to be telling her companion to translate but he was refusing. He might also have been incapable but I got the distinct impression he thought her invective was too rude and too rich to be relayed.
He laughed and laughed again, resisting her pleas for help.
That motivated her even more. She stopped, pursed her lips, frowning and thinking.
Then her face broke into a wide smile. She had me in her sights.
"Montreal," she said slowly and proudly, "is toilet."
I laughed. The boy laughed. She smiled, triumph in her eyes.
Standing on the Arctic Circle, in the fading light of an almost endless summer day, we connected, brought together by logos and loyalties. And hockey.
It rages on our roads. It appears without warning and then taunts drivers and passengers alike. It can vanish, sometimes for months. But it always comes back.
I'm talking about Strap Howl, the humming, moaning and howling sounds made by the straps that hold a canoe to a vehicle's roof.
Sounds like Canada? Sure. But this is one national icon I could do without. This three season monster haunts our highways.
I thought I had it licked. On a recent trip north, straps held my canoe snugly and securely. The Beast was silent.
The way back was different. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I hit 80 km an hour. It started as a growl, a warning of what was to come. It got much worse when I hit the big highway and was able to go 100.
The Beast roared. Endlessly. Same roads, same canoe, same straps ... it didn't matter.
I got off the highway and adjusted everything. Nothing worked. The growling, howling sound was with me for the whole ride.
Canoeing, to me, is magical when it is nearly silent, be it a quiet paddle in the morning mist or at sunset, with still water the colour of red gold.
Howling down the highway with a canoe is the exact opposite of what I treasure.
Over the years, I have learned to twist the straps and keep them tight (some say flat straps are quieter, but not in my experience). I have carried canoes all over the place without humming and howling, only to have the unbearable noise return, without any reason I can find.
It's back this summer. I don't know why. I have bought many straps in the attempt to defeat the Beast. I will try them all and try all suggestions.
For this is driving me mad.
Superb canoe builder Jack Hurley celebrates Canada Day with an entertaining speech about legendary explorer and astronomer David Thompson. Jack has passion for the Thompson, his accomplishments and Canada. He spoke at the unveiling of a new plaque detailing Thompson's activities in the Oxtongue Lake area.
Thompson is often called the greatest land geographer who ever lived. On foot, on horseback, by dog sled or in a canoe he travelled 90,000 kilometers in North America, mapping about one fifth of the continent - more than anyone else. Not bad for a guy with one good eye. As a child, he lived in poverty. As an adult, he died in obscurity. Only later were his achievements fully understood.
If Thompson could overcome his challenges, what's a little weather? It's raining. But I'm going paddling ... in a canoe restored by Jack Hurley.
That's producer Carla Turner and me picking up an award for a radio piece we filed from Auschwitz. We filed a series of stories on radio, tv and online about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We followed a courageous Canadian who had been in the camp and went back to face her horrors. It was a deeply moving experience. I am grateful for the chance to work with talented people like Carla. And grateful to those who shared their stories, no matter how painful.
At one point, we worked thirty hours straight. But throughout, we felt it was an honour.
Click on the button below for a sample of our coverage.
Seriously ... textile recycling is catching on. Some would say ... finally. Here's my online and TV stories on the topic. I learned a heck of a lot. Starting with ... there is no reason to throw socks into the trash.
The remote northern community was in a suicide crisis. The chief of the First Nations community had declared a state of emergency.
We flew in. The hours were very long. The experience was moving and unforgettable.
When our team pulled out I was left behind for a bit. The travel glitch was hardly a hardship.
Click on the button to be taken to my reporter's notebook on CBC.ca.
Defining moments are what I seek and what I do, as a journalist and as a writer.
This page is part blog, part gallery but all about moments, be they anticipated, telling or simply memorable.
"We do not remember days, we remember moments."
- novelist and poet Cesare Pavese