Week of ManCamping Women – 50 Days Of Laughter In The Backcountry by Mercede Rogers
You can’t light a fire without a spark – 50 days of laughter in the backcountry.
It was Fall and I was sitting in the University of Guelph library when I got a message from an old friend.
“Have you applied to lead any canoe trips this summer? I hope so, because I just applied to lead a 50 day trip with you.”
Mind racing, I contacted the director right away to express my undying interest in not only guiding a 50 day canoe trip in the summer of 2004 but also leading it alongside my buddy Stu.
FIFTY DAYS – seven young women, Stu and I. Yup, that’s a long time. Long enough that your life becomes paddling, your group becomes family, you are sure to have some mishaps and you can’t ignore the weather – perfection.
To say I was nervous was an understatement. I knew without a doubt that I could do it and I have spent enough days in the bush to know that not everything goes as planned but things always have a way of working out. What I didn’t know was where this journey would take us or how the group would come together – or not. What I didn’t expect was the constant inspiration I would get from my eight traveling partners and how much I would learn from each of them.
Our route took us from Northern Ontario – west to east – through the Biscotasing area to the Temagami region, across the Ottawa River into Quebec and the Kipawa region, south to Mattawa and into Algonquin park where we would paddle into camp on Canoe Lake on day 50.
As we were preparing, my co-staff Stu and I were looking over the files for our co-trippers, the young women that would be joining us. I remember Stu saying, “Why are all of our trippers taller and stronger than me?” These women were athletes and extremely capable, some of the best people I have ever been in the forest with. To this day they are fierce, resilient, strong, resourceful women and above all totally hilarious.
Our trip began July 5th, 2004 in the town of Biscotasing. This is the type of town with an old train station, a general store, boat launch and not much else. The store boasts that it sells worms, beer, smokes and ammo. Pretty standard.
The drive in is treacherous, so much so that the general store sells t-shirts that say “I survived the road to Biscotasing.” Upon arrival, we stepped off the bus, all nerves and fake courage, and Stu and I started the task of looking for our canoes that were dropped off and stored there. The black flies were thick and a good distraction from the butterflies in my stomach. We asked a local about the location of our boats and she replied that if it were her, she would go to the LCBO, grab a bottle of vodka and head right back on our bus because the bugs were so bad…that was really helpful considering we were contracted not to drink and prepared for a dry summer.
In this region canoeing is not the primary mode of transportation and the portages are rugged, unmaintained, and sometimes non-existent. We searched and searched for our first portage north of Bisco into Ramsey lake but the trail eluded us. We finally decided to change the route and give up looking for the portage – excellent start to our first day – not to mention a large blow to my confidence.
For any of you that were out on the trails in the summer of ‘04 you may remember the weather which became a theme in my daily journal entries: “The first night I almost froze. I am not sure where July went but I think it’s lost…I like to think that when I wake up tomorrow it will be clear, blue and hot and not winter.”
To combat the weather we resorted to making hot water bottles in the morning and stuffing them into our raincoats. On particularly cold days we would be “football players” and wear our life jackets under our raincoats to keep even warmer. This made us look like we had extensive padding on and of course we had to test this out and ram into each other. It could make paddling challenging but at least we were warm.
Passing other canoeists or motorboats was always exciting. Constantly curious as to what brings other people into the forest, we would eagerly ask questions and give huge waves. This was normally met with waves in return but in truth some passersby were a bit thrown off at this group of 9 in the middle of nowhere in bulky raincoats excitedly waving. A typical interaction went like this:
Random kind canoeist: “Hi! How long are you guys out for?”
Us: “50 days”
Us: “No, FIFTY, this is day ____ of fifty”
Canoeist gives blank stare and isn’t really sure what to say…are we crazy? They paddle away slowly…glancing back at us still unsure…
As we moved through our trip we watched the forests change and along with it, the people we met along the way. Around the Bisco area there were more anglers and motorboats from fishing camps. The transition area before getting into Temagami was more sparse of people and we could go days at a time not seeing anyone at all. You felt perfectly comfortable squatting to pee anywhere without fear of running into anyone – this was not so as we moved closed to the populated routes in Temagami.
The illusion of being in the middle of nowhere with no one around brought a sense of freedom I had never felt before. On many occasions we would happily raft up and float together as Stu serenaded us with ‘Loretta,’ our little trip guitar. Foolishly I thought the group loved having the guitar – and at day’s end they always did – except if you were the one stuck carrying it on a rough bushwhack. We found out after the trip that more than once Loretta was angrily tossed into the forest to be abandoned and sacrificed to the forest gods.
Entertaining ourselves was easy. For any of you that have ‘paddled’ through a mud or had to drag through the boot sucking loon shit filled marshes, stinking of sulphur, you may feel that no amount of money would make you dive underwater into one of these marshes willingly. Not so for one of our co-trippers who dove right in for the promise of a toonie. We were shocked and could not contain our laughter which soon turned to full blown cackles as she emerged with a huge smile knowing she shocked the hell out of us AND made a couple bucks.
Eventually we got into a solid rhythm: wake, pack-up, paddle, portage, camp, repeat. We found pleasure in the simple things and laughed with and at one another constantly. Travelling by canoe didn’t seem odd to us at all and our minds were relaxed and open. Long paddles would be met with long chats or long silences – it didn’t matter. We pondered massive existential questions, solved world hunger and the climate crisis.
Questions arose like, “When we cross over into Quebec do you think the loons speak French?”
Time flew by, minds were blown, stories piled up and canoe tripping was life.
On Day 42 we found ourselves back in Algonquin Park. The organization we were with is located on Canoe Lake and we had eight days to get from Kiosk at the North end of the park back. We knew we had time, but as became our style, we pushed it and made the most of every day by taking a challenging route home. We traded our bushwhacks and topos for the park map and massive portage signs. It almost took the fun away. As we were nearing the end of August many people were out enjoying canoe trips and there was no mistaking that we were headed home.
Some parts of the park feel more like you are hiking with a canoe on your head rather than really being on a canoe trip. On Day 45 we completed 18 portages that totaled 11 km in walking. Our bodies were toned and ready for it and we knew how to pace ourselves and trade off the gear.
Lake Opeongo is a massive lake in the park, notorious for winds. On day 46 we found ourselves camped out on the North Arm. My journal entry for that night goes as follows:
“Wind. Restless night.
Sitting, stealing some alone time to watch a sunset. Trees bathed in a yellow glow. The wind has a winter feel. Chilled to the bone.
Birkenstocks, hot water, ice water – the things we miss.
Laughing so hard we pee our pants…or better/worse barf.
We’ve been out long enough to notice the changes in light. At 6:00 p.m. we would have four more hours of sunlight in July and now only two with the sunsetting close to 8:00 p.m.
We fight our last days by filling them to the brim. Danger of boiling over. Maxing out our bodies. Rot, blisters, sprains, cuts, infections and smiles.
I love the blue, brown, green, white and yellow of my skin. So many shades.
Baby trees beside me with my feet leaning against momma.
Saw 350 year old Red Pines today, they’ve seen a lot. Heard, felt. The aliveness of being out of doors. The quickened pulse at any noise in the dark…now, I don’t notice.
Dickson – Bonfield for a 5300 m portage. Epic. Not our longest but still a big one.
Sunsets sneak up. Never know the best time to take the picture and I always miss it. That’s why you have to watch it all.
Trees backlit from the dropping sun. Glowing, almost on fire.
So much laughter.”
That night we gathered around the fire after dinner, we were in one of those silly moods that only a long canoe trip brings on. We drew on each other’s faces with charcoal from the fire – unibrows and mustaches for everyone! Falling asleep that night we knew we were close to the end, we were just weekend warriors that forgot to wash our faces.
There were 9 people in our group and 9 pieces of gear that had to get from one end of the portage to the other. From the beginning Lisa and Gill would trade off carrying one canoe (named Dave after Dave Matthews). I would carry Janis (Joplin) and Stu would carry Jimi (Hendrix). Jess, Hallie, Chloe and Lindsay were fearless pack and barrel carriers and no matter the weight they would march through the trails supporting one another. Britt carried the wannigan. Like many lovers of the wannigan – once you carry it you never go back. This team was unlike any I had ever had the honour of being with before. All seven of these young women had completed a 42 day canoe trip the summer before as had I and Stu had a year of tripping behind him. We were prepared. We knew our bodies, we knew how our minds would react to being out there, we knew what emotions to expect in the final days and the reality of thinking we may never have another “Day 50” sunk in. Every minute was special. The good and the bad. The mental game you play with yourself along the trails tries to get to you but the laughter and love of this group always brought us back.
As we moved through the trip everyone challenged themselves to carry everything. Sometimes, if I wasn’t done my tea in the mornings I would carry a pack with my travel mug and I would sip tea and listen to them all laugh along the trail. The morning we woke up on the North Arm of Opeongo we had a portage. Jess was carrying a canoe and I was walking behind her with a pack. The unofficial and totally practical “uniform” for our group was hiking boots, shorts, bathing suits and button up men’s dress shirts. As we were in the park and it was a weekend there were a lot of people on the trail. Jess was her usual happy self, saying hi to everyone from under the boat. They would greet her excitedly, exchange small talk with big smiles and off we’d go. She was so excited about how friendly everyone was we hardly noticed the length of the portage. When we reached the lake, I put my pack down and Jess flipped down the boat, again mentioning how nice everyone was! It was at that point that I saw Jess the way the other travelers saw her…covered in forty-seven days of grime, with a total charcoal unibrow, huge mustache and unbuttoned dress shirt revealing a little too much of her body. No wonder people were so friendly.
Day 49. Little Island Lake.
“Well, it’s actually here. Great day, moved well. Bodies aching and yearning for a break. Everyone in good spirits all day. Pushing through, taking turns carrying the boats. Crossed highway 60 – so close to home.
Chilly day, almost September. I feel pressure about what to write.
So much happening in my head but overwhelmed by calm. As if I can feel the other eight and together we get through. Just go with it.
Sitting around, a bunch of kids with a guitar after a summer of bliss. It’s so simple really.
We all have ‘comings home’ I wonder about this one. Sparklers and dancing around in the night cheering.
They are so amazing.”
I don’t know if I will ever have another “Day 50” but I do know that each and every day I spend in the bush is a good one and I am better for it. I am still in touch with these incredible people and they continue to amaze me with their passion, love and joy as they grow through life. I know I can never thank them enough for all of the lessons they taught me and for their unwavering support, they made me a better person and a better woman.
An incredible thing happens when you are on a long trip. It can’t be put into words because it is a feeling deep down in your gut that you know you have shared something special with the earth and the people you traveled with. No matter what happens, you will always have that. You can always go back to that, and fake mustaches.
Mercede’s passion for the canoe and the outdoors is surmounted only by her passion to share her experiences with others, especially her family; camping and exploring with her husband Mike and young son in all four seasons. Most recently, they completed a 31 day canoe trip in the Temagami area. Mercede is currently the Director of Camp Wapomeo, with The Taylor Statten Camps and sits on the Board for the Friends of Temagami.