Originally posted on July 1, 2011 – I love that a post my dear friend wrote 18 months ago has this much readership.
In honor of Canada Day, a holiday that I have shamefully missed for each of my 36 years, including the two when I lived in Canada, I give you Jansen Herr’s beautiful essay.
As I emerge from the narrows and into the delta filled with lilies the gravity of my situation becomes apparent. Beyond the floating field of water lilies lies Challenge #3 for the day. I had already paddled the 2 miles from camp to the mouth of the narrows. Then another couple miles through the glorified creek, winding back and forth, doubling back on itself dozens of times in the journey. A family of freshly-hatched ducks keeps pace just ahead of me with their mother quacking commands in urgent binary code.
The water turns from a perplexing transparent black to an angry, frothy grey as I reached the edge of the delta. I scan the horizon and am disheartened with what is ahead of me: another mile and a half of open water before the calm mouth of the bog will be reached. It isn’t the distance that bothers me. I can do 10 miles of flat water paddling in a day without much trouble. It’s not the headwind that troubles me, either. The low-profile of my kayak cuts through this 20+ mph without much cross-steer. Truthfully, it’s the chop that scares me. Or rather, it is the combination of these three forces working their hardest against me. I have time for one last glance over Little Crow Lake before I look toward my end target, put my head down, and get to it.
The first few yards are the most difficult as I battle the current flowing into the narrows in addition to the wind. That same wind has created the aforementioned whitecaps and they break over my bow and stern. Eighteen inches of water doesn’t sound like much until it makes the eight feet of kayak in front and in back disappear from view as it pushes me off course by six inches: first on the bow, then the stern, each wave lengthens my distance to safety. I heave a sigh brewed of frustration and anxiety, remind myself that I built this Fram 176 with these conditions in mind, and keep paddling. If the Inuits could do it, so can I.
A half an hour later I pass the island to my left. “Almost there!” I tell myself. Sure enough, another 1/4 mile of wicked waves and I reach the headwaters of the bog. By this point, I’m about 10 minutes ahead of my canoeing companions and, easing the pace, I slip through the tall grasses in the beautiful silence that only a Greenland hunting kayak provides. Nothing can be heard but the water dripping off my bow tether into the mirror-still transparent blackness. I lean back and dip my cedar stick-paddle behind my left hip to turn the gentle corner, emitting a quiet gurgle. I spot her. She is still far off in the distance, on the left side of the channel and I, on the right. There should be plenty of room to pass without disturbing her. I pull my paddle up and let the lazy current take me at a snail’s pace. Checking the bog for movement, I am uneasy about getting between a cow and her calf. With no sign of a little one, my heart slows down a bit. She turns her head, chewing on a mouthful of water plants, and she sees me.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been next to a moose. I had a close encounter with several in the White Mountains of New Hampshire several years ago. I stood next to a tree as a cow and her calf passed about 15 feet in front of me that evening. I wasn’t even concerned for my safety. The trees were many and spaced closely enough that a moose would have difficulty making her way through them if a chase ensued. As they approached, she turned her head toward me slightly, her misty brown eye giving me a once-over. I suppose it was her nose giving me the quick study, since moose are notoriously near-sighted. They sensed no harm and kept plodding along their course and disappeared into the thicket some 50 yards away. The show was over as quickly as it had begun.
This time I am a bit uneasy with the situation. There are no trees to hide behind and I am not as swift in the water as I am on my feet. Furthermore, as we were setting up camp the night before, we had seen a shadowy figure making its way across the lake. We had always joked about sneaking up behind a moose slowly treading its way across a lake and patting it on the head as we passed in a trusty Kevlar Scott canoe. Instead, we stood in amazement at what we saw: a bull moose, swimming from left to right, about 1/4 of a mile away from us on the lake. It was not moving at the pace of a paddleboat filled with inebriated gamblers as we expected, but at a speed that would make a decent jogger worry. He was heading to the far shore, another mile to go. I looked back to my left and saw the 2 miles that he had already covered. Speed and stamina: a potentially deadly combination. One of my companions uttered a word of amazement and the giant bull heard it, too. He slowed up, turned his huge rack our direction, then resumed his pace again and disappeared into the dusk that shadowed the distant shoreline.
With this vision fresh in my mind, I calculate the risks and continue on my way down the bog toward the cow. The passage narrows as I near her. She keeps her eyes on me and munches away on the stringy grass pulled from the bog floor. The water flow carries me within 30 feet of her. At this distance I plunge my paddle into the water vertically as quickly and placidly as possible. I want to watch her. A moose isn’t exactly a beautiful animal. Long, gangly legs are given the daunting task of holding up some 700 pounds 6 feet in the air. The knobby knees don’t add any confidence. I can’t see her legs, since she is wading in several feet of water, midway up her torso. While not exactly beautiful by cervidine standards, she stood with a stoic calm that could pass as gracefulness, if you’d never encountered a White Tail before. We look into each other’s eyes and decide to hold our ground. She has a thick coat of fur, deep brown at the roots with tips getting slightly bleached in the summer sun. I think about Mika, my Norwegian Elkhound. She was bred to hunt these beasts and would celebrate this moment with high-pitched whines, sharp barks, and ruffled fur. Unsure just how 70 pounds of taut fury perched astride the gunwales would do to the attitude of the Fram, Iâ€™m quietly thankful I left her back home. I look close at the cow’s coat and I wonder, as I do when gazing at Mika, how many ticks she’s carrying along with her. If a recent New Hampshire study is to be trusted, the average adult moose is host to some 35,000 Winter Ticks. They are tiny creatures smaller even than a deer tick, but 35,000 of anything are going to be a burden.
Then it struck me. This giant beast is a living, walking, munching representation of what it is I am immersed in. This cow isn’t just a cow but is the entire wild frontier wrapped up in one brown, lanky, mobile form. She is quiet, yet untamed. She cannot be trusted, even if I think I know her well. She offers little shelter from the elements for those she plays host to. Yet these pesky ticks, just like man, still flock by the thousands to live off of her and drain the lifeblood from her veins.
By this point my canoeist party had rejoined me, our two crafts drifting in the current in silent reverence and awe. She disappears as we float around the bend, and we are faced with our own frontier: Big Crow Lake. Another mile of wind, chop, and paddling and we’ll reach our camp for the next two nights.
I strive to not be a liability on these treks to the Canadian bush, packing out what I pack in, using fire responsibly, no loud music. Yet, as I hike deep into the far hillside of Big Crow I look some 200 feet up the trunks of the last standing virgin White Pines (the ones that didn’t make the literal cut to be ship masts). I can see the trees as giant brown hairs, and I begin to wonder if the landscape sees me as responsible naturalist or merely a parasite?
Jansen Herr lives in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where he spends much of his time riding obscure motorcycles, saving old European rolling stock from the crusher, and trying to avoid the countless Amish buggies littering the byways. Mika, his trusty Norwegian Elkhound, stands guard over the fleet to keep them safe from foxes and feral cats.