IT had been raining throughout the day; now it was late afternoon. Canada's Abitibi River was gray-brown under darkening skies. Though we were going with the current, we had trouble making way against the strong wind. It whipped over the river's surface, peeling back shingles of waves. The brush and trees along the river's edge were nearly impenetrable. Had we missed the campsite? My son Mark in the bow and his friend Wilke in the stern continued paddling rhythmically. I sat resting, wondering if the gear we had lashed to the sides of the canoe would survive an upset. In the distance, an unusually high ridge rose above the riverbank. In a flicker of lightning I thought I saw buildings outlined darkly against the sky. Our topographical map seemed accurate to the tree; yet there were no villages marked on it in our location.
I said nothing. If the boys stopped paddling, the fierce wind would drive us back. Lightning illuminated the ridge again and I was sure.
``There it is,'' I shouted into the slanting rain. The boys paddled furiously. The river was broad at this point, and we had a great distance to cover. I longed to spell one of them, but movement was risky in our heavily loaded canoe. After what seemed hours, we reached shore. Sometime in the past the riverbank had been cleared and was covered with tall grass that made it easy to drag out our canoe. (We tied it securely in case the river should rise.)
Although the rain continued to pelt down, it was a relief to be on land. The prospect of supper and a dry tent, or possibly a deserted house to sleep in, cheered us. We struggled up the steep bank through slippery grass. The ridge was flat and clear of trees. There must have been a lumber camp here once. Some buildings were tattered skeletons. Others had collapsed into piles of boards. After setting up our tent on the soggy ground, we ate a cold supper and I gratefully removed my damp clothes and snuggled into my sleeping bag. A wakeful sense of apprehension prevented me from sinking into the oblivion I cherished. The heavy rain continued, and at some time during the night I felt wetness seeping into my sleeping bag.
There was no problem rousing the boys at the first hint of dawn. We left our soggy tent for the leaky shelter beneath the porch of the largest standing house. Then we coaxed a fire to life, from boards pried from the walls of the building, on the wet porch floor.
After a cooked breakfast we sat around the fire enjoying its warmth. No one dared mention the possibility of an other day of rain. I struggled to bend my mind to pleasant thoughts. Looking at the river below, I saw patches of mist resting on the water. On a sunny day it would have been a magnificent view. Whoever built the house had an eye for natural beauty.
``Maybe we could dry our clothes over the fire,'' Mark suggested.
Wilke countered, ``I read that you can dry clothes over a camp fire by putting boards in the arms and legs. His suggestion merely interrupted my meditations. Time passed and we sat listening to the rain.
My inspiration for our wilderness adventure had come from photos in our family album of a canoe trip my father had made as a young man. I regretted never having gone on such a trip myself, thus it remained a dream. A distant, brief enthusiasm for the Boy Scouts was my only experience with woods lore.
I had also acquired the unquestioned conviction that fathers should initiate their young into a wilderness experience. Where to go seemed logical in the presence of a map of Canada. (Had equatorial Africa been nearer, we might have gone there.) My grandiose plan would have had us continue on from James Bay to explore the shores of Hudson Bay and perhaps beyond.
In preparation I had learned to J-stroke, in a borrowed canoe on the placid Sudbury River. By coincidence, a friend who had made the Abitibi trip learned of my plan. He insisted that I take his topographical map. I'd been reluctant to take it, since I already had a map of Canada. It was indispensable.
The Canadian wilderness was like no woods I'd camped in as a Boy Scout in New Jersey; it remains formidable. We had arrived at Cochrane, our embarkation point, late in the damp afternoon. There the fine blue line on the map labeled Abitibi River became a broad, sullen, rapidly moving body of water. I felt something close to fear.
The dampness intruded on my thoughts. I could see that Wilke was still chewing on his idea. It might have merit.
``Why don't you try it, Wilke?'' I handed him one of the boards nearby. It made a neat-looking product of one leg of his crumpled trousers. He propped the trouser-sheathed board near the fire. Our eyes sparked with interest, watching steam begin to rise from the damp fabric. All around us the discomfort and dampness were forgotten in this shared triumph.
Abruptly we were aware of an alarming smell. With ferocious grace of movement Wilke snatched the board away from the fire - but too late. Steam had turned to smoke - several large holes were burned into his trousers.
The gloom and dreariness of our first two nights on the river seemed to culminate in the failure of Wilke's idea. He suffered the ribbing that awaits those who put ideas to the test and fail so spectacularly. We laughed, not so much at Wilke as at ourselves. Responsibility and fear that I felt at the outset of our journey lifted with the comradely humor of Wilke's experience. It was a turning point, like the many bends in the river. We all had passed through the wilderness initiation.
The unknown fascinates us, whether it be an isolated location, or the landscape of dreams and ideas. Both inner and outer wilderness can be a proving ground. We may burn holes in our trousers or suffer real discomfort and danger by bringing our dreams to reality. That must be why Wilke hesitated.
I don't remember when the rain stopped. The remaining sun-filled days to our destination, Moosonee on James Bay, were delightfully uneventful, filled with the distant symmetry of sky and trees mirrored in the still dark water. In the evenings we swam in the cool river. One of our campsites had a spectacular waterfall and a rainbow in its mist, and we slept on a soft sandy beach.