Living the Canadian dream

Kristina Leidums describes paddling the path of the explorers

She set out to paddle the path of 
the explorers. Between the two-day 
portages and the bouts of beaver-
phobia, she turned into one herself

Kristina Leidums, Creston, B.C. // Age: 27

I have butterflies in my stomach as I push off into the river alone, feeling small and vulnerable in the stern of my 17-and-a-half-foot canoe. With my friend Angela watching quietly from shore, I take my first tentative strokes as a solo expedition paddler, noting how the boat responds to my steering. Can I do this? Do I even want to? Is my body strong enough to keep up the necessary 60-kilometre-per-day average, week in and week out? I’ve paddled alone many times, I remind myself. I have to try, or I’ll always look back on this moment and wonder what the story might have been.

When past canoe trips ended and the other paddlers raced to showers and iPods, I only wanted a harder adventure and more time in the wilderness. I needed to test myself, convinced that my full potential lay somewhere in hours of endless paddling and wind-bound days on the shores of massive lakes; in becoming weather-beaten and sun-flushed; in earning bruises, scrapes, bug bites and that bump on the back of the neck that they say every serious portager develops. I wanted to experience newness around every corner, and to use my own arms and legs to feel the vastness of the country. It was about spending a whole summer outside, watching and feeling my body get stronger.

Over the Christmas break in 2009, I decided to use the upcoming summer to follow the historic fur-trade route across central Canada. I rallied my friend Angela as a partner, and for six months we researched, arranged food shipments, packed and acquired financial support from Mountain Equipment Co-op. We mapped a 3,000-kilometre, 50-portage route linking the North Saskatchewan River, Lake Winnipeg, the Winnipeg River and the lake country that forms the international border between Ontario and Minnesota. When people reacted with awe and admiration to our story, I began to realize the power of acting on a dream. I felt like I could take on the world.

I’d always been fascinated by tales of adventurers like David Thompson and Alexander Mackenzie, wondering how it felt to cross the nation by canoe—and now, at age 26, I was about to find out. Our starting point in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, was symbolic, a historic launching pad for fur traders and explorers. Once, the silty North Saskatchewan was a main artery of travel across the country; today, its high clay banks, abundant wildlife and prairie vistas are unknown to most Canadians. With our lives packed into a keelless, green Wenonah Cascade canoe, the sheer scope of our journey sank in.

The ball dropped after just nine days. An old back injury returned to abruptly end Angela’s trip, our elation at having paddled some 600 kilometres suddenly forgotten. A few days earlier we had been laughing and squealing together as we used a paddle blade to rescue a drowning squirrel. Now, it was akin to a divorce as we sombrely separated gear. Angela packed to go home; encouraged by my family, I would press on alone. There was no one to carry this iconic Canadian dream through but myself.

Later that day, I paddle under yet another nondescript bridge, crossing the border from Alberta into Saskatchewan. Feeling celebratory, I stand up in the boat and wave my cellphone around for reception. It’s a dead zone, and the landmark boundary feels bittersweet. Nine days and 500 kilometres from here, in Prince Albert, I will hear from my brother Erich about whether he can join me for the rest of the trip.

As I set up camp that night, I’m surprised to discover that I’ve covered 60 kilometres—a respectable distance for a solo paddler. A few days later I’m elated to realize that the pace is sustainable, provided I put in long days of 10 to 12 hours on the water. There might just be enough time to get to Lake Superior by my August 21 deadline.

The days fly by, and life on the river is simple. Grey skies contrast with yellow fields of canola; weathered, abandoned farmhouses appear high on the banks. White pelicans stare lazily upstream in meditative silence. I watch for storms. They rarely force me to stop, but appear to come out of nowhere. “It would seem that way to you,” muses an old farmer who refills my drinking-water supply. From my position down low in the river valley, I’m unable to see clouds brewing on the horizon.

I stop on a hot, windy afternoon to wash laundry in a large Ziploc bag and soon I’ve set up an impromptu clothesline: a rope running from the bow to a paddle standing on end in front of me in the stern. It’s like a sail made out of underwear. No reason to be bashful out here, I tell myself, until I round a corner to see I’m putting on a show for people at a busy boat launch.

The nights are less carefree. I’m not sleeping well; in fact, my night fears might be the only thing that could stop me from canoeing past Prince Albert alone. My tough-girl facade is crumbling. And although I’m loathe to admit it, I have become paranoid about beavers. They seem to abound in pre-fur-trade numbers here, and in my life I’ve  read more stories depicting them as crafty and intelligent than shy and benign. I’ve heard of beavers clawing through the bottoms of canoes, or fiercely defending their kits from marauding wolves. I’ve even had dreams on this trip of beavers stealing my paddles in the night, adding the shiny wood to their dams and lodges.

Camping is limited to a thin strip of forest between the river and the fields, with only cows and distant farmhouses for a modicum of company. The islands that looked appealing from the maps are choked with alders and rose bushes. On one steep, muddy bank, littered with sticks half-chewed by beavers, I know there is no hope of setting up a tent or cooking supper. In the drizzle I empty the canoe, cram an energy bar in my mouth and crawl in under the yoke and thwart. I zip my spray deck over top of me to form a primitive, cave-like shelter, something about the boat’s hard shell offering a sense of security. At 4 a.m. I awake to the sound of an animal slurping water beside my boat and I’m sure it can hear my pounding heart. That’s it for sleeping. A few minutes later I’m up and moving, poking my head above deck to the most brilliant pink sunrise.