The Happy Camper: Finishing an Extraordinary Journey (Paddling the Thames, Part 5)

Credit: Kevin Callan

I left the hotel in Chatham, Ontario, at sun up. I was nervous about my last stretch of river, dealing with the possibility of high winds where the Thames River enters Lake St. Clair.

Before leaving town, I pulled over at a municipal dock and ran across the road for a morning coffee at Tim Horton’s.

The river wasn’t as wild anymore. What kept my interest, however, were the size of the houses built along the banks; huge mansions with elaborate docks for fancy yachts and speedboats. Early morning bangers could be heard at various homesteads; an attempt to chase off the Canada geese before they could poop on those perfect lawns.

The Thames was more like an elongated pond now; not a river. But it was also where the river seemed to be used the most. While on the upper stretches, I had literally counted only half-a-dozen people on the water. Here, it seemed the waterway was part of a day-to-day lifestyle.

Boats sped by, kids played along the banks, anglers jigged for walleye from bass boats, farmers pumped water for crops. I was even waved on by the operator at the Prairie Side Bridge. Most vessels are too tall and need the bridge to be lifted before passing through. The operator got a good chuckle out of me and my tiny canoe paddling by.

The wind did become a problem, but only the last hour of the trip. It could have been a lot worse.

I kept paddling, pushing against the wind and keeping my mind off the stiff breeze by thinking back to where I had come from.

Surprisingly, the river is mostly wild; except for brief encounters with golf courses, houses and road bridges.

Each day the river changed character. The upper stretch was more creek-like, remote and alive with songbirds. I saw little of the city of London; the riverbanks remained wild most of the time. I’ve never spotted so many bald eagles in my life while paddling through the First Nations reserves. The portion along Big Bend Conservation Area was a Shangri-La, a place isolated from surrounding development. And the forest canopy, made up of massive Carolinian deciduous trees hanging low over the river bank, made the lower stretch an absolute paradise.

I also thought back of the people I met along the way.

The stranger who let me camp in his backyard my first night, serving cold beer in the evening and hot coffee in the morning. The group of homeless people drinking bagged booze under the bridge near the forks of the Thames in London, all of whom eagerly helped me portage my canoe and gear around the sluiceway (my only portage in the entire 300 plus kilometres). The First Nations people who gave up their time to paddle with me or meet with me along the river bank and teach me about their culture on the river. The farmers who let me camp in their back fields and gifted me with homemade preserves and a resupply of fresh water. Groups of biologists dedicated to saving the biodiversity of the river. War of 1812 re-enactors who were kind enough to take time out of their day to dress up in full military uniform and shoot muskets over my head (that was so awesome). The tourism group who aided in my journey immensely, especially by booking elaborate and funky hotels. The list goes on. I met lots of people—good people—while paddling the Thames.

There were even fellow paddlers waiting for me at the finish line. It was a gathering of kindred spirits, friends from social media and local southern canoeists who knew the river better than I and wanted to make sure I enjoyed my ride down it just as much as they had in the past.

Over all, the Thames was an amazing river to journey down. It doesn’t seem to get the credit it deserves.

Some paddlers snubbed their noses up at me when I told them I was going to paddle the Thames, from tributary to its mouth. They labelled it polluted, boring and uneventful. I disagree. This is one amazing river to paddle, whether you do it in sections as a series of day trips or as one full expedition, you won’t be disappointed.

By the time I pushed out into the waves of Lake St. Clair I had connected to one of the best paddles southwestern Ontario has to offer. The Thames is a stunning river that’s rich in history, alive in biodiversity and full of ever-changing character.

Do yourself a favour—paddle the Thames.

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