The Happy Camper: Mark Twain and Princess Kevin on Canada’s Mississippi

The Happy Camper continues his journey down Canada’s Mississippi River! Missed a part? Read parts one, two, three and four

A heavy mist covered the river when Andy and I left the Treehouse early the next morning. Water levels were still low and we had to get our feet wet once again. We combined wading, lining and some sporadic running down the five-kilometre section of whitewater between Sheridan Rapids and Playfairville. It was a mix of Class I-III rapids. In early spring I can see this section being a giant flush of water but now it was a mere rock garden with hip-high ledges and shallow tongues, all interspersed by short flat sections. The canoe guide shows portages existing on a couple main sets of whitewater: a 400-metre to the left of a long chute and a 75-metre to the left of what’s called “The Old Dam Site.” We never saw them, though. We just did our best to walk the canoe down like a dog on a leash or run what we could. By the end of it, our shins were bruised and the bottom of the canoe had more scratches than my Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell vinyl album back in high school.

What remained for most of the day were more sections of lowland swamp, with a few elaborate houses perched high up on the riverbank. It was a nice wild area where other tributaries (Clyde and Fall River) trickled in, thankfully adding water to the Mississippi. A slight current sped up our progress and we made good time passing under #15 road bridge and around Strafford Island. By the way, there’s no falls at Ferguson Falls, just a shallow swift beyond the road bridge. We waded down the entire length of ankle-deep rapids at Innisville, under the business of the Highway #7 bridge.

The Mississippi Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary (established in 1959) and the Mississippi Lake National Wildlife Area (established in 1977) marks the entrance to Mississippi Lake’s western bay. This is the largest protected area (307 hectares) on the entire lake and supports countless rare species of flora and fauna. It also holds back great amounts of silt before its flushed into the lake. While Andy and I paddled through, we spotted a Canada Warbler, Bobolink, Wood Thrush and Black Tern. Cool.

It was another long day, and we were losing light again while paddling the western shoreline of Mississippi Lake. The rain had left us, but the air was now humid. Thankfully, I had set up another perfect spot to spend the night. I booked us a campsite at McCulloughs Landing. The owner of the campground, Ian Caswell, met us at the dock and showed Andy and I where to pitch our tent and bug shelter. We were too tired to make a proper dinner. Instead, we made dried meat and cheese sandwiches and drank large quantities of water.

After dinner, Andy and I spread out the maps to figure out our next day—and to make some slight alternations in our route plan.

Our main issue going forward was the distance we needed to make the next day. While planning the trip, I couldn’t find a legal place for us to camp downstream of McCulloughs Landing until just past the hamlet of Blakeney. There was an elaborate inn and cozy B&B in Almonte but they wanted multiple-night customers, not nomad penny-wise paddlers making their way down the river. However, a friend from social media, Ray Beecraft, offered to set up a place for us on some friend’s property not far downstream of Blakeney. I gladly accepted the offer. Except now, looking at the maps, Andy I doubted we’d make it there before nightfall. We were averaging 24 to 34 kilometres of river travel per day at this point, and the distance to the private property site was over 40 kilometres. So, I made a call. Another social media friend, Evan Lefebvre, had offered to help us on our trip if needed. It was needed. I sent him a message to see if he’d drive us around Mississippi Lake. He quickly replied and gladly agreed. Evan would pick us up at the campground in the morning and drive us around Mississippi Lake—cutting off over 20 kilometres of paddling.

Yep, I get it. Avoiding a good stretch of the route was a somewhat unethical move on our part. Or was it? I’ve learned through countless canoe trips that original trip plans can quickly change. Goals and objectives are altered. It’s inevitable. First off, Andy and I would turn 60 in the fall and we were feeling it. Our mindset was still sharp on carrying over portages, lining rapids and traveling long distances—but our bodies were starting to rebel. Our muscles and joints were breaking down. So why not take a ride around the largest, and most developed, lake en route? And yes, if Andy and I were on a northern wilderness trip where we could camp on any point of rock or patch of pine, we’d make note of our food supply, tighten our belts and make it happen. But the Mississippi is a different river. You can’t simply pitch a tent whimsically as you go.

Feeling good about our modified plans for the next day, we went into the tent early to the booming sound of an approaching thunderstorm and the hum of RV generators running portable air conditioners. Under headlights we read the books we brought—Mark Twain’s Life on The Mississippi was my choice and a children’s book titled Princess Kevin was Andy’s. Andy has such an odd but exceptional sense of humour and wit.

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