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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The War Canoe Trip (Or how Hal challenged the wilderness on the last great war canoe adventure)

By Hal Studholme

The challenge was daunting: 16, 11 and 12 year olds, two first year counsellors and two CIT’s on a daring venture seldom if ever attempted by Camp Stephen’s staff.  

Led by a leader of yet-to-be-proven experience but unquestioned courage, they would test their very manhood in an area of the great lake whose very name sent a chill down his spine, THE HADES!  

What was it about this tangle of waters and islands that would cause early cartographers to give it the title of Hell itself? These were the things he pondered on the eve of the trip. Was his courage truly up to the test? And what of his young crew, just innocent, untested boys. Drifting in and out of a fitful sleep, he reviewed every aspect of his plan. But he knew, in the end, it was his decision and his alone.

Camp Stephens itself was just embarking on the Voyageur Program, an ambitious plan to venture out beyond nearby waters around Copeland Island and to explore far reaches of the great lake itself. Indeed, as a bastion of the very spirit of male valour, it meant to go beyond where no Stephen’s man had gone before.  

Thus, he took it on as a matter of honour to be a part of this adventure. It was his third year at Stephens and he had yet to take out a trip. This was not due to any lack of courage or skill. His camping background was based in an eastern Y camp that had a huge outdoor swimming pool and a shallow, unnavigable creek at the bottom of a steep ravine. It was experience ideally suited to the Lake of the Woods waters. 

To prepare, he had spent many an evening leaning over the front dock practicing every stroke in the lexicon of canoe lore over those three years. Indeed, the power of his ‘J’ stroke could almost move the dock from its moorings. He was ready.

He awoke well before the sun crested over the islands on the eastern skyline. The sky was clear, just fluffy clouds and a light breeze that stirred the waters on the shore below Art’s cabin. He quietly slipped from his sleeping bag, being careful not to wake his staff companions. Though they masked their awe of his brave venture with much laughter and words of derision, he knew they envied him. 

Poor lads, he thought, they will never have an opportunity such as this. The tiny, fragile two man canvas canoes they paddled could never match the great ships of state that he was to lead this day. I will have to bring back small tokens of the adventure to cheer them up on my return. Squaring his shoulders he stepped off the porch and strode down the cabin line to rouse his crew and begin the “Challenge of The Hades” as he had come to think of it!

He found them ready and already garbed in their kapok life vests, caps at a jaunty angle, feet shod in clean black and white runners. They wore their Stephens T shirts and matching white shorts. They would offer fine example of the quality of campers that come from Stephens to passing boats. He felt a surge of pride. Gathered together they walked in step with heads high to the canoe racks at the end of the campus.

The great war canoes were resting on their gunnels on the lowest rack. He stationed all eight campers, with their counsellor and CIT around the first huge red canoe. “All together, heave.” he shouted. Up rose the heavy vessel. 

“Lower and turn it upright.” he instructed. 

The maneuver went well for a moment and then the craft slipped from their hands and despite their efforts to avoid it, the canoe fell directly upon him.

Fortunately, due to a rain two days previous, the ground was softened and the mud under him cushioned his fall. The responses of the crew to this disaster was heartening and he dismissed his first thought that he heard snickering and laughter. They carefully slide the canoe from his chest and he rose none the worse except for the mud plastered on his back and butt. 

Fortunately, the other craft was successfully launched and, at last, boarding the sturdy, untippable canoes, they pushed off. Of course he took the prow of the lead canoe, leaving the two counsellors to be helmsmen. They would follow his guiding hand without question he assured himself.

Unfortunately, there had been no time in the days previous to practice paddling the large canoes. Thus there was considerable splashing, banging of paddles, wild changes of course, a near collision with the other canoe, and worst of all, some very inappropriate language. 

Wondering where these youngsters had heard such words, he firmly scolded them. They were respectfully silent after that. Finally, they appeared to sort out their respective roles and as he called a cadence for their pace, they exited the front bay. 

As they rounded Chief’s Point the camp director came out to give them a hearty cheer and send off. He waved back to acknowledge the call of farewell and ignored his helmsman who said he thought the director was yelling, “Where in the hell do you think you’re going?” He tried to recall exactly when he had reported his plans for the trip. No matter, all would be well on their triumphant return.

They were off to such a good start that he decided a song would be appropriate to bond them as crews. He quickly discovered that “The Grand Old Duke of York” was not a good choice for it called for them to stand from time to time which nearly caused the canoes to capsize amidst another outburst of disrespectful language, some of it aimed at him. Songs were out. 

They paddled on in silence except for his occasional need to resort to calling pace to the paddlers. He had consulted charts of the area that was their destination and so he led them out across the great stretch of water with confidence. Despite a brisk breeze causing some mild consternation on the part of the helmsmen, they kept course and soon were ready to enter THE HADES. He was surprised that the trip thus far had taken not more than an hour. His original estimate had been a full day’s paddle. 

No matter, more time to explore.

Looking back over his shoulder he checked on the food packs and water jugs he had had loaded aboard. There was nothing in the bottom of the canoe but the running shoes that the paddlers had discarded in a jumbled heap. Do not show panic he told himself. All will be well. Besides, all intrepid explorers had to face some hardship of meager rations. It would be a good lesson to them all. 

They paddled on. As they were not approaching the area where he expected the entry to THE HADES to be found he had them all search for a large, overhanging white pine tree on a great granite outcrop that he had been told marked the entrance. The problem was, there appeared to be dozens of such trees and the area was nothing but granite rock.  

No matter, he would just check the chart he had folded neatly and placed in the back pocket of his shorts. To his dismay he found the paper of the chart smeared with mud and so saturated that it came apart in shreds as he tried to unfold it. No matter, “Keep searching lads,” he cried.                                                                                                                                             
At last, one of the 12 year olds saw the entrance. He explained he often went fishing in the THE HADES with his dad as his family had a cottage nearby. Smart little %$#@&% he thought, but mumbled a thank you. The helmsmen steered the canoes into the waters of their destination and he called for a rest which had the approval of all. 

The water in the immediate area was a flat calm. It was somewhat disconcerting as he had expected, with a name like THE HADES, there would be cresting waves and dangerous eddies to challenge. 

Never mind, we should find an appropriate spot for our luncheon. Then he remembered, the food packs had not come on the trip, nor had the water jugs. 

No matter. There may be plentiful wild berries and similar edibles. Just then one of the young lads asked if he could drink from the canteen he had brought along. Immediately the call went out from several of the crew for a water break all round.

“No, no water lads,” he shouted. “This is a test of our mettle. And part of my plan. We will each take one sip from Jimmy’s canteen and that should be sufficient.”  Jimmy did not look pleased but he did, after a stern look, pass the canteen. Unfortunately, the lad who passed it to him took the last drop. 

No matter, I am here to set an example. “And we will all enjoy a meal of triumph when we return to camp and open our food packs,” he announced. Once again he had to chide them for bad language.

They spent the next hour paddling leisurely around the waters of THE HADES. Dozens of islands, small and large dotted the area. He noted that there were many cottages along the shores and on a few of the islands. The uncharted waters he had envisioned were obviously a myth. 

Perhaps the area was named after some family named Hades? At this time he noticed some menacing dark clouds beginning to arrive over what he assumed was the north east. Time to head for home. We just might make lunch. “Let’s head for the exit channel lads,” he called. He pointed to what he assumed was the western end of the area. “It’s just behind that island over there.”

It wasn’t. Nor was it behind another six other islands as they began to paddle aimlessly. Pointing out that fact, one of the counsellor-helmsmen got a strong chewing out for his interference with the leader’s directions. At last, in frustration they steered to a nearby boat where some men were fishing. “Excuse me gentlemen, he called. Do you know where the exit channel is?”

With a chuckle, one of the men, with an unfamiliar accent, replied, “Just go to your right a couple of islands and you’ll find it.”  

Assuming the man was from somewhere exotic, like Keewatin, he asked, “Where are you from, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?”   “Atlanta Georgia, USA,” the man replied. Are you lads from that Y camp yonder?”

“I’m from Toronto,” he called back over his shoulder as he urged the canoes forward as quickly as possible.

The paddle back to Stephens was accomplished in a driving rain. Along with their food and water they had also left their ponchos on the dock. They arrived at mid-afternoon. All of camp was on the campus to meet them, including the camp director, Ron Watson, who stood, arms crossed across his chest and a scowl on his face. 

“Boys,” he shouted, as they beached the war canoes, “your food packs and some hot soup from lunch are waiting for you in the dining hall.

“And you Studholme, after you put the canoes back on the rack, are restricted to a rowboat, with a guide, for the rest of camp. Go get changed!”