If we’re lucky, there are things we do with our families, year after year. Time runs on, we pass the milestones of life, but these family rituals maintain the illusion that some things never change. But the thing about illusions is, when you do see through them, it happens in a flash.
My parents were canoe builders, and they built the kind of canoes that, at the time, no one was interested in anymore: the traditional wood canvas canoe. These were works of art, carefully hand-crafted one at a time, in boat-building shops that for me were a second home. My earliest memories are of walking between piles of cedar and spruce sawdust higher than my head, my Mom and Dad with flecks of sawdust on their cheeks, and the smell of fresh marine paint.
We lived in little Canadian Prairie towns and First Nations communities in the North. My Dad delivered his new canoes to boat shows and summer camps across the continent. And when there was time, we paddled in the Canadian Shield, retracing the abandoned water highways of earlier times. On the rivers, my Mom and Dad taught us the jay-stroke and the draw, how to make a fire in the rain and how to portage through the muskeg. With time, canoe trips became our family ritual, the thing we do, year after year.
In a remote part of northern Saskatchewan, there was one river we never did: the Wathaman. The headwaters can only be reached by float plane. There is one trip report from 30 years ago. Nobody paddles there: there are no portage trails, no evidence of camping, and unusually for a northern river, no indigenous petroglyphs. Not even the Cree and Dene used this river. It’s just too small, too out of the way, and too steep. According to the one report we had, “You will be bushwhacking through burn, big time. The rapids are extremely technical – mostly long and continuous boulder gardens. It takes strenuous effort to get down the Walk-a-man… But it could be the most intensely satisfying wilderness trip of your life.”
With an endorsement like this, my brother and I knew we’d have to paddle this river, some day. With my parents about to turn 70, we knew time was running out. So we put it out there: a “birthday trip”, a perfect way to celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday. And we would take one of the first canoes my parents built: a 17-foot wood and canvas Prospector built in 1976. We took it just to spite the trip report: “If you wipe out in this river, your boat will be pinned, wrapped, and trashed. You simply must have a Royalex-hull canoe for this river.”
Mom said no. We sent the kids to summer camp. In the end, we were six: my wife, my brother, a cameraman friend and guide to get him down, and my Dad.
As my parents get older and our own lives get more complicated, as we move farther and farther away, this trip down the Wathaman was our way of pushing back against time and circumstance. We went up there to prove my Dad hasn’t changed a bit. That old-fashioned canoes are just as good as modern ones. And that hard rivers are the best thing for pushing out tomorrow, and thinking only about today.
Magical thinking can get you in trouble. Especially in the wilderness. Enjoy the film!
- Niobe Thompson, Handful of Films