This morning it is cool, not like the previous day. The clouds are close, shrouding the conifers, slithering through the forest. There is barely a breath of wind yet the fog's movement is constant. The river makes a large oxbow around our camp here and it can be heard on both sides- the soft pops and gurgles as it moves through the branches of drooping tamarack and cedar. A thin wisp of smoke curls from the coals of the previous evenings fire and blends with the fog. The dark tannin color of the river is dull today, even in the shallows where the light can penetrate it fully. The golden hues and mellow auburn's of yesterday's sunny afternoon have vanished, replaced by a dark ochre in the flat light. Even the white foam lines appear to take on a dull, muted, yellow, hue. A fine mist from above sends me looking for my Gore-tex and I set out upon my morning camp chores.
Everything is damp this morning, the weather having moved in sometime during the night. I poke at the coals and lay some dry pine boughs over the fire. From the larger tent I hear the stirring of nylon and zippers as Greg's head protrudes from the hatch, surveying the situation. A well known real estate broker from Charlevoix, he was my best friend, Spencer's, Dad. This was his trip. It was an honor to be invited. He'd been doing it for over a decade and guarded its identity with monk-like devotion. After my inaugural trip he pulled me aside: "Ok, If anyone asks how the trip was, you tell em the bugs were terrible, we didn't catch any fish, and we'll never do it again." Perhaps there was something to it that only a handful of people ever cared to paddle this section of river.
A respected wrestler in his high school days, he was compact in size with the build of a brick shit-house. A lightening quick take down was his signature and once his opponents height advantage was taken away he would drive them into the mat, like a cowboy breaks a horse, until they were too winded and too tired to carry on. Ferocity manifested. His demeanor towards camp life was much the same; calculated, planned, and relentless. Dinner consisted of multiple regimented courses he would lament over at every encounter during the days paddle. "Salad, Potatoes Au Gratin, New York Strips over the fire, and the coup de grace- fresh pan fried Brook Trout! MMMMMMMM!" you would hear him exclaim as he rounded the next bend and paddled out of sight, his canoe loaded with enough gear to clear no more than 3 inches of free board. You could tell he was always thinking about it. For him it was not enough to simply "go down the river". No, for Greg, one needed to do it as a total expert, executing flawless woodcraft and incorporating downriver navigation with the joy of angling in a symphony exhibiting character, humor, and camaraderie.
The pine boughs began to crackle over the coals as each of them took to flame. Slowly I fed the tinder chunks of larger fuel as the grasp of heat overcame the damp morning air. Greg was already taking stock of the foodstuffs, on this, our last morning of the 3 day trip. "Gonna be an easy paddle out." he announced. "You guys eat like Ethiopians at a Golden Corral." I smiled behind the smoke of the freshened fire at his early morning wit. He reached into one of the plastic totes and produced a Ziploc of instant coffee. "Ground betwixt the loins of Nubile African princesses!" he exclaimed as he approached the newly invigorated flames with the bag and a pot of water. At this, laughter erupts from the tents as the rest of the expedition members listen in, struggling to draw themselves from the shelter of bug netting. The camp is awake now. In the time before this, it was still and quiet except for the rivers sound. Now it would be busy as each man set out about his business. There is not much talking that is unrelated to work at hand. Everyone knows their part. While breakfast is being prepared, there is constant movement as each piece of gear finds its way from living mode to moving mode. The fog closes in. We are a well oiled machine as each member of camp performs their duty; sorting, packing, and loading it all into the boats.
Breakfast is a spartan intermission. In the shadow of the cedars we stand around the large pan cradled by embers, eating with primordial vigor whatever food remains mixed with scrambled eggs. Words are few- mostly gratification to the cook who must now catch up in his own packing routine. Greg prepares his gear for voyage like a surgeon before the first cut. Methodical. Seamless. Intuitive. It feels like a race. Each team wants to be the first to splash their vessel. The goal; not even to be the first downriver. It is enough simply to be the first standing in the river, boat pointed confidently downstream; ready to go. A living testament to preparation, organization, and teamwork. Masters of the nomadic lifestyle.
At first touch the river is always colder than yesterday. Here, it is only knee deep and after a few minutes the pain is dulled. Now it is the time for final preparations. Each team prepares their craft, affecting personal touches to its configuration. Gear is shifted around to better balance the boat. Today we have placed a grid of sticks to hold our cargo above of the keel, allowing any rainwater that accumulates in the bilge to be channeled fore and aft for bailing purposes. Spencer and I run a tight ship. Leaves, sand and debris that find their way aboard are policed at every point of stoppage. Our lass is clean and organized. Essentials are always close and the rest stowed securely for transport. We coexist as a singular unit in our little floating world, embracing the challenges and enjoying the simple pleasure of paddling- a constant process of assessing, planning, and executing.
Now, all the boats are layed up side by each, shifting as one in the current, tied off to an overhanging cedar branch. Everyone is ready, but like the late risers in their bug net cocoons, there is again hesitation to leave the comforts provided by camp. Once the crew has pulled out, we will not return until the next voyage. It is a place we are all fond of and to go around the bend is to sever the ties. To leave our coniferous mistress. In this moment before action takes hold, we linger and take in our surroundings. Once departed, the world is no longer stationary as we make our way downstream. It must be done though, and like the sun rises, the first boat will pull out, followed by the second and the third in twenty minute intervals until only the smoke curling from the smothered fire bears witness we were ever there. Spencer and I are the last to pull out. We linger the longest. As the fog shifts, we too move along silently. Mobility, perfected.