As a child growing up in Montreal, I remember quite vividly the stories I was told in school about the brave “coureur des bois” (literal translation, runner of the woods) of New France (modern-day Quebec) in the second half of the 17th century who traveled the interior waterways of the land in handmade wooden canoes. They traded European goods for furs with the indigenous population. I often wondered what that life must have been like. Of course, the version of the history that I was taught spent a great deal of time venerating these men and the lives they led, saying very little about the dangers and the hardships encountered plying this trade…You know, let’s not scare the kiddies!
I’m not entirely certain that my friend Ed and me were thinking about those brave men of yesteryear when one of us blurted out one day: “Hey, we should plan a canoe trip.” We were in our early twenties, it was the summer, we were bored, and a new adventure seemed like the right thing to do. So, we poured over maps, chose a destination not that far from home, but with many lakes and small waterways connecting them, thought about what we needed to bring with us, what kind of backpacks we would need, camping equipment etc., what type of food would be best, where we would rent the canoe, and about who we would leave our valuable possessions to, you know, just in case!
We arrived at our destination, Hickok”s Boat Livery in Upper Saranac Lake, NY, which was adjacent to Fish Creek Pond Campground for our two-night, three-day adventure. The canoe we rented was a sturdy, steel one made by Grunman. It was a bit heavier than we had expected, given that we knew that we would probably have to portage (also known as “canoe carry”), and we both had rather large, heavy backpacks with all our supplies to carry, but we were young, in pretty good shape, and so we just shrugged our shoulders and started loading up the canoe. The route we had chosen was to be circular, to bring us back to the starting point and our vehicle. We would travel through Follensby Clear Pond, Green Pond, Hoel Pond, Long Pond, Floodwood Pond, Rollins Pond, and Whey Pond. If you are thinking at this point that when these water bodies were being named it was by someone with a lack of imagination, you’re not alone! However, what we should have been thinking about is what exactly a “pond” is which, as we were soon to discover, is not the optimum body of water to be canoeing on! We decided at that point to expand the circular route by canoeing, kind of, into the largest body of water in the area, Saranac Lake. I fully realize that “large” is a relative term, but at least it wasn’t a damn pond!
After navigating (I use that word loosely) a couple of these ponds, which involved much more walking beside the canoe and guiding it along the very shallow water than it did paddling, we reached the big expanse of Saranac Lake. Our relief to be in the canoe actually paddling, instead of beside guiding it, was rather short-lived though, because as we reached the middle of the lake the sky began to fill with these incredibly dark and ominous clouds. We quickened our pace a little, but not before there was this bright flash of light, followed by the familiar rumbling that is thunder. We looked at each other, then at the steel canoe, both thinking to ourselves: “Yeah, we are in the middle of a lake in a steel canoe with bolts of lightning flashing around us. We probably need to get the hell off the water…now!” We made a beeline towards the nearest shore, but not before the clouds began to shed the water within them drenching us. Did I mention that the temperature dropped by nearly 20 degrees? We looked like two miserable, drowned rats, as we scrambled to huddle under some trees for cover, even though we both knew that this wasn’t the smartest plan given the lightning, but it was either that, sit in the open and get wetter, or hide under the steel canoe, which was definitely worse than being under some trees. We survived!
It began to ease up a little after about a half hour, still raining but at least the thunder and lightning had stopped. It was around 4PM, so we decided we had had enough excitement for one day and we started looking for a place we would call home for the evening. We eventually found a spot to pitch our tent for the night, put up the tent and decided that despite the rain and everything being soaked, that we would have a warm dinner that evening, because we did not want to waste the food, we brought for our first meal. We set out in search of kindling and wood to build a fire, not an easy task after all the rain. We did manage to get a fire going, although “fire” is another one of those relative terms! Nonetheless, we chowed down on what I am almost certain was undercooked food – We survived, and in case you’re wondering, this was the theme for this voyage! After cleaning up after dinner and taking care of the “raging” fire, we headed into the tent to change into some dry clothes and call it a day. We had dry clothes because when we were packing, Ed suggested that we wrap all our stuff in green garbage bags before putting them into our packs…Thank you Ed!
We woke up bright and early the next morning, not because we wanted to, but because we had apparently camped under the home of 10,000 crows! Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but it sure sounded like there were that many! The weather had turned nice, which was definitely a plus and we were eager to get the going after a quick bite of breakfast: freeze-dried whatever. We packed up the tent and our gear and headed to where we had stashed the canoe for the evening and then pulled out our laminated map – hey, we were both Boy Scouts, some of it stuck! – to see where we were. It was then that we determined to take a shortcut because we were going to have to portage to the next body of water. There was some trepidation on both our parts as to this shortcut we wanted to take because it would mean having to hightail it for a few hundred yards through a golf course. Now, the thing you need to know about golfers is that they really like to start early in the morning, which meant we would need to be careful and keep an eye out, which is very difficult to do when you are carrying a canoe with 50+ pound packs on your backs. We did our best, but as luck would have it, not quite good enough. Do you have any idea what the sound is like when a golf ball travelling around 140 MPH (the average speed off a tee) hits a steel canoe? In a word, deafening! Have you ever seen two guys trying to run while carrying a canoe, and tipping it backwards every so often so we could actually see where we were going? While I am chuckling to myself writing this, as I am almost certain some of you are too reading this, trust me when I tell you it was no laughing matter then! We made it off the golf course before anyone could reach us to tell us we shouldn’t be there and made it to a stream that we needed to travel on to reach the next body of water to resume canoeing. The stream varied in depth between six inches to about two feet, meaning that we were walking the canoe yet again. There were an abundance of downed trees across the stream so there was a great deal of carrying the canoe. Not wanting to remove the heavy packs from the canoe, we would both drag it by the front end over any trees, with one of us scurrying to the back to push once it was about a quarter of the way across. The trek took us almost two hours and we were exhausted.
The rest of the day was incident-free. We soaked up the sun and glided along some very inviting and calm water. With only trees, water, and some cabins set far back into the woods to see we began to feel like those fearless, coureur-des-bois travelling the waterways of the old-world. It was very peaceful, and we felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to be having this amazing experience. We found a campsite for our last night and set up shop. We had a visit from the State Police who were checking in on campers, but we thought we were going to get hauled off to jail for running across a golf course with a canoe. Fortunately for us, they had not gotten the bulletin about our little escapade. Before we set up camp, we made sure there were no crow’s nests nearby, as we did not want a repeat of this morning. We had a great meal of spaghetti and something that was supposed to resemble vegetables thanks to Ed’s penchant for dehydrated camping foodstuffs, lit a roaring fire, and spent the evening roasting marshmallows and talking about the day’s trials and tribulations. The next morning, we were awoken not by crows, but by a very loud boom that made us bolt out of the tent as we thought were being bombed! It turned out to be a military jet on maneuvers from the nearby air force base. Where are the crows when you need them? Safely back at our car around noon, we began the drive back home, already planning where we should go for our next trip. Because we had survived!
Los Angeles 2024
6 thoughts on “Coureur Des Bois…Or, Something Like That! (S)”
Good lord you can’t make that stuff up!
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No you cannot!
At least you didn’t have to eat squirrel.
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Haha. I remember that souvenir hanging on your wall!
What a saga! I’ve had a few camping adventures, like once hunkering down in our tents during what felt like gale-force winds in the mountains of northern Ventura County, California, or waking up to snow on our tent in Bryce Canyon N.P., Utah in early September, but nothing like what you guys went through.
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I did a lot of camping back in the day, so lots of stories to be sure. Gale force winds does not seem like too much fun!
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