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The Saugeen River – A Short Eventful Canoe Trip

September 26, 2011

This is not a hockey post – this is about one of my other favourite topics – canoeing!

This was supposed to be a nice little 4-day trip down the Saugeen River to Lake Huron in Bruce County, Ontario. The maiden voyage of Ross’ and my yet-to-be-named little green canoe, in a fairly simple river. Due to minimal planning and adverse weather conditions, we barely made it through 3 access points. Boo! But it was the most river paddling I’ve ever done and the wee rapids were worth it. The rain? Well, not so much would’ve been nice.

Word to the wise. Nothing is ever simple. To start out with, this was not the intended locale, but it sounded interesting. Then, due to many different events, we didn’t prepare well nor get ready to go early enough in the day. To make matters worse, rain was predicted all day (more on this later).

Day one started late and rainy. We hadn’t figured out all our new gear, how to get the canoe to stay on top of the car and the stove was malfunctioning.  Off to the local outfitters to get instruction on how to fasten the canoe to the car (we had always rented in the past, as previously stated, this was our maiden voyage with a canoe of our own.), another stop to purchase a new stove, back to attach said canoe to car and we were finally on our way.  Several text msgs later (did you need the purple sleeping bag? No. Did you know your green sweater was here? Yes and its ok, I’ve got another.) One final stop to get fuel for the stove and finally we’re leaving the city.

Free and clear, yes? Of course not. Its been raining all morning and we’re now on the wrong side of the city (the camping store had stoves, not fuel so we had to go to the nearest (!) Canadian Tire to purchase some) and don’t really know how to get to where we’re going. Where is that, you say? Hanover, Ontario. Again, I can feel the blank looks pointed my way.  Hanover is about 2.5 hrs north of London. After a bit of futzing about with the map books (I’m not fond of map books btw), we reach our put-in point around 2:30.

Finally on the water by around 3, its gloomy and hasn’t stopped raining since I woke up this morning. Yay.  At least it was only a light drizzle when we started out. The river is exceedingly low and we’ve never paddled here. In fact, we haven’t done a whole heckuva lot of river paddling so this should be interesting. The guidebook did say it was good for novice river paddlers with numerous small swifts (weeny rapids). The guidebook would be right. Unfortunately, so would the weatherman, who was calling for thunderstorms.

Between Hanover and Walkerton (our first take-out/camping point) there are three portages.  Its supposed to take around 4.5 hours to get to Lobie’s Campground, which is actually IN Walkerton.  After our first portage, we ended up grounded and had to line the boat. Wet feet ensued – and my shoes didn’t dry out til the last day.   Note to self. Pause and put on your sandals, doof – they’re tied to your pack.

Due to our late start and the incredibly massive downpours, we decided to stop at the second portage, an old hydro dam, because we were soaking wet and it was getting dark. Unfortunately for us, Mother Nature decided now was a good time to give us a torrential downpour – we were so focused on getting the tent up, it didn’t occur to us to cover up the rest of the gear whilst we pitched said tent. Needless to say, everything including us was soaked.  We’ll chalk that one up to near hypothermic conditions for both of us.

No food or fire for us, but dry clothes and sleeping bags make everything wonderful. Expectations of a sunny new day sent us to bed shivering but hopeful. We’d worked pretty darn hard day 1 and once convinced we could get dry and warm, sent us off to dreamland straight-away.

Day 2 was beautiful. We lay abed for some time and then worked hard to get everything out of the tent and hanging or spread on garbage bags to dry. A great day for paddling, but we spent a good deal of it getting everything we could dry. Finally back in the boat, we’d made the decision to skip trying to find the portage site (we’d looked both the night before and when we got up) and chose to ride through the chute.  An exciting little jump and jaunt, there is a current after all, and off we went again. The day was still bright and beautiful.

After a short time, we encountered the third portage just at the upper end of Walkerton. ‘Bang!’ Um. Was that a gun?  According to one of the guidebooks, when the author reached this portage, he’d seen the sign on the right, heard the gunshots on the right and promptly paddled to the left and quickly made his portage. We did likewise. I’ve never actually heard gunshots that were not part of a tv show or movie. EEK.

A small group of teenagers also made us a tad nervous as we couldn’t carry all the gear and the canoe in one shot and we didn’t want to have some of our gear go astray, so we were quite happy when they wandered off. Thinking a bit – weren’t they supposed to be in school at that time of day? Hmm…   We did meet an older couple who inquired as to where we were going and how far we’d come and wished us a good day.  How nice 🙂

We floated past a fellow in hipwaders who suggested we take the centre line to go through the various swifts, but as we looked forwards, we couldn’t figure out the ‘centre of where’? We’d now seen multitudinous kingfishers, great blue herons and swallows and now saw a little weasel running along the side of the river as we went. Happiness is seeing wild creatures.

Not much further along, we came to a dock, presumably Lobie’s Campground. We floated a bit, trying to determine whether we should try for the next access point, but decided to stay, even though it was early in the day. We could use a dry stop with an actual toilet facility and running water.  We had a nice chat with a local retiree who assured us it was unlikely we would be disturbed and that he was most impressed that we knew what we were doing on the water (we giggled quietly). He mentioned restos, a B&B and a grocery.

A strange place to camp, in the middle of a town, but we popped up the tent, moved everything in and finally set about figuring out the new stove. Our old stove (Ross’) was a simple, pop the stove part on the tin of fuel, open the valve and light. Turn the valve open / closed to regulate the flow. This one was somewhat more complicated, requiring priming of the gas etc.  Once we (Ross) got it going, however, despite the fact it wouldn’t simmer, it boiled quickly and nicely. A hot dinner was just the thing to revive us and we went to sleep very early, rather exhausted from the past few days.

Day 3 came bright and shiny and nobody had bothered us, although we could hear the sounds of dogs, baseball bats (hits) and 4-wheelers abundantly. We’d even been checked out by some woman on a Harley that seemed content to just putter about the campground.  We packed up to go and chatted to the same fellow we’d met the day before.  He even offered to give us a lift up the river to see what we could expect. We declined, but it was a nice offer all the same.

The day seemed to be nice and sunny, but Ross had checked his Iphone (yes we brought our phones and had signal at that point – he was keeping in touch with his fam more often than I) and it was calling for thunderstorms again. So we made the decision to just go the 3 hrs to Access Pt. 6 and call it a trip. I called the outfitters to let them know our plans had changed and arranged to be picked up further upstream than originally planned.

We made it through (one more occurrence of lining the boat later) and passed through some pretty areas with high bluffs and again many kingfishers, herons, a couple of red-tailed hawk sightings, many bluejays and possibly a pair of cormorants (too far away for true id).  We had a small EEEK! moment when we thought we were going to capsize, but Ross pulled out the magic wand and turned us back into the current. Small those these swifts were, they were kind of exciting albeit almost far too frequent for us newbies.

Reaching the access point around 2 pm – we made the decision to stop because of impending weather. We popped up our tent and made preparations for the rain to come. Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. I decided to nap. The forecasted weather didn’t appear, but a pair of fellow canoeists did. We chatted a bit and got some good advice for different bits of the river and they went on their way. Ross fired up the stove again and we had some pasta and sauce and called it an annoying night after taking a few pics.  The thunderstorm didn’t hit till well after dark, but we’d already made our decision to stop.

Because of our late afternoon nap, we didn’t crash out like the last few days and were treated to splashes of raccoons playing at the base of the launch site, a pack of coyotes yipping and barking, and of course cows. Lots of cows with a few stray geese thrown in for fun.  Something else had a fight in the bushes but we never did identify it for sure, probably a couple of racccoons. The thunderstorm did finally hit and we had to futz around with the tent fly because it kept lifting, but otherwise we were safe and dry. All we had to do was sleep and get ready for pick up in the morning.

We packed up after drying as much as we could (the dew was really heavy) and waited for the van. After dropping the canoe we were assured that all the scratches were not ‘dings’ but adventure scars – “if your canoe has no scratches at all, you haven’t used it!”  Too true. Jeannette was a fount of information and we fully intend to use their service when we get a chance to get back on the river. It was a fairly easy route which we needed to have planned better for, but are fully prepared to try again.

Oh, and when you are attaching a canoe to a car and stowing gear in said car, watch your head. Just sayin’.

Once back in the world of cellular signals – we found out a) discrimination is live and well in the city of London – with a vendor being ousted from a local farmer’s market due to employing some transgendered folk, b) that night at an NHL pre-season game hosted by London, some idiot (the mayor’s words) threw a banana at a black player – showing the world just how racist we can be. Sigh. I know we’re better than this London. No wonder I’m always happier out on the water away from technology and the cares of the world. The only things that matter there are the weather, warm, dry socks and the amount of food available.

P.S. New career aspiration – meteorologist – even if they’re wrong (and they’re always wrong), they don’t get fired!

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