When I take my seat in my canoe on the western edge of Algonquin
Park, I realise there's a good chance I'll be staring at a
butt crack for the next four days.
This particular dark, cavernous slice of human real estate
belongs to Mike Brintnell, a friend I've known so long I can't
remember not knowing him. There's an old picture of us on
a petting zoo donkey: I'm a giggly toddler, he's a couple
years older, wearing thick glasses and a Spider-Man shirt,
a slop of green goo running nose to cheek. This, my parents
tell me, is the first time we met. Twenty-five years later,
Mike is still wearing a Spider-Man shirt and is old enough
to get the running nose, but not the butt crack, under control.
I hadn't seen him in a while, so I called him up.
"What are you doing tomorrow?" I asked.
"The day after that?"
"How 'bout the day after that?"
"I might have a job interview."
"Jobs are for suckers," I said. "Let's go canoeing."
Which brings us to the first strokes of a four-day journey
on the Upper Petawawa River. Mike's Spider-Man shirt rides
up with each paddle stroke - his bathing suit is more than
a little tight - but it's a beautiful day, the sun is bright
over the hills, and I find other things to look at.
Mike and gravity have a close relationship. Wisps of hair
are tucked under a burgeoning belly that bulges under Spider-Man's
flying feet. He was once fit and a good swimmer, his big shoulders
churning between the lanes, and was in even better shape the
summer he rode his bike to work at Ontario Place in Toronto.
When his bike got stolen, he ran. It took him an hour each
"Sometimes I took the subway back," he tells me.
"By the end of the week I got tired."
His heaviness now is a bit overbearing, and his weight in
front sends us charging in whichever direction he is leaning
- which isn't very often the way we need to go. He sits awkwardly
in the seat, shifting to get comfortable and shaking the canoe,
giving me a brief shudder of the dunk willies. I struggle
to correct us, my muscles tense.
We have good conversations about canoes, books, wildlife
and politics. I ask Mike why he's wearing a Spider-Man shirt
instead of one littered with political slogans like he usually
wears, with George Bush in the sights of a gun, with George
Bush hanging from a noose - you get the point - but Mike reassures
me. "It's okay," he says, "Spider-Man is an
I change the subject to save my sanity - he's probably read
16 books on comic book political affiliations and is way out
of my league. Mike's been hanging around anarchists for a
while, which is good - at least he's hanging around somebody.
He tells me every anarchist he's met is a nice person and
seems to forget the nasty associations most people have of
molotov cocktails and mohawk punks who are pissed off just
for the sake of it.
You have to push through a sheet spray-painted with a red
anarchist symbol to get into Mike's basement bedroom. It's
muggy down there, someone inevitably having just finished
running their clothes through the dryer, and it's dark. A
bare bulb is the only light, string hanging down to a futon
bed tucked under the stairs, sheets wrinkled and covered in
cookie crumbs. Milk crates serve as shelves, but are toppled
over a mountainous heap of clothes, and scattered on a ratty
shag carpet are various books, comic books, magazines and
newspapers: everything from X-Men and Sci-Fi Monthly
to The Anarchist Cookbook and the latest issue of The
Mike welcomes me into his lair, though he thinks it's a palace.
He's the only 29-year-old I know who is perfectly content
to sleep under the stairs in a dingy basement. When I stay
over, it's dark, the only light a tiny green LED from the
smoke detector. It's easy to sleep until noon, which is why
we sleep until one, which is why we're rushing across the
Except I am the only one rushing. Mike is wearing flip-flops,
tres gauche for a canoe trip, and it is with some awkwardness
that I finally wiggle the food pack over his shoulders and
send him on his way. Minutes later I pass him a short way
up the rolling hills of the 1 km trail, sweating and puffing.
I burst past with the canoe on my head, then drop the canoe
into the sand of the trickling Petawawa, run back to find
Mike flip-flopping along, managing, despite evidence to the
contrary, to wear a smile on his sweaty face. "This is
fun!" he says.
The night before we left, I cruised into Mike's neighbourhood
- one of Toronto's worst, or so they tell me, Jane and Finch
in the north West End. "It's not that bad," he says.
When we head to the nearest mall to get a Roti, a Jamaican
pita-type thing Mike's been telling me about, we are the only
two white people in the place. I don't think Mike even notices,
something I wish all of us could manage, but it's a sign of
Mike's bewilderment. He's walked through life this way.
Mike's brother Andy entered high school to see his older
brother traipsing through the halls with the same oblivious
innocence. Andy told me stories about students doing awful
things to his brother, and he got angrier the more he thought
about it. "He didn't have one friend," he said,
his cheeks beginning to steam. "There were 2000 people
in that school and he didn't have one single friend."
It was the first time in Andy's life that he discovered his
older brother had faults and weaknesses. Generally, in families,
the chain of worry goes down, not up.
We're well short of our game plan, but Mike and I pull into
a shadowy campsite and unpack. Mike gathers firewood while
I set up the tent, get dinner going, and organize his gear
and sleeping bag. He struggles with the fire, has placed thick
sticks in a drunken teepee and is trying to torch it, but
it's not working. In between spaghetti stirs, I manage to
get it started with twigs and pine needles, but keep a close
watch as Mike reassumes the fireman role.
It's almost dusk. I have a glass of wine but Mike refrains.
He sits beside the fire reading excerpts from Deep Thoughts,
a collection of moronic philosophy from Jack Handey of Saturday
Night Live fame. I laugh uncontrollably, rolling off the back
of my log seat into the dirt, as much with the stupidity of
the deep thoughts as with Mike's wheezing and giggling delivery.
It becomes clear, when we crawl out of our tent close to
noon the next day that our route plan is not going to work.
We move far too slow, and sleep in far too late, to make decent
headway. We push on, however, lugging over portages, sweating
across steamy afternoon lakes. By the time we stop for cream
cheese and cucumber pitas, a dark sky slides over top of us.
We're on Misty Lake for a handful of paddle strokes when
it comes in hard torrents, and even wearing rain gear I'm
soaked. All Mike has is a garbage bag, but he sits in the
front, paddling contentedly like he doesn't notice it's raining,
his hair sloppy wet on his forehead. We paddle across the
lake and land at a campsite on a rocky point.
We have snacks huddled under a tarp, our butts wet on the
slick rock, and when the rain keeps coming I realise we'll
likely be staying for the night. It's still pouring when I
commandeer Mike to help with the tent. It's his job to put
the poles together, and he does it slowly, like's he's got
all the time in the world. I've seen him eating cereal before,
fisting Frosted Flakes to his mouth, the bowl cradled to his
chin as he slurps it in. I call him awkward; teachers have
always called him learning disabled. And when I watch the
inside of our tent become soaked with rain I burst out, "C'mon!
Hurry up!" and immediately regret it.
"Okay, Geez," he says, resuming his standard pace.
Once inside, there isn't much to do. I launch into Moby
Dick while Mike sleeps beside me, a book called Amerika
Psycho on his chest and a snore lodged deep in his throat.
Moby Dick is exciting in the beginning, you get the
sense you're reading a big one, but disappoints me shortly
thereafter. I thought I was reading a novel, not an essay
on whales. I shuffle against the tent walls at page 71. Mike's
eyes pop open.
"Good morning!" he says. I check my watch. It's
"You were snoring," I grumble.
"Not snoring," he says, "just breathing heavily."
By the time I reach page 72 Mike's snoring again. Every time
I shift to get comfortable, Mike wakes wide-eyed, looking
to see if I've got any plans. If I did, Mike would enthusiastically
jump out of the tent at my first suggestion. I realise the
danger in this. If I told him we should go running butt-naked
through the bushes or bury our heads in a hole, he'd be raring
There's no fire, no Deep Thoughts, and no heaps of
in-the-dirt-rolling laughter. Night creeps on while we catch
up on reading and sleeping. We chat every once in a while,
play a lame game of tag, and then an unsuccessful round of
hide and seek. All of this inside a rank tent just big enough
for the two of us. It's late when the rain breaks. Mosquitoes
tap on the nylon, try to find a weak spot to break though,
as ants leave shadows by my reading lamp, and then a firefly,
a bursting buttocks of light, holds there, lighting my page.
Loons splash in the water off our rocky point, the night's
knows how to perform a J-stroke.