In the morning Mike and I make it out of our tent for pancake
breakfast, but get lazy, tired, and think it too windy and
cold to go anywhere in our canoe. Back inside, we ignore the
voices and paddle strokes of the groups slipping past our
site. The sun pops out and the rain stops for a few minutes
at a time but not for long enough to convince us to get moving.
We're stuck in a tent, bored and cold, getting cabin fever
nylon style, and I while away non-Moby Dick time by scanning
the Algonquin Park map. Get me more food and I'll paddle all
the way across this place, all 7725 square kilometres of it.
To be young is to want to cover the whole thing, paddle the
unknown, spend a night on every lake. To be old is to have
one spot you can savour. I have to find mine first.
The thunderbox is only 20 feet behind the tent, and during
a break in the rain I hear Mike giggling. He's there for a
half-hour, reading comics and admiring the view, which I find
strange because most people who have to shit in a wooden box
prefer to get it done expeditiously.
The rain breaks long enough for us to slip out for dinner,
spaghetti again, and to shake out the stiffness we go for
a paddle. Misty Lake lives up to her name; wispy clouds of
smoke hug the lake edges and linger in marshy corners. I'm
chewing sunflower seeds and Mike's in the bow, his butt crack
reintroducing itself with every lazy paddle stroke, a red
mosquito bite hanging just over the edge of the abyss. Looking
elsewhere, I see a shuffle among the shore's green undergrowth,
a head ducking under lilies.
"See that? Over there?"
Mike squints. I point with my paddle.
"Yeah, I see it," he says.
Mike needs glasses, but hasn't worn them since he was a kid,
when he used to look at me with dizzy eyes overtop dirty,
bent and scratched lenses that were forever sliding off his
nose. But he refuses to wear them now. He's still squinting
and scanning the shoreline, and I know he hasn't seen a thing.
We paddle across the bay and Mike's still looking. As we get
close to the moose I've been paddling towards for 10 minutes,
a flash of recognition crosses his face. "It's big,"
he says, and I agree, looking at the thick brown neck dripping
with water, a long head with funny ears munching on lilies.
I slip closer, and soon we're less than three canoe lengths
Like tourists at a zoo who rattle the sleepy lion's cage,
we're hoping for a moose song and dance, something to reward
us for getting this close. But we know better than to provoke,
and for a while we're just trading looks with a big cow moose
who's feeding and not much for dinner conversation.
"What should we do?" I whisper.
"I don't know," he says. "But I'd rather not
get trampled to death. Perhaps we should ask it a question."
I think for a moment and clear my throat. "Excuse me,
Madam Moose, what is the significance of the white whale in
Melville's Moby Dick?"
Mike is wheezing with laughter in the bow. Madam Moose goes
on chewing. "Not bad," Mike says. "But watch
He shuffles in his seat, makes like he is adjusting a tie
on the front of his Spider-Man shirt. "Ahem," he
says, English-like, as the moose pulls its head out of the
weeds and looks directly at us. "Pardon me, do you have
any Grey Poupon?"
It's out of date - we're not sure if a moose would remember
this commercial from our 1980s childhood - but funny. We laugh
so loud the moose shuffles, considers darting into the bush
to escape from laughing canoeists or bad jokes, we're not
sure. We paddle off, and before long approach six other moose,
including two calves that have been shut out by the rain as
long as us and are now in a feeding frenzy. But Mike's joke
keeps returning. "Pardon me, bird, do you have any Grey
Poupon?" "Pardon me, rock, do you have any Grey
Poupon?" and it quickly gets old.
At times Mike's innocence is a reward, like when he's traipsing
along on a gruelling portage; other times, it's an Achilles
heel. He can become blissfully unaware that others are around
him. We were riding the subway after a day spent cruising
downtown bookstores, and Mike continued to blabber in my ear
as I scanned the subway ads, did close readings of Poetry
On The Move. Mike didn't seem to notice that I wasn't paying
the slightest attention to him. I felt bad, but there's only
so much one can handle. I get the sense, sometimes, that I'm
the only one Mike has to talk to.
The sky clears of clouds at nightfall, and we think, because
of the sunset colours, we're about to get a show of Northern
Lights, but they fizzle. We forego the fire, hang out on a
rock swatting mosquitoes, and talk, or should I say Mike talks.
My mind wanders.
I was sleeping late one summer morning, as I did every summer
morning when 16, when my dad came into the room to tell me
Mike was in the hospital. His mom woke to hear Mike gurgling,
moaning, thought he was having a bad dream, but found him
thrashing around his room in a mad and drooling fit of seizures.
The ambulance came and nearly trashed his room trying to get
his flailing 200-pound frame strapped to a stretcher.
When my dad told me the news I had a sick feeling in my stomach.
I was too young to have friends disappear on me, and though
we lived hours apart and only saw each other twice a year,
I had known Mike so long he seemed to count for more than
all my friends close by. One thing made me especially upset.
I knew that I had wasted the day before, the days before,
and that Mike might not get a chance to waste a day again.
Mike had meningitis. His mom and his brother were fine, were
taking pills that made them sweat and pee bright orange, but
at least they kept the infection away. His brother Andy said,
while dripping over the hot grill at his burger joint job,
that he looked like a Gatorade commercial.
Turns out, Mike was alright. He spent a few weeks in the hospital
getting his fever down, blasting away the infection with drugs
and rest. He would never drive again, could never muster up
the concentration it took, but otherwise he was fine.
Mike is soon done talking. Done because I have gotten up from
my rocky bed and crawled into the tent, exhausted despite
having done little all day.
Mike crawls in beside me and we approach sleep next to a
gentle wind and calling loons.
"Hey Dave," he says to interrupt my half slumber.
"Yeah," I mumble into my pillow.
"Do you have any Grey Poupon?"
We stink. We need to swim before we head home. This is a priority.
It's July and the weather's been so lousy we haven't had a
chance. We psych each other up, and I opt for the quick dive
off the rock, while Mike, having grown a hatred for cold-water
shock treatments after years of morning swim practice, inches
in slowly. By the time his ankles are wet, I'm towelling off.
While I'm shaking water droplets off the tent, Mike is knee-deep
and noticing minnows the size of his thumb creeping close
to investigate. "Hello fishies!" he says. I'm packing
up the sleeping bags as he's chest deep, completely still,
letting hundreds of tiny fish nibble at him. "Check this
out Dave," he says. I look up from packing. "You
gotta check this out," he says, like a kid who wants
a busy dad to pay attention. "They're eating me alive!"
An hour later, everything's tucked away and sitting in a waiting
canoe, and I'm on a rock reading Moby Dick. Mike's still in
the water. "There's a big one out here," he says.
"He hasn't nibbled at me yet, but I think he's hungry."
It's looking like Misty Lake might clear, like the sun might
show and burn away its namesake. Mike gets the hint that it's
time to go and lunges for the big fish, scattering all the
We spend all afternoon paddling the Upper Petawawa, slipping
through marshy pockets, hoping a mustard-toting Moose will
pop out to say hello and enjoy a sandwich with us, though
all we see are tracks in the sandy bottom. There's a bunch
of short portages, and we slip over them to drop the canoe
in the gurgling waters on the other side.
The afternoon sun over Daisy Lake shines in our eyes. We paddle
for the narrows, the lake stretching back to river between
the surrounding high hills. We've been paddling in the sun
for hours, are hot, dehydrated, tired. But I hear no complaints
from Mike. He paddles on, a smile wetting each ear as he squints,
looking through the shore bushes for wildlife. I'm never sure
what he's smiling about, but he's always smiling. I wish I
knew his secret.
We're on the home stretch, and we've got an extra charge in
our shoulders, churning through the water on each side, in
stroke, in time, looking back on our trip. We spent three-quarters
of it stuck or lazy inside a tent. We certainly didn't conquer
the entire western edge of the Algonquin, didn't wet our paddles
in Big Trout Lake or get lost in Grassy Bay. While our foray
into the edge of wilderness was hardly the stuff of great
adventure, the vast majority of wilderness narratives I find
are written with more attention paid to the mosquito population
than the person one's sharing a tent with. My point is this:
most people would not want to spend four days alone with Mike
Brintnell. But they don't know what they're missing.
With a few easy paddle strokes we glide up to the dock and
nudge it with a soft bump against the wood. Mike holds us
there while I unload the gear, prepare to haul it up the lane
to my car parked in the lot. Mike's hairy butt crack peeks
out one more time to say good-bye, then disappears under a
grimy Spider-Man shirt.
We pack up the car, load the canoe on top and I spend a half-hour
tying it down while Mike watches. I consider complaining,
but realise I only have a three-hour car ride left with the
guy. I better make the most of it.
is not frightened of his own reflection.