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This Man Is An Island: Part Two
By Dave Burke

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 away.

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 this."

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 little guys.

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.

Dave Burke is not frightened of his own reflection.






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