Revisiting the Tent Dwellers 2006

Setting out on a cool wet April morning from Kedge beach had me reflecting on the surroundings. I was trying to imagine what it was like almost 100 years ago when two American sports and their guides left this area for three weeks of fishing and fun. I have looked at several pictures of what Kedge landing and Jakes used to look like near 1906. It was different today, of course, and so were the ‘sports’ that were prepping for a five day tour back in time. It is unclear what year Albert Bigelow Paine actually visited NS and had the experience that inspired him to write The Tent Dwellers, published in 1908, but we believe we are pretty close to the actual anniversary…. hearsay has it that Milford House has record of their stay in 1906.

A motley crew of five we were with two canoes and a kayak. Craig and Lyse had chartered Serge’s 16 ft SS Magellan (an Evergreen Prospector Canoe), Deb and I had her Old Town Penobscot 17 and Serge was in his single Kayak. Deb insisted we take her boat because she felt more comfortable in her canoe than using my Tripper XL. Having done a lot of river running, that was good in my books…. These essentially ‘Tupperware boats’ are very different than their 1906 birch bark ancestors. The comfort in 2006 of having – near – indestructibility between you and the river rocks is one of the many advancements in the outdoor toy department to be enjoyed.

It was April 24th and drizzling gently as we loaded and launched for the 30 km trek to Mason’s Cabin. Winds were light out of the south west, temperatures were comfortable. Deb was really glad to be getting on the water at noon…. not really, she was on site by 6 am awaiting our arrival from the city. Unlike most of the normal world, she was packed and ready to go four months earlier too! Experience in wilderness canoe tripping afforded us the insight to be economically loaded, but Deb didn’t agree looking at my super-sack of stuff. She hesitated complaining too much as she knew some of it could be used to make her day happier if we were to run into the wrath of the river which some folks cautioned us about.

The first portage, appropriately named, the Big Hardwood Carry, is the longest at 2.2 km. It serves as an initial kicker and one which demands some different strategies to get through it. Some brought gear through and came back for their canoe; some brought the canoe through and came back for gear and some went half way returned and finished in segments. We know these easily indentified and wide park portages are a stark contrast to some of the ones we may be seeking when we get onto the Shelburne River. By the time we entered Peskowesk Lake the wind had backed to the North West, but was still light. The last portage from Beaverskin Lake was slightly off the original course traversed in early 1900. Del the ‘stout’ and Charles the ‘strong’ went more north, through Poison Ivy Falls 100 years hence. Arrival at Mason’s Cabin just before 7 pm was welcomed as the sun was getting low and we were all feeling beat. The first day of any trip usually awakens parts of the body you haven’t primed in awhile, so although exciting, can be very draining.

Mason’s Cabin is always a wonderful sight and on a cool wet April day, for some, has been a life saver. Once we got the fire stoked – we realized how well a wood stove can heat such a small space. Although we arrived two months earlier than our original journeymen we did have a cabin to enjoy. The warmth of the cabin had us dropping layers, and Deb (a Yoga Fanatic) went Yogi on us – herbal rubbing and bending us in directions some of us had never handled before. There was no sign of Mason the mouse, but lots of journal discussion was listed on him over the past year by previous visitors. It rained hard that night – from what I was told. My pillow time was solid and uninterrupted.

Back on the water from Mason’s took us into Pebbleloggitch Lake and onto the Shelburne River. We paddled up river slightly to Granite Lake Falls and the Heritage River Plaque laid in 1997. Below the falls waited a great opportunity to prime folks for the moving water we were about to face. The foam on the water was very thick and Deb caught onto effectively executing eddy turns using draws and cross-bow draws. Lyse coached Craig into what else the paddle could do and Serge took pictures of the entire goings on. We rotated through several training runs, cutting the eddy line, eddy turning and ferrying into and out of the downstream ‘V’ coming away from the pool at the base of the falls. It gave folks a sense of preparedness for what was awaiting them down stream. I was re-united to river running as our first casualty occurred. My Grey Owl cherry wood paddle took a 6 inch split, but despite this it remained operational. Always having a ‘rapid’ paddle and tucking away your favourite can save the day and reduce the ‘dam’-age report!

As we paddled back across the stillwater to our first set of rapids and headed down the river, we encountered our first obstacle. A recently downed tree in the middle of the river created a webbed barrier. Not a problem for us river clearing sort… with a trusty hand saw – some daring acrobatics – and voila! A hole was cleared for us to slalom through and carry on. Arriving at Irving Lake, we stopped for some lunch on a small island out of the cool wind. It was still overcast and a steady north wind was in the air. A lot of ‘red flags’ were raised for us about the rapids on the up-coming sections of the river leading to Sand Lake. According to our so called ‘intelligence’ Deb had gathered from her Parks Canada friends and others experienced with the river. Some had even expressed fear for our survival, but we were not to be deterred……. some of the book sources we referenced were a lot more objective. Serge had been down the river four years earlier, but took all the portages offered, as white water wasn’t his comfort zone and they were only a party of two at the time (one canoe). But Serge did have way-pointed a complete log of every possible portage, cabin, rock and possibly squirrel hole (well almost) from his past run. So we entrusted in his notes too. So far, all we encountered were class I to class II rapids. Enough to wet the whistle, per see. We planned to camp in the Sand Lake area – if we survived of course.

By 1 pm we were back underway and by 1:30 pm were into the thick of it. The river was quite high and with remoteness combined with the increased speed of the water, easily a class III difficulty could be awarded to a lot of the rapids. We stopped and scouted regularly, went for one unplanned spin, but by 4:15 we arrived at the head of Sand Lake no worse for wear with a load of adrenaline burned up. I hadn’t river canoed in several years, but 15 years of river running in mostly kayaks (initially canoes) does pay off. If anything, those years taught me to appreciate the power of moving water and that it always wins. With the height of the river, I am supposing most of the big cautions were washed out, thus we ran the whole thing. Serge chose to line his kayak alongside some sections that were too exciting for him. We did worry a bit at one point when he took awhile to arrive after a long fast run. He was delayed taking pictures and trying to get his GPS to work (go get a Garmin, I keep telling him!). With a quick snack and some discussion, we decided to carry on to the next option for accommodation. It was a camp belonging to friends that Deb knew near the base of the Shelburne. It would deviant from the original route, but the river was moving along very fast. With less rapids to negotiate and we knew it was widening and getting deeper; so it looked like a straight run to another hot CABIN!!

Arriving at the camp at 6:15 pm we were wet and cold. Access wasn’t as easy as we thought, but executed none-the-less. After a quick chow, it was off to la-la-land. All I could revel in was how hardy the guides Charles the ‘strong’ and Del the ‘stout’ must have been to run all those rapids with birch bark under them! They had more guts and talent than we will ever be able to muster. We did well, but the Tupperware still took a pounding at times. The thought of crumpling your existence and your only means of efficient movement into pieces in a river; and in those days, uncharted waters, has me smirking. I smirk at the degree society in 2006 views our journey vs society in 1906. We are suited up very differently than the ‘sports’ of 1906 – basically we had better toys. They didn’t have nearly the fancy hydrophobic, fast drying, wind resistant, abrasion resilient, fast fire stoves, holo-filled sleeping stuff, and un-rot-able kit we have; and they wandered off for three weeks into the same wilderness carrying somebody else’s stuff! You begin to wonder just how we have come so far, but conversely lost so much. The losses are not all physical hardiness, but equally mental hardiness. It takes fortitude to do what they did with the gear of the day, and yet that was ‘normal’ in their minds.

April 26 – and the sun was shining. Off we go on a road portage overland to Tobeatic Lake. We planned to return to the camp, so we just brought day stuff. It was supposed to be a kilometer and half – but due to Serge’s GPS we went on a 500 m longer side trip…. (Go get Garmin – I say!). I don’t believe this curse plagued the tent dwellers of 1906, but they did some searching for the right way, too. Watching Lyse on portages amazes me. She parallels Charles the ‘strong’ from 100 years ago as she can carry the canoe and all her gear too – usually the whole distance. Craig initially wasn’t taken to her amazing displays of strength, but has come to accept who wear’s the canoe in their house! We also decided to leave Serge’s kayak and put three of us in Deb’s canoe, and stowed our overnight gear at the camp. That worked out OK – only until the last run of the day.

We hit Tobeatic lake off a road about mid-way on the east side and launched – enroute to the southern end. We aimed for the Tobeatic Flowage which leads to Little Tobeatic Lake. With daylight limitations we agreed to turn around at 2 pm regardless of how far we got. The wind was steady out of the west so we headed for the protection from the lee shore. At the entrance to the flowage Serge was aware of an old backwoods of NS warden’s cabin called ‘Bat’s Rest’, so we went ashore to try to find it. No luck, but we did discover a few old foundations where cabins did exist at one time. Up the flowage was fun as it was almost 2 km of a series of four ladder dams. As the flowage narrowed we ran into Brian Purdy, his wife and his pup doing some fishing. It was the first encounter of any ‘others’ in our journey and it was the furthest away we could ever be from the outside world. I don’t know if he was catching as much as they did in 1906, but according to Brian they were doing well. I would like to have some of what was in his basket. Some fine fish dinner at his nearby camp was likely planned. We lined and hauled up to the northern entrance to Little Tobeatic Lake just in time to take a break and make our 2 pm turn-around. The sun was still out, making it possible to jump in and out of the river / brook to haul over the dams – back down stream to Tobeatic Lake. Brian’s past relatives were responsible for Bat’s Rest, so he told us how to locate it. It turns out we were very close the first time. The cabin is quite run down; the bats have indeed taken over since 1935. We did find some evidence that moose still inhabit the area though. It was in this area in their 1900’s fishing trip that Eddie saw the moose and was determined to trap it and take it home…..all we were afforded was a big pile of dung.

Back across Tobeatic Lake and through the short carry on the northern tip to Little Tupper Lake we came upon an old rustic campsite. According to the book the tent dwellers stayed here for a few nights and it was very nostalgic to sit next to the same fire pit and reflect on that. The run from Little Tupper to Sand Lake was similar to the experience they had in 1906. It was running very well and Serge’s calm – wall like – shifting structure in the bow, coupled with Deb’s – lots to say – play by play commentary in the middle had us almost swimming at one point as we got snagged under a tree fall and we had to coerce it to let us go through… With us taking the lead (the loss leaders, of sort), Craig and Lyse had no problems knowing the better route to take! But after our close call, we had a zoom – zoom run from Sand Lake to the camp arriving by dusk (7 pm). I recollect we ate like Voyageurs and slept like rocks.

We got up and on the water early – 6 am – to get across big Lake Rossignol before the mid-day winds could impart on us. The next morning brought more sun and we came to the end of the Shelburne where the worst rapid existed according to some of our ‘doom-sayer’ intelligence we had gathered. An old fishing boat was there. It was brought in many years ago and was still intact and could be used as a reprieve in bad weather. The rapid into Rossignol was easily a class III, but run-able. We lightened or boats and went atter (except for Serge in the kayak). It was a bit of plot-plan, then twist and shout, but the canoes and canoeists maneuvered it just fine. We made it across Rossignol, past the mushroom tree island; and onto a lovely campsite at the base of the Mersey River. On the western peninsula as it empties into the big lake. We made it there for 8:45 am as a tail wind from the SW began a steady blow. Many a folk have cautioned being on this lake in mid-day winds. Being an ocean kayaker, I know what wind and big open water can produce. A fully loaded open canoe will lose any battle quickly. In the distance to the east we could make out a few other canoeists on the lake coming from Low Landing headed south on the same early calling. As the area is a water shed, it was fascinating to paddle through the stumpage and try to envision what the area looked like before humankind adjusted all the shorelines.

Heading up the Mersey was good fun for some, but Craig described it as someone scratching his back with claws of steel. The tedious inch work of paddling upstream with a loaded boat involved deliberate strategy to work the river, behind rocks, eddies and read where the slower river banks are. Serge got out and lined through the tough spots. Craig and Lyse tried to follow Deb and I’s fight to stay in the boat and work side to side on any eddy or break. We mostly did it, but it was quite a workout. Arriving at Loon Lake falls back inside Keji park boundaries before 2 pm was early. Craig only took a few minutes to realign himself back to the joys of the experience, but likely won’t be up-river-ing any day soon. While we camped at the site a few local folks ran up and down the big rapid (note: Loon Lake Falls!) in motor boats – quite a talent in my view. We did some wave riding in the canoes, as there were two good standing waves you could surf. Lyse and I at first, then Deb and I the next morning. This was all before we made the final run back across Keji Lake. We did make a stop over at the white sands of Peter Point to bask in the southern sun for a bit.

Arriving back at our departure point, Kedge beach, at 1 pm was surreal. We just accomplished over five days, over 100 km of NS wilderness. It was only 100 years ago the tent dwellers had accomplished similar over three weeks. The bugs were not yet nattering, but the air and water temperature was much less forgiving. The gear and time of year was different, but the connection on what wilderness has to offer was the same. Our experience had some strong semblance to a time gone by.

So in the words of Albert Bigelow Paine:

“…if you are willing to get wet and stay wet – to get cold and stay cold – to be bruised, and scuffed, and bitten – to be hungry and thirsty, and to have your muscles strained and sore from unusual taxation: if you will welcome all these things, not once, but many times, for the sake of moments of pure triumph and that larger luxury which comes with the comfort of the camp and the conquest of the wilderness, then go! The wilderness will welcome you, and teach you, and take you to its heart. And you will find your own soul there; and the discovery will be worth while!”

Happy 2008 anniversary to the past and future Tent Dwellers and continued grand experiences in the wilds of Nova Scotia.

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