Mighty St. Lawrence River part of their last leg from Montreal to Quebec City
BY RENE BRUEMMER, THE GAZETTE AUGUST 21, 2013
MONTREAL — On their seven-year voyage across Canada by canoe, Pamela and Geoff MacDonald faced grizzlies, portaged 100 kilometres over Rocky Mountain passes and produced two infant passengers who can be challenging when teething.
As they prepared to leave the marina at the Old Port of Montreal on the final leg of their 9,000-kilometre journey Tuesday, however, their 20-foot canoe dwarfed by the yachts in their midst, it was the treacherous currents of the St. Lawrence River that were a concern. Flowing at 15 kilometres an hour, the currents can swamp boats or drive them into the concrete walls beneath the clock tower a few hundred metres downstream.
Local boaters come forth with polite, concerned guidance in French-accented English as Jude, 3, played with trucks in the canoe and Rane, 8 months, slept.
“Paddle out into the river a bit, then the current will take you past the wall,” a man tells them. “Once you’re under the Jacques Cartier Bridge, you’re fine.”
It’s the small acts of kindness of Canadian strangers that stand out most for Pamela MacDonald. Many have provided dinner or a place to sleep during their voyage. Strangers have lent them their cars for day trips.
As they paddled into Montreal Friday along Lac St. Louis looking for a place to stop, members of the Canadian Forces Sailing Association in Dorval offered them a patch of lawn for their tent and invited them to a potluck supper.
“It’s been a real surprise how helpful and wonderful people have been,” Pamela said.
The Calgary couple started in 2007, leaving from Victoria, B.C., and paddling 1,000 kilometres up the coast, accompanied by their 109-pound Alaskan Malamute, Taq, chosen in part to scare off bears. He did well with black bears, barking ferociously, but went quiet when the grizzly came by. “I think he recognized the danger,” Geoff said. The grizzly lumbered off after 15 minutes. (Taq took this year off after knee surgery.)
A native of Orillia, Ont., Geoff spent three summers at a voyageur camp in Quebec learning to canoe as a teenager, and later guided his own trips.
The couple portaged 50 kilometres over the Coast Mountains of B.C., paddled up the Fraser River, then hiked 100 kilometres through the Continental Divide in the Rockies. It was the visual highlight of the trip, “but no place for a canoe,” Geoff said.
They averaged 1,400 kilometres a year, paddling as much as 16 hours and 80 kilometres some days on fast-flowing rivers like the Bow and Assiniboine. The first two years they paddled six months on 12, doing contract work the rest, Geoff as a geological engineer and Pamela as a business analyst.
With children, the trips shortened to three months annually and eight hours a day in the boat, and whitewater rapids and windswept lakes were avoided. The best times on their odyssey, they say, have been some of the simplest, waking in a tent in the wild with their kids crawling around.
“It’s just those days, you know, the days you live for, when everything’s good and smooth and happy,” Geoff said.
They set up camp wherever they could find a spot, often wilderness camping or asking to stay on someone’s field. They can travel with three weeks of provisions, which include freeze-dried meals for supper and sandwiches and fruit for lunch. A satellite phone, radio, cellphones, an iPad and a battery pack let them stay in touch.
The MacDonalds aren’t raising money for a charity, but maintain a website (canoeacrosscanada.ca) chronicling their trip in the hopes of inspiring others by showing them Canada’s wilderness can be accessible.
The voyage for the couple, in their late 30s, will end in Quebec City in the coming days, bringing mixed feelings. After seven winters of planning and summers of paddling, they look forward to trying different things. A sense of accomplishment is slowly dawning. But getting to the end of May without a grand adventure on the horizon will be odd.
Before the end, however, there is still the St. Lawrence to contend with. At the marina, Montrealer Louis-Philippe Laprade comes forward and volunteers to accompany them downriver as far as Boucherville in his 53-foot yacht.
Geoff pilots the canoe out of the marina and into the current, staying far clear of the Clock Tower wall.
From shore, marina employee Alain Solowy follows in a golf cart and watches with binoculars, reporting to port authorities. A tugboat hovers nearby.
“C’est bon,” he reports as they pass below the Jacques Cartier Bridge. “Ils sont safe.”
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