July 5, 1983. Somewhere in the Labrador wilderness on the edge of a lake, on the edge of the railroad tracks.
With the last blare of the train whistle a memory, we set about pitching three tents, making a cook area and getting the canoes down by the water. It is fairly flat, scrub alders and a few tall tamaracks.
We six had been jammed together in two pickups for the three days it took us to get to Sept Iles to the train north. Along the way we had all picked up colds or some kind of stomach thing, though that may have been from any one of the restaurants along the way, ingloriously named Restaurant #547 or Restaurant #2308. All dreadful. So in the pickups and for most of the train ride, we had hunkered down in our seats in silence and rested our bodies and prepared our minds for what lay ahead.
But nothing has prepared me for this trip.
I am a freelance journalist. I'm 32. And in my lifetime I've paddled canoes 2,500 miles in the wilderness. But that is nothing. Carl, 62, has 25,000 miles, his son, Doug, more than half that, but his specialty is rapids. Russell is an unknown, a friend of Doug's with a sly sense of humor, a narrow nose and a .22 rifle. Paul is a three-year med student who seems worried; I don't think he's trained much -- he hasn't had time. Gordie is a young hippie from my hometown, nephew of the pharmacist, funny. Gordie was supposed to bring a satellite radio.
We shuffle around to make camp; there is no order, no understanding of who does what or who is in charge. So we work on our own things and bungle along until finally Carl takes hold and breaks the silence and we are happy, for the moment, to be led.
Within an hour tents are up, canoes set, fire going, pasta in the pot and Russell finds us a couple of lake trout that liked his fly; cornmeal fillets snap in the fry pan lard. We eat standing, madly waving off the black flies. When we're done, someone, I'll never tell, reveals the last half pint of whiskey. Gone.
After dinner we hang the food bags -- smoked meat, carbohydrates and starches, beans, lard, honey and syrup -- in one of the tamaracks 30 feet or so from the tents. It is bear territory. No question. But No way they can reach the three canvas bags gently swaying 15 feet off the ground.
We go to bed in the light, weary. It will be 10 or so before dark; 4 a.m. will bring dawn.
It is dusk when we hear the bears. We are all awake. But silent. We know better than to move or speak. My head is close to the tent door and slowly I turn it so I can see what they are doing. They are jumping like fat men. And swatting. And growling. Damnedest sight. Three enormous black forms trying to reach something they can't. They do this for five, 10 minutes. More it seems. They grow frustrated. It is getting darker and harder to see them, sometimes I don't; I just hear them. They start wandering on all fours, towards us, then away, under the food, over to the tree, and then back to us, I hear one of them bash the cook box. I begin thinking that maybe we won't make it past day one of our 50-day journey.
I close my eyes.
In my mind, I see this: