Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Meanest Link - part four of four

For the complete Meanest Link story in sequence, see parts one, two and three.

The Meanest Link, final installment

This article was written by Huntsville writer Don McCormick. It first appeared in a slightly different form in the August 2005 issue of Muskoka Magazine.

Says Thomas: “Day nine was the best day on the entire trip. The end of the Nipissing was gorgeous; we saw three moose, we didn't have to wear our bug jackets, the humidity had dropped and, when we saw Cedar Lake and the AO store across a calm lake, we bolted for it.”

They were met onshore by Jake Pigeon, the manager of the Algonquin Outfitters store at Brent. He, quite literally, was raised in Algonquin Park and is very knowledgeable about it. Pigeon got them settled into the bunkhouse, which to them seemed like a palace. The canoe trippers dried their gear, washed their clothes, ate “real” food, drank cold beer, slept in a bed, had interesting conversations with Jake and baked their first ever pie. Thomas wrote, “Brent is like heaven,” in her diary.

The next day, AO co-workers Chuck and Greg arrived with the second food drop. The atmosphere was very festive. Dinner together, card games, dressing up in silly hats and glasses and having a dance party rounded out a perfect day.

“We didn't want to leave. The thought that we still had to work our way home was painful,” recounts Sanders. Their cordial time at Brent was one of the high points of the trip.

The following day dawned cool and overcast, the gloominess of the day reflecting their mood on leaving Brent's hospitality. Their route was down Cedar Lake, along the Petawawa River to Radiant Lake and up the Crow River to Lake Lavieille. The Crow River turned out to be worse than the Western Boundary, with an incredible 23 portages totaling about 10 km. They arrived at Lavieille at 9:30 p.m., camped at Swifty's favorite campsite and had one of his favorite brands of beer in his honor.

Next morning, there was a cold north wind blowing. With the help of strong tailwinds, the four paddlers sailed down Lavieille and Dickson lakes to the infamous 5.3 km portage - the same one Swifty claims the record portaging time - into Lake Opeongo. If they broke Swifty's record, it would have been wind-aided.

On Opeongo, they lashed their canoes together and, with a tarp for a sail, they raced down Opeongo in the pouring rain. “We were cold and wet but we were so happy because we weren't paddling,” says Capell. With their arrival at the Opeongo AO store, they had completed three of the four “Meanest Links.”

The next day turned out to be their longest of the trip - over 11 km of portaging in 15 hours of travel. It was cold. By now, all four women were thinking of home. The Madawaska River meandered maddeningly. There were beaver dams to lift over and the women were tired. There was the side trip into Camp Pathfinder at Source Lake that would add another “unnecessary” six portages to the trip. They arrived at their Tea Lake campsite after dark.

On the morning of their last day of the trip, all four were up at the usual 5 a.m. Under the cold and overcast sky, they paddled down Tea Lake into the Oxtongue River. They were getting close to home. “High Falls was a high point. Once you hit there, you're almost home,” says Strickland. “I was so excited I couldn't stop smiling,” recalls Sanders. When they rounded the corner and came under the bridge, the whole staff of the Oxtongue Lake AO store was out to welcome them home, mosquito bites and all.

That was a very emotional time. They had been planning this trip for a long time and, now, it was over. They had taken up this very difficult challenge and succeeded. Their sense of accomplishment was huge. Their friendships were strengthened by the shared experience. Their appreciation for the support of their friends “went off the scale.”

The “Meanest Link” was indeed the trip of a lifetime for friends Thomas, Capell, Strickland and Sanders, and an appropriate event to mark this very special period in their lives. Swifty has been honored, too.

© 2005 Muskoka Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

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