Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Meanest Link - part three of four

The Meanest Link, continued 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 .

For background on the Meanest Link, see “The Meanest Link - part one” and "The Meanest Link - part two"

Meet the paddlers. Sarah Strickland grew up in beside Algonquin Park. She is an accomplished athlete and canoe tripper who guides canoe trips for AO. She graduated from Laurentian University this past spring in biomedical biology and will be heading to medical school at the University of Ottawa in September. Janet Thomas is a third year sociology student at McMaster University who has worked at AO for the past eight summers as an outfitter. Leah Sanders is going into her last year in geography at the University of Ottawa. Jaime Capell has spent the past few years, since graduating from Huntsville High School, working and traveling. She will be attending Sheridan College in September in an illustration program. None of them will have any problem writing the proverbial, “what I did for my summer vacation essay.”

"All my friends think I'm crazy", says Capell. Why would they want to take on such a difficult undertaking? For all of them, it was the challenge. They'd all done canoe trips, but none had done one this long or this difficult. They wanted to be the first ones to complete the “Meanest Link.” Doing the trip with three of their closest friends at a point in their lives when their paths are beginning to diverge made it that much more special. All saw it as “the trip of a lifetime. There were other reasons for doing the trip - scenery, wildlife; getting to know the park better, especially some of the less well-traveled parts, and improving their tripping skills.

Along with any challenge comes anxiety. Foremost in their minds were the “bugs” - blackflies and mosquitoes. Strickland puts the problem in perspective. “With the bugs comes good water levels, fewer people, the ability to all get two weeks off together. So, it was, do it with the bugs or don't do it at all.”

Another source of anxiety was the magnitude of the physical challenge. Could they do it? All thought they could do it, but self-doubt niggled below the surface. The heavy physical demands would produce frustration. People say and do things, sometimes hurtful things, in the heat of frustration. Would their friendships survive?

Injury was a concern too. How would they manage if someone broke an ankle? Fortunately, Strickland is very well-qualified to deal with injury in the bush. And, they'd all done a lot of planning. Baker was confident they were well prepared.

6:30 a.m., June 6, 2005: They launched two canoes from the AO dock at Oxtongue Lake. The route for the first link - Oxtongue River, Lake of Bays, Peninsula Lake, Fairy Lake, Muskoka River, AO dock in Huntsville - took 15 hours. It was a hot, humid day and, “The headwinds and waves were insane,” recalls Sanders.

Day two was the start of the Huntsville-Brent leg - Big East River to McCraney Lake, then through a series of small lakes and portages and down the Nipissing River to Brent. It started out well but, very quickly, the water levels dropped and the journeyers started scraping bottom. All four had to get out of their canoes and drag them through the water. It was hot and humid and the flies were on them with vengeance. The rocks were slippery with algae and the footing was treacherous.

“By the end of the first day, I think we finally realized what we were in for,” explains Strickland. “We looked like we had chicken pox on our faces and necks because of blackfly bites.”
Their maps for this section were also very sketchy. It was very difficult to know where they were and, therefore, to know how much more of this kind of travel lay ahead. “We'd turn the corner and all we could see was more rocks. I almost cried that day. I just wanted the dragging to be over,” notes Thomas.

They finally got off the Big East River and into McCraney Creek. With this, they had moved into uncharted territory. It was only two and a half km up the creek to McCraney Lake - a short day. But the creek turned out to be even worse than the Big East. Low water, slippery rocks, dead trees strewn across the creek made it impossible to paddle. Packs had to be hauled out of the canoes and the canoes dragged and lifted over rocks and fallen trees. Heat, humidity and flies added to the burden. At one point, they thought they had found a shortcut into McCraney Lake along an old trail through the bush. But, a very difficult portage in the extreme heat steered them right back into McCraney Creek. Eventually, they had to give up, short of their goal for that day.

Says Capell: “That was my worst day. I felt so defeated. I was hot, tired, falling on every step.” McCraney Creek was the low point of the trip for all of the women.

The next morning, they were on the water at 7 a.m. determined to make it to McCraney. Again, it was very hot and the bugs were ruthless. They made McCraney by noon. “We nearly cried with joy. I have written in my journal 'Best day ever,' ” says Sanders. They paddled out to an island, had a great lunch, swam and dried out their wet clothing. The following day they paddled to the end of the lake to find AO co-workers Chuck, Will and Randy waiting for them with a food drop.

“It was fantastic. Just to see them really boosted us,” says Capell. Will and Randy had made the first attempt on the “Meanest Link” in the late autumn of 2004 and had to abandon it. They understood how difficult it is.

At McCraney Lake, they were finally into Algonquin Park. Being in the park meant designated campsites, marked and cleared portages, an accurate map, established canoe routes - “it was the start of good things,” says Strickland. The next part of the route, up to the Nipissing River, was through a succession of small lakes connected by portages. That day turned out to be the hottest day of the whole trip. There were over 9,000 meters of portages - all uphill. The lakes were so small that you could see the next portage from the end of the previous one. The intense heat and continuous portaging produced heat and chafing rashes and the bugs wore them down emotionally. “Today was so hard I just wanted to stop,” writes Thomas in her log. The next day and a half was spent on the Nipissing River. There was no shade on the river and the sun and heat were intense. Onshore, the mosquitoes were the worst they had ever experienced. By now, timewise, they were halfway through the trip.

© 2005 Muskoka Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

Click the link for part four.

Click here for a map of the Meanest Link.

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