A Day in the Life
Twenty-four hours of an epic canoe trip across wild Canada offers a bit of everything, from the mundane to the amazing.
The bird falls out of the sky late in the afternoon, right into the calm water between our two canoes. Plop. Head first, its tail feathers sticking straight up like a badminton birdie.
Yathkyed Lake, Nunavut, Canada: a massive block of water in the heart of the tundra barrenlands. All morning we had battled wind, inching along shore, telling stories of family Christmases to divert the kids’ attention from their aching shoulders and the agonizing crawl past points and rocky islands.
After lunch, though, the winds calmed. We shortcut across open water from island to island, crossed the broad mouths of bays. A reprieve, but calm miles bring their own brand of agony, one made up of monotonous space, the tortured looming up of distant horizon, a watery expanse unrelieved by diversion or tension. Our canoe keels scratched across the mirrored surface, our strokes a repetitive mantra. A kind of dull spell settled on us.
For Marypat and me this is something of a closing circle. When we last paddled the Kazan River, in 1991, it was the final leg of a wilderness canoe journey lasting more than a year, including a winter spent in a cabin in northern Saskatchewan on Lake Athabasca. By the time we reached Yathkyed Lake that summer, Marypat was six months pregnant with our first child.
That child, Eli, is now almost 14. Today he paddles in the bow of Marypat’s canoe, while I stern the other boat with his two younger siblings, Sawyer and Ruby. This family return to the Kazan, traversing 550 miles of tundra wilderness, is Eli’s coming-of-age trip—a transition that our culture offers so little help with.
Twenty-two days before, a floatplane had dropped us off next to Kasba Lake, about 60 degrees north latitude. When the plane disappeared in the pale sky, the sense of a door closing was palpable. The human world that had been so immediate moments before went poof. There, with our gear strewn around, the wild tundra both embraced and engulfed us.
Since then the five of us had beetled our way under the dome of sky, across lakes, through rapids, past islands, over portages. The black flies and mosquitoes have been worse than any time Marypat and I can remember. The winds have been fierce, adversarial. It may be August, but it’s cold enough that we wear long underwear and wool hats more days than not. For days at a stretch we have been stormbound in our tent or hunkered down under a flapping tarp.
This is the first, and by far the most remote, of our “fetal river” trips. Each of our children has a river trip that they experienced from Marypat’s womb. Eli’s is the Kazan. Sawyer’s is the entire Yellowstone, across Montana. Ruby’s is the Rio Grande along the Mexican border. When each of them reaches 13, we will return to their birth river as a family to mark their transition.
We have weeks yet to go on the Kazan. This passage has been, by turns, lonely, exhilarating, scary, lovely, wild, difficult, joyful.
We know better than to squander today’s sanctuary of calm. Then, in the middle of it, a bird falls into the lake. Marypat and Eli paddle over, but just as Eli reaches for the stricken bird, it bursts from the water, staggers through the air, and falls again. They follow. Eli plucks the bird from the lake, cups it in his hands. “Its eyes are closed,” he says. “But I can feel it breathing.”
We all look at the tiny victim, a longspur, we think. There is no visible sign of injury. Perhaps it is exhausted from a long flight, or has just escaped some predator. Eli makes a nest-shaped pocket in the canoe spray deck, lays the bird in it. We start paddling again.
“I think it’s sleeping,” Eli whispers. A minute later he bends low and peers at the bird. “No, it’s not sleeping,” he says. “It just died.”
They paddle to shore. Eli steps from the bow, takes the still bird in his hands, and looks for a place to leave it. He walks inland a few paces, crouches down, and places the longspur under a low clump of dwarf birch.
I watch my son walk back to the canoe, shove off, pick up his paddle. He is almost six feet tall. We wear the same size shoes. I flash back to our gravid journey, 14 years ago, to how Marypat and I would lie in the tent before sleep, feeling for his fetal kicks.
Eli has taken to drawing birds in his journal during our trip. At night, lying on his belly in the tent, he carefully copies the bird-book illustrations in colored pencil. His most elaborate drawing is of a caribou with colorful birds perched on the tines of its antlers.
The afternoon calm on Yathkyed Lake holds. We make the most of it, paddling through the great stillness, thinking about a death that strikes in mid-air, mid-wingbeat. Just as we turn into a shallow bay to find camp, Marypat points out over the lake. “Look how that bird is flying!” she says.
“It’s two birds,” adds Ruby. “A big one and a little one chasing each other.”
Fifty feet offshore, a long-tailed jaeger and what looks like another longspur spiral up and down over the water. They dodge and feint, locked in an aerial duel. The longspur is agile and fast, but the jaeger matches it turn for turn, implacable and focused.
Our canoes are dead in the water. Our paddles drip. The life-and-death drama is a silent play, only the desperate flurry of wings above the shining lake. Then the jaeger twists in the air and nabs the longspur.
The jaeger flies to a small rock, settles itself above its prey, and begins to feed. A second jaeger, perhaps a mate, coasts in next to the feeding bird, lands, and starts to preen.
We camp on a small beach at the back of the protected bay, another nomadic home in a string that winds back over hundreds of miles. By dawn the next morning, the wind is back and the sky is a mat of fast-moving clouds. The lake looks lumpy and rough.
Marypat and I have gotten up before the kids. It is an interlude we relish, this pause together before breakfast and camp chores and packing up boats. We sit on either side of the stove, sip coffee, study the map. Around us, an unpopulated tundra wilderness larger than Alaska sweeps away into space. Rolling mosses, glacially scraped ridges, the sand ribbons of eskers, and, in every direction, the water of countless lakes and rivers draining toward the sea.
“Al!” Marypat’s voice is low and intense. “Don’t move fast. Just turn really slowly to your left.” When I do, what I see, 30 feet away, is a mature bull musk ox. A beautiful animal, prehistoric-looking, in its prime, in its element. It moves down the beach, toward our camp. The musk ox knows we’re there. It emanates tension, yet it doesn’t stop. It makes a methodical, careful approach. The breeze sifts through the coat of shaggy brown hair that hangs like a skirt from its sides.
We sit transfixed, coffee in hand. I see the way the hooves articulate at the joint with each step. How the sand shifts under the bull’s weight. The knurled plate of horn spreading across the forehead. I notice how constricted my chest feels, how I have to concentrate on breathing.
The musk ox stops broadside to us, directly in front of us, a dozen feet away. Then he turns to face us, takes a step forward, and we lock gazes. He is close enough that I can see the texture of his nostrils. The horns curl into sharp points on either side of the broad skull. His eyes are liquid brown. I see his ear twitch. The electric charge in the space between us is almost unbearable. I am doing my damnedest to radiate calm, acceptance, humility, to keep my heart quiet.
I have never been this connected to a large wild animal, this intimate, this confronted. I sense the same crescendo of energy coming from the bull. An animal in the full of his life, who is not threatened by much, who is making his way through his territory and finds these strange visitors in his path. He seems, in his stolid way, to be weighing the options.
I have no idea how long this goes on. An eternity that might last a minute.
I don’t turn my head, but I say to Marypat, “Do you think I should stand up?” As I speak I move my hand slightly. “No!” she says.
But the spell is broken. The sound of our voices, the movement, just enough to lurch us past the unsustainable moment. The musk ox wheels, churns up divots of sand with his feet, and pounds past our pile of gear. As he passes our packs, he tosses his horns at them and snorts loudly. He gallops onto the tundra, his coat blowing in the wind, the sound of his hooves muffled in the mosses. Then he stops, silhouetted against the dawn sky on a low ridge. He looks back at us, then canters out of sight.
“What the heck was that?” Eli calls from the tent. “It sounded like a bear!”
The kids spill from the tent. They study the hoofprints in the sand. Marypat and I retell the story over breakfast.
We get under way but barely eke out a mile before the wind stops us. A deep bay lathered with snarling whitecaps confronts us. We haul the canoes up a water-worn slab of bedrock, unload the few things we’ll need while we wait for the next lull—the tarp, books, the stove, hot drinks, warm coats. This pause might last two days or two hours.
“There’s the jaeger again!” Sawyer is pointing over the water. We all look.
Another sparrow-size bird has wandered away from shore, away from cover, just far enough for the jaeger to cut off any chance of retreat. Despite the gusting wind, the two birds, predator and prey, dance their mortal dance over the wild waves. For the victim, it is the final flight. The day to die.
We watch the jaeger, patient even in the frenzied ballet, waiting for its chance. When the opening comes, the jaeger takes it without the slightest equivocation. Accepting fuel, living on, nothing more or less. I turn away. We all do.
The five of us carry our supplies to a flat, dry spot below a ridge of boulders that has been bulldozed up by ice. We rig the tarp to blunt the wind, boil water for coffee and cocoa, snack on the food our bodies will generate heat with. Eli lies on the moss under the tarp and opens his journal. He starts drawing a dramatic scene of a jaeger in flight, upside down, clutching a longspur.
These windbound delays are both prison and luxury. When else do we spend hours or days sitting still, simply biding time in one another’s company? We play cribbage, read books out loud, measure progress on the maps, argue, sing, relive experiences, sleep, wander about. Much of our activity together is as mundane as eating a meal, yet the collective significance of that time is incalculable.
I watch Eli work for a while. He is completely absorbed in his drawing. He could be lying on the living room rug at home. Then restlessness gets the better of me.
I duck out from under the tarp and climb to the top of the rocky ridge. I settle myself there between ancient rocks in the wind, look out over the rough, cold expanse of lake, and wait for my chance.
Alan Kesselheim writes from Bozeman, Montana. Besides being a regular contributor to Audubon, he is the author of eight books.
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