My night lost in the Canadian wilderness

Separated from food, water and gear, and plagued by mosquitoes, a canoe trip that became an epic misadventure.

Twenty years ago this week, I spent a night lost in the Canadian wilderness. This was in a fallow birding period of my life, just after college.

In the parlance of eBird checklist protocol, “birding wasn’t my primary purpose” back then.

I got lost on a canoeing and fishing trip to northern Ontario with my buddy Jay. We were attempting to paddle and portage a canoe to a remote campsite to meet up with two other friends. It had been a long car ride, and we had a 3-mile paddle, a .5-mile portage and another paddle of about a half-mile ahead of us. It was getting dark when we stashed the car and heaved a week’s worth of gear into the canoe, a red Old Town model that Jay’s family had for seemingly forever. A light rain and dimming light were portents of what was to come.

We quickly made our way down the lake, a glacier-carved beauty named Judge. We finally saw the portage, marked only by a wooden sign plainly stating “KEEP ONTARIO BEAUTIFUL.”

It’s easy to second guess and wonder what we should have done differently. Maybe the ride north took too long. Did we need the stop at the Beer Store? Did buying fishing licenses delay us? Why did we have to meet up with the guys that night, at the most remote location possible?

Getting the canoe and gear across the portage would take two trips, one with our camping gear and fishing tackle, and another with the canoe. We took the gear—including our food, water and shelter—across the portage, which was nothing more than a scratchy trail through dense woods. When we got back to the canoe it was getting darker, a full gloaming. We headed up the portage and met a slight rise with what looked like a lake in the distance. Only this wasn’t the lake we were looking for, it was clear that we’d gotten off the trail.

Here’s where we decided to drop the canoe and try to make it to the gear. We retraced our steps back to Judge, and this time we made it to the halfway point of the portage, a dome of mossy rock. The trail splinters in about five directions there. And that’s when I suggested we stay put for the night.

This didn’t go over well with Jay. But he processed the situation and came to terms with it, too. It was the realization that only comes with plans gone awry. It was pretty slack to get lost. There were all the little plans we’d made, where we’d hang a bag to keep it away from bears, how to stay dry, the right bug spray. Yet here we were. All those plans didn’t mean anything.

It was about six hours to daylight, the sun comes up early in those latitudes, and I only looked at my watch once, around 11. Sleep was fitful, and mosquitoes had a field day, where the hood from my jacket couldn’t cover. By 4 there was a hint of gray light in the sky. The first order of business was to find the canoe. And after a couple of forays back down the trail and toward the other lake, we found it, way up on the ridge, a splash of red in the middle of thick woods.

Then the brightening skies gave us enough light to find our way back to the trail and all the way to our destination, the ironically named Off-Trail Lake. We paddled into camp at about 6 a.m., taking our pals by surprise.

It’s a base thing being lost. It’s a primal feeling. There’s bewilderment in the truest sense of the word. It took a little while for the trip to get back on track, but eventually it did. I later wrote a piece about it for the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, my employer at the time.

It’s easy to look back with the proverbial 20/20 hindsight. If we had to do it again, it’s almost certain that we would have been less risky and stopped at Judge and stayed there for the evening.

As the years have gone on, kids, families and responsibilities have accumulated to the point where the stakes seem higher. On our family adventures, this trip is somewhere in our consciousness when it comes to safety and planning. And because of it I like to think we’d make the right decisions now.

Note: The events described take place on the traditional territory of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, the descendents of the Ojibwe, Algonquin and Odawa Nations.

TWiB Notes

It was great fun talking to Jarod Hitchings about Prothonotary Warblers on Thursday. You can learn more about his efforts to make nest boxes out of juice cartons in the above video. A couple people have asked for plans to make the boxes; here is a link…..The long-running radio segment “Bird Note” has launched the podcast “Bring Birds Back.” In the inaugural episode, host Tenijah Hamilton gets to know biostatistician Dr. Adam Smith, co-author of the study that found we’ve lost 3 billion birds in North America since 1970…..The Galbatrosses, including Chicago’s Stephanie Beilke, have organized Female Bird Day, which concluded yesterday. Female Bird Day draws attention to female birds, which often have been overlooked in field guides and in all sorts of other ways.

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