July 1 is Canada Day and this year marks the nation’s 150th birthday. So I thought I’d post the following essay, which I wrote in 2012 for the Canadian magazine Explore, edited by James Little. It’s a story about kayaking in Canada, but also a story about Spain. Hope you enjoy it. Happy Birthday Canada!
A few years ago, I moved from Toronto to Zaragoza, a city in northern Spain. Not long after, my friend Graham came to visit. Hanging out one evening, drinking wine on the terrace of my neighbourhood restaurant, he said something I still think about now and then.
“Do you ever worry that if you stay here long enough, you won’t really be from Canada anymore, but you’ll never really be from here either?”
I don’t know the answer to my friend’s question, except to say that when you live somewhere for a span of years, you can grow into the rhythm of the place and eventually it starts to feel like home. I was born in Spain, but we moved to Canada before I ever spoke my first word of Spanish. My family was a typically Canadian family in that our house was a small enclave of some other country. When I didn’t spend my summers in the Canadian bush, I spent them on Spanish beaches. It was never easy to choose between them.
When I first moved back to Spain, I naturally took notice of all the things that were different. Now, however, they just seem normal to me, and when I visit Canada, it’s the other way around. Now when I’m in Toronto, it feels strange for the first few days. Everything is so green! The streets are so wide. All the fruit in the supermarket is plastered with branded stickers. And, with tax and tip, it costs 12 bucks for a glass of average wine at a bar. Are you kidding me?
I first met Guillermo Zubiaurre through his older sister, Julieta, who frequents my local, the Taberna del Blues. It’s a bar but it’s also a kind of club, and for the record, a glass of good Rioja will set you back two Euros, tax and tip included. Everyone knows everyone, like Cheers but in Spanish. As a school teacher, Guillermo has summers off work, and when I found out he liked the outdoors, I invited him to Canada to go kayaking on Georgian Bay. That was in summer of 2010. We paddled from Britt up to the mouth of the Key River and back in five days. He loved the scenery, liked to fish, and didn’t complain about the bugs unless they were truly atrocious. It worked out quite well.
So last year we planned a longer trip. I got everything ready in the week leading up to Guillermo’s arrival. He’d seen Toronto on his first visit, and didn’t feel the need to see it again, so we planned to head out the day after he arrived.
We launched from the Highway 69 bridge at the Key River, with the stern deck of my two-seat Klepper almost awash with the weight of our supplies. The destination this time was the town of Killarney, just under 100 kilometres away. We had two weeks, which is more than enough time if all you want to do is get there.
* * *
The trip started with a seven-kilometre crossing to an island. Against a stiff wind and choppy water, it was hard work. The thing about kayaking in open water is that because you’re far from land, you can’t gauge your progress and it ends up feeling like you’re not moving at all. But the waves don’t stop and the wind doesn’t stop either. Shoulders aching, knees cramped, neck sore, you soldier on like Sisyphus. The island in the distance never seems to get any closer and when at long last it does, you’ve still got another three kilometres to go. I was also getting thoroughly drenched. Big waves delivered the occasional soaker because we hadn’t bothered to put the spray skirt on and Guillermo’s paddle dripped enough water on me to take care of the rest.
But finally we were there and it felt like a different world. Six thousand kilometres away from where we both lived, it practically was. Cold and stiff, we crawled onto land like old men. It was such a change from the nervous, bouncy water to the solid rock of the Canadian Shield. While it had felt strange to be back in Toronto, being here felt completely natural. It was an outer island and there was nobody else in sight. Looking west there was nothing but water and sky. Glorious. Though it was day two of our trip, it felt like the real beginning and it couldn’t have started off any better. The weather was perfect, the kind of summer day you dream of in February when you’re sick of winter and you try to imagine the absolute perfect summer day. Georgian Bay danced and sparkled under a blinding sun, the twisted pine trees swished and swayed with the wind, and dragonflies ran sorties along the shoreline like tiny attack helicopters. I kicked off my cold wet sandals and walked around on the warm granite. Getting out of the sandals was a relief, but feeling the heat of the stone on my wrinkled feet was pure pleasure. I walked down to the kayak, startling young bullfrogs into desperate, panicked leaps, and reached inside to fish out two cans of cerveza that had been sitting in the cold water that sloshed in during the crossing. The wind offshore was brisk and a bald eagle appeared suddenly, magnificently, challenging the wind head-on before tipping its wings and veering off out of sight behind the trees. Half an hour before, we had been struggling against the wind ourselves, but now the sound of the waves was a distant, relaxing murmur, and we sat on the sun-warmed granite sipping cold beer in a state of bliss.
* * *
I’ve never understood why some people choose to do the things they like to do as fast as possible. Speed climbing? Canoe racing? Trail running? I guess they’re not for me. We’ve got two weeks to get to where we’re going and we could probably do it in four days if it were a competition. But it’s not, at least for us. Guillermo and I see eye to eye on that, and if there’s one thing that’s important in a backcountry companion, it’s sharing the same philosophy. If I had to put it into words, I’d say that for me, it’s enough just to be gone. You know you’ve achieved that when you get back and look at your email, bank statements and phone log, and there’s a big gap in all of them, like your day-to-day self just disappeared for that week or month or whatever. That’s kind of what I’m after. As for adventure, I generally don’t go looking for it since it has a habit of eventually finding me anyway.
Besides, I get enough adventure in everyday life. What I want is freedom, and there’s nothing like having a kayak loaded with two weeks of food and a wilderness of islands and inlets and bays to explore. No itinerary. Just point the boat where it looks interesting. Stop where you like, stay until you feel like leaving. Fish when you feel like it, if you feel like it. Explore the island’s shoreline if you want. Or not. I took a pad of paper and a few trays of pastels to try my hand at sketching and while I soon realized that my best efforts were something my own mother would probably decline to tape to her fridge, it was an enjoyable way of doing nothing other than enjoying being there.
* * *
The days passed a lot quicker than I thought they would. We mentally charted our progress up the coast by remembering campsites and anecdotes. There was the day when the weather turned nasty and we beached the kayak and walked along the shore, fishing. As the storm rolled in and the barometer fell, the smallmouth bass hit like the end of the world was nigh—fat, bronze-coloured and powerful, and one after another. There was also the time I was wading beside the kayak, trying to lift something out of the bow, and a water snake began to climb my leg. Not surprisingly, my reaction was the source of much amusement for Guillermo. There was also the campsite on what we called “the ocean liner,” a gigantic wedge of pink granite that looked like the prow of a mighty ship. It was one of our prettiest stops, and as we fished from the 20-foot cliffs, we watched huge pike appear like submarines out of the depths, following our lures because they couldn’t help themselves, but not quite convinced, either. There was also the island where we ran into the plague of biting flies that attacked our ankles, paying no attention to the copious amount of greasy DEET we slathered on. At two different campsites, minks provided the entertainment. Curious, indefatigable, they explored the nooks of every inch of shoreline, and they brazenly approached within a few feet of us as long as we didn’t make any sudden movements. And then there was the morning when a bear walked right by our camp while we ate breakfast.
As we counted up all the places we’d been and the things that had happened, it was startling to realize that there were already more days behind us than in front of us.
We kayaked past a few lighthouses on our trip, and Guillermo took pictures of each one from a variety of angles. I asked him why they interested him so much, and he said, “It’s just strange to see lighthouses on a lake. And that there are lakes big enough to need them.”
The prettiest lighthouse we would see was the one perched on the rocky coastline just outside the village of Killarney, our take-out point. From our last campsite, we could see it twinkling at night. It was an easy four-hour paddle into town and we had two and a half days to get there.
We found a campsite on the outside of Phillip Edward Island that was an immense expanse of gracefully shaped granite, smooth and undulating like a bowl of melting ice cream. Shield scenery at its finest. We decided right away that we would spend two nights there. On the second day, for the first time in the trip, we didn’t climb into the kayak even once. The only time I put my sandals on was to explore the frog-filled lagoon behind us where, judging by the splashes we heard at night, a family of beavers also lived. Most of the time, we walked barefoot on the granite, feeling not much bigger than the ants that did the same. Guillermo likened it to a natural history museum, the bedrock of a country laid bare by ancient glaciers for all to see. By the water’s edge the rock was clean and barren of life, while farther inland, where there was more shelter from the elements, patches of green and orange lichens eeked out a living. A little farther on after that, the first wind-tortured pines clung to crevices and fissures in the rock. Veins of sparkling white quartz ran arrow-straight across the waves of stone, disappearing into the water only to reappear on the whaleback islands in front of us. It wasn’t like just looking at a Group of Seven painting, it was like being inside of one.
I sat on a dome of swirling granite, running my hand over the glinting surface of Canada’s bedrock. To Guillermo, I’m sure being there felt quite exotic. But to me it felt like home.