Bloodvein: Back to the Beginning
Floating down the Bloodvein is like time travel -- returning to the primordial boreal, the forest primeval, where there are no dams or transmission lines. But it also offers a glimpse (if reason prevails) of a different future -- one of undisturbed splendor.
All the ominous projects and prospects seem very abstract and far away as we make our way down the hauntingly beautiful river. There are 43 rapids, and we run all of them except four that we portage and six that we line, leaving the canoes in the river and pulling them along the rapids with ropes. All of us capsize at least once and are baptized by the Bloodvein, and in this way we are gently reminded that we're all here on nature's sufferance. I begin to imagine that the river has a spirit -- a capricious one who, while we are having our coffee, is having hers and figuring out the fun she will have with these foolish mortals today. Our canoe swamps in one choppy stretch, not because we've done anything wrong but because there is too much weight in the bow: moi. As I sit on the bank like a wet rat, Louis Young joins me and asks, out of the blue, "Whatever happened to Ollie North?" The question hits me like a funny koan, a Zen riddle. When I recover from laughing, I say, "You know, Louis, that's the best question anybody's asked me in years."
The weather is extremely variable. One day the sky is clear blue, the next day there is driving rain. I have never seen such lavender-pink sunsets as are mirrored on the glassy surface of the river. One night we see the aurora borealis. Auroras are caused by charged solar particles hitting the upper atmosphere and glowing as they are deflected by the earth's geomagnetic field. No two are the same. This one is like a huge green curtain tinged with reddish purple; it starts in the north and moves across the sky like a spotlight, disappears, and returns after 10 seconds or so.
We see lots of beavers and their lodges, and the sharp spikes of aspens and jack pines that they have gnawed off. Once, in a scalloped bay, three otters stand up on their hind legs and chatter adorably, like a vaudeville conga line. But it is probably a threat display.
Up in the front of the canoe, my field of vision unobstructed by anything human for eight days, I get into a rhythm of maybe a stroke a second, not using the muscles in my arms but letting the rotation of my torso move my paddle through the water. It is meditative, almost trancelike. "This is what the body is made for," David Pancoe, our outfitter, says when I ask him why he has chosen this arduous, ill-paid line of work. Between getting us down the river and doing the cooking, he's been putting in 12-hour days.
On my knees, I focus on how the paddle makes a little swirling whirlpool as it bites into the water, and how it casts off two more little whirlpools when I take it out at the end of the stroke, with a slight twist of my wrist that turns the blade vertical and makes it easier to take out of the water. For long stretches the only sounds are the drops of water falling from the paddle as I bring it forward and bite the water again, and the little straining sound, like a tiny, trickling rivulet, that the bow makes as it parts the water. "Soft is the song my paddle sings," Canada's beloved, half-Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson wrote. Canoeing is one of the gentlest, least disturbing, and most unobtrusive ways of moving through physical space, and these rivers are the corridors that the native people have used for many centuries, their blue highway, their county road.
I can see in my companions' faces that they, too, are in a rapturous state. We are going to be together for only a short time, and most of us probably are never going to meet again, but we are experiencing something that will be with us always -- an order of wildness and purity, a system so vast and ancient that the distinction between individual existence and nothingness is almost meaningless. By the time we get to the Bloodvein community, where several of Young's female relatives have prepared a fabulous feast of goose and moose, wild rice and blueberry pie and where Louis will heat some boulders red-hot and conduct a sweat-lodge ceremony for us, a powerful, unspoken bond has grown among our group.
Many have been drawn to the mysticism of canoeing, including Pierre Trudeau, Canada's charismatic prime minister in the 1970s. Trudeau had fantastic technique and liked nothing better than to take off alone in his cedar-strip canoe and his fringed buckskin jacket. "Paddling a canoe is a source of enrichment and inner renewal," he wrote. "It carries a man to the truest part of himself." It was Trudeau who urged young Canadians to participate in the Wild River Survey from 1971 to 1974, which led to the creation of a conservation program called the Heritage River system and to the Bloodvein's eventual inclusion in it, along with 38 other rivers of special magic and merit.
Rivers like this are our lifeblood, not only ecologically and economically, but also spiritually. We need them -- as is. This is a time not only of massive extinction of the myriad forms of life on this planet, but of extinction of experience, particularly of the natural world, for those of us who are living in modern society. Perhaps this is why the river trip has been so powerful for all of us -- we were nature-deprived, and all these dormant responses were reawakened. It may not be my place, as an American, to tell Canada that the age of dam-building is over, or that it is being criminally shortsighted to sacrifice its boreal wilderness and its magnificent gushing rivers so that the United States can have a backup source of power that it may not even end up wanting. On the other hand, my family and I live in Montreal these days, and, in any case, aren't we all citizens of the world? What happens to the boreal affects us all, wherever we happen to call home.