Penny & Alba

J-STROKE

Well… it was going to be the

adventure of a lifetime. At least

that was the way that it had been

described by Uncle Harold.

“By the end of this trip you’ll be great

adventurers, just like me. You’ll be living off

the land, charting rivers few people have

ever seen and camping under the stars.”

He had forgotten to mention black flies,

creepy crawlies, mosquitoes, wind, rain and

blisters from doing J-strokes in the canoe. But

then Uncle Harold always did have a selective

memory.

At the end of the trip, Penny was convinced

that every time you saw a person paddling a

canoe on TV, they should be obligated to

also have a “grunt” sound track under the cries

of the loons. She had decided that canoeing

was hard work.

Alba had thought that this was going to be a

pretty simple trip for her because she got to sit

in the middle part of the canoe and could just

look around at the scenery. At first, only the

occasional splashes from the paddles of

Uncle Harold and Penny destroyed the

idyllic setting-splashes and those darn black

flies and mosquitoes. The black flies were quiet but stole a

chunk out of your skin. The mosquitoes, on the other hand,

were easier to detect and swat but drove you crazy all night

with their buzzing.

By the end of the trip both girls learned about sore arms

and blisters from paddling the canoe and the joys of

being eaten by a variety of flying insects.

The trip that they had planned was different than most

of the short trips taken by novice canoers out of

Algonquin Park. They had stayed clear of anything that

sounded like it might be easy because they wanted to be

in the wilds -where few people would be seen,

where the campsites were roughest,

where bears and moose joined you for breakfast.

Well, you get the picture.

Uncle Harold had conned them once again. Conquering

a more difficult route would lead to greater bragging

rights for Uncle Harold.

They eventually mapped out a three day circular trip

that took them up the Rattlesnake River all the way into

Muskrat Lake. It had three portages that weren’t too

long and the park warden had said that there were some

beautiful campsites on Muskrat Lake that overlooked

Little Weasel Falls. He also told the girls that the Falls

had the best rock slide in the whole park under it. He

told them they could climb to the top of the falls, slide

down the slippery face of the rock and then end up in a

sandy pool at the bottom. It was the warden’s favourite

spot in all of the park and he told the girls that he

wanted a full report about their experiences when they

got back. Even with all the enthusiasm he showed for

their trip, however, he was a little surprised that the

girls were so young and that they had chosen such a

dangerous route. He did seem a little more comfortable

when Uncle Harold assured him that they were all

experienced campers. I guess they were if you included

the number of times they had slept out in the backyard

behind the McCutcheon house. But this was to be their

first overnight adventure and the three of them knew

that this experience was going to be a lot different than

their previous ones. This wasn’t anything like when the

girls and Uncle Harold would paddle around Murphy’s

pond searching for turtles and frogs and then come

home to barbecue marshmallows on the camp stove in

the backyard.

The first day of the trip was exhausting. Wind and rain

and plain old hard work made for a first camping

experience that neither girl would ever forget. By the

second day of their adventure of a lifetime, both girls

were certain they didn’t want to be “coureur de bois.”

At noon of the second day, the weary paddlers finally

arrived at the campsite at Little Weasel Falls. Through

the tired eyes of eight and ten year olds it certainly was

a disappointment.

“I guess I thought it would be a little more like a theme

park water slide” confided Penny to Alba.

Alba knew exactly what Penny was talking about

because she had pictured plastic water slides herself. “I

don’t know what I was thinking,” whispered Alba. “Why

would anyone want plastic water slides in the middle of this

wilderness area? Duh! I guess I’ve got a lot to learn about

camping.”

They didn’t have long to confer, however, because

Uncle Harold had sensed their disappointment and

knew that the best thing they could do was to get the tent

up, and then try out the rock slide.

“Once they get wet,” he thought, “they’ll start having a little

fun.”

Uncle Harold knew that sometimes camping and canoe

trips can be hard work and he was feeling a little guilty- actually

a lot guilty-about bringing the kids on such a

difficult paddle on their first trip. Still, he knew how to

have a good time and before long the tent was up and

everyone was in their swimming suits. Everyone that is

except of course Uncle Harold who had forgotten his

trunks.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got the perfect substitute” he said and

quickly rummaged around in the tent and came out wearing

his striped pajamas complete with tasseled hat.

He looked pretty silly but that suited Uncle Harold

perfectly.

“Now ladies,” he bellowed (he often called the girls

ladies), “this isn’t the local water park. We have to

check this out first before we go sliding down the rocks.

The first two lessons in adventure camping is to be

prepared and be careful” and with that announcement

he carefully crawled up to the top of the falls and slowly

eased his way down the slippery rack face using a

branch to steady himself. He also checked the pool at

the bottom of the falls because he wanted to make sure

that there were no jutting rocks that would hurt the kids

at the end of the slide.

He quietly climbed back to the top of the falls and then

with a frown on his face, he said, “I think this will have

to be off limits to you kids. It looks like it will be too

much fun.” And with that mocking announcement he slid

down the rocks into the pool below surging to the surface,

spouting like a whale. Within seconds the two McCutcheon

kids were scrambling up the rocks to get to the top of the

falls and their first try at Little Weasel Falls.

Now from the bottom, it looked pretty low. From the top,

however, it was a different story. But a day and a half of

hard paddling had gotten then ready for a little dare-devil

adventure and the two girls slid down the rocks hand in

hand. The water coursed over them as they wiggled down

the smooth rock face and then plunged into the pool at the

bottom of the waterfall. The sound of the roaring water

gave way to a hollow cavernous sound as they slid

underwater into the pool and then changed again to the

laughter of Uncle Harold as they shot to the surface.

“Welcome to McCutcheon Amusement Park. That will be

$5 if you want another ride.”

And the girls realized with that kidding, that unlike at

the Centreville carnival, they could go on the slide as many

times as they wanted without it costing any more. This was

going to be a real treat and all afternoon the two kids slid

on their backs, fronts, sides, feet first, head first-you name

it. Uncle Harold slid like a carrot (legs and arms together)

and like a pumpkin (all puffed up like an elephant doing

a pliƩ).

That evening around the campfire they sang songs and

finished off the best camping day of their lives. Uncle

Harold was very satisfied that the girls had had an

experience that they would never forget. He was also

grateful that they also had the decency and resiliency to

forget about the first day and a half of tough paddling.

Now the mosquitoes and black flies didn’t go away that

night in the tent but somehow they didn’t seem as bad

as they had been the night before and the girls were

lulled to sleep by the gentle snoring of a very contented

Uncle Harold.

Morning came and the girls wanted to slide again first

thing but Uncle Harold knew that they had promised to be

back by one o’clock to meet Aunt Helen and the girls’

parents. So as a compromise he made them all a quick

breakfast and then packed up the tent so they would be all

ready to go after they had their swim. Sometimes, the

second time you try any experience, it doesn’t seem as

thrilling as the first time. But to Penny and Alba, this day

was even better and it was with great reluctance that they

all got dried off and changed to start the trip back to the

landing.

They had organized the trip so that they wouldn’t have

to retrace their steps. The only problem was that the

most difficult portage was ahead of them. The park

warden had said to be careful because no one had been

on it this year yet and that there was a pretty steep

climb around the rapids. So while everyone was very

happy with the time they had spent, they were a little

nervous about the next couple of hours. When they

reached the rapids they realized that the warden hadn’t

been kidding and they began to understand how difficult

this trip was for inexperienced campers. Just climbing

around the rapids would have been hard enough but

they had to also carry the canoe over their heads with

all of the packs. Now Uncle Harold always carried the

heaviest stuff but it was hard just the same. The girls

carried their back packs and had to take several rest stops

along the way. Uncle Harold reached the end of the

portage with the canoe and tent and was heading back for

a third load by the time the girls reached the end of the

portage for the first time.

He mockingly said “Don’t worry about me, I’ll carry all

the heavy stuff even though I’m an old man.” Penny and

Alba grimaced at the ribbing but they were content to wait

at the end of the portage and catch their breath.

“Boy I’m glad I don’t have to do that again” said Alba.

“Yeah, I’m exhausted” agreed Penny. “I’m glad that Uncle

Harold carries the canoe and does most of the paddling. I

don’t think I have enough strength left to even get into the

canoe.”

They spent some time skipping stones and then ate part of

their morning snack before it started to dawn on them that

Uncle Harold was taking a very long time on his final trip.

“Well I’m not going back to check up on him” said Alba.

“I’m too pooped.”

“Me too” said Penny, but before long, the girls knew

that something was wrong and being tired didn’t matter.

The girls left the canoe and packs and headed off down

the steep portage trail to search for Uncle Harold afraid

of what they might find.

Now the girls realized that sometimes Uncle Harold

might wait in the bushes and try to scare them but this

morning they were all in a hurry and they knew how

important it was to be back on time. No, today he

wouldn’t be fooling around. Around the sharpest comer

of the trail the girls could sense an ominous feeling.

Sometimes you know something is wrong and Penny

and Alba looked at each other at the same moment.

There was a branch across the trail that they had had to

walk under when they came on their first trip. They

both joked that they were glad it wasn’t broken because

they held on to it to avoid slipping down the rock face

into the raging river below. But this time the branch was

broken and there were signs of a slide of rocks and dirt.

The moss on the rocks felt soft under foot but wasn’t

very secure and the moss had been scraped off the rock

face exposing the pink granite underneath.

“Uncle Harold,” shouted Alba.

They waited but they heard nothing in return.

“Uncle Harold” cried out Penny once more. “Where are

you?”

But still there was no reply. The girls knew that they

had to do something but they didn’t know what. Penny

took charge.

“Alba, run to the start of the portage and make sure Uncle

Harold isn’t back there, then come back as soon as you

can.”

Usually, the sisters would fight about who would take

charge and who would go first but this was no time to

argue and they both knew it. Penny realized for the first

time how alone they were in the park. They had chosen

this route because no one else usually took it. She knew

there would be no one who would come along to help

and that there was no one to call. They were on their

own. They had to find Uncle Harold and get him back

to the marina. With quick efficiency, she surveyed the

steep river sides. She knew that she had to get down the

bank to the river bed and search for Uncle Harold and

she knew that it was going to be dangerous. She had

been very tired but now was no time to let tiredness get

in the way of what had to be done. Penny found a

narrow route down the cliff and slowly inched her way

to the bottom of the river gully. Fortunately there were

branches of little trees trying to grow straight out of the

rock face. And with great care and dexterity she

eventually got to the slippery flat rocks beside the river.

“Penny, he’s not back there,” shouted Alba from up above.

“Wait there and I’ll report in a second,” Penny replied.

She gingerly hugged the cliff and made her way down

stream to a little eddy in the river and there she saw what

she had been dreading. Uncle Harold was lying face down

on a sand bar right in the middle of the stream with raging

rapids all around him. He must have fallen down the cliff

and then been dragged down the river by the current.

Penny shouted to Alba, “I found him. He’s hurt. Wait

there.”

Penny slowly eased her way to the side of the river

opposite where Uncle Harold was lying and shouted to

him. At first he didn’t move and then Penny saw him try to

lift his head. He was alive.

Penny shouted “Don’t worry, we’ll rescue you.”

But she had no idea what to do. They certainly couldn’t

lift him up the cliff or float him down the river. It was

too dangerous and he was too heavy for the girls. Besides,

after falling down the cliff, Penny was sure that he had

some serious injuries and that he shouldn’t be moved

without experienced medical help. She knew that they were

only an hour of hard paddling from the marina and decided

that that was where they should head to get help. In the

meantime they had to make sure Uncle Harold was as

comfortable as possible.

“Alba,” she called. “Take off to the end of the portage and

get our sleeping bags, our lunch and the rope. When

you’ve got them, bring them back to where you are now.”

” Right, I’1l be there in a couple of minutes” and Alba raced

off down the path as quickly as she could on such a difficult

route. Penny figured that they couldn’t be too far from the

end of the river and she was going to try to find a way to

get to the end without having to climb back up the cliff.

Fortunately, she noticed that the river was very shallow at

this part and even with the turbulent water she was

convinced that she could walk across the river bottom to

Uncle Harold without being swept away by the rapids and

then walk to the end of the portage along the slippery

water’s edge and meet Alba there at the canoe.

Within minutes, Alba had lowered the sleeping bags and the

food to the sand bar and Penny had managed to get Uncle

Harold as comfortable as she could. She got him

something to eat and drink and set up the sleeping bags

around him so that he was protected from the hot sun.

She told him that they would be back very quickly but

they both knew that the girls had never been in a canoe

alone and that they weren’t even sure in which direction

they needed to head for the marina. Sometimes when

you’re forced too, however, you grow up quickly. Penny

carefully made her way along the raging river back to the

canoe and started to examine the topographical map that

Uncle Harold had brought for the trip with her sister. After

the first wave of fear passed them by, they carefully found

where they were and where they had to go. They found the

part of the lake that had the highest bluff and knew that that

was just around the comer from the boat launch where

their parents would be waiting for them. They carefully

lifted the canoe into the water and made sure that their life

jackets were secure. With Alba in the bow and Penny in

the stern they started to paddle and soon realized that

Uncle Harold had been right. They both were lily dippers.

They knew they had to plunge the paddles deeper to get

the canoe to move as quickly as they needed. In addition,

they were zig-zagging across the lake until they applied the

J-stroke technique that they had been taught by Uncle

Harold. Alba in the bow paddled straight ahead and Penny

in the stem paddled and steered using a J stroke motion in

the water. It seemed like forever before they got going in a

straight line but once they got the hang of it, they started to

make reasonable progress. They then started to sing the

camp songs that Uncle Harold had taught them the night

before. They were scared to death but they needed to

keep their spirits up. They were on a mission and nothing

was going to stop them from getting help to save Uncle

Harold.

The rest of the trip seemed like a blur to both Penny and

Alba

-the motor boat driven by the ranger when he saw the

two girls coming into the narrows all by themselves

-the ride in the search and rescue helicopter-the waiting in

the hospital and the tearful reunion with their mom and

dad and Aunt Helen. It was two days before they were

allowed to see Uncle Harold in the hospital but even with a

broken arm and leg and a concussion, Uncle Harold

started talking about the next time they would visit Little

Weasel Falls.

“Remember what a kick it was sliding down the rocks

into the pool,” he said.

“Yeah, you enjoyed it so much you decided to do it on

the portage on the way home as well,” rebuked Aunt

Helen. And they all laughed until Uncle Harold

grimaced with the pain from his arm.

“I told you girls that I’d turn you into great

adventurers-and I did,” winced Uncle Harold.

Although everyone agreed, they were sure that Uncle

Harold hadn’t meant to do it in a way that would hurt him

so badly.

It was weeks before Uncle Harold was strong enough to

go on another canoe trip and this time it was with Penny

and Alba as they paddled him into Murphy’s Pond. Uncle

Harold loved to give instructions.

“You’re still both lily dippers even after all I taught you.”

Penny and Alba looked at each other and on a count of

three drenched Uncle Harold with splashes from their

paddles. At that moment he realized how lucky he was to

have such brave lily dippers as his nieces and how wet you

can get making snide comments in a canoe.