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
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 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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
But still there was no reply. The girls knew that they
had to do something but they didn’t know what. Penny
“Alba, run to the start of the portage and make sure Uncle
Harold isn’t back there, then come back as soon as you
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
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
The rest of the trip seemed like a blur to both Penny and
-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
“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
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.