A while ago, I wrote a blog entry called “Paddling with Dad”. In it I talked about the canoe trips my father and I used to take, and I explained his philosophy of always wanting to travel in a loop instead of going back the way we came so that we could always see new things. I had also mentioned that on one of those trips we had nearly died, and I had said that I’d save that story for another time. Well, that time is now.
When I was around ten years old, my dad got it into his head that it was a good idea to take me (and only me) canoeing into Algonquin Park for two weeks. He had an ambitious plan to go farther then we had ever gone before. To add to that ambition, we were going to paddle through something called “Vanishing Pond.”
The beginning of our trip went fine. We went the route we had normally taken. We found campsites with others on the lake. We could see their fires burning at night. We could hear them talking. But later into the week, we got to an area where there was barely anyone around. I think I remember coming upon one other canoe as we paddled. And we only ever shared a lake with one other campsite one night.
Still, things were fine.
I’m not sure why we had gone across the lake to explore another part of the land there. Aside from trees, trees, and more trees, there really wasn’t anything else we would come upon. But we paddled across the lake and began walking around the area anyway.
It was on the way back that something bad happened.
We were standing on the top of an embankment. The canoe was below us, tied to its spot. And my dad was in the midst of saying something.
Then he fell.
I’m not sure what caused it. I don’t think he knew either. But he slid down the embankment and came to a stop at the bottom. Unfortunately, it was the stump of a tree that had been eaten away by a beaver that had stopped him. The pointed edge of the stump bashed against his ribs, bruising him, nearly puncturing him. I hate to think of what may have happened if it had slammed into his stomach instead.
I ran down the hill, trying my best not to slip and fall alongside him. When I got to him, I could see that he was in a lot of pain. But my dad, being the guy he is, tried to play it off as being nothing more than a little scratch. He assured me everything was okay. He told me we just needed to get back to the campsite to rest. So that was what we did.
It turned out that we had to stay at that site three days longer than we had planned. My dad’s ribs were far too hurt for anything else. It would’ve been impossible for him to pack up camp, let alone canoe and portage to the next site.
I still remember the bruise and cut. The whole side of him was a dark blue. The cut wasn’t deep, but it looked red and sore.
That whole time, I knew he was wondering about what would’ve happened to me if things had been worse. He knew I wouldn’t have left him there alone. And he knew that there weren’t any other people passing by to help. In the three extra days we had stayed there, no one had come by.
And if that hadn’t been bad enough, things were about to get worse.
When he was ready, we packed up our things and headed out. Vanishing Pond was next on the list.
Now, I know that with a name like Vanishing Pond we should have known what to expect. But the truth is that we had no idea what lay waiting for us. It definitely wasn’t a lake. It was a pond at best. If anything, it was mud with a stream running through it.
I know my dad was surprised by that. I was too. We were both even more surprised that, after trying to paddle through it, we didn’t get very far.
It was then that my dad decided to get out of the canoe and pull.
He stood on the mud with an oar in hand, pressing on the ground in front of him, making sure it was solid. For the most part, it was. Sometimes his foot got stuck. Other times he nearly fell. But he kept one hand on the oar and the other on the canoe.
Then he nearly disappeared.
It happened suddenly. Without warning. Even with the oar that my dad was using to check the ground, he hadn’t seen it coming. The mud went out from underneath his feet and sucked him down. It came up to his neck. That’s how deep it was.
With both hands, he grabbed onto the canoe. Again, he tried to be calm and tell me that everything was going to be all right. Even laughing as he spoke. But, as a ten year old boy, I was old enough not to believe him. Things were bad.
He tried to pull himself out. He couldn’t.
I tied a rope around him and attached it to the canoe in case he went under further.
He tried again. And still couldn’t get out.
I can’t remember if it was his idea or mine, but we decided to use the oar. I needed to place it down beside him and rock it back and forth, trying to get air in between him and the mud to break him free. There wasn’t much left we could do.
The canoe rocked back and forth as I leaned over to put the oar into the mud. I worried about tipping out, but not as much as I was worried about my father. I moved this way and that until I was in the perfect position. Then I pressed on the oar. One way and the other.
There were flies buzzing around me. The sun was hot. Sweat dripped from my forehead.
I could hear him grunt as the oar pushed against him. He encouraged me to keep trying. He would tell me that it wouldn’t be long, he’d be free soon, everything would be fine.
It wasn’t. Not straight away. It took a long time to get the air down in between him and the mud. But, when it did, there was a pop and my dad was practically pushed out of the hole. He was able to get onto sturdier ground. He was able to get a better hold of the canoe.
He took a few deep breaths. He tried to reassure me once more. The problem was that we still had to make it the rest of the way out of Vanishing Pond. There was half way to go.
We kept the rope tied around him. He took his oar again and started checking the ground more thoroughly.
And eventually we made it out.
It was by far one of the scariest camping experiences I ever had – well, aside from the time a mama bear and three cubs ran into our site – but, in the end, it was another experience that showed me the dangers (and beauty) of nature and the care we need to take when approaching it. It taught me about how we need to remain calm in difficult situations and, as my dad always says, to focus on the solution instead of the problem. But more than anything else, it strengthened the already strong bond that I had with my wonderful, and admittedly slightly reckless, father. I can’t imagine ever having done it any other way.