Chats Falls Dam stretches over the Ottawa like a wall. Tangled power lines hang on top of it. Giant red warning signs yell at you to get back. I stare at it and know the river continues two hundred yards away, but there’s no good way to get to it.
There could be. There could be an open road or a small trail, but no one buildings dams cares much about someone with a paddle.
I scan the Quebec shoreline for the old portage trail, the one the voyageurs used, but know that even if I find it, the far end is cut off by the dam. I get out and bushwhack my way next to an old canal that’s overgrown with trees. The thought of portaging through the tangle is too much so I find a road on the Ottawa side, five miles to get around a dam, but it’s all I got.
The official route, the one the power company claims as adequate, involves a five-mile slog through a swamp. The road sounds better so I take it, dragging the boat out of the water near sunset and walking through Fitzroy Harbor.
A man with his dog tells me about a shortcut to avoid part of the highway.
“It’s a snowmobile trail,” he says. “But the dirt is packed and the trail is good.”
“Can I roll the boat down it with these wheels?” I ask.
“Yea,” he said, “no problem.”
I walk towards it and meet another man who tells me the same thing.
“It has a few ruts,” he says. “But nothing bad.”
A half mile down, I pass a bunch of high school kids smoking weed around a pickup truck. They look at me and the kayak in the twilight like I’m Bigfoot, emerging out of nowhere and disappearing again into the forest.
I see the swamp ditch that the official route uses. It’s a tangle of weeds and lily pads. Looks nasty to get anywhere. Shallow, lots of mud and pullovers. It looks a bit like the Savanna Portage, not as bad, but messy. Funnily enough, it also connects to a river called the Mississippi, but this one doesn’t go to New Orleans, just down to the Ottawa.
A mile later I pass the ditch again in the dark and it doesn’t look any better. I’m glad I decided to walk.
Then the trail disappears. Tire tracks slip into a giant smear of mud and end. I stare at it in the dark, thinking back to that moment when I asked the two guys if the trail was passable and how that tiny voice in my head screamed at me then.
“Never trust anyone who uses a motor,” it said.
I sat there in the dark weighing options. Turn around and roll two miles back to the road or take my chances in the swamp. I slipped the boat under a barbed wire fence, climbed over and pushed it into the muck, sinking up to my knees.
“Here we go again,” I thought.