Small, bony rapids, a few short ledges, fallen trees stretched across the water, the last miles of the Muskrat River come fast and I feel my heart thumping in my chest because I don’t know what’s coming. There could be a waterfall, a big rapid, a swamp, a dam, anything. All I know is that it’s the old route, or was once, for light canoes to get around the Ottawa’s rapids.
My heart doesn’t stop pounding until I see the Ottawa open up in front of me, wide and calm, looking as innocent as ever, just a long sheet of black glass.
“One more dam to go,” I tell myself.
Late in the day, the river slides underneath a huge rock wall. I float underneath it, staring up to where the grey rock meets the sky. The Canadian Shield’s granite has hung in the distance for days, a low rise like a shadow on the horizon, but now that it’s close enough to touch, it makes me think of the north.
I stop at a long spit of sand that hangs out in the water like the tip of a spear. I imagine long Montreal canoes pulled onto the shore, glowing next to a fire as men celebrated and sang songs of travel and home and those they left behind. This is Pointe-aux-Baptêmes, Baptism Point, the place new voyageurs were accepted into the crew.
I think of the mud and swamp around Chats Falls, the long walk to Montreal and the Muskrat, the rapids on the Richelieu, pulling the boat around dams, and fighting against the slow drag of the current.
There’s so far to go, so many portages and crossings, so many lakes, rivers, and streams. I’ve only just begun. The Angle is still a thousand miles away.
I grab a handful of dirt and smear it across my heart, on my skin, and the kayak’s hull, feeling a bit of history, a bit like I’ve paid the entrance fee, like I’ve earned back that mask I left behind at the end of the Savanna Portage on the Mississippi’s muddy banks.