“[The Nipissings are] called Sorcerers because of the great number of those among them and of those magicians who profess to confer with the devil in little round towers…they are also in the habit of casting spells and inflicting certain diseases…but apart from the magic spells and communications with demons I found them very kindly and polite.”
–French Missionary, Father Gabriel Sagard in 1623.
Pimisi Bay, Mattawa River, Ontario – July 31, 2013
I grab the back end of the Looksha and lift. It rises heavy and I fight my way up to the cockpit, shifting my shoulders under the paddle I’d strapped across it. The balance is off and the weight yanks the boat backwards. The seat smashes into my face and presses against my throat, choking me as I shudder then drop the boat back on the rocks.
I’d forgotten how hard it is to carry the boat over a portage, to actually lift it up onto my shoulders. I haven’t done it for almost eleven months and time has a way of scrubbing pain off memories that reality paints sharp again.
I adjust the paddle-turned-yoke, tighten the straps so they don’t slide, and lift again. The boat steadies on my shoulders and hangs there, crushing me bit by bit. I stumble forward and think of all the portages ahead, the boulder strewn paths, uneven ground, the mud, the fallen trees.
A few hundred yards before the portage is an old cave. The Nipissings said a man-eating monster lived inside. The voyageurs called it Porte de l’Enfer, the Gate of Hell, and it seems right. Most of them died young, broken against the harsh life they led.
I drag the boat up the next set of rapids and the next and the next until I reach a narrow gorge with rock cliffs rising on both sides. A small white cross hangs above a ledge, reminding me of the crosses voyageurs used to leave for their fallen comrades. Some rapids and portages had dozens of them sticking out of the ground, old next to new, warning all who passed.
An old, humpbacked rock rises out of the water in the middle of the gorge like an altar. I paddle out and scramble up one side, pulling myself up cracks and onto the rock’s broad back. I stare down at the river, its water purple and black with shadows and sunset.
Nipissing and voyageurs left offerings of tobacco on the rock to ensure safe passage. I don’t smoke, so I leave a handful of jellybeans instead. I stack them in a near pile, their colors neon against the granite, and hope the gods have a sweet tooth, not because I believe in spirits, but because it’s good to remind yourself of how small you are against the forces of nature.