Doubt in the Badlands
“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” - Buddha
The next day began like a lot of days on the river. The sky was clear and blue and it was already warm as I made my way downstream towards the Starland Bridge. One thing made me feel happy that day. I had a slight tailwind. Someone had warned me that when they canoed on the Red Deer River, years before, they had a constant headwind, no matter which direction they were paddling and I had experienced the same thing. From Sundre onward, facing north, south or east there was almost always a headwind. Something like that can wear a man down, especially when you are paddling by yourself. It means that you dare not take a break from paddling or you may be set off course. It was getting worse as I tired and the current lessened with each mile. On this fine day however, I actually had a tailwind and I was damned glad of it.
You may detect a note of sourness creeping into my story at this point. I only want to convey the true nature of my journey. Like all journeys there are highs and lows. Traveling towards my destination definitely agreed with me. There were many times along the journey that I found I actually knew what I was doing and traveling this way came so naturally to me that I wondered where my knowledge, confidence and strength had come from. It certainly wasn’t from anything that I experienced in my everyday life. I had gone on plenty of day hikes and backpack trips, but none of my trips had lasted more than a few days. My canoe trips were all of the day trip variety, with companions who shared both the experience and the work. It had been over fifteen years since I had even dipped a paddle in the water. What had made me think that I could complete a voyage of such magnitude?
I thought back to that first day. My back was sore and I had taken painkillers just to be able to walk properly -- never mind carrying a heavy pack and video camera. I was worried when the Skoki Lodge driver looked at me with a disapproving frown, while we attempted to hoist my pack onto the roof of the shuttle bus that would carry us up the service road to the trail head. “Sure is a heavy pack you got there!”
I was worried after a few hundred metres, when I had to stop to rest as all the other Skoki Lodge hikers disappeared from sight. Was I making a big mistake? I still had eight hundred kilometres ahead of me with god-knows-what challenges and I was already tired after just a few steps! Somehow I made it through that day, crossing over two high mountain passes and felt stronger at the end of the day than I had at the beginning.
Now here I was, after weeks of effort and hundreds of kilometres and I was beginning to realize something. There was no way I was ever going to reach my destination at the confluence of the Red Deer and South Saskatchewan Rivers in the time I had available. I was beginning to tire both physically and mentally. The river was slowing at this point and the water level seemed to be getting lower as well. Being alone, except for brief conversations with total strangers, was starting to get old. There are times when I have found that being alone with one’s own thoughts is not only desirable, but necessary. There are other times that the diversion of meaningless conversation, along with the noise and activities of the surrounding world, help to drown out that inner voice and one is glad of them. I decided that I would aim for Drumheller that day, check into a motel, have a nice hot shower and a restaurant meal and think things over.
My life could have been very different...
As I approached the next crossing (the Munson Bridge), I was reminded of something that had occurred on that highway, just west of the river valley. It was April of 2001 and the snow had melted from the fields leaving them a golden brown. I was hurtling down the road in my little car, as I did on so many of my working days. Just two days earlier, I had been riding The Tube in Central London. I was on my way back to my North London hotel after a football match. We were all jammed on a train --thousands of us. My face was jammed in someone’s armpit. I could barely move. It was hot. A woman got onboard with her crying newborn baby... My car got to a high point on the road and I pulled over to the side, got out and looked around me. Amber, empty fields stretched from horizon to horizon. The sky seemed to go on forever that day. I could not see one other person. The stark contrast of those two days in April have stuck with me ever since and given me an appreciation for the life that I have, compared to the life I might have had.
|A lone coyote on the prairie near my home|
After the Munson Bridge, the next major human landmark was the Bleriot Ferry. It was busy shuttling vehicles back and forth across the river. It certainly was larger and more modern looking than the cable ferry I remember from my childhood. Over thirty years had passed since I was last at this spot. I waited until it had stopped briefly on the south bank, then I paddled by and waved back at the ferryman. It was a gorgeous day and the wind at my back allowed me to appreciate it all the more. The river turned from the southerly direction I had been traveling since the Great Bend, back to the east. I paddled past Nacmine and some nice riverside houses and into the heart of the Town of Drumheller.