I won’t lie to you. Money matters. In those years when I traveled the Arctic from ice out in the spring to freeze-up in early winter, I often fantasized about what it might be like to have the raw financial power to fill a canoe with the best gear I knew and all the food it would hold.
On this afternoon, my fantasies turned toward a good climbing rope.
This afternoon early, I did the Manitou Falls portage. Something happened to me up there, a hard part of me shifted. What I took yesterday for Manitou Falls was the upper Manitou, a mistake that came close to costing me. Before I reached the Manitou proper, the sandstone walls in the bend constricted the flow of the Fon du Lac, but I heard nothing beyond the small rapid in front of me.
When I rounded the bend on the left side of the river, where the current pushed strong against the wall, I saw where Manitou Falls dropped out of the canyon. I had paddled myself into a box. High undercut sandstone bluffs closed in. I fought my way into the large eddy under the left wall. The slow, circular power of this massive eddy pushed me farther into the deep undercut below the eroded wall. Inside this cave, I sat in the canoe in dead water of unknown depth inches from the water worn shapes of the soft sandstone wall. Everything felt wrong. Sound touched my skin wrong in this sacred place, a place I had no right to enter. I had missed the portage and found myself in a part of the river that very likely no person had known, or if they had, they had known it in those few moments preceding their death. How much noise or vibration it would take to bring down the walls and the ceiling—I couldn’t know. I didn’t touch anything. When I left the cavern and lost the eddy, I’d find the tongue leading over the falls.
I allowed myself neither panic, recrimination, nor much of anything else. Could I fight my way upstream out of the gorge? I saved the possibility of an attempt against the main force of the Fon du Lac for a last resort.
I worked my way around the wall at the back of the cavern a bit more. As long as I stayed in the eddy and touched nothing, I was safe enough. The moment I began to lose the haven of the eddy, I should see and feel it. Deep water looks like deep water, but after enough years of feeling the tug of water against the hull of a canoe or a paddle blade, I can judge an eddy line.
Near the sunlight again at the mouth of the cave, I saw my chance: a low spot in the wall, downstream, and well outside of the cavern, perhaps seconds above the falls. I had to cross a section of current below this eddy to reach the narrow eddy about as wide as the canoe, at the low spot in the crumbling sandstone wall. This crumbling section of wall had just enough flat area about the height of the canoe’s gunwales to barely wedge a foot sideways in the rocks. Leaving the cavern might mean leaving it forever, but the cavern only offered temporary sanctuary. There was nothing here for me.
In the main current, I shot toward the forty-foot drop fast. The river had depth under this part of the cliff. When I caught the tiny eddy, the canoe slammed into the cliff hard enough to scar. As the canoe bounced back toward the current, I leaned hard enough for the gunwales to almost touch the surface of the water. With my left hand, I held onto the rough rock, not exactly shaped for a handhold, for all I was worth. The canoe bobbed upright, and I scrambled out on the low spot, stern rope in hand. To have enough rope to reach the top, I put a sheet bend on the end of my stern rope to connect it with my spare third rope, all of it cheap K-Mart poly, fifteen cents a foot, while I balanced in the tiny foothold. I scrambled up the near vertical face of the rock, rope in hand until I reached the top where I clove hitched and half-hitched it off on a stunted Jack pine.
I tried to breathe. Being safe for the moment meant nothing. In this country without my gear I was dead. I doubted I had either the strength or the skill to move my gear up this vertical wall, but not to try meant to accept death.
Whatever dropped would have to be let go. I couldn’t go into the river after it, not here, not above the Manitou. I strapped on one pack at a time and walked it up the wall, a hand on the rope, the other sometimes on the rope sometimes balancing loose items like rod cases and paddles. I promised myself if I lived to get out of this situation I would buy a decent climbing rope. With the canoe empty, I pulled her up by my two connected ropes, dragging the bottom of the hull against the rough sandstone, my world on a bowline hitch. I lacked the necessary power to dead lift the seventy-five pound canoe, dangling at the end of a rope, what might have been forty feet, but I managed to rest it in small breaks in the cliff face and take her up in stages.
After I had everything safely to the top, I continued my portage along the edge of the cliff in the rain. The emotional power of the place pressed. Part of the portage path led to within inches of the wall. Manitou is a spirit word. If I can trust the translations in government brochures, it means something like where the spirits come together. I don’t know whether the spirits are good or bad, and sometimes I believe they are neither, but are merely catalysts, which exacerbate whatever good or bad may be in a man’s nature.
Along the trail within feet of the edge just back from the Manitou, I came to a rock cairn where I found a note in a glass bottle. The note described the passing of Eric, Mike, Tony, and Lance in the year before. I met them on the lower Mackenzie, months to the west. They’d come from the east, I from the west. They were reduced to the blandest of foods: potatoes, lard, and flour. I cooked them a chocolate cake, and the morning before we parted, I killed two geese with one rifle shot, which Eric cooked on the spot and we shared. The memory of our time together was one of my finest moments. I had just had one of my worst. I should have left my own note on the cairn, but I didn’t see my passing as significant.
Two huge rock towers constricted and split the water plunging into the drop. The far side of the near tower where the main force of the river foamed through showed a dramatic undercut. The top of the near tower looked as if it almost connected to the one in the center by a narrow bridge. The water force had hollowed out the sandstone bridge between the two towers and left a gap, but they stood close enough that it looked as if a man could step across the open chasm in one long step as the wild froth of water stacked at the top of the drop just underneath him almost reached his feet.
The impulse to climb that near tower from below the falls and to stand on that narrow bridge between the towers and to look into that chasm of wild stacked water passing only inches underneath that carried the full force of the Fon du Lac, disappeared almost as quickly as it came. The sandstone of the narrow bridge that very likely no man had ever stepped on might not have the strength to bear my weight, and whether it could or not it seemed to me that to stand on that spot would be to challenge the Manitou directly. Some sights, some feelings are not for a mere man to know, and to attempt them is a disrespect and a challenge to the gods. I only wanted to pass safely.
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