SENNETERRE, Canada — Sparkling in the late afternoon sun, the eastbound Via Rail Canada train pulled into the small, spotless station in this western Quebec town smartly on schedule. Ten of us watched in eager nervousness as the baggage car stopped almost where we were waiting.
Lined up beside us near the platform were five canoes, 14 blue waterproof bags holding more than 400 pounds of food, sleeping bags and tents lashed to personal packs. There were sturdy packs carrying the community gear that would be necessary for two weeks spent paddling 130 miles of the Megiscane River, through endless forests of balsam, poplar, jack pine and white birch.
The baggage doors slid open. A conductor leaned out. He waved to us to hustle everything aboard. We made quick work hauling the canoes and gear inside, then walked back to a comfortable coach car.
It was the auspicious start of a Sierra Club-sponsored wilderness canoe trip, to be led by yours truly. We had met as a group only a couple hours earlier in the office of an outfitter in Senneterre. Several of us had driven up the night before; others had spent the night somewhere north of Montreal and arrived that morning.
Now, the air was filled with the friendly chatter of people getting acquainted. Among the participants on this paddling adventure were five with limited camping experience and novice canoeing skills: Ellen and Mary, retired schoolteachers in their 60s; Tom, a singing waiter in his 20s who coddled a small guitar on his lap, and Jean and Ed, a recently married, well-traveled Manhattan couple in their early 50s. Four with previous wilderness canoeing experience included Rell and Bill, outdoor enthusiasts in their early 30s; Stephanie, an education specialist in her 40s, and my assistant, Kevin, a dedicated paddler who had arrived at the station with his own canoe and all the food and community gear for the trip.
For the next three hours the train sliced east through two walls of forest before reaching Monet, a whistle-stop of three buildings. It halted barely long enough for us to unload the canoes and toss out our equipment in the gathering dusk.
The train whisked off. There was a brief moment while we organized personal gear, then began a series of treks to crystal Lac (lake) Octavie, where we set up tents along a wide, sandy shore.
Our first wilderness dinner was a copious fresh-food farewell-to-civilization: crunchy raw vegetables, broiled steak, a rich tomato-basil soup, steaming corn on the cob, frying-pan biscuits, a modest red wine, coffee and chocolate cake. Stuffed, at ease with the world, we sat around the fire embers and talked about what lay ahead.
I explained that Lac Octavie was one of several lakes and streams that form the headwaters of the Megiscane. The waters flow west and north across Precambrian shield country, the most ancient land surface in the world, eventually emptying into James Bay.
For miles the Megiscane is gentle, but it also has rapids, roaring Class Vs. At times it flows into wide lakes dotted with dozens of islands. The detailed topographic maps I carried held the secret of weaving our way through to the outlets.
As there would be no bosses on this journey, so there were no slaves. We worked together, daily rotating the four key camp jobs, each handled by a team of two: fire and water; safety and area cleanup; bull cooks--a north-woods term for KP--and, their royal highnesses, the cooks. The hour was late. The stars were vibrant diamonds in a velvet sky. We bid each other good night. I crawled into my sleeping bag and zipped it shut against the chilly night air. A loon's sudden laughter echoed through the quiet.
Fog smothered the lake when I awoke to the sound of the fire and water team noisily starting the fire. By the time we had eaten, broken camp and loaded our canoes, the sun smiled through on a day of exquisite beauty. I reminded everyone that this was seldom-traveled backwoods country. "Don't lose me. If you do, you'd better have a map and a compass and know how to use them."
"Don't lose us," Rell shouted. There was an outburst of laughter. What a warm and cheerful group, I thought, an impression that was as true the day our canoe trip ended as when it began.
We paddled casually across the lake, the novices practicing how to keep a canoe pointed in the direction they wanted to go, to where it emptied into a small, rocky river. Around noon, we stopped for a lunch of creamy Brie and crackers, sun-dried tomatoes dipped in olive oil, our own version of gorp--a plastic bag brimming with minced dried fruit, raisins, mixed nuts, and M&Ms--and lemon powder for each to make his or her own drink.