Farmer John meets Starburst

by Neil E. Miller|Published 09-12-2008


Farmer John meets Starburst


     Before the start of Day One and our trial (by water) involving basic boat-handling, we had to stand informal inspection to be certain we had the proper clothing for the conditions and to select the crux piece of gear:  the boat.  At the pre-arranged time, we showed up at the meeting on the deck, outside of the dining room, in full wilderness tripping regalia feeling like the “professional” paddlers we thought we were.  This was to be our inspection of what we were wearing on the river and it was performed with casual astuteness by both MKC’s owner and our instructors.  We were certain that we had picked the right clothing, but it turned out to be more like the guy that showed up for a gunfight carrying a knife.


     Of the four Sudburyites, the couple that turned out to be the most experienced in our group was married and he was a mining engineer and she was a school teacher back in the world.  Their dry suits, helmets and PFD’s appeared to be near top-of-the-line.  The other Sudbury couple were engaged and he had a decent quality dry suit although he wore a hockey helmet and his betrothed wore an ill-fitting inexpensive dry suit and it looked like her helmet was too small for her head. 


     The two ladies who were planning to do the Nahanni  had purchased all the best gear but they both showed up at the inspection wearing over-the-calf rubber Tundra boots.  They were sent back to their room to change footwear but they both had new Farmer John-style wetsuits, paddle jackets, their own helmets and the best PFD’s.


     MKC’s owner pointed out to my partner and me that we were completely unprotected against a swim in icy water, forcing us to re-think our white-water “wardrobe”.  It didn’t take a lot to convince us that we needed to rent “Farmer Johns” and paddle jackets. After trying on numerous helmets randomly piled in a giant wooden box, we both found headgear that fit us properly.  After this, we selected paddles and here again we thought we knew what we needed.  Personally, I use a 58 inch paddle in deep water and a 54 inch paddle in shallower water but the instructor was telling me I needed a 61 or 62 inch paddle.  This made no sense to me or my partner but the group was in a hurry so we stepped outside the gear shed to select our canoe and this paddle selection remained a mystery to both of us.


          MKC had a variety of whitewater canoes to choose from and we actually eyeballed a Mad River and once again our instructor interceded, choosing four Evergreen Starbursts for all of us.  These are 16’6” Royalex whitewater canoes with full flotation (fore, aft and mid-boat), kneeling pads and thigh straps.  We had rented Evergreen Prospectors five years before on the White River and they became our least favorite canoes for a variety of reasons but by the time we broke for lunch on that first day, we would have a genuine affection for our red, slightly battered, Starburst.


     I was wearing light-weight polypropylene long underwear under my Farmer John but in the cold steady rain, I was regretting leaving my heavy-weight fleece at home.  In our discussions of what to wear before leaving Michigan, my partner and I both pictured sunny weather with us sweating profusely in our fleece “long-johns” so in a unanimous decision, we left them at home.


     Now, standing outside in the rain and the 4°C ambient temperature, waiting to pile into the van, we were both cold and unfortunately were to remain that way for the entire first day.  When we had held our initial discussions back in the states, we hadn’t even taken into account the temperature of the water or that on occasion, without even trying and in the “twinkling of an eye” we would dump our boat and ourselves into the cold river.  However, we had done some things right and we had our neoprene paddling gloves.  I wore thick fleece socks while my partner wore neoprene socks and on Day Two, we both purchased neoprene skull caps from the MKC store, to wear under our helmets.  This made a noticeable difference in our comfort level.


     The MKC schedule was consistent and each morning at 7:00 am, coffee and tea were set out as well as assorted baked goods.  Around 8:00 am, breakfast was served and by 8:45 we were suiting up for a day on the river.  That day ran approximately from nine to four with an hour in the middle for lunch.  On the first two days we took our training in the four kilometer river section that was in front of the camp and each day, at lunchtime, we walked up to the large enclosed gazebo near the main building where there was a roaring fire, hot soup, sandwich fixings and assorted other accoutrements.  On our third day, after breakfast, we made bag lunches to go and were then transported to the Lower Madawaska just south of Quadeville.  After the put-in, we ran the series of eight rapids that make up what is referred to collectively as Snake Rapids.  Upon our return to the camp, everybody said their goodbyes and we all went our separate ways.  It reminded me a lot of when I was a kid at the end of summer camp with hugs and handshakes and then it was over.


     But it was just the beginning of Day One.  Our training would only take us down 1,720 meters of river before lunch and then only 780 meters more to end the first day.  Leaving our boats at the river’s edge and returning to camp to take hot showers and open a bottle of wine before dinner, my muscles felt like we had gone 50 kilometers.  Such was the level of our instruction that we would only cover about two kilometers on our second day.  Only on Day Three would we cover nearly ten kilometers of river, from Aumond’s Bay to Buck Bay.


     All experiences involving boats self-propelled by paddles are mostly successful based on the attention to the gear, both worn and carried, and the skill of the paddlers.  Issues such as remoteness, weather and water conditions call for an enhanced requirement to the gear selection and the skill level necessary.  Once again, it was proven to my partner and me that no matter how much we think we know about this activity, we’re still students and at some level will always remain students because there will always be something more we need to learn.



Neil E. Miller

Copyright © August 17, 2008