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  • Wednesday August 11, 1999

    Avoiding Sleep of the Living Dead

    Geoffrey Peake writes:

BREWSTER The rain began early this morning, and continued intermittently until late afternoon. One of the greatest luxuries that I know on a trip is to be able to lie in your sleeping bag with the rain pounding down outside and read a good book. We are fortunate that, given the distance left to go, we are not obliged to get up and travel regardless of the rain.

    David, as ever, is up and making oatmeal and coffee at 8 AM sharp. That, along with the apple crisp I made last night, offers enough nourishment to keep us in our tents until well after noon.

    I would have been quite happy to spend the day this way, but the luxury came to an abrupt end when the unthinkable happened: I finished my book. Normally I am well prepared in this department, and always try to choose a book with sufficient length to last me through the trip. Ideally you should be finishing the last few pages when the plane is landing. And so it might have been if my book, Roberston Davies' What's Bred in the Bone, had not been so damned interesting. Although I did my best to pace myself, I read much too voraciously, unable to slow my pace. This morning when the rain set in, I knew there was no sense in denying the inevitable--I was going to finish it today.

    Heading down the lower Winisk as the clouds begin to disappear. -- Michael Peake photo --> to photo gallery

    One your book is finished, you enter into dangerous territory, and must consider your options well. Of course the easiest thing to do is just sleep, and that's usually the first thing that happens. But the body has a finite capacity for the amount of shut-eye it needs, and canoeists need to avoid at all costs the dreaded Sleep of the Living Dead, where, try as you might, sleep will not come. Instead are many long and lonely hours in the dark, tossing and turning, while those who were not so foolish slumber peacefully by your side.

    The cozy confines of the tent were beginning to look like a prison, when I was unexpectedly rescued: Tom finished his book too. Now with two of us done, we had enough momentum to get the others to agree to move on. We manage to pack down camp between showers. After a quick lunch of soup and crackers, we once again boarded the Winisk River express.

    Mike noticed gouges in the trees along the bank below camp. The bark had been sheared off like a blaze, only much larger. We observe this pattern in several places along the river's banks, and realize that it must be the action of the ice grinding up against them in spring that has marked the trees so. Break-up on a northern river can be an awesome site to behold. Rivers swell to many times their size, pushing tons of rock-solid ice downstream like a giant bulldozer that regularly scours the banks. At tonight's campsite we notice that the ice has pushed up and over the banks and into the woods, some 100 feet from the present water's edge, and flattened the spruce trees to the ground. This would be an inspiring event to watch, but not from the seat of any canoe--or any other boat for that matter. In fact, the old town of Peawanuck was badly damaged when an ice dam blocked the river, overflowing through the town. House-size blocks moved through buildings like a wrecking ball, and several people died. The next year the whole village was relocated upstream to a safer location.

    We paddled relatively late tonight (7 PM) because of our late start, but found an excellent site with a flat gravel beach for the tents. After travelling this river for twelve days, we have adapted ourselves into the routine and rhythm of the trip. We can make and break camp in a fraction of the time it took at the beginning. We now can actually find things in the food packs without having to empty every one. The river, which seemed so strange and distant in Webequie, is now like an old friend. But, as in all trips, our time left on the river will be ending soon. We now are about 30 miles from Peawanuck, and the big question for tomorrow is whether we will head into town, or wait until Friday. Although we prefer to spend as many days on the river as possible, the last few days of dark, cloudy weather have been hard on the battery. We are supposed to be on CBC Radio again Friday morning, and don't want the power to die in mid-conversation. If tomorrow looks like a poor charging day, we may just head for town. As in so many things on trip, it is out of our hands.

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