Canoe Trip with my Brother

by Darren Sleep from St-Lazare, QC
Jul 6, 13

In the latter part of the winter of 2008, I received an unexpected phone call from my parents in New Brunswick.

“Your mother wants to go canoe camping this summer,” my dad said. “What do you think about that?”

“Have you called the ambulance?” I asked. “Maybe she’s had a stroke.”

Generally speaking, my mother is not the outdoor, canoe camping, “roughing it” kind of mother. She is tough enough alright, but this was not the sort of thing she would normally go for. Apparently she had read a piece in a magazine about a couple of retirees who went canoe camping somewhere. The image of floating down a gentle river on a lazy afternoon and eating dinner on a river bank had appealed to her. She had no idea just how thankful we all would be that she followed through on that magazine’s advice.

When she asked my father if he could think of any couple crazy enough to accompany them on such an adventure, he hesitated only a moment or two before he picked up the phone and called us.

My wife and I had recently moved with our two young boys to Montreal. But we had spent the last decade or so moving throughout Canada in the pursuit of higher education. As an ecologist, camping and canoeing had always been part my repertoire, so my wife and kids were no strangers to the outdoors. My father knew this well, and was counting on the fact that we would have the equipment to make the trip enjoyable.

And so, several months later, we found ourselves on the banks of the Salmon River in central New Brunswick. We had borrowed and begged three canoes from friends and family. My mother and father were in one, my older brother and his daughter in another, and my wife, our two boys and I in the third.

We put in around mid-morning and followed the meanderings of the river for five or six hours. The weather was perfect, with the late August clouds drifting in and out. 

The river was low in places, causing us to get out and pull the boats over shallow rocky areas. In the deep waters, when the children got restless, we grabbed them by their lifejackets, threw them overboard, and let them swim with the current.

By late afternoon everyone was tired. We began to look for a place to camp. After a few bends in the river, we spotted a grassy spot where a small stream entered the river. As if an omen, a Bald Eagle sat by the river’s edge eating his evening catch. At the sight of our flotilla he took to the air. After tents were raised and dinner was cooked and eaten, we tied ropes to the kids and hauled them through the river’s current while they laughed and splashed. In the evening, we sat by the fire and talked for a while before a few black flies, and exhaustion, drove us into our tents.

Dawn, revealed a misty morning, damp and chilly. But a hot breakfast of porridge, bacon, eggs and coffee brightened everyone’s spirits. By the time we took to the river, the morning fog was burning off, and the sun was beginning to push through the gray. After three or four more hours of paddling, we neared the spot where we had stashed a vehicle. My wife and I arrived ahead of the others, and began to unload. 

Most of us were tired and looking forward to getting off the river, but my mother, for reasons known only to her, wanted to press on. She wanted to follow the water a few kilometers farther, and take out near the town where she grew up. My eldest son, who was five at the time, was not feeling well and had developed a low-grade fever, so my wife and I were done. My father was needed to drive one of the cars, and my niece was in no mood for paddling, so, while the rest of us started carrying equipment up the hill to the cars, my brother agreed to paddle the remaining distance with my mother.

It was a short, but wonderful canoe trip and there was already talk of what we would do next time to make it even better.  

In retrospect, that day and a half on the river was a once in a lifetime event. Much to everyone’s great sadness, my brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor about two months later. Eleven months after that – he passed away. The last few kilometres he paddled with my mother are, for her, a cherished memory. That day on the water is etched in his daughter’s mind, forever, as precious.

I’ve often wondered if events don’t conspire at times to give us moments to hang on to when the sadness of life hits. The trip, of course, was not about my brother; but now that he is gone, we look back on photographs of our fondest memory together. The picture of him and his daughter as they paddled in the afternoon sun; the moment we stood on the riverbank eating supper and enjoying each other’s company; the way he decided to carry on down the river with mom when everyone else was too tired or too busy; these are the moments that now define that trip for all of us. There may, of course, be other camping trips, but none will ever be as poignant, or as meaningful, as that trip … on the Salmon River.