I WENT TO FLORIDA-BY CANOE
Ever dream of throwing up your job, breaking out of the humdrum routine and really getting away from it all? Here’s a Quebecer who did more than dream about it. The result? A devil-may-care adventure that would do credit to Sinbad himself
“It happened to me“
This is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean’s . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.
HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean's Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.
I set out from Lake St. Francis, near my home town of Thetford Mines, Que., last July 1 to paddle a canoe to Florida. I arrived at Hollywood Beach, near Miami, on December 27, clinging to my capsized canoe but still afloat. I had traveled 2,150 miles, lost ten pounds of fat, grown five years younger in appearance and learned that I needed hardly any money to live. I had been swamped by an ocean liner in the St. Lawrence and had weathered an all-night storm on Chesapeake Bay.
But 1 had also rediscovered the luxury of sleeping beneath the stars, awakening to such simple joys as watching a mother bird teach her young to fly, and singing at full volume alone in the middle of a lake. 1 paddled right out of a semicomatose routine existence and into a life that is again fresh, exciting and full of adventure.
1 was assistant to an engineer in an asbestos plant in Thetford Mines. At thirty-seven, which I figured was halfway through my life, 1 was in the familiar situation of being up to my ears in time payments, coping with the expenses of a car. an apartment and cocktails at the local golf club, superficially respected because of my father’s position as an Anglican priest: in fact, leading a normal, modern life of working for something I didn’t want, having no idea where I was going and being perpetually broke, increasingly potbellied and bored to death.
Then, a year ago last summer. 1 bought a sixteenfoot. orange-colored, Fibrcglas canoe for $175. I had never been in a canoe before, but 1 spent a week of my two week’s holidays making a trip of two hundred miles down the St. Lawrence from Three Rivers to Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay. I arrived at Tadoussac late one stormy night, after a grueling twelve hours of fighting to keep my canoe from capsizing in a twenty-five-mile-an-hour following wind, crawled into my sleeping bag on the beach opposite the government wharf and woke at noon the next day with a fever. 1 was feeling so sick that 1 took the Saguenay cruise ship to Chicoutimi to see my sister, a nurse. She took one look at me and drove me to the military hospital in Quebec to be treated for extreme exhaustion.
I was there for eleven days, being fed three brandies and two steaks a day. plus vitamin pills and tranquilizers. I had plenty of time to look back on
my trip. The last day had been a killer, but I remembered other things: going undet-the bridge at Quebec as the sun came up: sleeping in my canoe and being awakened by the engine-room bells of a freighter; being invited to dinner in a FrenchCanadian household where the members wore homespun clothes and the grandparents were still the venerated heads of the house.
1 saw the world and myself in sharper perspective and felt more alive than 1 had for years, and when 1 arrived hack at work I already knew what 1 wanted to do. I wanted to test myself physically and philosophically, and find out what it would be like to live close to nature. 1 wanted to know how I would react to a simple, self-sufficient life, how 1 would take the test of extreme endurance and. if necessary, danger. 1 began to form plans of paddling to Montreal, then to New' York. and. finally, if 1 were still afloat, to Florida.
All that winter 1 tightened my financial belt and cleared off my time payments. 1 resigned my membership in the golf club, gave up my apartment to share living quarters with my father and sold my car. By June I was out of debt and actually owned three hundred dollars. 1 quit my job. and at nine o’clock in the morning, on July 1, in a fine drizzle. 1 launched my canoe on Lake St. Francis with the help of my brother-in-law. who had come to see me off on his way to work at the mill. He waved dubiously as I nosed out into the rain.
I was provisioned with a cardboard carton full of corner-store groceries: salami, liverw'urst sausage, sandwiches, apples, cottage cheese, canned fruit, bread, milk, butter, a bottle each of red and white wine. I had a twenty-four-dollar sleeping bag. a fourteen-dollar air mattress, a ground sheet, a poncho, and an air-force-type kapok life saver. My three suits and a cashmere jacket w'ere in a suitcase in the bow. 1 also carried some six-foot and ten-foot w'eather balloons that 1 intended to try as sails in a following w'ind. I had a supply of clothesline rope and a piece of cotton that 1 intended to make into a sail. The whole load was lashed down under my poncho, and all the main pieces were connected by a rope to the canoe, in case 1 overturned. 1 sat on a woven fiber thwart — six
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‘Suddenly it was as if someone had pulled the plug out of a bathtub I shot twelve rapids”
foot one inch, two hundred pounds of optimism, with a single - bladed paddle. On the bow of the canoe 1 had lettered "Le Voyageur."
The route I had planned would take me down the St. Francis River to the
St. Lawrence and up the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Richelieu. I intended to make a side trip to Montreal, then follow the Richelieu south to Lake Champlain, the Champlain Barge Canal system to the Hudson and down the Hudson to
New York City. If I could get around Sandy Hook and navigate the stretch of open ocean between New York and Manasquan Inlet on the New Jersey coast, I could follow the inland waterway south to Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay,
then stay in the inland waterway all the way south to Miami.
For the first stage of my trip down the St. Francis River, I had a series of Quebec Government maps. They showed all the St. Francis River to the St. Lawrence, except for the first eight miles — a detail which I blithely ignored. It was my first mistake. I had just got nicely on my way to Florida, with only 2,149 miles to go, when I heard the sound of fast water ahead. I found myself going faster and faster. It was as if someone had pulled the plug out of a huge bathtub. Soon twoand three-foot waves were cascading over the canoe, and I was traveling at what I estimated was twenty-five to thirty miles an hour. Later I learned that the river dropped 120 feet in four miles.
I shot twelve rapids. While I was shooting the last one I hit a rock and was thrown unconscious to the bottom of the canoe. When I came to. the canoe was now traveling backwards. I knelt there, warding off rocks with my paddle. This became my method of shooting rapids from then on. I finally came to rest in still waters, skinned and bruised. The canoe was half full of water and had a mangled keel, but it was otherwise intact.
During those first days. 1 watched twenty men on a pontoon barge, looking strangely medieval as they speared waterlogged pulp with twenty-foot pikes. I saw a fox playing with two sheep and surprised a naked girl taking a sun bath. I slept lying on my back in my canoe, feeling like Moses in the bulrushes. 1 bought a forty-six-cent straw hat at St. Gérard, One night I tied up to Steinberg’s supermarket in Sherbrooke, which is built on pilings, and woke to find early-morning shoppers looking down at me. I wrote in my journal, on my birthday. July 8: "Life is good and I’m glad to be alive.”
But I wrote it a bit too soon. During the next days of paddling and portaging, fatigue began to catch up with me. and I began to think of what lay ahead. I had planned to paddle to Montreal when I entered the St. Lawrence at Sorel, then return to Sorel to start my southern course up the Richelieu. But the trip up river to Montreal seemed more and more formidable. I remembered what had happened the previous year, when I had to paddle against a strong current.
Besides, I was becoming terrified of rapids. I had lost all confidence. I had found myself being pulled along at a sickening speed, past ugly-looking rocks, with no chance of stopping and with only partial control of my canoe. I was already thinking of finishing my trip to Montreal by truck.
At the reservation of the Abnaki Indians at Odanak, a group of young Indians drove down to the river in souped-up jalopies, looked curiously at my canoe and asked me why I didn't get an outboard. When I told them I liked paddling, they looked at me as if wondering how stupid a guy could get, which I was beginning to wonder myself. Butjhen we were joined by a well-spoken, welldressed Indian in his sixties who seemed to sense that I was on the verge of making a decision I’d regret.
Fie told me that if I had set out to paddle to Montreal I should paddle to Montreal, that it was too important to me and my self-respect to give it up. He
told me exactly what to do — to cross the St. Lawrence at Ile de Grâce just opposite St. Anne de Sorel and follow the north shore. He said I was to keep in so close to shore that my paddle hit the bottom.
[ followed his advice. It was grueling work paddling against the current. I felt like abandoning the struggle many times. Oite day I traveled six miles in seven hours. Vacationers in power boats tried to swamp me for laughs. One surf-boarder came at me with the idea of trying to touch me, until I picked up my paddle ready to brain him when he arrived and he veered off. But I paddled right up to the entrance of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
For a mast, I bought some aluminum pipes at a war surplus store in Montreal, and, during an evening with some friends, met a girl who talked me into taking her with me as far as Sorel.
We had a picnic on an island, with burnt potatoes, charcoal broiled steaks and wine, and next morning started off in a fog, rain and two-foot waves. We were halfway between the shore line and the shipping channel when an ocean liner came around a point, sucking all the water out from shore and sending it back m i giant wave. I paddled out to meet the wave and started to climb it. But the crest broke, covered the canoe with white water and forced it under. My lady friend stayed in the seat. I was in the water amid a lot of equipment which was floating around loosely tied to the canoe. 1 swam the boat to shore, stubbing my toe on some rocks. When I looked at it. it was extending grotesquely from my foot, and 1 knew it was broken.
1 put my hitchhiker into a cab for Montreal. At three that afternoon I headed for Sorel with a helpful wind. I blew up two of my ten-foot balloons to half their diameter and sat scooting along at an exhilarating speed.
The skipper got excited
Suddenly a storm hit me. A forty-milean-hour wind whipped up huge waves, and the balloons pulled me from crest to crest. A Saguenay freighter neared me at a thirty-degree list, our courses converging. I swerved in front of her as the captain yelled at me through a megaphone. I cut one balloon loose and watched it disappear like a bat. But the remaining balloon saved me by keeping the canoe headed downwind. I was driven right into the mud and surf a hundred yards from shore, with the waves going light over me. But I made it to dry land, and later continued to Sorel.
1 went to the hospital in Sorel, had my broken toe set and put in a cast and, the same day, headed up the Richelieu. I had a temperature, my toe was aching, my foot swollen, my body sore, but I'd reached the second stage of my adventure.
The trip through the waterways up the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain, and through the sixty-mile Champlain Barge Canal System to the Hudson, gave me a chance to recuperate and enjoy my first period of tranquil canoeing. I mended my clothes and cut and sewed my sail. 1 made a socket for the aluminum mast from a block of wood and cemented the block to the canoe floor with material from my canoe-repair kit.
At night I would lay my empty canoe on its side as a sort of lean-to, put my luggage in it and drape my sail from the canoe to a couple of sticks. Then I'd blow up my air mattress, spread my sleeping bag on it and arrange it under the shelter.
I d make a charcoal fire from briquettes that 1 had brought with me, wrap a couple of potatoes in aluminum foil and pul
them in the embers. I'd get some water to boil for instant coffee in my bailing bucket and pour myself a glass of wine before dinner.
I always had fresh milk that I bought from farmers on the way. I picked berries and bought big bags of damaged fruit and vegetables for twenty-five cents at the supermarkets. After supper I would write in my journal, sometimes by flashlight, and turn in for the night. Now and then I still slept in my canoe, tied to some rocks at the water's edge, or to a buoy. I wrote in my journal: "Sleeping in a
canoe is like sleeping in a gentle cradle. The stars are my ceiling and I'm traveling through them.’’
1 went through U. S. Customs and Immigration at Rouses Point on the Richelieu on Tuesday. Aug. 4. Sometimes I camped on public land or park land, sometimes on someone's private beach. Occasionally 1 tied up to a private dock, with or without permission. Once I slept with my canoe tied to the Vanderbilt family's pier.
I often sang at the top of my lungs when paddling, sometimes in French and
sometimes in English. Life was very simple. When I wanted to swim. I just lowered myself overboard, a rope from the canoe in my hand, and a plastic bag tied over the cast on my toe. But it wasn't long before 1 was able to remove the cast.
I was becoming more adept at handling the canoe. I had learned to make my stroke and correct the direction of the canoe simultaneously. 1 had found that balancing my load w'as important and that paddling with a strong wind, although it sped me on my way, took all
my strength keeping the stern into the following waves. I had learned to paddle out to meet the wash of a big ship and to ride the wave in deep water. I remembered the lesson the Indian had taught me and when paddling against a current I kept close to shore. 1 found myself passing other canoeists who struggled up the middle of the river.
I slipped under all low swinging bridges without bothering the bridge master. When I went through locks. I filled out the permit: "Captain's name: Seeley.
Name of vessel: Le Voyageur. Draught: five inches." I usually went through tied up to a pleasure boat to keep from swirling like a cork when the water was let in. At one lock system, one of the employees figured it would be easier and cheaper to drive me around the locks than to have sixteen men each doing half an hour's hard work opening and closing the eight
locks by hand. He took me around in his own truck without charge.
I had been interviewed several times, but by the time I reached the Hudson River and Albany, the newspapers were beginning to look for a secret motive for my trip. Earlier, to avoid mentioning that I had been married and divorced, I had simply said I was a bachelor. Now the tabloids began printing highly imaginative stories about me. Some said I was fleeing from the girls in Thetford Mines; others had me out to "prove" this or that about bachelorhood or marriage. In print. I appeared to be some sort of matrimonial beatnik. Actually, I’m all in favor of marriage; but having made one mistake through immaturity, I’m extremely wary of making another.
At Poughkeepsie, an old member of the Pirate Canoe Club, where all the members use power boats, presented me with a double-bladed paddle that he had had in his basement for years. I found it much more efficient than the single-biaded one I’d been using. I was meeting all kinds of people. 1 talked to two old ladies whose hobby was to know all the yachts that went south and all about the people who owned them — what you might call ••yacht watchers.” I met a judge who played a saxophone in a jazz band and w'ho milked twenty cows a day on his estate.
For a modern voyageur, life is “fresh, exciting””
“I was bailing to save my life — I couldn’t doze off, even for a moment”
I was invited onto yachts for drinks and invited to spend a night at a hobo jungle.
When I reached New York. 1 tied up at a motorboat club just north of the George Washington bridge. 1 stayed in a New York hotel for four days, then headed under the George Washington bridge one quiet Sunday afternoon. I was beginning to have strong feelings that Le Voyageur had some special protection. I'd dropped years from my life mentally and physically and was beginning to think I might make Miami. I tied up to a concrete wall at Battery Park and pulled myself up the wall onto Manhattan. That night I wrote in my journal sitting on a bench under a park light, and I slept on the bench all night. Next morning I was up at seven. An attendant of a nearby fire station told me it was a good thing I was up, because at eight every morning the paddy wagon gathered up all the bums like milk bottles.
1 paddled out to Liberty Island to go up in the Statue of Liberty, but a guard held me off as if I were a Huron on the warpath. He said I couldn't land without official permission. I paddled to a phone booth at the Amoco boat station on the Jersey side, told the operator that I wanted to talk to whoever was in charge of Liberty Island, was given the phone number of someone who gave me another phone number, and ended up talking to the supervisor of public parks. After a pleasant conversation, he told me to go back to Liberty Island; he would get in touch with the guard in the meantime. This time the guard let me land and treated me like a visiting governor.
This was on Labor Day. At high tide, around ten o'clock in the morning. I started for Sandy Hook on the New Jersey coast. I had some qualms about crossing a stretch of ocean-so wide that 1 couldn't see the other side, but 1 was becoming very confident.
It felt good to paddle across the fresh, clean ocean water. There were hundreds of boats out for the holiday. At six that evening I pulled up on a deserted strip of the New Jersey Beach, made supper and went to bed.
I paddled out into the ocean three consecutive days. At Long Branch, N.J., I began to run into publicity - conscious mayors and chambers of commerce. I was escorted to a restaurant for a big sea-food dinner, with the compliments of the mayor of Long Branch, and invited to make Long Branch my permanent home. I was becoming blasé about interviews, thinking up neat phrases and enjoying being asked my opinions while eating a free meal. I was invited to supper with a member of the U. S. Coast Guard and to beer-drinking parties on friendly fishing boats, and was taken on a tour of one town by the chief of police.
On Wednesday, Sept. 9, I entered the inland waterways at Manasquan Inlet. I now used my sail for the first time, and sailed down the waterway with a friendly tide, a friendly breeze and friendly people on the shore who invited me to steak dinners. The first touch of fall was in the air.
I made another run out into the ocean, just for fun. at Atlantic City. From Cape May 1 went up Delaware Bay to the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal and into Chesapeake Bay. where I ran into a storm. I managed to throw a line over a barge being pulled by a tugboat and got a tow out into the bay. But by four in the afternoon the water was so rough that the canoe was being damaged. It was get-
ting dark and the storm was increasing. I had picked up a canvas bucket, and now I attached a line to it and threw it overboard as a sea anchor. The waves were four or five feet high, with whitecaps. and it took all my strength to keep the canoe headed into them. 1 was bailing all the time. I got down and sat on the bottom of the canoe. 1 was caught in a combination of tide and wind and couldn't
head the canoe in toward shore. When a tugboat came along with his lights on, I was afraid he would run me down. I tried to signal him with my flashlight and dropped it into the water. I lost my bailing bucket. A big wave wrenched my paddle from my hands and I lost it. I had to start using my original single-biaded paddle. It was getting cold. My body was coated with salt and 1 was becoming really exhausted. 1 had to go 'way out and work for my life. I couldn't doze even for a moment or l would have been swamped, but a certain calmness came
over me. I knew as long as I stayed awake and kept bailing and kept the canoe straight the night would pass.
It was the longest night in my life. I bailed with a bucket and bailed with a sponge and bailed with a towel. But I managed to hang on. In the morning, when l could see what I was doing, I was able to control the canoe better and eventually landed on the shore at the site of a boys’ camp, almost delirious. I went to a country home and asked where the nearest town was and was invited in to dry out and get warm.
The man of the house drove me to Washington with my canoe, and I started down the Potomac. It was now very cold and everyone I talked to tried to dissuade me from continuing my trip. I told one well-meaning advisor that I was going on if I had to push Le Voyageur down the road, and while I was speaking I got an idea. I bought a second-hand baby carriage in Alexandria, Va., and took it to a machine shop to have the wheels made into a miniature boat carrier. I was now ready to accept just about any scheme that would prevent me abandoning my
project, and when a man at the machine shop said he would give me. my canoe and my baby carriage wheels a lift to Wilmington, N.C., I accepted. From there I started pulling my canoe down the road.
I made twenty-two miles one day, but decided to go back to the waterway and started to paddle again. At night I spread my sleeping bag on shrimp tables and on docks. When it got cold I slept in a canoe club, at a police station and a Baptist Church. One day I accepted a tow from a boat and discovered too late that the skipper was tight. He towed me so fast
that he nearly wrecked my canoe. After my experience on Chesapeake Bay I was worn out. I was sick and tired. I was even too tired to smile when I read in one newspaper that I had said in "typical" Canadian: "Boorbone—Ahhhhhh! Eesn't thees nice!” When I was invited to crew on a sailboat, I gratefully stowed Le Voyageur aboard and sailed that way as far as Mayport, near Jacksonville Beach. Then, alone again, I started down the Florida inland waterway on November 18.
Between St. Augustine and Daytona, a bridge tender called to me that the coast guard was out looking for me. I learned later that a girl I had met in Washington who hadn’t heard from me had sent out the alarm that I was probably in trouble, if not dead. At Daytona Beach I was sleeping on a picnic table at the municipal yacht basin when the Chamber of Commerce heard of it and put me up in the Holiday Shores motel, one of the finest in Daytona Beach, and told me to stay as long as I wanted as the guest of the motel and the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce.
A man I met, who had to make a trip back north, offered to pay expenses if I would take his station wagon south for him. From then on. I alternated between car and canoe, paddling a few miles, tying up the canoe, then going back by bus to bring the station wagon up to the same spot. At Fort Lauderdale, twenty - five miles from Miami. I once more thought I’d like to take an excursion out into the ocean. The wind was moderate and from the east. I was enjoying the trip about five or six hundred yards out from shore, just clear of the surf, when the wind changed to the south and increased, and I started taking waves over the side of the canoe. Eventually I couldn't bail fast enough and had to head for shore. I was opposite Hollywood Beach, just north of Miami. I had an audience of about fifty people watching my arrival on shore. The surf shot me along faster and faster, and finally forced the bow under and turned the canoe over.
I arrived at my destination with al1 my possessions floating around me. I saw a piece of celery that had been with my provisions floating past me. I grabbed it. and to show my nonchalance, started to eat it as I rode the partially submerged Le Voyageur into her goal.
Since then I have shipped my battered and buckled canoe back to Thetford Mines. After a brief career as a minor, dead-broke celebrity in Miami, I have signed on as crew on a fifty-one-foot pleasure sailboat bound for Nassau. I have absolutely no plans, and, in keeping with my new outlook on life, I don’t intend to make any — not for a while at least. I’ve found it a rewarding experience, taking life from day to day, breaking from an existence where I had no identity and exposing myself to new experiences. I feel strong and full of courage. I'm looking forward to whatever life has to offer, 'k