Tim Gallaway's Expedition To The Sea
Interview By Contributing Writer, Cecilia Potts
Photos by Tim Gallaway
Tim paddled a 17-foot-7-inch plastic kayak 860 miles from Sault Saint Marie, Ontario, to where the fresh river water meets the saltwater of the Atlantic Ocean near Quebec City in Canada in 34 days. His route took him on parts of the old Voyageur Canoe route, along Lake Huron's North Channel, the French, Mattawa, Ottawa, and St. Lawrence rivers. There were long portages with the rewards of new friends and cold beers, and their were unexpected rapids, where he amazed his toughest critic, himself.
Growing up in the Great Lakes, like so many others, I was struck by the book Paddle to the Sea. It's a great story and it was always in the back of my mind. But I think it was my dad who said something along the lines of 'You should do a big trip and maybe paddle to Quebec or somewhere like that.' With the idea in my head it stewed for a few years and became an obsession. Then there was nothing I could do, I had to do it.
The paddle was a traditional Greenland-Style paddle that was custom made for me. We quite often call them a stick or G-Style for short. I use them because they are very comfortable paddles to use for long periods of time. I have paddled almost exclusively with G-Style paddles for the last four years. They are wonderful things to use. A lot of people don't think they are as efficient as modern European style paddles but I strongly disagree. Read TopKayaker's Article by Curtis Gashlin Euro Paddle-Greenland Paddle
Rethinking The Route
I originally thought of following the Paddle to the Sea route but the time through industrial areas in the southern Great Lakes wasn't appealing. I found the Trent Severn Waterway through southern Ontario and thought of following that, but then a whitewater friend of mine told me about the French River route, and after some research I decided to go that way. It was more of a wilderness route and followed the traditional Voyageur Canoe Route.
In a lot of ways the first week was the toughest, mentally. Just because I was still so close to home and I had the biggest safety net of the entire trip. If I wanted to I could find a phone and be home in a day. It also was the toughest physically. I did some training for my trip but due to my course load at school, I had relatively little time to get prepared. The first week was a week of being sore and stiff as I adjusted back to being in a kayak for 8 to 10 hours a day. Luckily, I was in my element. The open water of Lake Huron is where I've cut my teeth as a kayaker and I feel very comfortable on the lake. I know her feelings and what to expect from the weather.
That first week also was special because I passed through some areas I had been wanting to see for years. The first big milestone was the Whalesback Channel. I visited there on my first ever kayak trip when I was a freshman in high school. It was amazing to go back, this time under my own power, and travel through the terrain now that I had several years of professional kayaking under my belt. It seemed a lot smaller than I remember. Still strikingly beautiful, but much less intimidating. I also got to visit the towns of Little Current and Killarney. Both had been on my “Places to Visit” list for a while. In Little Current I met some really cool people who told me about a great place to camp near town, and in Killarney I had the best fish and chips I have ever had in my life.
Portage From Hell
I have to start this story the day before it happened. In order to avoid the famous, and very large, whitewater on the Ottawa River, I took a spur of the river that had a hydro-power dam on it. I approached the dam with no idea where (or if) there was a portage trail. I pulled up at a guy's house and asked about a trail and long story short he offered to portage me in his truck around the dam.
The next day I came to another portage/detour to avoid another dam. I got to the top of this small creek route and met some canoeists. One was an instructor and told me that the little creeks were very low and muddy and covered in poison ivy. He told me to go closer to the dam where there was a park that had a connector trail around the dam. I followed his advice and after an hour of high speed downwind and current paddling I made it to the park. I put my boat on its wheels and started the portage through the park. I was walking 20 to 30 minutes or so when I came to a fence on the trail. As I discovered, several years before there were some people walking along the trail when a dam opening upstream flooded the shoreline and swept them to their deaths. The trail was subsequently closed.
I did all I could. I turned around and started walking back. The trip back to the original portage would have been a long endeavor, so I started walking along the road that connected to the park. I figured that the road portage would have been roughly 15 to 16 kilometers. I sweated my way through five to six kilometers until I got to some big hydro (power) lines and a car stopped going the other way. The driver leaned out of the window and said, “you look like you're going somewhere.” After a brief exchange he offered to give me a ride down to below the dam. He went to his house to get his roof rack and a beer for me. It was cheap O'Doul's, but it was cold and wet and I didn't mind one bit. His name was Lorry and he and his son used to do long canoe trips all over southern Ontario. What was originally looking like “The Portage of Hell” turned out not so bad due to water angel intervention.
The day I went through Ottawa...it was a hot sunny Saturday and everyone and their brother was out on the water downstream of Ottawa. What surprised me was the variety and the volume. Little fishing boats, pontoons, ski-boats, deck boats, sailors (motoring, it wasn't very windy), all the way up to really big cruisers. And I mean HUGE cruisers. I was hugging the shore very close but at one point I had to cross the main channel to get to the north shore of the river and I timed it between big boats but this huge cruiser came blitzing upstream and changed heading to cross my route and all I could do was sprint. I was able to make it to a channel marker but they crossed behind me close and everyone on the top deck was gawking. I guess they don't see many paddlers on the river.
They were the LaChine Rapids. Class IV, at least that's what the literature I have found said. I knew there was swift water through Montreal, but I didn't think they would be that big. I saw them in the distance and tried to avoid them the best I could. The current there was so strong I reached a point where I knew that all I could do was to straight line the rapids and get through them as quickly as possible.
I had to rely on my kayak's speed and tracking to get through. Plus, my boat was heavy with equipment so maneuvering in the swift current wasn't very easy. I nearly got rolled once after blasting over the top of a huge standing wave, but knew that if I didn't right myself quick I would probably get sucked into a huge re-circulating hole. There are times now that the rapids come to mind and I realize how stupid I was in not researching as much as I should have. I have an idea to take some fellow rough water paddlers and run and play the rapids in sea-kayaks so I can banish this demon from me.
Realizing The Dream
I think the point of realization was when I got to North Bay at the top of the watershed and started on my way down the Mattawa River. Because at that point, it was all down current all the way to the sea. Every paddle stroke was taking me further from home and the water was helping me on my way. Up to then I had been on the water nearly two weeks and had only really gotten into the stride of expeditioning for my time going up the French River. I was in my groove and I knew I was going to make it.
There are so many things that I look back on and can remember fondly. Oddly though, the days that I think of as great, full days were those that were kinda rainy and cool because I could push myself without overheating. Nice summer days were actually kinda terrible on the water. The trip wasn't a narrative at all. It is brief moments of clarity and story followed by long miles of blurred shoreline and being zoned out.
My best story that was a life changing encounter was when I met Michel and Simon on the last day. I had a short distance to paddle so I was in no rush and I had current and wind behind me. I was following the shoreline and I saw a paddler heading up stream. I paddled up to say bon jour and once we got talking (in English because Mon Quebecois es tres terrible!) I found out he was a ski bum who owned a ski shop in St. Anne my final destination. He invited me to his shop to wait for my ride and after cleaning up a bit he invited me to have lunch next door at a brewery with his carpenter, Simon, who was working on his terrace.
We sat down to a lunch of nachos and craft beer, which was glorious, and got talking. The coincidence was amazing. We each shared our tales. Michel, when he was 21, now 61, cycled through the Yukon and Alaska for two months. This was before the age of Gore-tex, or mountain bikes, which makes his adventure all the more amazing. He told stories of going days without seeing people and riding uphill through the mountains for three days. His tales were amazing and I could see that he loved the time he spent in the wilds.
Simon's story sounded like a Victorian adventure novel. Starting at the age of 16 he hitchhiked all through Canada, and when he was 21, found his way to Europe. He dirt bagged his way through Europe for a few months and was told that if he wanted real adventure he needed to go to India. He eventually made his way to the Himalayas where he made a lap of the Annapurna region on foot and wandered through the country side. He found himself at the headwaters of the Ganges River where he was inspired by the local ferrymen to travel the river by boat and help people cross when he saw them on the bank. He spent two months floating down the Ganges meeting all sorts of people and attending local festivals including the famous Festival of Color where he got so covered in dyes that an old man on the river bank offered to wash him. He said it was the most spiritual moment of his life. It was as though the Ganges, the mother goddess of India, were washing away his anxieties. He gave up the boat when he noticed he was being followed. River pirates are a reality, and with his own safety in mind, he left the river.
The stories we shared on that last day could fill a book. We sat and talked for several hours before we finally left. But before we did, Michel summed it up nicely. He said that it is more than coincidence that three generations of adventure bums all met in this one place. With adventures happening 40 years ago, 20 years ago, and today. We were all supposed to have our adventures and to share them like we were doing. And quickly and off the cuff in French he said “Providence, C'Est La Vie.” Essentially, things happen for a specific reason, it is life.
I was blown away by this. It really resonated with me. And at that very moment, I took it to be the motto of my expedition, and then it became the motto for my life. It may be too optimistic for some but it is really an amazing way to think about life. Things, good or bad, happen. And they make us who we are. We can either fight it and be miserable or we can accept it and try to understand that every good and bad time in life change us. Just like every rock and stick in a river change its flow.
Tim's Video Presentation TEDx Event
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