Dambusters

Parked the car outside the power plant. Arranged innocent “who me, officer?” expressions. Slipped into the forest to bushwhack down a steep, boggy slope. Climbed past humped, rusted wrecks. Jumped at the ghostly creaking of a truck-door in the wind. Cursed at blackberry brambles and sticklebacks. Slid over wet logs onto the rocks to examine the Montreal River at the base of the huge hydro dam. Whooped, and with a shuffling, one-footed Riverdance, pumped up the inflatable kayak. It was Ranger Tim’s day off, and we were exploring.

For he goes birling down a-down the white water
That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly
It’s birling down, a-down white water
A log driver’s waltz pleases girls completely.
— “The Logdriver’s Waltz”

Dervala kayaking Parked the car outside the power plant. Arranged innocent “who, me, officer?” expressions. Slipped into the forest to bushwhack down a steep, boggy slope. Climbed past humped, rusted wrecks. Jumped at the ghostly creaking of a truck-door in the wind. Cursed at blackberry brambles and sticklebacks. Slid over wet logs onto the rocks to examine the Montreal River at the base of the huge hydro dam. Whooped, and with a shuffling, one-footed Riverdance, pumped up the inflatable kayak. It was Ranger Tim’s day off, and we were exploring.

The Montreal River was once one of the finest fast-water rivers in North America before it was dammed in the Thirties to bring light to this benighted land. There are six dams in all; three in the six or seven miles between our put-in spot and the river’s escape into Lake Superior. This famous canoeing river is now inaccessible to all but the eccentric. There’s no way to get a hard-shell boat down to the water, and most people are too sensible to trespass and bushwhack with an inflatable kayak. It’s a great shame.

The mighty Montreal is now stately and plump. I confess that this is fine by me: I like my whitewater on the distinctly blue side, with the kind of gentle rapids that save paddling but don’t trouble the heart-rate. Unlike a canoe, where you kneel like a galley-slave, the inflatable is like a blow-up La-Z-Boy, the aluminium paddle as light as a mixing-spoon. It was all very restful. This brave red kayak has seen far worse: it has been buffeted by ferries while circumnavigating Manhattan, and once it bounced off a startled hippo on the Zambezi.

Drowned ForestThe pent-up flow of the river drowned much of the surrounding forest when the dams were built seventy years ago. The effect is unearthly. Great stumps poke out of the water fifty feet from the bank, and here and there single-tree islands survive. Looking down at the underwater forest floor, you expect to see sodden hares and squirrels running between the branches. The forest seems untroubled by its loss. The bank is lined with drooping cedars, bright maples, and magnificent white pines that would have made fine masts for a British man o’war. Pink alders and aspens gave the river the festive air of a royal barge party. Saved by its inaccessibility, the area has not been logged for a long time.

The journey was bittersweet for Ranger Tim, who had once turned down the opportunity to buy the two thousand acres of this township for pocket change when the Algoma Central Railway was divesting its assets. Instead it was bought by an American–boo, hiss–subdivided into lots, and flipped for an unholy profit. As we wandered down the river, he mourned each of ‘his’ trees.

A murder of ravens, two dozen, emerged river-right. They cawed and played on the updrafts in great high spirits. A moose must have died for such a party, since they don’t usually congregate in large groups. They wheeled and swooped, dressed inky-black as a SoHo brunch. I lay back in the boat to watch them, and wanted desperately to fly.

There was a neat take-out point just before the second dam, and we climbed up the hill to investigate. A power station thrummed below the bridge, and at the bottom of the gravel road there was a single red truck in the yard. “We stay together, stay quiet, and walk fast,” said Tim, who knows how to do these things. We retrieved the kayak, dry-bags, and paddles, then solemnly scuttled down the hill, camouflaged by a large red blow-up boat like a particularly foolish beetle. Nobody stopped us as we stumbled through the trees, so we put in again and paddled off down the river.
Lunch The river was wider and slightly less sluggish on this stretch, and we stopped paddling altogther except to steer around the bends. At a few points we shrieked as we were drenched in chutes of fast water, but it didn’t matter much on yet another day of warm sunshine instead of the expected late-September frost and snow. (By the end of the day my milk-bottle legs had burned pink.)

Two miles down we came to yet another power station. The river had originally split here, and was dammed on both forks. At the wide mouth of the left dam we could see a sign on a small beach, which drew us like a casino billboard even though we knew it probably said mean things.

KEEP AWAY
Dangerous waterway ahead.
Levels rise and fall
without warning.
No swimming or boating.

Parroted in French. But the little beach was connected by a small strip of land to the power station above the dam, and we were naturally curious. A bulldozer dozed near a gigantic pile of sticks, logs, and driftwood, like some bird with a slovenly nest. There was no one around. The station was fenced off, but by scrambling up the rockface we found a passage around the fence, which acted as a useful handrail on the way down. I sashayed across the grand mesh catwalk over the dam, pretending to be Kate Moss modelling life-jackets. We admired the huge chains that raised and lowered the gates like canal locks. Windows flapped in the abandoned storage buildings. We poked our noses where they didn’t belong until we grew bored by these feats of engineering and headed back.

We paddled back across the estuary to the far bank of the river. This was the end of our trip, since from here the river headed to its final dam through a canyon. Tim deflated the boat while I packed the bags, a little deflated ourselves. Then I noticed a Great Lakes Power truck parked just in front of the forbidding sign opposite. Two security guards stood, hands on hips, clearly puzzled, watching us pack up our gear. Our industrial jaunt had tripped an alarm system and they had sped to investigate. The rubber kayak left no landing marks on the gravel beach, though our footprints would have been clear, and with no sign of a boat they couldn’t figure out how we had got over there. Nor could they catch us, and with a good girl’s terror of authority, I was relieved. Instead we slogged an hour and a half up the highway back to the dull, law-abiding world of motorized transportation.

5 thoughts on “Dambusters”

  1. Like the photos too Dervala. As far as boats and the Zambezi, a lot of good energy must have somehow been stored into that kayak – not much can trouble a hippo and live to tell the tale.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the account of your adventure. Your writing is wonderfully descriptive — “milk-bottle legs,” “a good girl’s terror of authority,” “camouflaged by a large red blow-up boat like a particularly foolish beetle.”

    Although I’ve never actually bumped up against a hippo, I often recall an intensely serene afternoon on the Lunga River in a canoe floating nearby a group of hippos.

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  3. Hippos are not to be taken lightly! Thanks to Ranger Tim for the lovely photos, and to you for including them. Your stories, as always, are marvelous reading.

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  4. Thanks, guys, I’m glad you like the pictures. One of these days I’ll get Tim to tell me the hippo story again and I’ll write it up.

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