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GETTING TO KNOW JAMES BAY, THE SCHOOLYARD BULLY


My fear of this bay is leaving me. I’m standing in my shorts, waist-deep in the Arctic Ocean. Silt- laden, caramel water stretches out endlessly in all directions except south, where the lowlands ap- pear as a sliver on the horizon. Te late August sun is high and hot, backed by a bluebird sky. Our ca- noe bobs beside me as I fix the camera to the bow in order to get some tandem paddling shots of my partner Alex and me. He is relieving himself, whis- tling happily as he takes in the vastness of it all. Unrelated to Alex’s urinary tract, the water of


James Bay is surprisingly warm and sweet. Dozens of giant rivers in Ontario and Quebec pour count- less tonnes of freshwater into it every day, raising the temperature and diluting it to the point that its salinity is undetectable. At this moment, lin- gering in its embrace, James Bay seems more lake than ocean—and is far friendlier than I could ever have imagined. It’s our first day paddling the 70-kilometre


stretch from the mouth of the Harricana River to Moosonee, Ontario. We began our journey 23 days and 1,000 kilometres ago on Algonquin Park’s Ope- ongo Lake but everything leading up to James Bay was merely a preamble. I’ve read accounts of wick- ed storms, brutal mosquitoes and being trapped out on the tidal flats. Camping is supposed to be marginal at best as the surrounding landscape is made up primarily of wetlands; great for birds and bugs but not so great for canoe trippers. Most groups that paddle the Harricana arrange a plane or motorboat shuttle back to Moosonee in order


Friend or Foe


Te channel is a slog but it lets us avoid the long peninsula-like tidal flat that juts out to the north from the mouth. Once through the channel, we stay well offshore in order to paddle without strik- ing bottom with every stroke. Te end of the day nears and our GPS has us


homing in on Little Netishi Point. It’s around this time that we pause for Alex’s pit stop and for me to feel complacent. We are on schedule to make it in plenty of time but, inexplicably, we paddle past and keep going. Te next point is just five kilome- tres further, the water is calm, and we can make it easily—or so we think. A couple of clicks beyond Little Netishi our pad-


dles begin to repeatedly bump the ground. Te tide is ebbing. We try to head to shore, but to no avail. When the tide goes out on James Bay, it goes like a drag racer. Within minutes we can no longer see water. We are stranded. Our magic carpet has been pulled out from underneath us to reveal a damp clay floor that is now our home for the night. Suddenly confronted by another aspect of this


bully, he again seems to be a pretty decent guy. Te tidal flats are firm and level—exactly what you look for in a good campsite. We deal with the excessively damp surface by lining the bottom of our tent with a tarp. Te unencumbered breeze keeps the noto- rious James Bay mosquitoes under control as well. Tey’re still present in impressive numbers, but are limited to tucking behind us in the wind-eddy cre- ated by our bodies. We merely have to step aside and they are blown into oblivion.


Our magic carpet has been pulled out from underneath us to reveal a damp clay floor that is now our home for the night


to avoid the crossing. To me, James Bay was like the schoolyard bully with a bad reputation who no one talked to but everyone feared. Tidal flats on James Bay sometimes extend 10


kilometres from land. Tis makes it easy to hop out in the shallows to do your business but it also means an outgoing tide is capable of leaving you stranded kilometres deep in the no-man’s land be- tween water and shore. Tat is the only thing on our minds. We are ready to camp one night on the bay, but we know one thing above all else: we do not want to get stranded on the tidal flats. Using our tide tables, we had planned to hit


James Bay on the flood, paddle hard for 30 kilo- metres to Little Netishi Point to camp on dry land, and then finish the trip off the next day. Everything is going as planned after starting on


time, but we soon find ourselves pulling up a river- like channel as the rising tide rushes in to shore.


An additional bonus is that, since Nunavut lays


claim to all of James Bay and its intertidal zone, we can add a territory to the two provinces we’ve already camped in during our journey. Before tucking in for the night, we consult our


tables and set our alarms for 3 a.m. so we won’t be washed awake by the incoming tide. Stirring at this pre-dawn hour, we’re treated to the full cycle of sunrise over the unencumbered curve of the earth. With us packed and ready to go, James Bay returns on cue and buoys us to paddle on. Our final day is hard work. We battle steep


chop, a headwind, and the current of the Moose River before making Moosonee by mid-afternoon. Landfall is euphoric. I’ve completed another jour- ney and, more importantly, made friends with the schoolyard bully.


FRANK WOLF is a Vancouver-based writer. He last wrote about pad- dling the boreal forest in the Summer 2008 issue of Canoeroots.


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