Life As A Human is pleased to present another adventure in Sandra’s Phinney’s travel and exploration series, Travelling Thoughts. This time she takes us into “the deep unknown” in the wilds of Nova Scotia, following the footsteps of Mark Twain’s biographer and a military spy.
I just finished reading (for the fifth time) my all-time favourite travel book, The Tent Dwellers. It’s hilarious, insightful and charming. It also hits close to home.
First, a little about the book and its author.
In 1906, Albert Bigelow Paine (Mark Twain’s biographer and eventually the executor of his literary works) accompanied his friend Eddie Breck (doctor of philosophy, military spy) to Nova Scotia. They hooked up with two guides — Del “the Stout” Thomas and Charles “the Strong” Charlton — to venture into what is now known as Kejimkujik National Park and the Tobeatic Wilderness Area. Their mission was to canoe in the wilderness in search of trout “as big as your leg.”
Breck told his friend that they would be camping “farther into the wilderness, the deep unknown, somewhere even the guides had never been.”
True to his word, that happened, and two years later, in 1908, Paine documented the journey by writing The Tent Dwellers. The book has been perennially popular, I suspect because it’s travel writing at its best (Paine’s wit is pure genius) and it has marvelous illustrations.
But I have an even closer tie to this book. In 2008, The Friends of Keji and park staff planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the writing of the book. Activities ranged from building a canoe to sponsoring a provincial guides’ meet. To launch the year’s activities, they decided to re-create the original journey Paine and his friends took 100 years before.
I went along as the official journalist/ photographer and like to think I was selected because I’m a fairly decent paddler and experienced in wilderness treks. Truth be told, I bugged the organizing committee so much I suspect it was easier to cave in and let me go than not.
So I quickly contacted my paddling pal Vickie Healy, and we teamed up with the six men who were selected to go. After extensive planning, we eight set off in four canoes with over 400 pounds of gear. That trip is forever etched in my mind.
For starters, we didn’t have the luxury of having two guides to lug all our gear and do the cooking. Nor did we have 14 days to paddle and portage the 100 kilometres; we had seven.
On day one, the two-mile “Mountain Carry” just about did me in. Oh, and did I say it was raining sideways? Eventually the sun came out, only there were so many black flies I couldn’t see a foot in front of my nose. Mercifully I had a bug jacket on so the bites were actually few and far between — save for when I slipped into the woods to tend to private matters. Ahhh, the memories.
One day the rain and wind was so extreme we were temporarily grounded. So we decided to stay an extra night at our campsite and made a make-shift shelter to cook our meals. Turned out to be a great day of camaraderie, and once the wind died down the guys managed to get some fishing in.
Although the trout were not as huge as the ones Paine and his buddies caught, they were every bit as tasty cooked over hot coals that night. I drool just thinking about it. I also received a lesson in the fine art of fly fishing — first time ever — and enjoyed casting in spite of not having a nibble.
There were eerie similarities right down to seeing a porcupine in the same spot and one of the men taking an unexpected tumble into the brink at the same campsite where Albert lost Eddie’s prized net and had to retrieve it.
Albert Bigelow Paine concludes his book with this poignant quote:
“If you are willing to get wet and stay wet — to get cold and stay cold — to be bruised, and scuffed and bitten — to be hungry and thirsty and to have your muscles strained and sore from unusual taxation; if you will become these things, not once, but many times, for the sake of moments of pure triumphs, and that larger luxury which comes with the comfort of the camp and the conquest of the wilderness, then go! The wilderness will welcome you, and teach you, and take you to its heart. And you will find your own soul there; and the discovery will be worth while.”
I second that.
Read more of Sandra Phinney’s Travelling Thoughts here.
“It’s all in a day’s camping, of course.” © P 137 from The Tent Dwellers, courtesy Nimbus
“Lunch stop along the way. Always time to cast a rod in hopes of catching a trout.” © Sandra Phinney
“Trout with butter, garlic and lemon just before it’s moved to hot coals. Five minutes later, devoured!” © Sandra Phinney