It was awkward work. His only tool was a pair of pliers, and the nuts were rusted on to the four bolts attaching the center thwart to the canoe. The bolts tended to twist when he tried to turn the nuts, making them impossible to loosen. After giving the problem some thought, he managed to use the pot gripper as a second pair of pliers to lock the bolt into position, and he was making slow but steady progress on his work, but not without the occasional curse and scraped knuckle.
The sleek yellow canoe was pulled up on the rocks in a tiny nook in the pine-clad shore. They were camped on a low rocky point that jutted out from the southeast side of the lake, affording a beautiful view of the hills and ridges surrounding Monash Lake, as well as the spectacle of the daily sunset. On the west side of the point, where it met the mainland, was the little swampy landing beach where he now worked. On the other side, the shore was steeper, dropping quickly into the depths of the lake; a perfect spot for swimming.
They had arrived here yesterday, after a rather long day of travel, picking their way west along the shore of a large lake, using every point, bay and island to make slow progress against the relentless headwind. Finally they had reached the portage to Monash, barely marked by a beer can on a branch hanging over the water. Monash was a side lake off the main canoe route; a dead end, infrequently visited. The portage was faint and rarely used, and their campsite was nearly pristine. It was a perfect place to spend their rest day.
This was their fourth day out on a week-long canoe trip, their second of this first summer they had been together. Although they had started out in a hard, chilling rain, the weather had cleared that first evening and it had been sunny with deep azure skies and cool starry nights ever since; perfect weather for August. They had been travelling hard, making good distances every day, even with the many portages. They had become an efficient team, managing to “one trip” the portages after the first day. This meant that Mark carried the canoe and the food barrel, while Monica managed the big pack and all the “loose-age”: paddles, PFD’s and their fishing rod; that could not easily be packed. The big pack was nearly as large as Monica, and she resembled a walking brick, hunched a bit, tumpline on her forehead, taking short steps as she carefully made her way over the rough trails, occasionally swatting at the bothersome mosquitoes and deerflies with her one free hand.
But in truth the bugs were not very bad. It had been a warm, dry summer, and by August, all the blackflies and most of the mosquitoes were gone, lingering only on the damp portages. The steady winds helped too. August was the only month of the year when you could actually relax on the shore in the evenings, warm and untroubled by biting insects. You could have the warmth in June and July, and be bug-free in September, but August was the only month that featured both attributes.
Their side-trip to Monash meant that they would have to re-trace their steps over the portage and back to the main canoe route, but it was well worth the effort to find such a beautiful and secluded spot. They had this lake all to themselves; there were no other good campsites and it was highly unlikely that any other travellers would come here. Six months into their relationship, they made their own world together, and had no need of others.
The lake itself was gorgeous. It was shaped vaguely like an elongated triangle, with the long sides oriented west to east. The west side was fairly wide and cut by two bays that extended further into the low dark forest there. The north side featured high rocky hills, with some low cliffs in the middle section. In the distance they could make out the tiny cabin on top of a fire tower, perhaps 10 km away on the highest hill in the area. The lake narrowed towards the east, ending in a crescent beach, a real rarity on these granite-ribbed lakes. They hadn’t been to the beach yet, but the distant white sands looked enticing. The shores were clad in a mixture of white pine, black spruce, pockets of birch and poplar, and, on the most exposed, least fertile spots, his favourite, the scraggly jack pine, bent into weird bonsai-like shapes by the fierce winds and heavy winter snows.
Finally removing the last nut from its rusty bolt, Mark carefully removed the thwart, tapping it with a heavy stick to free it from the gunwales. Putting the thwart aside, he pulled out the bolts and put them into his pocket, along with the nuts and washers, for safekeeping. Then he repeated the process with the front thwart, removing it too. Surveying his handiwork, he saw that removing the thwarts opened up the area between the stern and bow seats, providing a clear and slightly curved area about a meter wide and three meters long; lots of room, for what he had in mind. It left the canoe sides a bit flimsy, but that wouldn’t matter for this trip.
Making his way back to the tent site, he saw Monica sitting on the rocks in her shorts and tee-shirt, engrossed in a paperback. He had told her to stay there, saying he was preparing a surprise for her. After some cajoling she had agreed, although she was obviously intensely curious about his plans. He unzipped the tent and crawled inside, leaving the door open behind him. Their single sleeping bag, unzipped to form a quilt, covered the fleece blanket they slept on. They used one bag to save weight and bulk, but really because, at this point in their relationship, they just couldn’t imagine not sleeping together, not being able to touch. Under the fleece blanket, strapped together side by side with a light cord, were their two full-length sleeping pads, self-inflating models with foam inside that expanded when the air valve was opened. Mark folded the two pads together with the bottom blanket, and rolled them up into a manageable bundle, then pushed it out the door before him. He took the pads and blanket down to the canoe and spread them out on the bottom, side by side with the blanket on top. The two pads combined were wider than the canoe, especially as it narrowed towards either end. However the excess simply curled up the curved sides of the canoe. It looked like a cozy nest.
They had bought the canoe, used, in the spring, their first major purchase together. Sleek and fast, it tracked well, but was perhaps a bit slow to turn, making it not ideal for whitewater. The bottom was two layers with a foam core between to provide stiffness, rather than the usual ridged ribs. For his present purpose, this provided a smooth surface that was ideal.
Mark retrieved a small mesh bag from his pocket, in which he usually kept his socks and underwear, and proceeded to fill it with fist-sized rocks that were abundant on the shoreline. When it was full, he tied the bag of rocks to the stern painter of the canoe, providing a makeshift anchor with about three meters of line. He coiled the rope and placed the anchor in the back of the canoe, within easy reach of the stern paddler.
He returned to the fire pit, where the food barrel, a blue plastic drum attached by straps and buckles to a carrying harness, stood on its end under a shade tree. Mark unbuckled the lid and removed the many zip-loc bags containing their pre-packed meals, as well as sundry items like chocolate, coffee and snacks. These had to be kept packed and sealed so they would not be raided by the inquisitive and apparently starving red squirrels that abounded in the area. He re-packed all the food, except for a bar of dark chocolate which he put in his pocket, in the large pack, which was lying nearly empty nearby. Next, he undid the straps holding on the carrying harness with its shoulder straps and waist belt, leaving the barrel naked to its smooth and slippery plastic skin. He picked up the empty barrel and carried it to the canoe, placing it in the space between the front seat and the bow.
The interior of the canoe now resembled a cozy bed, just wide enough in the middle for two very good friends, and narrowing towards either end. Mark nodded to himself in satisfaction: this was good, this would work. Almost done.
He had been thinking about this, planning it, for weeks, since well before the start of the trip. Now things had come together perfectly: it was a beautiful day, sunny but not too hot, with a light wind blowing from the west down the length of the lake. He felt good. They had made love last night, as they had every night and some mornings of the trip, their need overcoming the day’s fatigue. Even so he felt his excitement and anticipation rising. This would be special, a memory for a lifetime, no matter how it worked out. He was ready to spring his surprise.