It has been five years since Jeremy Shute, his wife Leslie Howarth, their sons Kofi and Nigel along with a rotating crew of river adventurers first launched their canoes from the bank of the mighty Speed River in Guelph on route to the briny tides of the Atlantic Ocean.
“People have been saying, ‘Where’s the end?’, because it is a long river,” said Shute, as he made a few last-minute repairs to his canoe seat and paddles. “If I can get to where the water is salty – maybe it is not full ocean salty but at least it is somewhat salty and there are tides – if I can paddle from Guelph to a place where I can actually see a whale from my canoe, I think that would be cool.”
The challenges for the Speed to Sea crew have grown exponentially with each new adventure.
“One of the big challenges this year is where do we camp at night,” said Shute. “That is always a question mark, but we are getting into a more built-up area. We are also paddling through Montreal so, trying to figure out where we are going to camp in Montreal is tricky. We are traveling at five kilometres an hour so getting through Montreal is probably going to take us a couple of days.”
For this leg they are launching from the Moses Saunders Dam in Cornwall.
“We paddled up to the dam last year and this year we are putting in just below the dam,” he said. “It’s a tough dam to portage around. The locks aren’t made for people in canoes and kayaks. You have to be a bigger boat to go through the locks.”
They are meeting up with friends near there in Akwesasne who might join them for part of the trip.
“There is a point right beside Akwesasne where the Canada-US borders meet and where the Ontario and Quebec borders meet and it is all within Akwesasne territory so, there are five different political jurisdictions that meet at one point,” said Shute. “I am hoping we can go to that little point. It is just geographical coordinate in the middle of the river, but I feel like it’s kind of interesting.”
This is not a typical, get-back-to-nature, summer vacation, canoe trip.
“I guess lots of people do long canoe trips,” said Howarth. “This one is different because you are going through so many urban settings. Sometimes we haven’t been able to go in the water. You do get a kind of peaceful feeling though going under a great big highway.”
There are also bigger and much bigger boats sharing the commercial waterways.
“We’re in our little, teeny-tiny canoe where ships are regularly,” said Howarth. “Jeremy talked to all of us about being in the shipping channel and I was like, oh ya, whatever. Then, we’re canoeing away and I looked back at Jeremy’s brother in the back of the canoe, and was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It’s huge and it just makes a quiet shhh, noise. You expect them to make a lot of noise, but they don’t.”
Two weeks in a canoe requires a healthy supply of physical and mental stamina and it can take a few days to settle into the ebb and flow.
“About day three, we get really tired, but it starts to get a little better,” said Shute. “I calculated it out one year and we did something like 200,000 paddle strokes. We are putting in on the 12th and going until the 26th. We will have some car shuttles and stuff in there but that’s the goal, to try and get two weeks on the water.”
Portages are a feature of most river runs and this leg has its share including the massive Beauharnois Dam.
“There are two big dams on the St Lawrence River and it is the second one,” said Shute.
“There is an old canal, which is the original canal they put in to bypass the rapids. We will probably end up taking that canal, but it is closed now. There is water in it but there are no locks. Every time you come up to a road you have to portage. It’s either a lot of small portages or one or two really big portages.”
Beauharnois Dam is just one of many historic sites they will encounter, and it ties in well with the theme of the Speed to Sea odyssey.
“Looking at the world from the river’s side as opposed to the land’s side offers a totally different perspective,” said Shute. “The river was the way that Europeans made their way into this part of the world. In a weird way we are kind of going back in time down the river.”
It is also an opportunity to visit precolonial sites and connect with Indigenous communities that were navigating the river in canoes long before Europeans arrived.
“I am a consultant for Shared Value Solutions, and we work for First Nations and Indigenous Nations around Canada,” said Shute. “We are tapped into the changing relationships with the Indigenous and non-Indigenous, colonial governments. So, absolutely it plays a big part in how I think about the places we are going through.”
Shute has also offered to collect water samples along the way for a group monitoring the health of the river.
“It’s for a group called The Water Rangers who are doing this kind of citizen science monitoring project,” he said. “So, I will pick up the kit and do water quality sampling as we move down the river. Last year was our first time on the St Lawrence River and I heard so many bad things about it, but I really think it is a beautiful place.”
Shute had a number of preconceptions and expectations about the Speed to Sea challenge even before he and the initial crew pushed off from the bank of the Speed five years ago.
“The youthful image was a sweeping blur of what we might experience and as we go by and we do it, it’s very much more granular,” he said. “We see everything in such detail because we are moving so slowly compared to how you travel in a car or even on a bicycle. So we get to see it all and experience it all in slow motion.”
There are a number of factors determining how and when the journey ends but, according to Shute, it will take at least one more trip after this one to satisfy his Melvillian vision.
“The challenge is going to be after we get past Quebec City when the St Lawrence kind of opens up,” he said. “A few things happen. For one, the water gets much bigger and then we get tides. Also, the water gets colder. I really don’t know how we are going to do once we get out there. We really have to play it by ear and do what’s safe.”