PRUDEN BAY, Man. -- The whitecaps are rolling in from Lake Winnipeg like relentless little demons.
The sky is a miserable grey, the wind is howling from the north and there are no signs of life in the massive marsh that ought to be known as Netley Hell.
This is no place for an open canoe. But here I am, wearily paddling against the waves with my equally fatigued partner, desperate to reach a campsite at the end of an inappropriately, foolishly long day.
All my years of canoeing have taught me never to get in situations like this. But I don't have time to be scared -- the adrenaline coursing through my veins is starting to make me nauseous.
If we don't find our way back to the thin stretch of dry land that lines the southern lakeshore in time to pitch a tent and build a fire, we're completely, irrevocably screwed.
"Make sure you tell people what an idiot you are," says my partner Katarina, concerned I'm going to try to glorify the episode in the newspaper the following week.
"Don't worry about it," I reply. I've run into wild boars in the Golan Heights, driven the pockmarked TransCanada from Cape Breton to Vancouver Island and used public toilets in Hungary, but nothing put fear into my miserable heart like the whitecaps of Pruden Bay.
On paper, it was a neat idea: Go to the lake for the weekend, not by car, but by canoe.
It's only 105 kilometers from my apartment in central Winnipeg to the family cabin near Grand Marais, if you take the Assiniboine River to the Red and then follow the southeastern shore of Lake Winnipeg.
A week ago Friday, my partner and I set out to paddle the entire route, well aware Lake Winnipeg has a nasty reputation and our trip could be fraught with delays.
I took all the necessary precautions: Lifejackets and floating rope. Topographical maps and conversations with Coast Guard officials about maze-like Netley Marsh. A new waterproof, shockproof case for a cellular phone and plans for daily check-in calls with family members.
After paddling along the shore of Lake Winnipeg for most of my life, I knew the big pond can be ugly, unpredictable and even lethal. But I was more concerned about the availability of campsites along the heavily populated Red River than the prospect of open-water paddling.
In short, I didn't give the lake the respect it deserved.
DAY ONE: WINNIPEG TO ST. ANDREWS
Ever since I moved to an apartment only a few blocks from the Assiniboine River, I wanted to paddle to the family cottage. The August Long Weekend finally gave Katarina and I the chance.
On Aug. 2, after a short portage down to the muddy banks of the river, we were off by 2 p.m., quickly zooming past the condos of Wellington Crescent (the new luxury job at No. 1 sure looks swank) and rafts of ducks looking for nibbles at The Forks.
Swinging on to the Red, we were surprised to see so few boats on the river on such a sunny day. Point Douglas, Elmwood, the North End and the Kildonans went by in a blur of ducks and driftwood as the current carried us out of the city in less than three hours.
"Where are you going?" asked a kid fishing with his dad just south of the Perimeter. I'm pretty sure his father didn't believe our reply.
North of Winnipeg, the Red is opulent. Some of the riverside homes in East St. Paul and St. Andrews make Tuxedo look like a slum. From the river, the parade of boat launches, decks, swimming pools and picture windows look like something out of an episode of Miami Vice.
As we neared Lockport, a lone red fox darted up into one of the massive lawns and ducks gave way to flocks of pelicans.
When we paddled into the lock channel, the bemused operator didn't hear us coming. "You're supposed to have a motor," he said, throwing us a rope to keep our five-metre boat stationary as water flowed out of the lock.
Canoeists rarely pass through the lock, he said, lowering down a passbook for us to sign. "Type of craft: Canoe. License: None. Destination: Lakeshore Heights."
Past the lock, we drifted pass a flotilla of catfishermen in motorboats, more pelicans and a couple of beavers.
We ended the day at Lower Fort Garry, pitching our tent where a brewery stood 150 years ago. We ate dinner silently to avoid attracting attention from staff at the National Historic Site.
Would they appreciate squatters? We never found out. At least we had the good taste to visit the historic fort by canoe.
Total time on the water: Six hours.
Total kilometres: 29.
DAY TWO: SELKIRK THROUGH NETLEY MARSH
After a quick tour around still-deserted Lower Fort Garry, we were back on the water by 9 a.m. Early-morning fishers lined the shores around Selkirk, giving way to floatplanes and cows as Steeltown passed by.
Rain started falling as we passed beneath the last bridge over the Red River -- the so-called "Bridge To Nowhere" at Hwy. 4. We were still wrapped up like high-tech mummies when a concerned man in a motorboat pulled up to check on our well-being.
As it turned out, Winnipegger Gary Kwiecien and his girlfriend were on their way to Balsam Harbour -- only a kilometre away from our destination on Lake Winnipeg -- when he spotted our passbook entry in Lockport.
"That's a very ambitious plan," he said, circling back to make sure we weren't complete novices trying to get ourselves killed.
We assured him we were prepared. But we took his cellphone number for safety's sake. Little did we know he'd turn back in his motorboat while we'd foolishly press on in rough weather.
At 2 p.m., we reached the end of Main Street, where the Red River meets Netley Creek and the beginning of Netley Marsh. Of course, "marsh" is a bit of misnomer, for this labyrinthine body of water is really just an extension of Lake Winnipeg.
When the wind blows from the south, Netley becomes a massive expanse of mudflats that can strand the shallowest of dinghies. When the wind blows from the north, it becomes a big body of open water, almost as treacherous as Lake Winnipeg itself.
Last Saturday, the wind was blowing from the north. I was tempted to dipsy-doodle through Netley's various channels to avoid the full force of the wind on Lake Winnipeg, but area residents and the Coast Guard warned me against it. Apparently, topo maps are useless when the wind blows hard and changes the face of the marsh.
So while Gary, our newfound guardian, was deciding to turn back, we headed up the final stretch of the Red River. The current was nonexistent and the marsh possessed an ominous lifeless quality. The landscape reminded me of Frodo and Sam Gangee's gloomy journey through Mordor in the final book of Lord Of The Rings.
We paddled hard down the Red and took the East Channel toward Lake Winnipeg. This was where we should have stopped -- at the mouth of the East Channel at Pruden Bay, where a patch of trees may have provided us with a campsite.
The weather showed no sign of easing up. Stupidly, I persuaded Katarina to cross the 1.5-kilometre bay. This is how morons drown, or at least get hypothermia.
Luckily, that didn't happen. We took on water but did not swamp.
However, we were forced to paddle on the same side of the canoe to keep the boat straight. At this moment, I officially lost my "experienced canoeist" tag and entered Amateur Hour.
Predictably, we ran of steam before we got all the way across the bay. We missed the opposite point. So I turned into the marsh and hoped to find a way back to the southern lakeshore through a back-channel.
No dice. The water was high and the topo map was useless. A GPS might have helped but I've never bothered to learn how to use one.
We wasted precious hours of daylight trying to find the channel before we gave up and returned to the point. Our nerves were frayed. Katarina was quite sure I was trying to kill her. She's an only child, and her mother wasn't crazy about this adventure.
Thankfully, the waves eased. We managed to claw our way to a sandy beach wide enough to support a campsite. Driftwood burns easily, even when wet, so a fire wasn't long coming.
When I fell asleep, the adrenaline was still gnawing at my stomach.
Total time on the water: Twelve hours, including wasted marsh time.
Total kilometres: 52, excluding wasted marsh mileage.
DAY THREE: ALONG THE SOUTHERN LAKESHORE
Unlike the previous day, Sunday was sunny. A pelican floated in the choppy waters of Pruden Bay. I took it as a good sign.
I convinced Katarina we need to push on. She no longer trusted my judgment. Who could blame her? The wind blew from the northwest as we rounded the point and said good-bye to Pruden Bay.
Along the lakeshore, we were faced with a quandary. If we stray too far from shore, we'd be in trouble if we dump the boat and would probably lose gear. But if we stuck too close, the waves breaking in the shallows would threaten to swamp us at every move.
We opted for the latter, safer option, and paddled about two clicks before I decided to head back to shore to bail some water.
Stupid move No. 2. In the shallows, we were broadsided by a breaker and wound up in the lake. This is the first time I've dumped in my entire life.
The good news is the water was less than a metre deep, so all our gear was safe (except, ironically, for a tin cup I used as a bailer).
It took an awful struggle to get the water out of the canoe, which we foolishly dragged too close to shore. We had to haul its heavy, bloated belly off a sandbar before we could turn it upright. We were back in business, but I lost my nerve to paddle.
It didn't help that six hawks circled overhead, like buzzards in the desert. It was a coincidence, however. The southern shore of Lake Winnipeg is a paradise for all kinds of large birds that prey on fish, from graceful herons to majestic bald eagles.
For the next hour, we lined the boat along the lakeshore in the shallows, avoiding hypothermia with the help of a very hot sun. When the water got too deep, we started paddling again -- but only in fits and starts, concentrating on turning the canoe to face the largest breakers but avoiding straying too far from shore.
By the time we pass the entrance to Brokenhead River, I breathed a sigh of relief. We were back in civilization and the waves were beginning to let up.
After a one last harrowing paddle -- around the bend of Stoney Point, where massive breakers tossed the canoe like a roller coaster -- we surfed into Patricia Beach Provincial Park and crashed for the day. Just like at Lower Fort Garry, we waited until dusk to pitch our tent and avoid questions from park officials.
Total time on the water: Five hours.
Total kilometres: 13.
DAY FOUR: PATRICIA BEACH THROUGH BALSAM BAY
Eager to leave at the first sign of calm water, we woke at 4 a.m. and got back in the boat by 5:15. There were still a few decent-sized waves crashing down on heavily exposed Patricia Beach, but they subsided as the lakeshore turned north near Beaconia.
A handful of car campers had pitched tents in the bushes along the shore. Some of them were still partying at dawn.
We stopped near the Island Beach cottage area to put out a bonfire left smoldering on the lakeshore. By this time, the lake had finally turned to glass, allowing us to breeze through Balsam Bay, unaware that Gary Kwiecien was watching us complete the final leg of our trip from a vantage point on a lakefront cabin.
Rolling into Lakeshore Heights was almost anticlimactic. It felt too easy, after so much blinding fear. Short trips close to home aren't supposed to be this scary.
On the lakeshore, I used the cellphone to herald our arrival. We dove into the dregs of our GORP and were off the beach before 7:30 a.m.
Total time on the water: Two hours.
Total kilometres: 11.
A HUMBLE POST MORTEM
In perfect weather, a canoe trip from the middle of Winnipeg to cottage country would only take two days. But perfect weather is not one of Lake Winnipeg's finest qualities.
In retrospect, I'll never make this trip again, unless I have an unlimited number of days to complete it. I sincerely hope nobody reads this story and decides to follow in my foolish and lucky footsteps.
Open canoes simply don't belong on Lake Winnipeg, at least when impulsive people are sitting in the stern. The next time I go to the lake for the weekend, I'm taking the car.
By then, Katarina's mother should be talking to me again.