There were some definite Journal Argus links to the little flotilla that “put in” to the Thames River on holiday Monday afternoon, north of Motherwell next to the Porteous Family pioneer cemetery. River Clean-up guru Todd Sleeper, who lives nearby, calls a big rock that commands the centre of the river nearby “Gravestone Rock” — not because it claims so many lives (this is the Thames River, after all, not Cape Horn), but because it sits within sight of the pioneer markers.
Steering one canoe — constructed of cedar strips some 25 years ago by his brother — was Journal Argus news editor Stew Slater. Steering the other — constructed of fibreglass even longer ago, by the inimitable Jack Payton, the father of the Journal Argus’s long-time sports editor — was frequent Journal Argus contributor Chet Greason.
Seated ahead of them, alternating throughout the trip between hunkering down in the middle and fulfilling rock-scouting and bow-paddling duties in the front, were four enthusiastic boys aged 12 and 13.
Through glances made towards the river on the pick-up truck trip up the West River Road towards Motherwell, it became evident the river wasn’t as high as either sternsman expected, given the recent rains. So a stop was made at the Sleeper household, with its gorgeous view of the historic Trafalgar Bridge.
And, although he mentioned “Gravestone Rock,” it was an entirely different rock about which Todd was concerned. “If I can see two inches of that rock above the water, it’s perfect.” If the rock is submerged, the water is running too fast to be safely paddled by amateurs. If more than two inches is showing, it gradually becomes more and more likely that the canoe will repeatedly scrape the rocks on the river bottom.
Todd strolled down his laneway and looked upriver towards the rock. About 12 inches.
“Two days ago, it was perfect. I’m surprised at how quickly the water has gone down.”
He expressed concern about the bottoms of our canoes. But he added a group of young people had taken off just below his home the day before, and we had all noticed that the river had been comparatively busy over the past few days.
It may be our last chance of the season, we reasoned, and the kids were looking forward to it. So we said a silent prayer to the rock gods, and resumed our adventure.
There were certainly some exciting stretches, especially north of the Trafalgar Bridge, but even as we got closer to St. Marys. Once, within site of the Motherwell bridge and after scratching across some rocks on the previous set of rapids, we decided to portage around a lengthy stretch of rock-strewn streambed. But on the other occasions, perhaps emboldened by our success on the previous twists and turns, we called out to our young scouts: “Which side? Right or left?” And plunged on through.
By the time we caught site of the Sarnia Bridge trestle, we had come to the firm conclusion that, although it might seem logical that we would be most concerned about our safety and that of our young friends during the times when we were forced to negotiate shallow rapids and unexpected rocks, that was not the case. In fact, we were most at risk when the water was calm, and the kids sought other distractions — such as, startlingly, pretending to be Venician gondoliers; or attempting to pass their paddle from one hand to the other underneath the boat!
It turns out these boys are Water Rats, indeed, who — as in Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful Wind in the Willows — simply adore “messing about in boats.”