We woke bound for the falls under the heavy cover of wet clouds and packed our wet tent loosely, hoping for the best. We expected that the weather might lessen the appeal of the outdoor attraction of falling water, but were greeted at the river by hordes of ponchos and a tropical shower of acorn rain.
In a futile effort to sprint between the rain we made our way under the bridge that crossed into New York and watched the foam drift quickly toward Buffalo. A fog hung low over the gorge ahead and blended white with the clouds dumping so much rain.
We were drenched to the skin (I rinsed a pair of runners that would remain wet and hang an intolerable reek in the car until long after the journey concluded) by the time we came to the falls, and sure enough the rain halted and countless concealed tourists were out from under their shelters just as we arrived.
We fought the crowd and stood at the edge of the Horseshoe Falls for twenty minutes, lulled by the endless turn of the huge water from a rapid sea to weightless spay.
Melissa looked up, her face tight in the drawstringed wet hood of a sweatshirt, and said, “It’s completely understandable that people would want to go over that in a barrel.”
We had made the summer one of themed reading and shared lists of books that continually cemented our unity of ideas and conversation, and Hemingway had begun as our author of choice.
Upon my grant of freedom from university, I had read The Old Man and the Sea to help a younger friend with a high school paper, and by the time Melissa and the family arrived, I had begun For Whom the Bell Tolls and was thinking that the season could do well under the title of A Hemingway Summer. As was to happen countless times the summer over, Melissa arrived at the same conclusion independently and stepped off the plane with a dog-eared copy of To Have and Have Not peeking from her bag.
The week after our parents left, I was forced to spend a week in Georgia, acquiring certification in Aquatics Directing from a Boy Scouts’ National Camp School, and I spent a week in my first tent of the summer under the tutelage of a team of water-guarding police officers from Tampa. We studied and swam and paddled in teams – ours, captained by myself, was dubbed The Pirates – in a swamp near Molena, while Melissa avoided my roommates and devoured several books while barricaded in my Little Rock room.
Melissa took her first turn at the wheel as we left the falls and headed past Toronto for the last time. The sky was grey but we were headed for sunlight in the north and the charge of the falls rushed our journey – the thunder of Metallica accommodating our speakers – into the west. The draw of the heavy water behind us weight on our imaginations.
“It’s weird,” Melissa said, voluming down the lightning of the guitars and fits of drumming. “You just feel as if you want to get as close to the falls as you can.”
“I know. I’m definitely glad we went down there.”
The validity of the tourist trap confirmed, we drove toward Barie under the living sky rolling down off the Canadian Shield. We had activated Melissa’s Vancouver Canucks Visa and our Chevron woes had subsided for the time being; penciling meal plans in the air, we decided that with curbed expenses – such as skipping the highly recommended Maid of the Mist that morning – we should be able to make it home with money to spare.
A photograph of Melissa looking forlornly toward the Maid of the Mist boat as it pitched in the chop at the foot of the falls is testament to this plot, as were the sacks of bagels and cans of soup and chili that we picked up that day. We wouldn’t stop to stock up on food for the rest of the trip.
Our work at the Boy Scout Camp was a mess of incredibly long hours that ran weekly in and out with very few breaks or moments of peace and privacy. Each Sunday, a new crop of Scouts would arrive, and unlike so many other jobs of a similar ilk, any time to chat or catch a few moments of solace evapourated.
Sunday evening was a hectic meal in the dining hall, a symphony of clattering trays and then the camp fire was lit and we would perform, each department, introducing our areas to the new campers. It was the only night of the week that we would be able to be in our tents before the sun was all the way down. Monday morning would come and a school day worth of classes would begin for students and teachers – us – alike. From nine to five, basketry and swimming were taught and learned alongside rock climbing, ecological conservation and canoeing and shooting (arrows, bullets and shotgun shells).
Each evening there would be a free-for-all of a swim or a boating activity that Melissa or I would need to tend and a flurry of other PR tasks between the camp and visiting Scoutmasters. From six in the morning until after ten each night, our time and selves were spoken for.
Once camp concluded, the same absurd energy was thrown into our liberated hours.
Our spontaneity had largely hung on our ideas about accommodation on our trip. Clearly never intending to keep hotels in our budget, from the outset we had thought to support our journey on the shoulders of our collective camping skills and navigate the country via its secretive free sites to be had along the route.
This meant that each afternoon we would begin to spy for a place to spend the night, our initial hope being that, well, we would be in the woods, and places to pitch a tent free-of-charge would be scattered along the flanks of the TransCanada.
Of course, this was not so, and our first night had admitted defeat to the public parks department of Ontario, casting a threatening eye on our already limited funds. We drove into the Canadian Shield unwitting of the bush and rough country that was ahead of us.
Searching in circles under darkening skies, we took refuge on a bluff above the highway, throwing out makeshift camp our along the fence of a gravel runaway lane. We brewed our first batch of instant coffee and Melissa quickly deemed it too terrible to continue with.
“Maybe I’ll quit drinking coffee on the trip,” she mused.
Rain came soon enough and we stretched Uncle Wayne’s tarp – a last-minute add-on to our mountain of supplies – between the open hatch of the Subaru and the fence to keep a small area dry and ate dinner and read in the small living room. The CBC 2’s Classical Hour stretched into three or four, and we watched the sun set on the edge of the storm, grinning helplessly at the cradle it provided.