The Voyage of the Heath Ledger

Upon arrival in Canada we experienced several firsts.

For the first time in two weeks we could see a mile into the future. The river, which had been infuriatingly serpentine up to this point (on an average day we paddled two river miles to travel one mile north) suddenly straightened out. I was, as usual, eager to keep moving, to dig in and put some distance between us and the border. Joe, as usual, had other ideas.

This was the first time Joe had traveled outside the United States, the first time he had breathed beyond the reaches of a government that had, at one time or another, for one reason or another, jailed almost every adult member of his family. He wanted to mark the occasion with a few Captain-and-Cokes, his signature cocktail.

For the first time in his life, under Canada’s liberal alcohol statutes, Joe was legal to drink, and he intended to stop at the first bar we could find and get fuckin crunk, as he had put it repeatedly since our departure. The map showed a town called Emerson situated immediately on the Manitoba side of the border. A few blighted warehouses rose above the flood wall to our right, but the town didn’t give the impression of a welcoming place to pull in and drink. Joe frantically began paddling us toward the eastern banks, but without my cooperation in the swift current he was never going to get there. I convinced him that we would find a more suitable place for his first legal drink a few miles downstream.

I was eventually going to have to fulfill the promises I’d made to get Joe to come along on this trip in the first place: I’d told him he’d be able to drink in bars, and meet lots of Native girls in the northern communities we would travel through. But minutes past the border was not the place to stop and get sloppy.

Luckily, Joe began to see things my way after a few minutes. It helped that it was one of those rare magical evenings when, like a cosmic reward for the labor and risk required on a lengthy expedition, nature offers a show of its magnificent power while leaving you unharmed. Massive thunderheads the color of orange Dreamsicles piled thousands of feet into the sky around us, every few minutes releasing a downburst of warm wind and precipitation without a drop wetting our skin. Around sunset we witnessed a bobcat scaling the trunk of a tall birch, saw the violent shaking of its branches, and heard the terrible cries of a nest of birds as they were being devoured. This was Joe’s first impression of Canada. “Damn, nigga,” he said earnestly, calling me the name he reserves for his homies. “It’s real out here.”

Five miles past the border we were off the road map I’d been using for navigation. I was well prepared to navigate the far north. But for about two hundred miles on the Red River I had only a common gas station map to go by; for the section between Emerson and Winnipeg I had only the poorly detailed and antiquated descriptions in Canoeing with the Cree. It was impossible to get lost on the river, and I knew Winnipeg was about a hundred river miles ahead; the problem was that I couldn’t tell Joe where we might find alcohol. We paddled past a couple dudes in ragged baseball caps fishing from shore, pulling out meaty channel cats. There was a “beverage room” ahead, they said. “Stop at the bridge in about seven river miles, and the town of Letellier is a three-mile walk to the west.”

The fishermen offered Joe a Molson out of their cooler but he declined; that wasn’t how he envisioned his first sip of Canadian alcohol. He wanted to be carded, then served a Captain-and-Coke.

The evening calmed into a warm, breeze-less night, and the black canopy above us was sliced in half by the glowing stripe of the Milky Way. We came upon the bridge around midnight and with the aid of headlamps found a dry rock on which to disembark. Even in daylight it was challenging to find a spot to land the Ledger without sinking crotch-deep in tarry soil. We almost always camped beneath bridges, since the earth beneath them was crusty and could support a tent.

We tied off the canoe and set up camp. Joe pulled on a sweatshirt and started through the tall grass up to the bridge deck. “You coming to drink with me, dawg, or what?” he yelled back.

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I followed him up to the road. The feel of solid pavement beneath my feet came as a welcome respite from the quicksand riverbanks on which we had mucked around the past two weeks. It was strange and exciting to emerge from the river and see road signs in English and French. Earlier that day we were paddling the Red River. Now were plying la rivière Rouge.
I squinted into the darkness to the west. There were two or three distant twinkles of light, but nothing close to the constellation that would indicate an active human settlement. I persuaded Joe to wait until morning to make his excursion to the beverage room.

That night, as I tried to sleep on my bag in the muggy tent, Joe stayed awake pulling hairs from his chin—his preferred method of facial grooming—in preparation for the big day to come. Later, he turned out his headlamp and went to sleep without going through his usual refrain about “the white rednecks that are coming to kill us,” or begging me to let him sleep with the shotgun. We were both tired and thrilled to have made it to Canada, a serious milestone on our route to the Bay.

“Goodnight, nigga,” Joe said drowsily.

Having spent enough time talking to Joe and only Joe, I had unconsciously adopted his vocabulary. “Goodnight, nigga,” I replied.

 

Joe was not the first person I thought of to accompany me on a lengthy and dangerous river expedition. I’d been paddling with my friend Kris Koch since we were both teens, and we had talked for years of tracing the route described in Canoeing with the Cree. In early April 2006, I was struck with the sudden and unshakeable inspiration to paddle to Hudson Bay, but Kris wasn’t ready to go. He had recently landed his dream job as a chef at the Walker Art Center’s 2021 restaurant, and was unwilling to risk his career for what, until now, had been just a daydream. I had determined I would go alone, by kayak if necessary, even though, given my flimsy psychological state, I would not have lasted a week. Then two weeks after Kris turned me down, I received a 3 a.m. phone call. Joe was on the streets of St. Paul and needed my help.

I didn’t get the details immediately—he was frantic—but I later put together what had happened. Joe had been at Regions Hospital where his girlfriend Joan was giving birth. Joan is Ojibwe, and Joe is Lakota and Puerto Rican. When the baby came out black, Joe was the last person in the room to put it together that it wasn’t his. He cut the umbilical cord, and then a nurse grabbed his wrist and snipped off the hospital bracelet linking him to the baby boy.

No one in the delivery room had the compassion to stop him as he left the hospital in a state of shock and mourning. I’d known Joe during his crazy high school days, when he was selling crack, jacking cars, getting chased by police dogs, and doing time. But I’d never feared for him like I did now: I was familiar enough with Joe’s world to know revenge was his only option. For two days following the birth of the baby that wasn’t his, I kept Joe at my house and tried to talk him out of it. I asked him to consider loving Joan even though she had given birth to another man’s baby. But a week later, when I heard Joe boasting to his homies about going “toe to toe with that Sonic motherfucker,” I had a bad feeling about his odds of staying alive and out of jail if he remained in Frogtown for the summer.

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