The Voyage of the Heath Ledger

Out on the river, it was always a chore to get Joe going in the morning. I would start taking down the tent with him inside to convince him it was time to break camp. “Shit, bro,” he would whine, “you know I have a process. Just give me a few minutes.” Occasionally I lied and told him it was nine o’clock when it was really seven. But on the morning of June 18, with the promise of legal alcohol foremost on his brain, Joe was up and stuffing his clothes away not long after sunrise. I was eager to make Winnipeg—still about three days’ paddle—but there would be no convincing Joe that he should wait to get crunk, at least until we came upon a town that was close to the river.

I thought it would expedite matters if I stayed back, took down the tent, and packed our gear into the Ledger. As he left camp, nasty black thunderheads promised rough weather; I reminded Joe to take his rain gear and a two-way radio.

Three hours later I sat shivering under the bridge, wrapped in a tarp, as rain slashed me in stinging, horizontal streaks. It seemed Joe had traveled beyond the three-mile range of the radios about 45 minutes after leaving camp. For the first time since we shoved off from the headwaters, Joe and I were more than a few feet apart from each other, and I was angry at my young paddling partner. I finally decided to go after him.

Up on the road, I tried to thumb a ride in the downpour, but nobody wants to let a wet dog in their car, which is what I felt like on that long walk. After about two miles Joe finally responded to the radio. “Bro, I’m crunk as hell! Come down here, man. The place is called Barney’s or some shit, and the bartender has a smokin’ body. Hell yeah, dawg.” With each word I became more annoyed.

As I approached the prairie town of Letellier, a tidy collection of buildings that included a grain elevator, two modest brick motels (and their adjoining beverage rooms), I spotted a slender brown figure stumbling toward me. Joe had consumed two Captain-and-Cokes and was weaving around like the drunken teenage lightweight he was.
I followed him back to Barney’s, where I watched Canadian Idol on television, ate a veggie burger, and drank a Moosehead. Joe downed another Captain-and-Coke, ogled the bartender (who was indeed smokin’) and whispered to me about wanting to “hit that.”

An hour later the sky began to clear and Joe and I headed back to camp. He talked much of the way about all the hos he was planning to tap in Winnipeg. I thought about the short leash I was going to have to keep him on when we got there.

I held out hope that we could still make meaningful river miles that day—until we returned to the bridge to find that someone had rifled through our gear, which I had left neatly stored under a tarp at the base of a concrete piling. The only thing missing was the one piece of equipment we could not replace in Canada: our shotgun. At first this seemed a more sobering development for Joe than it was for me. As a beginning camper he had a somewhat irrational and often overwhelming fear of potential dangers, like bears and white people. I knew from more than twenty-five years of outdoor experience—including some time in Alaska’s grizzly territory—that the gun was a precaution, and we probably wouldn’t have occasion to use it. But as we loaded the Ledger and prepared to shove off, I was struck with a sobering realization of my own.

There was now a smuggled shotgun on the loose, registered in my name. I could be liable for any crimes that might be committed with that weapon, unless I reported it stolen. But if I reported it stolen I would have to admit to law enforcement that we (and the gun) entered the country illegally.

“You guys need some help?” called a friendly voice from the bridge above.

Joe looked up at the guy, a twenty-something man on a bike, and inquired, “You Indian?” They had a brief exchange, establishing that our new friend was “Canadian Ojibwe,” and Joe was “Sioux.”

“We Sioux—we call ourselves Lakota—were the last holdouts against the United States. We killed Custer,” Joe informed him. This was a fact he would repeat to every Native person we met between here and Hudson Bay, and it always elicited genuine bouts of laughter—not because it was a humorous historical detail, but because it was the first thing Joe wanted others to know about his people, and because he was bursting with the kind of pride one might express if his favorite football team had just won the Super Bowl.

After a few moments of internal deliberation I bit the bullet. The guy on the bridge had a cell phone and I asked him to dial the authorities. Minutes later an officer from the Dakota Ojibwe Police Service came striding down through the tall grasses. Since we were paddling off map, I hadn’t realized we were on the Roseau River First Nation Reserve. After I more or less explained the situation—“We meant to pass customs but there was nowhere to check in!”—the officer told Joe to “sit tight with the canoe” and ordered me to follow him to his squad car and get in the back.

The town of Roseau River, several squat shuttered buildings and a cigarette store, was a two-minute drive from the bridge. The officer led me into a rusting building and locked the door. He pulled some forms from a file cabinet and gravely scribbled notes while I described most of what had led up to me unleashing an unauthorized shotgun on the citizens of Canada. He seemed to lack a sense of humor, so I tried to break him down by complimenting the children in the photos on his desk.

“Those are the sergeant’s kids,” he grunted. I had initially thought that since this officer was an Indian he might, perhaps, concur with my feeling that it was not an actual offense to cross from the United States into Canada unannounced; after all, the Ojibwe nation is one of many that were divided by the establishment of the (arbitrary) boundary. But his body language didn’t inspire hopes of imminent freedom. Then his phone rang.

He answered it on speaker. “You have to come right away,” a hysterical-sounding woman pleaded. “My son-in-law is walking down to the river with a rope and said he’s going to kill himself.” The officer calmly gathered the caller’s information and got up to leave. “I have to take this. I’m the only one working today—Father’s Day. Can you walk back to the bridge and wait there? I’m going to call an officer from the RCMP to meet you.” He twisted the deadbolt on the door and set me loose.

Back at the bridge I repeated my faux woeful tale to Constable James of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Even though he was an imposing presence—six-foot-five and barrel-chested in his bullet-proof vest—the bespectacled young officer reminded me of a mild-mannered fiction writer I knew in Minneapolis. He seemed more artist than thug, and genuinely mesmerized by the details of our international expedition. I chatted freely with James, even as he arrested us, confined us to the back of his white Explorer, and said we would have to leave our equipment in the canoe while he hauled us to the border for questioning.

There was no knowing if or when we would return to the Ledger, and whether there would be anything left of our gear.

It felt strange to move at sixty miles per hour after two weeks of flowing along at two to five, depending on wind. Joe was mystified by my amiable discourse with James, conducted through the metal grille between the seats. He sat behind the constable and gestured to me as if to say, “Why the hell are you talking to a pig? Are you fucking nuts?” But I thought the best approach was to let James get to know us; to humanize ourselves and our intentions, thereby, hopefully, diminishing suspicion. In fifteen minutes we had covered the same distance it had taken us four hours to cover by canoe the previous night.

We followed Constable James into the border post, where the desk-bound bureaucrats dropped what they were doing to gawk at us. Apparently, word had circulated about the captured American canoeists. We felt like stars, like celebrity perpetrators. A pretty young woman at the currency exchange desk seemed especially interested in what the cop had dragged in. As we sat down in the lobby, Joe returned her stares before sliding on his orange oversized sunglasses—his “stunner shades”—and kicking back like a cool dude.

“Keep your head in the game,” I whispered sharply. “The next few minutes are going to make or break this trip.”

“Shit, dawg,” Joe replied defiantly. “If I’m gonna go out, I’m going out like a G.”

Suddenly Hudson Bay felt like it might as well have been on another planet.

The ocean was our goal, but we were also looking to heal our hearts, and mine was mending but still wrecked. And even though I missed my children (who had agreed to stay with their mother for the summer), the thought of being sent home now—where misery waited with open arms—was unbearable.

“Stay cool, bro,” I said, as much to myself as to the burgeoning pimp at my side. “We’re gonna be alright.”






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