Jeffrey S. Rosenthal
That was it, the quiet. The freedom. Annie had been going on camping trips in Algonquin Park for nearly twenty years, but she still found it hard to explain why it was so important to her. It was the beauty of the lake, perhaps. The shores lined with evergreen trees, the graceful rocking of the waves, the birds calling overhead. But it was more than that, too. It was a sort of homecoming.
Annie had lived all her life in Toronto. The big city. Big tough buildings enclosing big tough people. Cars and noise and deadlines and shouting and pollution. Always dealing with clients and bosses and tax laws and business accounts. And yet it was here, so far from people, far even from the nearest road or house or corner store, that she felt she belonged. Why, she wondered. Certainly not from her childhood; her parents didn't even drive, and hardly ever strayed from their life of downtown sophistication. It was more of an evolutionary thing. The knowledge that her ancestors' ancestors' ancestors lived a life something like this, a life without modern manufacturing and congestion.
It was where she "came from", she supposed. Not her personally, but the human race. Before automobiles and skyscrapers. In another time. "You are what you eat" never sounded right to her, with her chaotic diet of soy bean stir fry when she had the time, and low-grade fast food when she didn't. "You are what you evolved from", that was more like it.
Annie glanced down at the map, with its maze of lakes, islands, and portages. Then she looked up and tried to calibrate. That island ahead must be this little dot on the map, she decided. So her first target, a small river leading off to a larger lake, must be slightly to the left. She squinted into the sunny shoreline but couldn't make it out. Still, she increased the "J" of her J-stroke just a little, to steer the canoe a little further in what she'd decided was the right direction.
Actually she enjoyed navigating the park's extensive lake system. The lakes' shores, while beautiful, all looked pretty much the same. Sometimes it was hard to even see where an inlet or island ended, or be sure which part of a lake was which. If you weren't careful you could end up miles from your destination, with nighttime approaching fast. But in the end she had always figured out where she was going, and always arrived okay. This was her forty-third canoe trip through the park (yes, she counted), and she'd never had any major problem.
A splash of water made her jump. "Ooo, that's cold!", she laughed. Jack's paddle had hit the water at an awkward angle, causing the splash. He was a strong paddler, but inexperienced, and such things were bound to happen. Jack looked at her over his shoulder, and seemed a little embarrassed, but then went back to paddling and said nothing.
Ah, Jack. Every canoe trip had a new ingredient: a different lake, a greater distance, unusual food, an exotic animal sighting. This trip's new ingredient was Jack. Annie watched his muscular shoulders as he pulled on his paddle, and felt a slight shiver. "I hope he likes it", she thought.
She hadn't been sure whether to invite Jack along. They had only met a couple of months ago (actually two months, one week, and three days). And he had never been on an overnight canoe trip before. But she felt so close to him, so peaceful. He always listened, never judged, never argued. So easy-going that he never imposed his opinions on anyone. Always happier to listen to Annie's life story than to impose his own. And then Carol said she couldn't get away this weekend after all. How could she resist a chance to unite her new joy, Jack, with her old joy, Algonquin Park? She couldn't.
The canoe glided slowly passed the small island. The island contained a few trees, but some open areas too. One large birch tree had fallen over onto a pine, creating an interesting triangle. Two chipmunks scampered up the sloping birch, one chasing the other. "Look chipmunks", Annie called out, pointing with her paddle. But by the time Jack looked over they were gone.
"And, down we go!" Annie awkwardly lowered the canoe from her shoulders to the edge of the large rock. Despite her best efforts, it made a bit of a "thump" as it hit the ground. Over the years Annie had gotten pretty good at carrying canoes, but putting them down wasn't her speciality.
The beginning of the portage, after a quick lunch, had been a bit awkward. Jack had felt that as the man, and a big strong one at that, it should be he who carried the canoe. Annie was flattered by his chivalry. But the fact was, he couldn't get the canoe balanced properly. First he grabbed it from too far to the side, then he swung it around but only managed to hit it into the large branch of a cedar tree. Then he tried to right it, but in the confusion his foot landed on the edge of a tree root and twisted at a bad angle. Reacting to the pain, Jack dropped the canoe, which fortunately landed in a soft spot thus avoiding any damage.
Annie had smoothed over the situation, she thought, by suggesting that she carry the canoe now, and then Jack could carry it on the way back, "when we're more tired". She'd said it with a smile, but Jack's consent had been sullen and resentful. He then proceeded to carry ALL their packs in a single trip, as if to prove his strength anyway. Annie blamed herself. They had discussed canoe paddling before the trip, but not canoe carrying techniques, and now Jack was unhappy about his failure. Perhaps later at the campsite they could play some canoe-carrying game, she thought, so that she could teach him the technique without being obvious about it. Jack was very sensitive that way.
Now Jack dropped all the packs on the rock near the canoe. There were two large and two small packs, together containing all their food, tent, sleeping bags, clothes, and other essentials. Annie winced slightly at the sight of them. Usually she and Carol would get by with far less, just one large pack containing one change of clothes each, a few freeze-dried dinners, some dry rice and oats and pasta, and a thin lightweight tent. But on this trip Annie had decided it was worth the extra effort to carry a few more items, including some fruits and vegetables, some fresh meat for the first night, eggs (packed in a special hard-plastic egg case) for tomorrow's breakfast, inflatable padded sleeping matts, thick warm sleeping bags, etc. This special trip with Jack seemed to call for a few modest comforts.
Jack's face was flushed from the strain of carrying so much at once, so Annie took the lead in getting the canoe into the water, and then loading and tying all the packs. She considered suggesting that Jack try paddling in the stern for a while, to practice steering the canoe. But then she thought better of it. Steering canoes isn't easy, and this didn't feel like the right time to introduce Jack to another challenge. He was a sensitive person.
After they pushed off, Annie in the stern, she relaxed again. This new lake was larger than the first, and quite lovely. A small waterfall just behind them, which necessitated their portage, gave a pleasant, bubbly, gurgly glow. The far shores had a slight cliff face, right out of a Tom Thompson painting, with a small pine-filled mountain behind. In the distance two loons floated on the water, without a care in the world. "No accounting job for them", she thought with a smile. "THEY wouldn't care if the Sofa Emporium hadn't filed quarterly." It all seemed so far away, the world of corporate finance. This lake, these trees, those loons, the canoe, that was the here and now.
And Jack. Jack had taken off his shirt in the heat, and she watched his back for a while. Hairy on the top and middle, smooth at the sides lower down. Sharp muscles near the arms and neck, a little softer towards the bottom. Jack was slightly hunched over, his dark hair flapping at his ears. He seemed to be straining as he paddled, not from lack of strength but from the unusual twisting motion that only the dyed-in-the-wool canoers (like Annie) found natural. The wind had picked up a little, and Annie hoped that Jack appreciated its gentle blowing, as it washed the entire park over their bodies.
Had it really been just two months? Annie felt like she knew him forever. They had met at the Fair and Foul pub, near her work. She'd noticed him there a few times before, with his strong muscular build, his clean-cut features, and his strong jawline. But they had never spoken. In fact, he never seemed to speak to anyone. He would just sit around with the guys, drinking his beer, listening quietly to their jokes and complaints, occasionally smiling or nodding, but hardly ever contributing. Annie had been fascinated. What pearls of wisdom was he guarding, she wondered.
Finally one time when he had got to the rest room, she had casually excused herself from her friends, and stood ready to intercept him. On his way back she had asked him what his favourite beer was, and he told her, and she got him to point it out to her behind the bar, and then he waited while he ordered it, and then they sat at the bar discussing it. Not the cleverest pick-up line ever, Annie thought, but then she was out of practice. She was in her late thirties now, and men never asked out women in their late thirties. She hadn't been on a date in months.
But somehow this time it had worked. Jack had sat at the bar with her for nearly an hour, listening to her discuss her friends, and her house, and her family, and accounting. She'd discussed those things with Carol and Sue many times, of course, but this was different. This was discussing with a MAN. With someone who might, one day, be more than a friend.
From there things had progressed quickly. Whatever she suggested -- watching a play, listening to jazz, dinner in a fancy restaurant, or watching old movies on video -- he had always agreed amiably. The evenings had progressed easily, breezily, Jack dressed in his trademark black crewneck shirt and jeans, looking thoughtful as she recounted her day's events. The evening always ended back at her place, as Jack's passivity was finally unleashed in quick, passionate lovemaking.
Annie checked the map, and steered the canoe into a narrow opening past a bog. If they were lucky, they might even see moose drinking and bathing here, though probably it was too late in the day. The wind had really picked up, and the narrow shores offered some protection. The mosquitoes apparently agreed, and zoned in on the newly arriving blood supply. Annie didn't really mind mosquitoes, but she saw Jack fidgeting and swatting at them, which made her a little nervous. "Just go with the flow, Jack", she thought. "Don't be too sensitive."
At last they came out of the bog, and onto a small lake. The mosquitoes died down, and Annie felt better. The map showed that, from this lake, a long river would take them to a much larger lake, and Annie thought they would look for a place to camp at that point. Maybe there would be stars tonight, she thought dreamily, taking a fresh full breath of air.
"Let's camp there", Jack said suddenly, pointing at a cleared area. Annie nearly jumped at the voice breaking the silence. She realised that, aside from some brief responses during lunch, and a bit of planning on the portage, Jack had hardly said anything since their trip had begun. Recovering herself, she then felt disappointment. This lake was smaller than she liked, so it would be more buggy and less beautiful at night. And she was feeling good, and wasn't really ready to stop paddling yet. She started to object, but then decided that perhaps Jack had had enough for one day. Besides, it was clouding over now and looked like it might rain. So, hiding her reluctance, she agreed and headed for shore. She found a tiny orange "campsite" sign, put up by the park rangers, containing a sketch of a tent, indicating that the clearing was indeed an allowable place to camp.
Once ashore, she and Jack quickly unloaded the packs. She then pulled the canoe up onto some rocks, and for good measure she tied it to a tree. The only flat area was up a small hill, so they quickly brought all their equipment up there.
"It might rain soon", Annie observed. "Let's put up the tent first, and then start a fire for dinner." She felt tired but exhilarated. Here she was, in the beautiful wilderness, with nothing but the lake and trees, the birds, their food and equipment, and Jack.
But to her surprise, Jack seemed to be dawdling. He sat down on a patch of pine needles and leaned backwards. He stretched and yawned a little. Perhaps he hadn't understood her. "Give me a hand with the tent, Jack", she repeated. "We'd better get it up before it rains." At that Jack slowly lumbered to his feet, and halfheartedly assisted her, but said very little.
Once the tent was up, Annie quickly turned her attention to dinner. "Why don't you gather wood for a fire", she suggested, "while I get the food ready to cook." She then found the food pack, and started taking things out slowly. Eventually she found the raw steaks they had bought (carefully preserved in a sealed plastic container), some dry rice, a large stalk of broccoli, and a small plastic container of soy sauce. She then went to the lake and put some water in a small pot, to cook the rice.
When she returned, she saw that Jack was sitting down again. "Did you get some firewood?", she asked. Jack just grunted. "What's wrong with him?", she thought. Then she noticed some red spots swelling up on the back of his hand -- mosquito bites. Also his shoulders had a faint pink glow -- sunburn. She shouldn't have let him remove his shirt!
Between the insect bites, and burn, and the stiffness he must be feeling from so much paddling, she suddenly felt quite sorry for him. She went over and ran her hand through his hair, and said, "Poor darling, are you a little worn out?" Jack just pulled his head away from her hand. Sighing, Annie went off to find the firewood herself.
"Pass me your plate, and I'll wash it", Annie offered. The steaks had come out well, and the meal had been wonderful. Well, the food, anyway. Jack hadn't recovered from his funk, and had eaten in silence, without so much as a word about all the cooking and organising Annie had done. "That's gratitude for you", she thought. But hopefully a good night's sleep would cure everything. She left Jack by the fire, sipping from a bottle of Jack Daniel's that he had brought along ("Jack Daniels for Jack, huh?" she had quipped), while she went down to the lake to do the washing.
It was important to wash the dishes well, lest they attract chipmunks or even bears. Annie poured some soap (biodegradable, of course) onto one dish, and started massaging it with her hand in the water. The lake was colder here, but it felt refreshing on her fingers. She washed in time to the quiet patter of the small waves onto the rocks, and breathed another large delicious breath of clean air. The clouds above were very dark, suggesting rain soon, but at the moment everything felt still and calm.
As she watched, she began to notice a slight pink and purple glow. "Sunset!", she thought. She always loved Algonquin sunsets. In the old days, when they were eight or ten students going on a big expedition, with a large girls tent and a large boys tent, everything was chaotic, with someone cooking while someone was swimming while someone else was having a nap. But somehow at sunset they had all come out, quieted down, and taken in the experience.
She realised they were facing east, so they would only get the sunset's afterglow. But she figured it was just over the hill to a clearing on the other side, where the clouds would mix with the sun's dying rays to create magic. As she finished the dishes, she became very excited about taking Jack over the hill to see it. THAT would calm him down! THAT would make him feel happy again!
She quickly carried the clean dishes up to camp, and told Jack about the sunset. "If we hurry, I bet we can see it great from just over the hill!", she exclaimed. Jack didn't reply so she went closer. "Did you hear me? Come on, let's go!"
Suddenly Jack grabbed her wrist. Tightly. "Ow, you're hurting me", she said. "Let's go into the tent", he replied coldly. Annie felt frightened. Jack had never hurt her before. And his manner, so cold and detached. What did he want?
"Jack", she replied reasonably, "I just want to go over the hill to see the sunset. You can stay here if you want. I'll be back in a few minutes, and we can get ready for bed then."
"No, now", Jack growled. He pulled Annie on top of him, and then beside him. He started running his free hand down the side of her body, and trying to kiss her neck and chest. Annie smelled a strong Jack Daniels odour. "Wait, stop it!", Annie cried. "That hurts! And the pine needles are sticking into me! Let go!" Her voice was quavering. What was going on?
Jack had never behaved this way before. He was a respectable ... well, a respectable what? He talked so little about himself, that Annie didn't really understand what he did for a living, other than that it involved selling real estate properties. Did he work in an office? From home? Annie had never been sure. Suddenly all those silences, which before had seemed gentlemanly, now seemed ominous.
Jack climbed on top of Annie, and started rubbing against her. Annie was shocked. She had been so looking forward to making love with Jack in the park, but not like this! It was as if Jack was trying to prove something, something he hadn't had to prove before.
Annie managed to twist free and stand up. "Just relax, Jack", she said. "I'm just going over the hill and then I'll be back." She no longer cared about the sunset, but she wanted to continue as if nothing had happened. "Just wait a few minutes."
But Jack wasn't satisfied. He staggered to his feet and marched menacingly towards her. "Get over here", he demanded. Annie backed away quickly, caught her heel on a root, and fell onto the hill. Jack leaned menacingly over her.
Annie felt a large log beside her. In one smooth motion she picked it up, and swung it hard at his legs. It connected with his left shin. "Ah! You bitch!", he shouted. Now he was really angry. But while he was holding his shin, Annie managed to stand up and run up the hill. "Come back right now, you bitch!"
Annie made it to the top of the hill, panting and out of breath. It was getting dark now, and she couldn't quite see Jack through the trees, but she heard him. "You think you're tough?", Jack was shouting. "You're not so tough! You think sticks make you tough?" Annie heard the clunk of a log against a tree trunk. The log she had used. She went part way down the other side of the hill, making as little noise as possible, though disoriented, confused, and scared. The trees were thick here. But through a small opening through the leaves, she saw the brilliant orange and pink of the setting sun.
It had been quiet now for fifteen minutes. At first, Jack had kept yelling, growing ever more aggitated and aggressive. He was swinging the log through the trees, and demanding that Annie reveal herself. But he was unable to search effectively in the darkness, and Annie had kept very quiet and still, and eventually he had given up. Or had he? Annie wasn't sure where he was now. Perhaps he was moving stealthly in the night, and would suddenly surprise her. But more likely, he had returned to the camp and gone to sleep.
Annie tried to think clearly. Everything had changed so much, so quickly. A few hours ago, she was looking forward to a beautiful weekend in the wilderness with her boyfriend. Now, she was afraid of what he might do next, and where it would all end.
What should she do next? She could try to sleep on the hill, but that would be cold and uncomfortable. And what if Jack woke up before she did? Or she could summon help. But there was no one around. The wonderful isolation, that she so craved, was now a danger. No, everything pointed towards speaking to Jack tonight, trying to calm things down and reach an understanding with him. Then they could sleep in peace.
What would she say, though? "Excuse me, Jack, but are you feeling less psychotic now?" That didn't sound great. Surely it had been the alcohol; once Jack slept off his drunkedness, then all would be well again. Or would it? What desires to control had been lurking all this time under Jack's quiet exterior?
Then it started to rain. Gently at first, then harder. The wind howled, and the water crashed in sheets onto the tree leaves. Annie shivered in the wet cold, trying desperately to hide under the branches and protect her face with her hands. "When it rains, it pours", she thought.
In a way, the rain made everything else seem silly. How could she and Jack continue to fight, in the middle of such a downpour? She was sure that all would be forgiven now. Besides, she needed shelter from the rain anyway. Feeling renewed, she quickly made her way back toward the tent.
As she approached, she saw a flicker of light. Jack had a flashlight on, and was shining it around. She also heard a sloshing sound from a bottle. Then the light flashed in her direction, and came to a halt. It appeared that Jack was slowly standing up, while keeping the flashlight pointed at her.
This was the moment of truth, she thought. The moment to make everything better. "Hi Jack", she began sweetly, "Are you getting wet?"
Suddenly Jack started running at her. "You bitch!", he yelled. "I'll kill you, you bitch!" Annie screamed, and turned away. It was hard to run in the wet darkness. She went behind a tree, and just then heard a loud clunk -- Jack had thrown a log at her, which missed and hit the tree.
"No, don't!", she cried. "Stay away from me!" But Jack kept advancing, yelling, threatening. Annie felt a sense of panic.
She had to escape, she realised. The canoe. It was the only way.
Annie moved in the direction of the canoe, slipping and sliding down the hill. Jack was right behind her, and getting closer. But he too slipped on the wet hill. The flashlight slipped from his grip, and he fumbled to recover it.
Finally Annie made it to the canoe. Using what little light reflected from the lake, she managed to untie it from the tree. Fortunately a paddle was nearby. She grabbed it, thrust the canoe into the water, dove in, and started paddling.
By this point Jack had found the flashlight, and was marching into the lake after her. Clomp, clomp, clomp! He was so close! The water was getting deeper, and Jack was now half-swimming and half-walking, just behind the canoe. He reached for the canoe, and she felt a jerk as his hand touched it!
Desperately Annie angled the canoe's stern away from him. But now the side of the canoe was close, and Jack reached for that. "Stay away!", Annie screamed, poking at him with her paddle.
Then Jack grabbed the paddle! Annie tried to pull it away but she couldn't. He was holding on too tight. What should she do? She could let go of the paddle, but then she couldn't control the canoe. She needed the paddle!
Finally Annie pushed the paddle down, into the water. Jack held on, but then his face went under and he choked on the water. While coughing, he loosened his grip, and Annie pulled the paddle free. Paddling harder than she ever had before, Annie put some distance between the canoe and the swimmer. Finally, in deep water in the pouring rain, he had to turn back. Annie half saw, and half heard, Jack returning to the campsight area and climbing back up on the rocks.
A little further to the right, a little further, there! With some relief, Annie made out the narrow opening in the shore of the lake. The rain had let up a little, and she had managed to splash some of the rain water out of her canoe, but she was still cold and wet, and still very frightened. The immediate danger seemed over -- Jack wouldn't be able to find her now -- but the shock of what had happened, together with the uncertainty of what to do next, still weighed at her. Getting off the lake, so that Jack couldn't find her even in the morning, seemed like a prudent course of action.
Carefully Annie guided the canoe into the opening of the long, narrow bog. The water was quite still here, aside from the continued falling of the rain. But it was so dark that navigation was very difficult. Twice she scraped against rocks close to shore, and once found herself halfway up a floating tree trunk before she realised what had happened. Eventually she made her way to the shore, pulled the canoe up into a marshy area, and sat down by a tree. Only then did she start to cry, a long, jerky weeping, as the emotions of the past few hours caught up with her.
She didn't really sleep, though she did sit still by the tree for many hours. She removed her shirt for the wetness, then replaced it for the cold. It was not a comfortable night.
At the first sign of sunrise she set out again. Even though Jack had no canoe, she didn't want to risk running into him now. So she continued paddling through the bog, straining to see in the morning light. She had no flashlight, no food, no dry clothes, not even a life jacket. She also had no money or car keys. But she was alive, she remembered the route they had taken in, and she now knew that she could make it out of the park, and back to civilisation.
Ah yes, civilisation. Police, and shops, and rules and regulations. Those didn't sound so bad now. She would love canoeing trips for the rest of her life, but not today. Today was a day to escape.
But what would she say once she arrived? Surely she would have to tell someone about Jack -- she couldn't leave him there all alone. But what to say? Should she call the police? Should she say that he had attacked her? But actually it was HER who had hit HIM with the log. Besides, what witnesses did she have? What would Jack say when they found him? Images of a lengthy trial, of aggessive cross-examination from wiley lawyers filled her head. Too much television, she thought. But still, she didn't want to get into all that.
Suddenly she heard some movement from the shore. There, in the bog. She looked intensely into the dim light. Something moved again! What could it be? Could Jack really have followed her this far?
And then a head moved up from the bog, and looked at her thoughtfully. Annie jumped, and then breathed a sigh of relief. It was a moose.
"Ministry of Natural Resources -- there it is!" Never had Annie been more relieved to find a less dramatic-looking building. She had paddled all day. The sun had finally come out to warm her up and dry her off. But she was still very tired and stiff and sore, and above all HUNGRY. She looked and felt a mess. But now at last, relief was at hand.
She had considered returning to the outfitter shop, by the water, where they had rented the canoe. But she felt nervous discussing her situation with an unknown clerk, and realised that once she returned the canoe she would have no other way of returning home. Instead, she had paddled past the outfitter, to the park rangers' station further down the lake. She had a vague sense that the park rangers were ernest, honest people who would be prepared to help her. Not that she had too many alternatives.
She pulled the canoe up on shore, not bothering to tie it, and went to the building. It was a small shack, more of a log cabin than a government office, though it did have running water. There was no one at the counter, so she rang the small bell.
"Can I help you?", a serious-looking young man asked. He was wearing a Ministry of Natural Resources uniform, with the nametag "Roger" in front. He was about thirty years old, with a black moustache, long medium-brown hair, and bright blue eyes. When he saw Annie's appearance and distress, he became concerned. "Are you okay?"
Annie took a deep breath. "Roger the ranger, huh?", she smiled. Roger didn't smile back. Annie tried again. "Uh, yes. I sure hope that you CAN help me."
Gradually Annie told Roger the situation. She pointed at a park map hanging on the wall, to describe where Jack was. She had planned to just stick to the essentials, about how someone had been left accidentally in the park interior and needed rescuing. But then she felt a need to fill in a few more details, to explain why she had left him there, and suddenly it all started pouring out. About how they met two months ago. About how he had seemed so nice, but had been rather quiet. About the Jack Daniels. About the sunset. About the rain. About the log. Annie was crying gently, but continued talking anyway, faster and faster.
Roger mostly just listened. But something was different. He seemed sympathetic. And he responded intelligently. But it was more than that. He responded with UNDERSTANDING, that was it! Annie suddenly realised that the whole time she had been dating Jack, and had been telling him all about her life, he hadn't REALLY been listening. Not really UNDERSTANDING.
To Annie's huge relief, Roger responded appropriately. He said that he would radio for some rangers to go find Jack and bring him back. He agreed that he wouldn't tell the other rangers about Annie's whereabouts, so that Jack wouldn't be able to find her until later, in the city, and by then she would be safe again.
Meanwhile, he let Annie share his lunch of macaroni and cheese. He also let her take a hot shower, and he even gave her a free "Algonquin Park Welcomes You!" sweat-shirt to put on afterwards, replacing her soaked shirt. Finally, he helped her look up the bus schedule from Huntsville to Toronto, lent her enough money for a bus ticket, and agreed to drive her to the Huntsville bus station. A real saviour.
Annie phoned her sister in Toronto and arranged for her to meet the bus. Then she climbed in to the Ministry's pick-up truck, grateful to sit down, grateful to relax, grateful to be driven. She looked over at Roger, earnest and serious as he negotiated the tight turns of the dirt road. She noticed that his hand, resting on the steering wheel, bore no wedding ring.