The Voyage of the Heath Ledger

On June 17, 2006, we quietly paddled the Heath Ledger across the Canadian border. We hadn’t exactly planned to sneak into Canada. Joe and I were on a mission—to reach Hudson Bay by canoe, still hundreds of miles to the northeast—and as we approached the border we realized that interactions with government officials might endanger that mission. For one thing, we were unsure whether the guards would let Joe, with his extensive juvenile record, into the country. We also carried a 12-gauge shotgun (for protection against the polar bears we expected to meet downriver), which authorities in firearms-phobic Canada would seize if declared. So we chose the path of least resistance across the frontier, paddling through swirling waters into shimmering twilight.

We could hear the distant rumblings of semis, and between silhouettes of weeping willows, we saw the glow from floodlights at the Pembina/Emerson border post a mile beyond the muddy banks. But on the Red River there was no customs station, no sign of welcome to “Friendly Manitoba.” The border here was marked only by a black trestle of crisscrossed girders without so much as a single red maple leaf. As we slipped under the railroad span, floating illegally into the country, we were pushed along by a welcome rush of current, the first significant natural flow we’d seen since the trip began on June 4, four hundred river miles south at Wahpeton, North Dakota—the headwaters of the Red.

Already we had been interrogated by officials from five different law enforcement agencies in the U.S. They seemed to think we were either terrorists, immigrant smugglers, or perverted lovers: a big sick white guy with a lip ring and his skinny younger Puerto Rican/Lakota boy-toy acting out a canoe version of Brokeback Mountain. The movie had come out a few months earlier and now it seemed that two men couldn’t go camping together without the assumption that they were gay. In response, we named the canoe after one of the film’s stars.

They all asked the same questions:
How do you two know each other?
Where are you going?
How long do you expect that to take?
How did you get time off for such a long trip?
How will you know where you’re going?
What are you going to do for food?
Why are you doing this?

I insisted on taking charge of these conversations after watching Joe lose his cool at the sight of uniformed authority figures. He would start running at the mouth, each jittery falsetto utterance sounding more sketchy and full-of-shit than the last.

My responses were cautiously worded to prevent the cop, sheriff, ICE official, game warden, or forest ranger from opening new lines of inquiry. If they had hauled us in for questioning they might have connected Joe to the recent Frogtown incident.

So I always told them the truth, albeit a painstakingly tailored version. Nevertheless, the cop, sheriff, ICE official, forest ranger, or game warden would nod suspiciously at what must have sounded, to their post-9/11 ears, like a hastily manufactured cover story: I was Joe’s mentor. We had met five years earlier at New Voices, a Minneapolis-based journalism program for American Indian youth. We expected our trip on the Red, Nelson, Echimamish and Hayes Rivers to take roughly two months. Joe’s employer, Pawn America, had granted him a leave of absence for the summer. I was a teacher, so I got summers off. We were navigating with topographical maps, compasses, and a Global Positioning System receiver; for sustenance we had freeze-dried camping food and the occasional gas station or restaurant meal.

I was careful not to mention that this trip was Joe’s way of lying low for the summer. My nineteen-year-old paddling partner had recently been mixed up in a street incident involving a sawed-off shotgun and a crack dealer named Sonic. Luckily, no one was hurt. But word in Frogtown was that Sonic was seeking swift retribution. Joe left with me days after the episode without telling anyone where he was going—not his older brother D, his closest friend and confidant, not even his mother.

Nor did I volunteer the intimate details of my life: I was a single father of four, an unemployed writer with no certain job prospects to return to, and no goal in life except to make it to Hudson Bay with Joe or die trying. I had embarked on this journey to try to stave off a nervous breakdown, having spent much of the previous six months alternating between dizzying waves of anxiety and fits of uncontrolled sobbing, symptoms of a depression resulting from a series of deaths and personal losses that began with my divorce in 2003.

Each time the police ran our names for warrants, there was an increasing fear that the law had caught up with Joe, and that this trip would end for us not at the sea, but in the penitentiary. I don’t know if it was the fact that we were an unusual pair of travelers heading toward an international border in an age of terrorism hysteria; or perhaps it stemmed from the kind of extralegal scrutiny many dark-skinned people in America endure every day. Either way, it seemed our trip was being viewed by government officials as a criminal act. In Grand Forks, we were issued a trespass warning after we spent the night camped atop a flood dike. In the tiny Red River Valley town of Climax, Minnesota, we stopped one night for cheese curds and beer at the Corner Bar and were questioned by a patrolman who said he had received “reports of two men with backpacks.” Thirty miles north of Drayton, North Dakota, a pair of game wardens in a speedboat approached cautiously after scrutinizing us through binoculars; they then grilled us at length about fishing regulations, even though we weren’t fishing.

The trickiest part of these interrogations was inventing answers the authorities would believe in response to that last question: Why? They demanded to know what was motivating this odd couple to travel over water and land from the heart of the Great Plains to the far edge of the continent, an endeavor that, judging from their uniformly dubious expressions, no sane person would undertake without sinister motive.

There was no innocent-sounding answer, so I again went with a clipped rendition of the truth. This trip was about physical and spiritual renewal. That’s what I told them: physical and spiritual renewal.

Joe, on the other hand, would puff out his chest and bluster righteously, Vacation! The word sounded suspect coming out of his mouth—anyone familiar with the Red River knows it is one of the most hellacious, unforgiving American waterways to paddle—but it, too, was partially true. Joe would often say life on the river, however difficult, was a cakewalk compared with his day-to-day in the city. The torture of paddling ten or twelve hours a day to make thirty or forty miles, eating and sleeping on riverbanks that were essentially mud pits, baking under the withering sun, and freezing through frequent cloudbursts, was, to us both, a welcome respite from the heartache and stress that had come to dominate our lives in St. Paul. There was an aspect of our days on the river that was similar to self-mutilation; the physical pain relieved our suffering hearts.

Crossing the border without incident, Joe expressed relief by mocking me for having intended to report to customs. It had been his idea from the start to steal across the border under cover of night. “Fuck them border bitches,” he laughed. “Them bitches can’t touch us out here.”

I realized how absurd some of my assumptions about the river had been. Even though we had seen a total of only five other boats in the past fourteen days, I half-expected to find a fully functioning customs station on this all-but-abandoned river. But since I was relying for guidance on Canoeing with the Cree, a book chronicling a 1925 expedition from Fort Snelling to Hudson Bay, I was bound to be wrong once in a while.

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