Of Kayaks And Cosmonauts

by John Peace

Northwest Ontario, Canada
August 2027

The night passed. At first, no shapes, no sense of time or motion, just the dimmest sense of light through his eyelids, and a gentle breeze playing with a loose part of the tent. It was almost day. But there was no alarm clock, no urgency, just a slow awakening.

As soon as he opened his eyes he saw, through the half-zipped outer door, the sky to the north-east glowing a fragile shade of velvet-blue. He noticed the shush-shushing of tiny waves on the beach. Dimly he noticed the on-off shrill buzz of a tiny insect just outside his tent, as if it were circling his left ear; at least he hoped it was outside. He had moved in his sleep so that the back of his head pressed against the thin nylon fabric of the side wall.

His shoulder ached where sleep had laid him, plus his hip and most of his back were sore from where they had been pressing into the ground. He groaned and stretched. Soon he was half-dressed and had crawled onto the tiny porch of his tent, careful to zip up the door quickly and keep the insect world out where it belonged.

The chill dawn air made him shiver. Behind the tent, and out to the tip of land to the south, the silhouettes of jack pines, balsams and spruces marched mutely in jagged rows against the remains of the night sky. The scents of forest and lake told tales of living things: leaves and leaf-mold; earthy-smelling geosmin along with spores, produced by colonies of mycobacteria thriving in the acidic soil, carried on a breeze from the dew-soaked forest, clinging to moisture in the air. The sharply incurved bay lay in black and purple muscles, and almost motionless.

Don sat and watched. The luxury of not rushing, of no pressure, was one to savour, and the temporary pleasure of not being surrounded by people. In the hiking tent next to his own lay his friend, Jeff, who had mostly come up with the itinerary for this trip. Jeff's gentle, erratic snores made Don think of sleep, and how squashed his face felt, how unwashed. He had a face that people called round, or cheerful, an impression which his dark goatee promoted. For study he had recently taken to wearing glasses, but now he felt wild and free. He had worked hard enough still to be fit enough at age thirty-eight to attempt almost any outdoor adventure he could imagine. And that morning he could feel in his shoulders and hips how hard he had paddled the day before. It was tempting to drop back into his sleeping bag.

But it was good to be awake now, to see a dawn, here, on the edge of the Great Lakes. The fresh water at his feet connected to the Atlantic Ocean over a thousand miles to the east.

He watched the sky back above the eastern shoreline. Distant shreds of cloud began to show, being lit from beneath by hidden rays of the coming sun. The moon had set hours before. There was Venus, blazing about twenty degrees above the horizon, putting the last stars to flight. That reminded him of Mars, and in a moment his head was once more fully loaded with the incipient anxiety and sense of doom that he was trying to escape, or trying to wrestle with until it died. But for once he could silence the nagging question and concentrate on the scene set out before him like a stage play, simple and solemn and ancient.

The growing light tinted the lake's surface to dull gold. The loud plop of a fish jumping broke its rippling mirror. Immediately after, a wraith flitted across the surface, so elusively that Don wasn't sure if he'd imagined it. A bat? Then, higher up, a heron flapped a straight course parallel to the shore. Its wings caught the tenuous rumours of day as they flapped: light, dark, light.

He stood up and paced the sand to generate some warmth. As he rose, a flash of movement about twenty metres up the beach caught his eye, and with a subdued splash a shape fled into the water. Its head and furry back came up, and a pair of curious shiny eyes stared at him for a few seconds. Then it darted down and only concentric expanding circles marked the spot. So, an otter, Don realised. It had perhaps been drawn to their camp food smells. But all their remaining food was in a strong bag, on the end of a long rope, suspended from a tree some way back from the beach, out of the reach of bears.

He was barefoot, and pushed his toes and the balls of his feet into the yielding mass of sand. He couldn't help but wonder about the composition of the slightly soily sand: quartz for sure, and feldspar, pyroxene and all their many gregarious relatives, along with biological matter mixed in from the surrounding forest and lake.

He wandered over to their kayaks, which lay upside-down like Paleozoic seed pods fallen from some giant tree. One was a dull crimson, the other as orange and waxy as a capsicum. He turned his over carefully and checked inside for stowaways of the animal or insect kind. His feet shifted on a patch of pebbles.

"What's all that awful noise?" came Jeff's muffled voice from his tent. Soon his friend emerged, looking blearier than Don felt. Jeff wore a mossy beard, and had done for as long as Don had known him. His eyes, that usually glowed or squinted or floated according to mood, were still half-shut. "Been up long?" he asked, while squinting out at the dawn and keeping his hands firmly in the pockets of his blue jogging pants. "Got good sleep, I hope," he carried on, without waiting for an answer. Jeff was British, studying for his MA at the University of Washington campus where Don lectured in Planetary Science and researched the history of Martian climate.

"Saw an otter," Don replied distractedly. "It's all good! This is a great spot that you picked. It's a good world, Jeff!"

His friend of about six months huffed at this. "Good? The world's stuffed, Don. Trashed. The grand dominion of mankind is constantly disintegrating, and the ecosystem's following fast. Believe me. I study Agricultural Economics. It just looks good first thing in the morning."

Don was used to his friend's pessimism. "I could just drop and camp here for a week."

"Nah, mate, you'd get itchy feet. You have to see the Giant and Isle Royale first. They're really good!"

"Weather permitting. Pretty calm so far."

Jeff sniffed the breeze knowingly. "Winds change around this time of year. But usually August is good all the way through."

They gradually got out breakfast and packed up camp as the sun burst onto the scene and flooded the beach with golden light and a warmth that they could feel in their bones. Squirrels, crows and chickadees ventured around their camp, never daring to come close, except for one fearless crow which jumped up to Don's tent and pecked at one of the aluminium pegs. He shooed it and it jumped two feet away, eyeing him madly with its head tilted over. Merganzers and mallards cruised and duck-dived on the little bay of Tee Harbour.

As they were chewing granola bars, Jeff looked out over the water and addressed Don. He rarely looked anyone in the eye, Don realised. He would stare at something else and occasionally his eyes would dart at you, like a squirrel scampering closer for scraps. "So what's this Mars thing about? You had a lot of people talking while you were on your sabbatical in Dubai or wherever it was. Why walk out on all you've got here and go to live in a desert? With no breathable air?"

"Good question. Been wondering that myself."

"Apart from the obvious. I mean, you practically live on Mars already, what with your lectures and your research. Sacrificing yourself for the sake of science, is it?"

He wasn't sure how to answer. It didn't seem like a sacrifice to leave Earth behind when he was trapped in his study in central Seattle or driving on the Interstate 5 in peak hour traffic. But now? "It's the frontier, Jeff. If I go, I get to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, and do things very few others will get to do. Not the fame, but the doing of things first, discovering, understanding. Scientists like giving names to new things. If I don't, it will be because I can't face leaving all this behind forever." He swept a hand around at the scenery. "If I think I can spend the rest of my life not dying from regret." He considered that. "Either way, no regrets."

"So it's make-your-mind-up time, is it?"

"Yup. Wednesday next week. Final crew roster. Signing contracts. Oh, I could back out after that, but it would mess things up for everyone. That's not the way to do it."

"Right. And it's not because of Julia? You're sure about that?"

They had talked through Don's separation already, earlier on the trip. "I don't think so. It's been nearly a year now. And she left precisely because I signed up with SSI. I thought she would sign up too, and come with me, I mean, she has all the background, but no." The conversation died.

With very little effort they packed the kayaks up and launched onto the calm eastern bay of Tee Harbour. The location was shaped like the letter 'T', jutting out from the shore of the southern end of the Sibley Peninsula. The horizontal of the Tee was formed from a ridge of rock. It was crammed with trees and bush, except for a wide, flat platform of rock at the side closest to the lake. As they stroked around the tip, out of the bay, they could see waves splashing up on the rocks. The same waves met the prows of the kayaks and slapped the sides. The crests were just a few inches above the troughs, so they were still playful waves, for the time being.

"It's not too bad," called Don to Jeff. "If it's like this all day we can make it." They discussed the prospect as they paddled away from land. The shreds of sunrise clouds had grown into a thin, partial overcast that turned the sun to an unfocussed glow. Isle Royale was a long, thin slice of US territory sitting not far from Thunder Bay, northwestern Ontario. The straight-line distance to Isle Royale was about 16 miles, not too much for half a day's paddling if the water was calm. Jeff was keen to make it across simply for the adventure. Don suspected that his friend simply wanted to prove something, or to be able to say that he had done it.

Don was motivated by two desires: the prospect of camping on a big island, where there were no motor vehicles and very little human presence at all, appealed to him – it was something he'd done on trips near Seattle. Also the island was an upthrust of the same igneous rock that formed the Sleeping Giant and a number of other features in the area. He wanted to see that. All around stretched the Canadian Shield, the great orogenous shell of hard rock, but this island was part of the ancient rift valley that had formed when the Shield had split apart. It swelled in his imagination.

"You just want to go stalking moose," joked Jeff.

"No, I'll leave that up to the wolves, if there are still any left."

They agreed to venture as far as the string of small islands that lay a little over a mile straight out from Tee Harbour. Don knew that they would have to pass between Shangoina and Marvin Islands if they were to keep a straight course to Isle Royale. The map lay at the forefront of his memory. He checked his compass which was latched as securely as could be onto the deck of his kayak before him. "Aim for one hundred and forty degrees east!" he called. But that meant little with the currents and winds.

Off to the right of Marvin Island lay Trowbridge Island with its lighthouse standing head and shoulders above the treeline. He had read of efforts by art and community groups to renovate and use the lighthouse buildings, but he bore no illusions that anyone would be there to welcome them if they had need of refuge. The old lighthouse on Porphyry Island had marked their lunch stop the day before, but they'd found nobody staying in the little guest house.

The waves didn't seem to grow noticeably in size as they crossed towards the islands, but Don found himself fighting to keep the kayak's nose pointing straight and knew that conditions were slowly worsening. As they drew into the lee of Marvin Island they looked at each other and said nothing for a while. Don dipped one blade in a backstroke and turned to face the other kayak.

"What do you think?" he asked Jeff. He knew the value of consensus and refrained from speaking his mind too soon.

"We could do it," Jeff called back in a tone which suggested, if we're lucky, or perhaps, if you are up to it. Don didn't know which.

"It's possible, but I'm not so sure," Don replied. "No sense risking our necks for this." Jeff shrugged, maybe willing to be convinced. Don went on, "This lake is like a sea or an ocean. It doesn't care about us. It can change its mood in a minute."

Jeff grimaced. "I say we do it." They could easily see Isle Royale, low and dark on the horizon, and Don knew he might never get the chance to go there if they didn't go now. It was so tempting to risk all and do the macho thing. Only a thin thread of common sense or training cautioned him.

"Jeff, the water is cold. Going that distance in this uncertain weather is asking for a spill into the lake. And it doesn't give up its dead. You know how the deep water's too cold for bacteria to thrive, so a corpse doesn't bloat up. Just sinks to the bottom and stays there."

"Well, there you go. Another reason not to live your life."

Jeff's words were almost drowned by the splashing of waves, and by the time Don had comprehended the sarcastic import, his companion had turned his kayak and begun to power away, arrowing straight for the distant slim shape of land.

"No! Jeff, wait!" He immediately realised that it was no use yelling. He dug his paddle hard down, left, right, and began to pursue him, knowing instinctively that he could not let Jeff go it alone.

The Englishman led him a hard chase. Jeff might have had the advantage in physical build, but Don was the better kayaker, after many trips in and around Seattle Harbour and further afield. However long their grim race lasted, Don had the impression of hundreds of strokes, hundreds of waves washing over the bow and sending sprays of water droplets into his face. Every few waves came one of a worrying size.

He was almost caught up when Jeff glanced around, saw him, and made as if to redouble his efforts. But one of the large waves caught him off-balance at the moment of his stroke and tossed him over. The smooth bottom of the kayak showed, face-up, and Jeff was gone.

Don maneuvered closer to help him. But Jeff was thrashing the water with one blade of the paddle, rotating the hull halfway back to upright, and after two quick attempts he righted the kayak in a clumsy eskimo roll. Don knew this was quite an impressive feat to carry off while the waves carried on rolling over the kayak.

Jeff was drenched and already looking cold. He cursed and swore, not at Don, not at anything particular except the lake and the waves. He didn't need much persuading to turn around, and they started back the way they had come, now followed by the waves. In the lee of Trowbridge Island Don paused long enough to pull out some energy bars for Jeff and talk to him. Jeff was in no state to think beyond his immediate crisis of cold, but at least he responded and wasn't slipping into shock, so Don planned a course back to Sibley, to the tip of the Sleeping Giant, which guarded the eastern entrance to Thunder Bay. If they landed on an island they might not get off again for quite a while, and Don was concerned to get Jeff back towards civilisation in case hypothermia set in. They were both quiet and disappointed about giving up the journey to Isle Royale.

As it turned out, getting back to the shore of Sibley Peninsula was quite enough of a challenge. They had to paddle diagonally across waves that raced them from behind, waves that showed an increasing fleck of white on their crests. It began to look as though they would be driven straight back to Tee Harbour, if they weren't capsized on the way. They approached the shore on the eastern side of the Giant's feet, among boulders and an incessant rhythm of waves pushing them in. They back-paddled madly to avoid being dashed against the rocks. There was no beach or easy landing, so in the end Don lifted himself out of his kayak into waist-deep water that heaved him up and down. He held the tail of the kayak tightly and let it be pushed in between some smaller boulders as he stumbled forwards over the rocky lake bed. Then in a brief lull between breakers, he jumped up on a big rock and pulled his craft out as fast as he could. Its slick orange hull escaped with nothing worse than a few scratches. Then he helped Jeff do the same. Jeff couldn't completely function; he staggered when he got on his feet; he was exhausted.

They had something to eat, Jeff changed into drier clothes, and Don assured himself that there was no further danger to Jeff's health. He had kept just warm enough, and he was well-built. The greater danger was to Jeff's dignity, but after suffering Don's attentions in silence he finally grinned and said, "That was a stupid thing to do, wasn't it?"

Don shrugged. "Kind of daring, maybe, but yeah, a bit dumb."

After a long, lazy rest they climbed the trail over the Giant's ankles, and back again. Later, towards evening, the wind died and they paddled around the tip of the Giant to a small and simple campsite that was marked on their maps. After the day's exertions they didn't feel as if they had given up an adventure at all, but rather that they had battled the odds, won, enjoyed the scenery and learned what they were capable of. They dined on rice and the last of the canned tuna in companionable silence and fell asleep happy.

The next day started calmer, so they explored Pie Island. Jeff showed little interest when Don pointed out the tough diabase sill thrusting through the sedimentary rocks. When they found a mossy clearing not far from the shore, Don talked Jeff into camping there one night rather than going on.

After Don had relished the final mouthful of pasta and sauce, he looked over at Jeff, who was whittling a stick over the low fire. "Hey, tell me something," he began, feeling mellow enough to approach almost any subject with the person he had just spent more than 96 hours with. "Why is it that when I'm talking about the anatomy of the Earth, you're all for pushing on?"

Jeff looked into the flames with a slow grin and his whittling slowed. "I could ask you the reverse, mate. You seem to live in a different world from me. I feel like I'm Davy Crockett and you're David Livingstone."


"I came on this trek to get away. To unwind, you know? I love the outdoors. And I already know enough geology to get by comfortably. But every waking moment it's like you're still back in your classroom in front of a hundred students. Why not give it a break?"

Don thought about this. "I guess it's a passion. Always has been. I look at a cliff –" here he waved a hand at where the island's craggy crown rose above the treetops in the darkness, "- and I see the bones of the Earth, going down deep, and I see the past. It makes me think through the possible stories of how it formed over so many years. It's a puzzle. Same when I see living things, or weather, or almost anything. I just have to solve it and dig for clues."

With a nod, Jeff looked up at him, as if noticing Don's features for the first time. "That's why you're going, isn't it? To Mars, I mean. One big puzzle to solve. And I wish you well. But me, I'm happy just to bask in this vast, green paradise here and then get back to my studying."

Jeff's words struck a pleasing harmonic somewhere inside Don, and he smiled to himself. For all that Earth's ecosystem and geology were bursting with fecundity and variation, and full of unsolved riddles, they were riddles that many others were in the process of answering. Where he was headed, he could spend a lifetime answering questions which nobody else would even think of asking.

He realised that he had made up his mind.

The next day they started late, after a lazy morning, and paddled at least 15 miles across the bay to reach the town. They found a marina and an adjacent access point for kayaks and small craft. They left their kayaks and gear safely there and plodded up through the town. They were running unexpectedly low on food and both were eager for a real meal. They agreed that buying supplies would be better than blowing their budget on a restaurant meal. Then they could paddle onwards, perhaps as far as the border, the next day.

Don got directions to the nearest supermarket, a Safeway, and they browsed the shelves eagerly. Don couldn't help considering how limited the menu would be in a tiny base on the barren plains of Arcadia Planitia.

Then at the check-out, when the cashier announced the sales total, Jeff's eyes popped open as he reached into the zip pocket of his jacket. "Where's my wallet?" he gasped, staring at Don. Don had left his own wallet and phone safely on land with their friends from Twin Cities University, Shelley and Tom, who had dropped them off at the head of Black Bay and were at that moment presumably feeding the slot machines just over the US side of the border at Grand Portage, if they hadn't already grown sick of it.

It was no use – they had no cash at all except a couple of quarters that Don found in his own pocket. So they retraced their steps to Marina Park and searched their packs, to no avail. "It must have fallen out somewhere," Jeff moaned. Now their bellies were grouching in earnest. It was late on Saturday afternoon and they'd only eaten a meager breakfast all day.

"But I never saw you unzip your pockets," muttered Don, "since…"

"Ah! When we got out of Shelley's car!" said Jeff, slapping his forehead. "I scribbled their cell numbers on the back of a Subway receipt. Must have left the wallet on a rock!" He produced the damp, crumpled receipt from his pocket in a flourish of ironic triumph. "At least we can call them for a pick-up. Maybe from that shop on the US side of the border."

Don squelched the bout of resentment which almost overtook him at that moment. He realised that this was a part of the team training he had shared in Dubai. The mission comes first, or something like that. "Uh-huh. We can borrow someone's phone, I guess."

Early evening found them wandering the town, up Red River Road. They tried at the large, cheerful pawn shop on the corner to get some cash for Don's pocket flashlight and Jeff's cheap watch, but the proprietor shook her head sympathetically. When Jeff confessed their plight she pointed further up the road. "If you're hungry you could always try the place on the next corner," she said. "I hear they feed anyone." Then she reached under the counter and slipped a granola bar across to them. "It's all I've got, eh?" They thanked her humbly and left. Half a granola bar each only seemed to increase their hunger pangs.

Two hours later, soon after the doors of the repurposed church building opened, Don and Jeff sat at a folding table with their plates of spaghetti and meatballs. "Nothing ever smelled so good," Don murmured as he dug his fork into it. Jeff just grunted in reply, his mouth already full. Don kept his head down. What was he doing, eating in a drop-in centre? He tried not to glance around at the other patrons. Worst of all, someone might think he had got religion, coming into this place.

A man on the next table to theirs began to make a scene. He argued with one of the centre's volunteers about the ingredients in the spaghetti sauce, but the point he was trying to make wasn't clear. He was a big-framed, bearded man, swathed in several sweaters and jackets. His white hair hung ragged around his ears. The volunteer, a woman in jeans and T-shirt, pacified him and went back to her chores.

Another woman sat down at the end of their table with a meal tray. Confidingly, she half-whispered to them, "He's a poor old thing. Lost his wife some years ago. Sharp mind, though."

The man in question obviously had sharp ears, too. "Don't listen to her," he said in a gravelly baritone. "My mind is as blunt as a hammer, and about as much use." He apologised for the argument. "I used to be a chef at one point in my life. Then my wife passed away, and I decided to travel the world. India, Africa, Europe, Russia, the lot. Australia, too. Just didn't quite make it to Antarctica." Don and Jeff chuckled with him. He seemed quite agreeable now. He introduced himself as Mike. "And now I'm washed up on the shore here."

"So what do you do?" he asked Don.

Don swallowed what was in his mouth and replied, "I do science. Planetary Science. At the University of Washington."

"Planetary Science, eh? What use is that?"

Jeff jumped to Don's defence. "It's linked to space exploration and astronomy. Seeking out new worlds, and understanding our own world better."

Mike seemed to enjoy a good debate, and continued in a cheerful but haranguing tone, "Oh, exploring space now, are we? That's fine and dandy. What about the rest of us down here? There are people dying of preventable diseases, got from dirty drinking water or mozzies. Billions of 'em! I've seen it. Makes you weep. And then, you have those astronauts and NASA and billionaires and what not, prancing around up there in space! Spending billions of dollars, when most of the world lives on a dollar a day or less! Put the money to better uses, is what I say."

Jeff raised a conciliatory palm. "Fair enough," he said.

Don felt drawn into this man's garrulous company. "You have a very good point," he said. "There are a huge number of serious issues here on Earth that need solving. But did you know how little actually gets spent on space, relatively speaking? NASA's budget, for example, is about half a percent of the US federal budget as a whole. If there was really the popular demand to do something significant for developing countries, we could do it out of the military's small change."

Mike laughed aloud, drawing stares from around the room. He laughed as though he were out of control, as if the laughter itself had taken over. "Right, right!" he said, when he had quietened down. Then he squinted at Don, drawing slightly closer to him in a conspiratorial manner. "Tell me something, Mr Planetary Scientist," he said quietly. "Why do those people want to go and live on Mars and never come back? I read about them. Can't understand it. Are they alright in the head?"

This took Don aback. He glanced at Jeff, who shrugged and kept his mouth shut. "Well," he said, "I've heard that it's the frontier spirit. Making humanity a spacefaring species. Some say we should make a brand-new start out there, and plant the seeds of a better kind of world, where children won't starve and nations won't make war no more."

Mike frowned a little at that as if chewing it over. "Hmm. Good luck to 'em, in that case. All I've seen on my travels is that we carry the seeds of our own destruction along with us, wherever we go. But I could be wrong."

When Jeff and Don left the drop-in centre a little later, the dusky evening was approaching. The silhouette of the Sleeping Giant hung on the horizon, across the quiet bay. Jeff turned to Don and asked, "You don't really believe all that, do you? About a better kind of world? Sounds totally naïve to me."

As they walked down the hill back to the lakeside park, Don took his time answering. He had felt naïve when he'd said it, vulnerable, but at the same time hopeful, knowing that it ought to be true. "I know," he replied. "Thing is, we have to try at least to make it real. Otherwise, what is life for?"

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