Canoeing the Humber
Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.
– Henry David Thoreau
From the stern of our canoe, Angus Doughty began, “I identify as …” This phrase has become commonplace in recent years, and I was curious about where he was going with it.
After a pause, he continued, “… a paddler. I identify as a paddler.” From among all his outdoor endeavours, it’s canoeing that has captured the heart of this Bolton native. “It’s the way to get away from it all fastest. You don’t need roads or trails as you do for hiking or cycling or cross-country skiing. Just a lake or a river,” he explained.
I had lined up a short canoe trip with Angus last fall after he told me he had paddled the Humber River every month of the year, often with his kids and, more often, with his dad. So on a glorious blue-sky morning, we loaded his car with a pair of canoes: one for Angus and me, the other for Angus’s wife, Sian, and our photographer, Fred Webster. In minutes we were carrying the canoes from a parking lot on Duffy’s Lane, just north of Bolton, to where we would put in, a portage of about 600 metres. For the next two hours, we would navigate one of Canada’s 40 officially designated heritage rivers, taking out in Bolton, with an easy portage to Angus and Sian’s house.
We pushed off into the narrow stream and the current caught our canoes, carrying us along at a surprising clip. I had imagined flat, near-still water. Instead, the Humber burbled and bubbled with river-wide ripples, often building into, well, larger river-wide ripples. Roughly one-third of the way along its route to Lake Ontario, the Humber seemed to be an adolescent vying to prove itself. A bit cocky for its size and depth.
“You need to respect the Humber,” Angus explained. When the water’s low, as it was when we paddled it, it’s unlikely you’ll get into trouble, but inexperienced paddlers shouldn’t attempt our route during spring flooding or after heavy rain. “Water levels can rise by a metre after rain,” he said. “It’s easy to get caught in the trees that overhang the river. They can capsize a canoe.” If your boat tips over and you don’t have the right equipment and warm clothing, you can be in danger.
It was hard to imagine such perils as we floated downstream on a warm, sunny and calm day. An expert paddler, Angus guided us between rocks and around overhanging trees. When I heard a rustling in the tall grass, I looked up to see a doe leap off the bank and gallop through the shallow water. A tiny spotted fawn followed in her mum’s hoofprints. I thought of Angus’s comments that canoeing was the fastest way to get away from it all. Here we were, minutes from Caledon’s largest town. There was no hum of traffic or beeping construction equipment. No planes overhead or neighbour’s music.
Around the next bend, the first of two great blue herons lifted its long-legged bulk from the riverbank, startling a pair of mallards that had been leapfrogging our progress.
As we rounded yet another bend in the Humber’s sinuous course, Angus warned we’d soon begin to see houses. He told me this was the spot where he would often stop with his dad and have a cup of tea. In an effort to delay our return to civilization, I said, “Let’s stop, too.” We hauled our boats up onto shore and climbed back on board. We didn’t actually have any tea, but we sipped from our water bottles and exchanged stories.
Both Sian and Angus had been longtime teachers at Mayfield Secondary School, so they regaled Fred and me with tales from inside the walls of the institution I’d attended for five years and where Fred’s daughters had learned about math and history, as well as cross-country skiing and other sports. But the talk quickly turned to past canoe adventures. Now retired, Angus is spending more and more time in Canada’s iconic vessels. He would like to paddle the Coppermine River in the Arctic to see the Barrens. He longs to once again make his way down Quebec’s Moisie River, the so-called Nahanni of the East. But these weren’t the paddling adventures that have most shaped Angus. Instead, it was time spent with his mum and dad.
Both emigrants from England, the couple met while paddling in Algonquin Park. Angus’s childhood, along with that of his three siblings and four informally fostered siblings, involved exploring Ontario’s waterways. As an adult, Angus decided to hone his skills after reading the advice of an expert who suggested paddling every month, year-round – a difficult task in a cold country. In 1997, when his father, John, retired, paddling every month became a father-son ritual, one they kept up for 259 months (more than 21 years) – until John’s bone cancer made even sitting in a canoe impossible.
Since his father’s death in 2019, Angus has kept up the tradition. If all has gone well, he will have hit 300 consecutive months by the time this issue of In The Hills is published. That’s 25 years!
“Finding open water in February is the most difficult,” he said. But the Humber River has been his friend in this regard. When other waterways in the province are icebound, some part of the Humber has always been open, even when the temperature is –25C.
Angus grew up within earshot of the Humber. Its waters carried countless explorers, adventurers, Indigenous peoples, fur traders and others into the nation’s hinterland, and its valley hosted the ancient trail known as the Carrying Place. The river flows through Angus’s adventurous veins and is the reason he identifies himself as, of course, a paddler.
Paddling places in Headwaters
Many Headwaters lakes and rivers are perfect for paddling, depending on the time of year, suitability of water conditions, and your equipment and experience. For paddling conditions and the availability of rental canoes, check the relevant conservation authority website, especially during the time of Covid while restrictions may apply.