“Don’t hold it like a baseball bat. Put your right hand on the top of the paddle, and keep your left low on the shaft. Then reach forward and dig it in. You’re shovelling water, basically.”
“But if I lean out, won’t we tip?”
Karl Ove was in the bow of my canoe. I had been under the impression that all Norwegians skied and spent time in the woods, but this was clearly not the case. It turns out that he had never slept in a tent and insisted on bringing along a large down pillow, which he said accompanied him everywhere.
“It is my stuffed animal,” he said, shrugging. His thick pewter-coloured hair was swept back in a leonine manner. He wore the sort of sunglasses with side bits that shut out all the light. Without them, his gaze was so direct as to be uncomfortable and his handsomeness was in a class of its own.
But he had a touching timidity as well. I noticed the way he treated each new environment, whether it was the hotel lobby or a doughnut shop, as an unmapped foreign country. He seemed at pains to preserve his lack of worldliness—not so easy, once the world discovers you.
“Whenever you see someone canoeing in a movie, the actors are always holding the paddles wrong,” I said to make him feel better. He moved his left hand down the shaft and began to propel us forward with stabbing strokes. I had lent him an old flannel shirt, which fit him perfectly.
“Good. That’s the idea.”
The blue canoe surged past us.
“Is this not gorgeous?” said Taylor. She was sitting up straight, kneeling properly, paddling in perfect sync with Leonard and his assistant, Shell. At the end of each stroke she gave the paddle a little twist, like someone signing her name with a flourish.
We made our way across Round Lake, a route I had taken years before. Nothing had changed. After a broad and windy stretch, the lake narrowed into a meander that wound its way snakelike through a corridor of reeds. It went on and on; we had to follow it blindly, bumping into the banks as our canoes navigated the tight corners.
“Will there be moose?” asked Karl Ove.
“Have you ever seen the males fighting, with their antlers?”
“No, but I was on a trip once where we were chased by a bull moose in rut.”
“In heat. During the fall mating season. They can be dangerous then.”
“Oh.” He paused. “But that’s now.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
“And I hope to see the Northern Lights as well. For the story.”
“Isn’t Norway where people go to photograph them?”
“Yes, but I moved to Sweden some time ago.”
I looked behind us for the others. Leonard was trailing his stern paddle in the water, doing a lazy J as Shell dug away in the bow and Taylor used her paddle to push them off the grassy banks.
“This is like a corn maze!” Taylor called. “How’s my stroke, Rose, am I good?”
I gave her a thumbs-up.
We turned another corner and lost sight of them. The current flowed more strongly and all we had to do was steer as our canoe brushed through leathery green lily pads. A few yellow flowers sat on the surface like teacups.
“This is incredible,” said Karl Ove softly. “It’s like I’m travelling through the folds in my brain. I love it.”
When we had picked him up that morning he had looked so tired, greeting me with an apprehensive, teeth-baring smile.
“Everything here is somewhat familiar but askew,” he said. I had never been to Norway and pictured it as a large white LEGO railway station, with colourfully clad people moving about in trams and on skis, silently and efficiently. Like the vestibule of heaven.
“Where are you heading after this?” I asked him as we paddled on.
“Out west. A place called Jasper.”
“Oh, you’ll love the Rockies,” I said. “Your sense of time completely shifts in the mountains. You can feel the great patience of the Earth.”
Karl Ove absorbed this.
“And the west is interesting right now, geopolitically.”
“To tell the truth, I have no interest in doing interesting things.” He laughed. “Can we pause now to have a cigarette?”
We stopped paddling and he lit one.
“My wife and children beg me to quit, but I find it very hard,” said Karl Ove. “Will you join me?”
I hadn’t smoked since college, but sometimes even good habits should be broken. Cautiously he turned around in the bow and passed me a cigarette, some Swedish brand. I leaned forward to catch a light from his match, inhaled, and coughed. “Cigarettes are like punctuation for me,” he said. “I can’t write without them.”
“How’s that going? Your new book.” I could feel the shape of my lungs from the smoke.
“It is very problematic,” he said. “Hideous, really.” He drew hungrily on the cigarette until it sizzled and tossed the bottom half into the water.
“Originally I had set out to write about my life—not to invent a story, but to go more deeply into my own experience—and then when the first two volumes came out and made a stir, my life changed. I had to do readings and publicity and go on television.”
Far behind us, I could hear Taylor singing a Willie Nelson tune. The meander was now widening into a river.
“I felt I had to live up to this person I spoke about whenever I answered questions in an interview. I wanted to please my readers, of course, I wanted to be good at the business of impersonating a famous author. But it was also undermining my ability to write in an honest way.”
“The same thing kind of happens on Facebook,” I said. “The pressure to create a public identity—usually someone happier and more successful. It’s like we’re all authoring ourselves.”
He stopped paddling and turned in profile so that I could hear him.
“Yes, I think you’re right. So in the process I have become, what is the word, a merkvare, a brand . . . like Pepto-Bismol.” He slapped a deerfly that was darting at his head. “Yet there is no reward in remaining unread and obscure.”
I was getting used to Karl Ove’s rhythms. He was either completely silent or else he would talk like this and wind on and on, like the meander. On the drive up he had spoken at length about his dead alcoholic father. He seemed a bit lost inside himself, so I changed the subject.
“I’m working on a book too. But just a thriller.”
“Is that right? Will you kill me off in the woods for your story?” he said with his charmingly reluctant smile.
“Perhaps. It does need a body. It’s about a dead Canadian painter, who may have been murdered.”
“My friend Jo Nesbø has become very successful writing thrillers. I wish I had the knack.”
“I can only write when I don’t take it seriously. If I imagine a million readers, I freeze up.”
“I’m afraid I’m exactly the opposite. I take everything too seriously. It’s exhausting.”
“You ‘slip into the Masterpiece.’”
“It’s a line from one of Leonard’s songs. About losing your grip.”
Karl Ove looked at his big silver watch. “It’s now midnight in Oslo. My body is longing to be horizontal. Will we stop soon?”
The river had developed some riffles and a faint roaring sound warned of a waterfall around the corner. I steered us over to the shore.
Behind us Taylor and Shell were singing “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” When they came into sight I saw that Leonard had put on his black-netted bug hat, like a Victorian lady at a picnic.
“That was such a mind fuck,” said Taylor merrily. “Like, has time stopped? Will this meander ever end? I loved it. What’s up now?”
“We portage here, around the falls,” I said. “Then an easy lift-over into North Tea Lake, where we’ll camp. Take the packs over first then come back for the rest. You might find that carrying the canoe solo is easier, especially if you wear a life preserver to pad your shoulders.”
As I sprang out of our canoe I felt a twinge in my right knee. I better wrap it tonight, I thought. But the body memories were rushing back as I balanced on two slippery rocks, unbuckled the food pack from the thwarts, and swung it up on shore. I could still do this.
Leonard had blown up his air mattress and was lying on it in his tent, wearing headphones. Shell bent over the fire, squinting against the smoke as she stirred a pot of chicken curry that I had pre-cooked and vacuum-packed. I was planning to make chapatis from scratch too (showing off somewhat).
Taylor had changed into a red corduroy jumpsuit and was drinking an inch of tequila from a tin cup as she shot some video.
“Here we are on majestic North Tea Lake,” she intoned, “land of the silver birch, home of the beaver.” She zoomed in on me while I rummaged in the food pack for a baggie of fresh cilantro. “And this is our fearless leader, Rose McEwan, who is an awesome cook.”
I was in a familiar canoe-trip state—irritable exhaustion combined with mild lower-back pain. I had collected the firewood, helped everyone put up their tents, and cleared a kitchen area beside the fire pit. Taylor was still bounding over the rocks, with a tiara of fireweed in her hair. Her energy was bottomless. Leonard had paced himself well but as soon as the tent was up, he had slipped into it. Karl Ove sat on a log smoking. It had been a long day for everyone.
Our campsite was on a finger of four-billion-year-old rock with tall white pines on the point. The sun was low and the air had a warning chill: Summer was over. On the opposite shore the trees blazed away, a mariachi band of orange and yellows. In July the same shore was a wall of green, almost monotonous. But now we could see the bright differences between pine and maple, poplar and birch. The leaves were becoming more of themselves before they died.
While the curry was heating up I boiled some water and made a cup of black tea. Shell and Taylor were down by the water’s edge, talking in the low purling tones, with bursts of laughter, of women discussing discarded boyfriends. Karl Ove wrote in his notebook. I went over to Leonard’s tent, where the light coming through the blue nylon cast a television pall on his lined, unshaven face. He was lying asleep on the open pages of a book.
“Leonard,” I said gently, “have some tea.”
“This is so kind of you,” he said, brushing at the sides of his mouth. “I’m afraid I’m accustomed to my little pre-show nap.”
“Dinner’s ready when you are.”
Shell was now shooting Taylor, who had changed into a crop top worn over silvery harem pants tucked into my Timberlands.
“Hey girl-squad,” Taylor said to the camera, “you should all get your tushes out of L.A. and join me up here in Canada, in the woods! I am in bear country, see?” She held up the canister of bear spray with its drooling graphic. Shell panned around the campsite, where Leonard was now sitting by the fire, making an I’m not here gesture.
“I’m here with . . . a few new friends . . . in an untouched wilderness where you cannot buy things, at all.” A loon let out a faintly ridiculing call, and Shell zoomed out to find it. Taylor continued. “I wish you could all be with me to experience the smell of the . . . pines, right?” Shell nodded. “And the excellent curry we are about to eat, around a fire made with branches and twigs that we gathered ourselves, actual wood from the woods . . . ” Taylor raised her arm and flexed it. “Also paddling is very good for the triceps.” She turned to Shell. “And, cut.”
“I would love to get a team of synchronized swimmers up here, for a video,” sighed Taylor. “With those crazy nose plugs?”
I dished the curry into our plastic bowls, and for a long moment we all devoured our meals in silence. The chapatis had turned out perfectly—a birch fire burns hot. But my back still hurt.
“Sit here instead,” said Taylor, jumping up to give me her perch against a flat rock. I thanked her and took her spot. Then I reminded myself to slow down, look around, and take it in. The stillness.
Afterward, Karl Ove moved down to the edge of the water to smoke, and Leonard joined him.
“I quit some time ago and promised myself I would start again at the age of eighty,” said Leonard. “I’m heading into year three now,” he said, accepting a light from the Norwegian.
“Ever since I’ve had to travel more,” said Karl Ove, “I find that drinking is no longer helpful. It turns dark too quickly. But the little rituals around smoking cigarettes help keep me sane on the road.”
“I agree,” said Leonard. “It’s like a phone call home.” Their smoke mingled in the pinkish twilight.
“Will there be music at some point?” Karl Ove asked. “I have this image, of people sitting around a bonfire, playing guitar . . . ”
“No guitar. But there’s this.” Leonard produced a jaw harp from his pocket, which he began to play. After a few corkscrewing twangs, the loon gave out a long call as if in response. We applauded.
“Let’s sing!” said Taylor. “What shall we sing?” Silence. Whose material first? Then Leonard began.
Black girl, black girl
Oh don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night?
An old Lead Belly song. Taylor answered:
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun never shines
And I shivered the whole night through.
“Kurt Cobain used to do that one too,” said Karl Ove. He drummed on the bottom of a pot with his fingertips.
“Hey, that sounds good,” said Taylor. “Don’t stop.”
“I used to play drums in high school, when I was in a band.”
As Karl Ove kept time, Leonard and Taylor harmonized. They were like two people on separate islands, the sound of their voices were so different—Leonard’s woolly, frayed, and ocean-deep, Taylor’s like a thin, strong silver wire.
We stayed up for another hour, going through “All Along the Watchtower,” “Red River Valley,” and “Wake Up, Little Susie.” The darkness surrounded us like a great cave as the temperature dropped. We kept moving closer together for warmth and then went shyly off to bed. Taylor and Shell shared a big dome tent—the Princess Pavilion, as it was dubbed—Leonard’s blue one was nearby; and I had pitched Karl Ove’s closer to the point, where the morning sun would strike first.
I led him there with my flashlight, looking back to make sure the red glow of his cigarette was still in sight.
“This is not what I expected at all,” he said quietly, “which is good. Thank you.”
“Sleep well, Karl Ove.” On the way to my tent I switched the flashlight off so I could feel the path under my feet and see the stars growing brighter above us.
Excerpted from Don’t I Know You? by Marni Jackson available in September from Flatiron Books.