How far would you go for your friends? On a canoe trip along the Ottawa River, Nathan Munn dives deep for the answers.
I was sitting at my desk in a mirrored office tower south of Montreal when my phone buzzed. The hum of the office faded into the background as I read the text from Angus, my best friend since childhood. Our plan to go canoeing near our hometown of Ottawa was a go.
Got a brand new canoe for us to use, he wrote. What’s your ETA?
I replied that I’d leave work early to catch a bus to Ottawa that afternoon. I had already worked out the plan for the short trip with my wife, who was at home taking care of our two-year-old daughter. We had agreed I would only be gone for twenty-four hours, a mini-vacation that seemed impossibly exciting after many months spent close to home helping care for our child.
“I love you,” I told her over the phone as I sat in the bus station a couple hours later. “I’ll call before we head out on the water tomorrow.”
I felt invigorated as the Greyhound bus rumbled steadily toward my hometown, the forests of Quebec and Ontario a blur outside the window. It had been a year since Angus and I had seen each other. But for years we were inseparable: as kids, then teenagers and into our twenties, we’d been more like brothers than friends. Although we’d seen each other infrequently in recent years—both of us busy with our families and living in different cities—he never felt out of reach.
Angus was waiting in the parking lot of the run-down Ottawa bus station when I stepped off the coach into the hot sun. We hugged and climbed into his oversized blue pickup, punk rock blasting on the stereo. He drove and we shot the breeze. I felt the mix of comfort and apprehension that develops when you’ve known someone for thirty-plus years—comfort at knowing the person in some ways better than you know yourself, apprehension as you wonder if you still have anything in common after so many years. But within minutes we had settled into an easy back and forth. I was reminded of how hanging out always felt like a realignment of something bigger than the two of us, like the crackle that charges the air when a storm builds.
We headed to an old friend’s house to barbecue and drink beers before making our way back to Angus’s house in the suburbs, where his wife Robin and two kids were already asleep. We shared a beer for a nightcap and I lay down in a spare room, the closest I’d been to drunk in years. I had a restless sleep and woke up, slightly hungover, to bright sun streaming through the window and the sound of kids older than mine starting the day downstairs.
Sitting at the wooden dining table, Angus’s kids ate breakfast quietly as we grown-ups talked about the day to come. “Didn’t you get caught in a storm last year?” Robin asked.
She was referring to the last time Angus and I had set out in a canoe. The previous summer we’d hit the river with a plan to camp for the night, but without actually knowing where that would be. This was typical: whenever we had a chance to hang out, we would drum up some sort of adventure, either to break the mundanity of the day-to-day or prove that we hadn’t yet become old geezers incapable of spontaneity or handling adversity.
On that trip, we had paddled for hours. At one point we crossed the submerged towline of an approaching ferry, forcing us to paddle madly to clear the path of the massive vessel so it wouldn’t barge over our canoe. We ended up landing on the sandy beach of a small island surrounded by warm, shallow water, where we pitched a tent and cooked sausages over a fire.
I remember the trip well. That night, it rained ferociously. Thunder exploded overhead and we worried a tree would fall on us or that our tent would blow in while we slept. The next morning, I stood on shore with my hood pulled up against the wind, studying the choppy, threatening river, our limited canoeing experience suddenly top of mind. I felt uneasy about the idea of heading out, but we had no choice. Soon we were paddling hard again, cresting two-foot-high swells with determination, and we made it across the river without capsizing.
When we said our goodbyes, we made a tentative plan to go even further the next year, either to the farther reaches of the river or to some other, unexplored place.
Now, here we were. Angus and I stood in his garage and packed up our sparse gear: two life jackets, paddles and a small cooler with trail mix, apples and beer. “We’ll only be gone a few hours,” he told Robin.
Our original plan had been to spend another night camped out on the shores of the river, but in the weeks leading up to the trip, I had demurred, suggesting that we just go out for a short afternoon paddle. My impulse to back away from any perceived danger also spoke to the dynamic of our friendship. I can be cautious to the point of timidity, while Angus is quick to take on unknown challenges—often successfully, but sometimes with serious consequences.
We loaded the canoe into the bed of the truck, its gunmetal body gleaming under the late morning sun. When we pulled in at the launch spot, the beach was deserted. We climbed out of the truck and unloaded the canoe with effort. It was heavier than I expected, with a wide belly and reinforced aluminum tips—like thick blades—on the bow and stern. We struggled to carry it to where the river lapped at the sand, perhaps feeling our age. Then we stepped in and pushed out onto the dark blue water.
Friendships between men are peculiar and mysterious things. In my experience, their workings are unaffected by missed birthdays or months, and even years, of silence. They thrive on laughter and shared undertakings. They are resilient in some ways and fragile in others. They can survive fistfights and other calamities, but an off glance, a lie, or any number of subtle misalignments between men can somehow sink a relationship in an instant.
I’ve lost friends for various reasons over the years, but I’m lucky to still be in touch with close friends from childhood. I know I’m the exception: research and reporting shows that many men today feel lonely and have few, if any, friends. And lonely men report that they struggle to build new relationships with other guys, especially in middle age. In many cases, that’s because they’re too embarrassed to reach out, or to display any kind of emotional need or vulnerability.
Men’s tendency to avoid seeking out friendship, however, can have deadly consequences. Suicides among American men and boys jumped by 21 percent from 2000 to 2016, according to 2019 data published by the American Psychological Association. Men accounted for 75 percent of suicides among people aged twenty to forty-four, and 73 percent among people aged forty-five to sixty-four, according to Canadian government data published in 2016. Research suggests this phenomenon is at least partly driven by loss of social ties and by loneliness.
It’s hard to be sure what draws men together, but I do know how my friends and I first bonded. I was riding my BMX bike around Ottawa’s west end on a bright summer day with Angus and another friend. We were eleven or twelve. We hadn’t yet gotten into the serious trouble that we would discover later as teens, but were already budding miscreants on a mission to break rules.
They were, anyway; I was more of a tagalong at that point. The three of us pedalled our bikes hard to get to the top of a hill. When we got there, we stood at the edge of four lanes of blacktop: Carling Avenue, the line my parents had warned me not to cross. My friends barely looked for traffic before speeding across the street and trespassing into the Experimental Farm, a collection of research buildings and farm fields in central Ottawa. I hesitated, as I would in so many situations in the years to come.
They called to me from across the street: Come on! After a moment, I biked as fast as I could to join them. Even though I knew I wasn’t like Angus or some of our other friends, that I could never be as brave or admirably reckless as they were, I felt that I could belong beside them, and that maybe somewhere in me I had hidden qualities that might someday shine alongside their strength and defiance. That maybe, with my friends, I could discover who I was.
That day, entering the farm, the three of us stood on top of a massive greenhouse and, under the shin-ing sun, pissed all over the clouded glass, our urine soaking whatever it was that dedicated scientists were growing in the fertile soil beds below. For me, that was a beginning. I wasn’t sure where daring to break rules would lead me in life, but I had no doubt I had chosen the right path, because my friends were right beside me.
Angus and I paddled at a steady pace on the swollen body of the Ottawa River, a nearly 1,300 kilometre-long artery, deep and powerful, defining the border between Ontario and Quebec. The word Ottawa comes from the Anishinaabe adaawe, which means “to buy” or “make commerce.” It can also refer to a trade relationship. The Anishinaabe word for the river is Gichi-ziibi,or Kichi-siibi, meaning “great river.”
In May 2017, the part of the river we were on reached a record high of just over sixty metres, the highest it had been in over a century. It was July of that year when Angus and I set out in the canoe.
We were a few hundred metres out from shore in a gentle breeze, cool water splashing from our paddles, the sun high. We stopped paddling and looked out over the horizon as Angus cracked a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and I munched on trail mix. A couple kilometres ahead, the shore on the Quebec side curved inward, narrowing the river. Just off the tip of the shore was a small island.
“That’s where we’re going,” Angus said from the back seat, steering us toward the channel between the island and the shore. “The Deschênes Rapids.” I dug my paddle into the water.
Twenty minutes later the sun was beating down, the breeze gone. I spotted a sandy beach on the shore adjacent to the island and suggested we land there to eat and take a short hike to look at the rapids.“Nah,” I recall Angus saying. “Let’s just run them and then stop for lunch.”
We kept paddling. Soon I could see a thin white line on the water between the shore and the island—rapids. I pointed them out and said that if we could see the chop from this far out, they were probably pretty strong, and we should check them out before running them. Angus pushed to keep going, and again I agreed.
It wasn’t long before we both heard a deep rumbling. We stopped paddling and let the canoe drift in the current, wondering if we were hearing a highway nearby. After a moment, we realized it was the sound of the rapids ahead. I prickled with fear but we pressed on. A few minutes later we crossed a line of small red buoys that neither of us recognized as our last warning.
As we approached the channel, the rumble grew into a roar. We couldn’t see exactly where the rapids were leading—the channel curved around the tip of the shoreline ahead—but I could tell by the power of the current that it was going to be more than we bargained for.
“Go for the island,” I remember shouting. “Too late,” Angus said as we swept past the island’s rocky tip. Suddenly we were accelerating, the water turning from a deep blue to a frothy brown. I had been on my knees in the hull of the canoe and now I quickly sat up on the bench. I heard Angus buckle his life jacket behind me.
We paddled over a swell a few feet high and came down hard with a smack on the water as the next, bigger wave came at us. We hit it high at an angle; just as the canoe tipped over I leapt clear, hit the cold rushing water and quickly surfaced, my glasses and shoes gone, trying to get my bearings.
I was moving fast down the rapids. The canoe, upside down and glistening in the sun, slid across the rushing current to my right. Angus took a couple daredevil strokes toward it, couldn’t reach it and ended up behind me again, flowing downriver. I saw a surge of water ahead, took a deep breath and smashed through it.
It was like getting bowled over by a firehose. The current was impossible to resist. Feeling strangely calm, I relaxed my arms, pulled my knees up and let the river carry me. For a moment the sensation was otherworldly—like riding the back of some prehistoric creature. Another whitecap rushed at me and I sucked in a breath before plowing through it.
After tumbling underwater I came up, shook the water from my eyes and saw the dam. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: a nearly twenty-foot-high wall of concrete and stone had suddenly risen out of the water a few hundred yards ahead. It was horrifying. I smacked through another rapid as Angus shouted something unintelligible behind me.
Jesus fucking Christ, I thought. Taking stock of my surroundings, I looked for an escape. To my left, I could see the battered grey wall extend out about a hundred feet before crumbling, like a shattered staircase, into the rapids. The river was charging at this barricade as if insulted, blasting the wall and crashing back over itself in a white roil pierced by dozens of boulders. To my right, the wall of the dam met a second perpendicular wall, forming a sickening ninety-degree death trap where the water swirled and fumed in a dark vortex. I couldn’t see any way out.
I was sucked underwater and felt a moment of genuine serenity down in the quiet and the dark, away from the nightmare waiting on the surface. Briefly, I thought: Where’s Angus?
When we were seventeen or eighteen, a group of us were playing a makeshift game of street hockey. It was early winter and we were using chunks of ice as goal posts. As we played, a luxury sedan rounded the corner up the street. We stepped aside for it to pass, and as it did the car’s tire crushed one of our posts.
Angus smoothly twisted his hockey stick and flung a fist-sized chunk of ice at the car. It thumped off the door, a direct hit. The car stopped abruptly, the door swung open and out stepped a giant of a man in his mid-forties, dressed in an expensive-looking grey suit. His salt-and-pepper hair framed blazing, zero-bullshit eyes. “Which one of you did that?” he demanded.
Angus stepped forward, holding his hockey stick across his waist like an offensive wing resting between plays. I don’t remember what he said, but the tension rose and the man raised his voice and stepped closer to Angus. The rest of us nervously closed in on the scene, a step forward here, another there, hockey sticks in our hands. The sedan idled, exhaust snaking around our ankles, red light in the grey twilight.
The man stepped closer, ready to fight. Nearly face to face with the man, Angus made a half-turn to his right, as if to back down, and suddenly his hockey stick was in both fists and he brought it up, the way you would bring up a heavy axe to split wood, swung it in a full and terrifying arc over his head, and brought it down at the man’s head—before stopping with a jolt six inches from the man’s face, punctuating the feint with a stomp of his boot.
The man leapt backward as if he had been hit by a car. His expression morphed from fury to fear, and I saw Angus silently dare him to stay in this place one second longer. The rest of us moved in closer from the periphery—one step here, another there—hooked sticks gripped tight. Then the man was gone. We all breathed deep, laughed, slapped five. Angus smirked after the vanishing car and deftly stick-handled another puck of raw ice to start the game again.
Looking back, Angus had an uncanny ability to bring himself and our group to the brink of serious trouble before identifying an unexpected escape route. This, in my eyes, made him a leader. He did things I never would have attempted—let alone have pulled off—by myself, which made them all the more impressive. But back then, maybe I was also avoiding a question: at what point should you stop trusting someone else’s instincts over your own?
I burst to the surface, the roar of the rapids all around me. To my right, the canoe had somehow kept pace alongside me in the narrowing rapid, bumping and scraping its way down rocks toward the dam.
I still felt calm and clear-headed even as I assessed my chances of death or serious injury as near-inevitable. I knew I couldn’t fight the river. I couldn’t swim to shore, or navigate the impenetrable minefield of sharp stone ahead, or somehow dodge the wall that my body would likely be pulped against. Instinctively, I knew I had to surrender.
As I flew down the rapids, I suddenly saw something more unbelievable than the dam itself: a hole in the dam, a portal through the century-old ruin where I could see light, sky and calm water on the other side.
That’s where I’m going, I thought. My vision was a clear line to the jagged, window-sized hole the river had punched through the concrete. I felt sure that if I didn’t struggle, the river would carry me straight through it.
As if out of another dimension, I heard Angus’s voice, calm and confident, right behind me. “Hold on to the canoe,” he said.
The whole time we’d been in the water I’d been trying to keep away from the canoe, fearing that the metal hull would catch a rock and bash me in the head. Now, against my instincts, trusting Angus, I reached across the churning water, grabbed it and managed to drape my arms over, abandoning my original plan.
We careened down the rapids, the canoe and I, Angus somewhere behind us, the roar of the water deafening. I put my wet cheek to the canoe’s upturned belly and closed my eyes. I knew an impact was coming, but I didn’t know when. And then we hit the dam.
The force of the canoe slamming into the wall made me see stars. I waited with my eyes jammed shut for the telltale numbness and ringing of broken bones, but I felt nothing. I opened my eyes.
The river had thrown the canoe directly above the hole in the dam I’d been aiming for, half-crushing it at the midpoint. The force of the current was holding the canoe against the wall as I dangled a couple of feet above the point where the river was blasting through the dam.
As the body of the canoe creaked with the force of the river, I took a huge breath, let go of the canoe and dropped into the torrent. I was immediately sucked down into the cold undertow and brought my hands to my head to protect myself. I was under for a few long seconds, balled up like a cannonball as the river flushed me out of the hole, before popping to the surface. Suddenly I was bobbing in the middle of the river, the hole in the dam about a hundred feet behind me.
I looked around and there, about fifty feet farther away, was Angus.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. Nothing broken, I don’t think. You?”
“My feet are wrecked,” he said. “I got dragged across the bottom. I thought I was gonna drown.”
“Jesus. Where were you?”
Angus explained how he had grabbed a strap trailing off my life jacket and held it as we were carried down the rapids. When the canoe slammed into the dam, the force of the current had sucked him out through the hole through the same raging chute I dropped into moments later.
Now, treading water in the middle of the river, both of us without our glasses, the current moved us steadily along. We saw a strange shape some ways away in the water and eventually recognized it as the canoe, half-submerged and twisted into scrap metal. I suggested we swim for the far shore since we had life jackets. “Too far,” Angus said. “Let’s go for the other shore.” But the remnants of the rapids were between us and land, so I nixed that plan. We agreed to flag down a boat.
By pure luck, a few minutes later a small pleasure craft came into view. We hollered and whistled and the boat, piloted by a Québécois father and his two preteen sons, came over and picked us up. The boys gaped at us, soaked and shivering, as we sat on the deck.
Boys and young men naturally self-organize in away that grown-ups and institutions will never fully understand. Placed together, they form microcosmic meritocracies in which members gravitate to the bravest, the most capable, the most intelligent among them. The others follow and learn from those leaders, who teach implicitly and overtly, through action. They are often impulsive and wild, crackling with life.
If Angus was the leader of our group as we navigated our teens—the rest of us paying close attention as he challenged and defeated bullies and attracted the prettiest girls, inspiring the rest of us to try to be greater versions of ourselves—then maybe I acted as a sort of consigliere, a trusted advisor. Because I sure as hell wasn’t physically brave, or comfortable with girls, or tough. But I was smart. As best friends, Angus and I were complementary, my cautiousness contrasting with his confidence. We formed punk bands—me on bass, him on lead guitar—and wrote graffiti and played with fire, literally and figuratively, before gradually moving on from petty crime to more constructive endeavors.
Eventually I discovered that I, too, was reckless and brave, in different ways: brave enough to fully commit myself to the potential embarrassment of revealing oneself creatively, reckless enough to spend lost nights by myself haunting the alleyways, rooming houses and booze cans that make up the dank underbelly of Ottawa.
When Angus and I moved to Montreal at twenty-two and took over a cheap two-bedroom on the city’s east side, our own paths started to reveal themselves. He was there to pursue the woman he loved; I was there to pursue a punk-rock lifestyle.
Within a year he moved in with his girlfriend and they started their life together. I continued on my unknown road for another seven years before finally soothing whatever was burning in my blood and falling in love. Together, my partner and I started a new life, eventually having a child, which brought me a kind of peace and satisfaction I’d never known. These feelings can still surprise me. Sometimes, at night, I stop for a moment and let the sensation of calm wash over me, savouring it, before I turn out the light.
At times, when Angus and I have caught up on a rare phone call—he’s always hated the phone—we’ve talked about how we’ve both had moments of missing the past, but in a strange way. It’s more like the lives we lead now can seem slightly surreal. It’s like walking a path that may not have been, but through effort and willpower became real. Maybe, for all of us, the memories we make when we’re young are burned so deep in our minds that no matter where we go or who we become, they’re always waiting there, quietly, just below the surface.
I think the dangers and risks my friends and I have faced together over the years have also helped keep us connected. Events that cause pain or trauma act as a kind of social glue for the people who experience them, binding them together in ways that run-of-the-mill or positive events do not, according to research from the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales. And while most of my experiences with my friends growing up didn’t involve trauma, exactly, other studies show that even shared experiences of moderate stress can lead to a similar kind of connection. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that male rats are more likely to bond when they collectively experience stressful situations.
Considering the number of times our group of friends got caught in fistfights, scaled forbidden structures, outran pissed-off adult victims of our thrill-seeking vandalism, or put ourselves in other dangerous situations, my gut tells me the research is right.
As we chugged in to shore we saw a fleet of fire rescue trucks surrounded by a crowd of about thirty people. They watched as the boat delivered us to shore, where kind firemen wrapped an emergency blanket around Angus and me. Angus asked if we could have separate blankets and the firemen and crowd laughed.
They checked us over, had us sign a few forms and then went out to collect the remains of the canoe. One older fireman looked at us squarely and said it was a miracle we were alive. “You guys should play the lottery today,” he said soberly. “We fish people out of there all the time.”
They dragged the canoe in and left it on the shore. We stared at it. It looked like it had been hit by an artillery shell. A fireman called Robin, Angus’s wife, and asked her to come pick us up, along with the canoe. When she arrived, Angus teared up and they held each other for a long time. The crowd dispersed. We got in the truck and Robin drove us back to their place.
We tried to have a drink but all I wanted to do was get home. We said a hasty goodbye, Angus passed me a wad of cash without hesitation to pay for my lost glasses, shoes and phone, and suddenly I was sitting on a bench in the bus station, still soaking wet, in a state of shock. I started to cry, then sob, alone on the bench. Dozens of people were walking by, but it was as if they understood; no one stopped or even seemed disturbed by the scene.
For a week afterwards, I was an emotional wreck. At work I’d have to excuse myself from meetings to go outside and weep, shuddering with the memory of the incident. At a cafe, I saw a dessert with blueberries on it—my daughter’s favourite—and I started crying, thinking how close I came to never seeing her again.
Later, Angus told me that after I left, there had been a knock at his door. It was a whitewater instructor, a woman who navigated the rapids of the Ottawa River in a canoe for a living and taught others how to do the same. She had heard there had been an incident near the Deschênes Rapids that day, and took her canoe out to have a look. Unbelievably, she had found Angus’s cooler floating in the river, with his phone, wallet and an apple inside. “I ate the apple,” she said with a smile as she handed over his things.
She told him that the area we had gone through was nicknamed “The Coffin” by her colleagues because of the number of people who have died there. I did some reading and found out that between 2007 and 2017, at least six people died or went missing in the rapids around the dam. Dozens more have been rescued near the ruins on the Deschênes, which are now slated for demolition next year due to the dangers they pose, as well as the difficulties they cause for search and rescue teams trying to save paddlers.
In the end, Angus and I agreed that the incident was, in many ways, his fault. Still, I wasn’t blameless: my ignorance and ill-preparedness definitely didn’t help.
Knowing how close I came to losing my life that day has left me with a kind of quiet in my mind and heart. When I wake up, I say thank you to whatever higher power is out there, grateful for every breath I take. But when I conjure the memory of that day on the river, the quiet in my mind can suddenly seem eerie and unsettling, as if there’s nothing left to do, nowhere left to go.
A couple years after the incident, my wife gave birth to our second child, a son. As I play with him, watching him throw balls and marvel over leaves, exploring the world, I sometimes wonder if he will be as lucky as I’ve been to have a lifelong friendship, where simply being yourself with the other person naturally helps you discover who you are, and who you could be.
At times, differences between two friends might make us question ourselves, wonder who exactly we are, challenge our perceptions. But ultimately, the friendships that stick keep leading you right back to yourself.
Angus and I still hang out a couple times a year. And somehow, even after everything we went through, it feels just like old times.
Nathan Munn is a freelance journalist based in Quebec.