CANOES, KEGS & CAMARADERIE: NAVIGATING OUR REGION WITH ELORA’S FINEST
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘This really did seem like a good idea when we first came up with it,’ I comment to Elora Brewing Company’s Jenna Harkness while we tread ever so gingerly across a thin column of slippery rocks toward a larger cluster of boulders in the middle of the river. A biting wind surges up my sleeves and down my neck. My bare hands – clenched tightly to my camera and gear – burn with cold. About twenty feet out from the safety of the shoreline, my right foot mistakes a clump of autumn leaves floating on the water’s surface for solid ground and plunges into the drink. ‘Not so much any more,’ I add. And then, as I pull my frigid sopping foot from the water, ask no one in particular: ‘Whose idea was this, anyway?’
It’s not even nine in the morning. Late October. Wisps of white from the year’s first snowfall still linger in places on the cold ground. My foot is ice. My only dry pair of shoes is back in Guelph. And this adventure has only just begun. The objective? To deliver kegs of Elora’s finest from the downtown brewery to Kitchener’s Lancaster Smokehouse and, afterwards, the Blackwing Coffee Bar in downtown Galt.
Our delivery route: the Grand River.
Our means of transport: canoe.
Why? Because Elora brewer Mike Brooks thought it would be awesome. (But really – what doesn’t that guy find awesome?) And because when Mike first presented this dream to me over a couple pints of Elora Borealis – months before, on a hot, sunny, summer afternoon at the brewery – I thought it’d be awesome, too. (Like Mike, I’m a glutton for awesome.) Surely this would be a fun way to further convince folks that our region of communities – Elora, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, Galt, Hamilton and everything in between – can, and should, be traversed. Regularly. Seamlessly. Always. And what better way to do it than on our region’s most majestic waterway: the Grand River. Fantastic.
On that summer afternoon, visions of navigating the Grand – from Elora’s awe- inspiring gorge past scenic towns like Inverhaugh, West Montrose, Winterbourne, Conestogo, Bloomingdale, to what would be our first stop at The Lanc – had certainly filled me with delight. ‘We’ll deliver our first keg and stop for lunch there,’ Brooksy had suggested exuberantly. I recall images of brisket, ribs, pigtails, cheesy grits and collard greens dancing through my head. And Elora beer. ‘And then,’ he’d continued, ‘we’ll carry on to Blackwing in Galt for another keg delivery. With full bellies.’ I imagined this second half of our route. Past Kitchener. Through Breslau. Alongside Preston. We would glide into Galt past nineteenth-century limestone buildings and picturesque riverbanks that were most recently made famous on the small screen in the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Fantastic. Idyllic. Dreamy.
Fast forward to now. On this cold October morning. Grey. Wet. Dreary. Jenna ahead of me, shouldering a keg of Three Fields Lager. Almost at that crop of boulders in the middle of the Grand. Brooksy behind – hauling a canoe and some paddles. And behind him Elora’s JohnLaurencicandErinGurraccompaniedby TOQUE’s Cai Sepulis and our colleague, Sonia Preisler. Dragging more gear. And breakfast, too – to be enjoyed in the middle of the river before we head downstream.
Thankfully, the gorge’s towering cliffs all around us offer at least a wee bit of shelter from the wind, so our mighty crew settles in (so to speak) to discuss strategy while we dig in to fresh cinnamon buns from Elora Bread Company and coffee from our friends at Blackwing. It becomes apparent soon enough that our appetite for what’s estimated to be a nine-hour voyage down the Grand in the biting cold isn’t quite as voracious as our appetite for cinnamon buns. And so it’s not long before I muster the temerity to ask a question that is surely on everybody’s mind:
‘Why don’t we just drive?’
Which is what we end up doing. Not the whole way, of course. That would be cheating. Instead, after transporting our canoes much of the way, we manage to drop them back into the water in Kitchener – to experience what it’s really like to deliver a keg by canoe to The Lanc. (It’s more difficult than you might think.) And to enjoy heaping plates of meat. And we fully intend to put those stalwart vessels back in the water in Galt, too. To paddle up to our final destination – Blackwing. But we don’t. Instead, after we’ve stuffed ourselves with pigtails and grits, we drive in convoy to Blackwing where owner Katherine Chiles greets our crew with coffee and treats. And bourbon too.
It’s almost five o-clock. And, as the bunch of us collapse into a glorious horseshoe of leather couches and chairs at this most awesome Galt coffee and craft beer destination, I’m embarrassed by how exhausted I feel. After all, I sheepishly think to myself, we didn’t spend more than a trickle of minutes on the water. But I’m also struck by something else: how fulfilled I feel – despite our seeming complete failure to live up to the dreams of that summer afternoon over pints with Brooksy. Because we did something here. We planned. And gathered. And executed a version of our initial fantasy – to traverse our region from one end to the other. A somewhat meager version, to be sure. But still. And we’ll be back – to execute this entire trip. By canoe. On some long summer day in the not-too-distant future.
As laughter and conversation of the day’s adventure fill our cozy Blackwing nook, I look out one of the large plate-glass windows towards our cluster of cars parked outside. And, focusing on the canoes lashed to their roofs, I chuckle. And then look over at Brooksy, who’s perched himself on an upright keg of Three Fields. And, raising my pint to him, I exclaim: ‘We did something today.’ He meets my eyes, his bourbon, and affirms heartily: ‘We sure did.’
We sure did.
Elora Brewing Co.
107 Geddes St, Elora