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Canoe Trip August 2011

As a cub leader, when our pack gathered to enjoy a ceremonial camp fire, I would begin by inviting them to participate. I’d tell them that this was a very special and unique opportunity. No other person, anywhere else or at any other time, could ever experience our campfire exactly as we would. I’d invite them to appreciate the magic, to feel how this experience bonded the members of our pack and to think about how lucky we were to have this unique time together.

How lucky am I to have experienced again, this enriching camaraderie with colleagues in an experience that reveals so many truths, wonder, fun and challenge. My heart is filled with infinite love and gratitude for the privilege of paddling and portaging with my esteemed, determined new friends on the 2011 Chiniguchi Tour.

Wolf Lake canoe route
entry point sign

Filled with some nervous apprehension, hopeful anticipation and even a few fears, my approach was to embrace this new challenge with an open mind and to participate as fully as possible. From the first time I considered putting my name forward for this trip our guide was encouraging and supportive. His confidence boosted my own. We began the adventure with the knowledge we’d be challenged and we’d learn.

Almost immediately, as we divide up into our packed canoes there is a spirit of co-operation, of support and acceptance. Nothing is forced. There are no pre-set lessons, no mandatory activities. Woven throughout every step or paddle there is time for individual contemplation, while at the same time an understanding that each member is part of the group. It fascinates me not only to put myself to the test and observe my reactions, but to see the vulnerability and strength in the others as well.

Like the water lilies that start out egg-shaped pointing towards the sky and throughout the day relax and open to reveal their individual beauty, my colleagues and I begin to gain comfort with each other, and an ease and kindred spirit descends on us encouraging us to share our own true selves with each other without fear of judgment or rejection, but rather acceptance and appreciation. There’s a bond in knowing we are in this together.

water lilly
Water Lilly

In time, my favourite paddling position is at the bow of the canoe rather than the middle. My paddle strokes become more confident and effective with time and practice. Even more satisfying, sometimes when the synchronicity with the stern paddler becomes so meshed, the rhythm seems to assume the form of my heart beat connecting me with the water, the canoe and all the paddlers. I close my eyes and breathe in as I draw the paddle up and exhale as I push the water with the paddle toward the stern.  The movement so natural at times I feel so connected so in tune and so peacefully close to meditation. It is everything and nothing at the same time. So many thoughts racing in my mind but yet at the same time there is just a calm knowing that somehow links me to the past and those who have travelled these waters before.

Later, as I lay in the tent at night, my breathing seems to take on the rhythm of the paddle and although our tent is firmly perched upon a rock, I can almost feel the sway of the water.

We’re told we paddled about 55 km over four days. My body believes that! When the muscles in my shoulders and back burn intensely and the old me would have thought about quitting, the changed me sees things differently. I replay scenes of those in our group who carry canoes and heavier packs than I can. I think of those in the other canoes along side, behind, or way in front who are paddling too and of course I think of the one or two others in this canoe as well. What was that line Jeff had shared with us about perseverance? “Persevere at difficult things. It may not be as concrete as a mountain or as immediately rewarding as cinnamon rolls, but the world is given to those who persevere.”  (Copyright, Morgan Hite, 1989-1991) That is what we do, we persevere. I wonder if my kids will be proud of me and I realize that it really doesn’t matter. I am proud to be here, to be paddling with muscles that burn, because I am part of the group and whatever role I play helps move us all forward.

Through shoe-sucking black muck, over sharp-tumbling rocks, in mosquito-laden forests and pine-needle floors, along waterfall-lagoons, rocky outcroppings, water so clean and skies so clear, with swamps and streams and lakes both smooth and choppy. We persevere together.

It seems quite obvious, I suppose, but I soon realize that like the ripples that roll out when the paddle cuts into the water, our actions ripple out and affect everyone. If you don’t carry that pack, someone else has to. If you don’t take your turn washing dishes, making the fire, preparing a meal, it will fall to someone else. You also realize you have limits. On the first day, after portaging with a pack that was obviously too heavy for me, my body feels shaky for a few hours and my ability to contribute seems diminished. I take note of how I feel and I understand that each of us has limitations.

Our guide reads to us an excerpt from 1637 written by Jean de Brebeuf that says “Always carry something during portages.” This simple instruction for Jesuit missionaries so long ago replays in my mind during every portage. With everyone carrying something, whatever they are capable of, we move the group forward. If I can’t carry the heavier packs, I can carry the lighter ones and at least help people get shed the heavy ones at the other end. And I can paddle, damn it, even if my shoulders and arms burn.

Truly, the days also take on a rhythm. It is of waking, making fires, coffee and breakfast, of taking down tents, organizing packs and moving on to the next step. Paddling, portaging, shore lunches, of hands reaching out to hold canoes along side your own, of connecting, sharing, enjoying, swimming, exploring, experiencing, of making camp, getting wood, eating supper by starlight, of “good night John boy” and giggles and tent zippers zipping. Then there is quiet and the haunting call of loons and sometimes the lapping of water.

There is no lack of impressive sites, from beaver damns and moose prints to colleagues exhibiting unexpected feats of strength and comedy. Ever present is the comforting knowledge that our guide is there to gently provide instructions and reminders, to share words with us that encourage our reflections and our fun. He springs around rock faces with what looks like an arrow through his neck, he runs the longest portages with canoe hoisted over his back and he sleeps without tent under stars overhead. It is certain that Hawkeye and Chingachgook would be proud of our guide.

I applaud all who share this journey for their strength, their help, their commitment and ability to keep moving forward. Our group embraces our challenge carefully considering our options and quickly arriving at consensus to continue on our journey.

This experience for each who takes it will be unique. Some may think it too much work or too long away, and some will remember the joy, laughter and accomplishment and wish it wasn’t over. I don’t speak for anyone but myself.

I learn:

  • to look within
  • I am capable
  • laughter is a great relief, a unifying, de-stressing, expression of joy and friendship
  • to respect and acknowledge my limitations but to give everything I have and more
  • by observing others and shedding ego your path becomes easier and your spirit lighter
  • that if you ask for help, someone will be there and similarly, there’s always something you can do to help someone else
  • a person can waste a lot of time not appreciating the gifts of others
  • a thunder box can be a good thing
  • resistance is futile (lol) – going with the flow and accepting whatever comes next is much easier than worrying or dreading the next part of the journey, and
  • living in the moment while preparing for the next is optimal.

I feel sadness wash over me as the end of our journey comes closer into view. On our way home, when we all stop to eat at a fast-food place I am not alone in wanting to finish my meal and escape to the outdoors. The building’s confining walls and groups of chatting people seem almost intolerable.

And now as I sit writing I am overwhelmed with the busyness around me and the indoors, the lack of stillness, of silence. As much as I’m happy to have chairs with backs to support my tired shoulders and to sleep upon my comfortable mattress, there’s part of me yearning to feel the paddle in my hands and the canoe underneath pushing forward across the water.

One of my colleagues says she feels as though part of her spirit is still there on the trip and she knows it will be a while until it returns to her. She need not elaborate as her words echo my thoughts. It reminds me of a verse from a song.

Land of the silver birch
Home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose
Wanders at will
Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
Boom-diddy-ah-da, Boom-diddy-ah-da, Boom-diddy-ah-da, bo-oo-oom

Hearts and spirits are free among those blue lakes and rocky shores and with that knowledge there is yearning.

Indeed the 2011 Chiniguchi Tour was challenging, exhausting and exhilarating. It had me close to tears and doubled over in laughter; it taught me perseverance and peacefulness; it taught me when I feel I have no more to give, I really do. It pushed me beyond where I would have normally drawn the line and it was completely awe-inspiring.

canoe, river
Canoe on shining water