All Business

Disclosure: The following post includes a recipe, an advertisement, a book recommendation, and more propaganda…

Nathanael crouches and drops bean seeds into the trench I made with my hoe. Vivian is there beside him and throws her handful into a pile and begins to cover them up, all lumped together. When I protest, Nathanael squints up at me and stares.

“Why are you wearing that?” He is looking at the huge hat I just put on to cover my huge head. “Are you a farmer?”

I straighten up and throw my shoulders back. I am pleased with this four-year-old’s question. “Yes,” I say, spreading my arms to point to the  budding raspberries, quivering garlic stalks, blooming cherry and plum, trailing strawberries and spiking asparagus. “This is my farm.”

Nathaneal isn’t convinced. “You can’t be a farmer because you don’t have a barn,” he concludes. I agree with him partly–barns and outbuildings are very useful things for farmers to have, and then we keep working.

After we finish planting the beans he helps me unload a few wheelbarrow loads of mulch and waters the emerging snap peas.  By the time his older brother gets off the bus he’s changed his mind about my title. Still holding the watering can, he waves it at his brother and shouts, “Look Josiah, she’s a farmer!”

Right now we’re harvesting asparagus, green onions, rhubarb, and dandelion roots on our “farm”. It is a pleasant sort of vindication to pull foot-long roots out of the earth, knowing they will become a smooth part of my spring morning ritual. Turning them into coffee is the best way to up-cycle these medicinal plants in my opinion. (And believe me, I’ve tried all manner of recipes.) In fact, if I was inclined to market goods I might actually sell this stuff, but instead I’ll try to sell you on this retreat…

There are a few spots left and early bird pricing lasts until next week. Come be a part of it! Watch this short interview on CTV News to get a better idea of what it’s about. (I come on at 13:25 minutes.)

This book.

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I  have 3 hours to myself every week when Vivi goes to daycare. During these mornings alone I only do Very Important Things, which usually means walking, praying, and writing. Last week I used 30 precious minutes to copy passages from Annie Dillard’s book. Here is one of my favourites:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

And finally, one last advertisement.

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My nieces and nephews have started their own business, Three Huggers, creating sustainable beeswax wraps with the help of their parents. I love wrapping my children’s sandwiches in them; their fabric designs almost transform lunch prep into a festivity instead of a mad rush to throw some ham between two slices of bread. Here’s their FB page and Etsy account where you can flood them with orders 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend ahead!

Last wkd was mostly all backbreaking work except for Sunday afternoon, which was mostly all about water, fresh fish, fire, and friends.

PS. If you haven’t been getting notified when I post (and you’ve signed up for email notification) try entering your email address again. If that doesn’t work, leave a comment and let me know!

Snow Day Crumbs

While vacuuming the last crumbs of Snow Day, I wasn’t sure it was worth it. I wasn’t convinced all the planning, hauling, setting up, and then cleaning up, was something I would ever want to do again. When my sister called to ask me how it went, I answered, “It was a lot of work.” Because it was. Now, a few weeks later, I still remember gripping the bottom of our heavy burgundy couch while maneuvering it into the clubhouse (Stan helped me move our living room furniture because I wanted a cozy atmosphere) but I also remember other moments. And these are the images that remind my why I wanted to do it in the first place…

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“We can’t come out fo the retreat but we can help you get ready for it,” Sheena offers in her easy Jamaican accent. I haven’t known Sheena and her family for long and, even though I feel a tiny bit bad accepting their help, I am grateful. When they get to the clubhouse the night before the retreat I hand her a pile of neatly folded saris and she understands intuitively what I envision. “It will be a swoopy, airy effect,” she says while gesturing where they should hang. Meanwhile her husband Mark climbs a step ladder and starts discussing with my daughter what colour of sari they should start with.

My other friend Rebecca has come too, along with Stan, Belén and Susanna. Rebecca strings lights, moves tables and chairs, prepares a coffee station and lays drop cloths with the girls. Stan cuts wood for ice-lantern stands, throws down sand on the icy walkway and reaches the heating vent near the ceiling (when no one else can) to attach the last of the filmy fabric. Three hours later the space is transformed into an arts studio. I am the last to leave and all I can think about is how I love being surprised by the goodness in people. I hadn’t asked anyone to come tonight to help and yet I am not sure what I would’ve done without them. I turn off the lights and wait for tomorrow.

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Dion comes into the clubhouse with his computer and, after a rushed hello, he  chooses his spot in the far corner of the room next to a large window. He opens his laptop and before I start with the welcome or any introductions he is already typing. Laura too, is busy, and so is Crystal. Each of them have claimed a window of their own and they’re set up with a view of snow, sky, spruce, and naked trees. Pens scratch paper. Fingers fly over keyboards. Vague ideas are shaped, carved, and trimmed by letters and words until they are almost real enough to touch.

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People trail through the buffet, a few at a time, filling their bowls with hot soup. There is no designated lunch-break as I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the day. In any other room full of friends, acquaintances, and strangers, I’d feel obliged to make the rounds and be social, but today is different. I wear my Silence is Golden sticker on my chest, like a few others, and bring spoonfuls of lemony lentil soup to my mouth while I devour Mary Oliver’s poems at the same time. Her book Owls and Other Fantasies is propped in front of me and I linger over lines like “I think this is the prettiest world–so long as you don’t mind a little dying” from her poem The Kingfisher. The entire book is about birds, and it’s odd that I’m so enchanted with it, given the fact I’ve never been a birder or even pretended to be, but her poems make me want to sit by a saltwater marsh forever to see what she sees. I copy The Kingfisher into my notebook before the last of my broth is finished. Perhaps if I recite her words while I write them down some of their elegance will infuse itself into my own vocabulary.

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Anne is here because, as she said during the introductions, she “wants to help people get outside and on the ski trails”. She outfits a group of mothers, daughters, cousins, and friends with skis, poles and boots. It is time to break away from the writing, the sketching, the studying and the reading. It’s time to breath a little fresh air. And laugh.

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The sun shifts in the sky and so does the atmosphere inside the clubhouse.  People clean up their paints, wood, leather, fabric, yarn, books, computers and paper. Tables are pushed together, covered with cloths, and candles are lit. Adam pulls the lids off of his art, which is our dinner. Greek Chicken. Rice Pilaf. Mediterranean Salad. Roasted Vegetables. While we savour the food I ask participants to share about their day. People are brave, funny and honest. One woman reads from her memoir-in-the-making about her journey with anxiety; another explains how she is using up plastic grocery bags to make sleeping mats for homeless people. Twila talks about painting with her hands and how it’s like eating Indian cuisine that tastes better when you can touch the food. She also speaks about being absorbed in the process and truly listening to her work and the Spirit while she creates. I smile and nod and try to remember the words she is using to describe her experience.

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And this: fiddle music, harmonies, and acoustic guitar…

Thank you Wool Tree Grove, fiddlers, and dancers!

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Find out more about Wonderscape Retreats here.

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Snow Day by Wonderscape Retreats was sponsored in part by Artists in Communities, a joint initiative of the Saskatchewan Arts Board and SaskCulture Inc., and is supported by funding provided by the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation

Why I Care About a Mouse Tail

The moon is a small sliver and the sky is overcast tonight. Stan is trying to back our small Saturn, and trailer, down a narrow alley that borders a park at the edge of the city. The trailer hitch is short so it’s incredibly hard to back up at the best of times, never-mind doing it in pitch darkness with soft snow ready to swallow the tires. He gets stuck so I get in the driver seat while he pushes. Then we try again; I call out directions while he maneuvers the trailer back towards the fresh snow. (This is the second night of shoveling so we’ve already cleaned off the stuff that is easy to access.) Finally we make it to our destination and I start pushing up piles with the snow scoop while Stan hefts it into the trailer.

I notice a home owner peek his head out of his garage to find out what the commotion is about. He stares for awhile and then retreats and I wonder if he will tell his wife about the crazy people shoveling snow off public land. I also wonder if we actually are a tiny bit crazy.

Sweat starts to trickle down my back–under my tank-top, tee-shirt, sweatshirt and winter parka. I can hear Stan grunting while he heaves snow at his usual frenzied pace. “I wonder,” I call through my scarf that is frozen stiff, “if we’ll be nostalgic about this when we are in the old folks home. Can you imagine sitting around and talking about the days when we used to steal snow for sculpting?”

When the trailer is piled high we lumber down the block-and-a-half to our front yard and half-empty wooden box. About 3 loads later, it’s finally full to the top and ready to sit for a few days while we wait for the snow particles to bond.

About a week later, after Stan has taken the wood form apart and finished 95% of the carving, we spend a couple evenings taking care of the last details. He’s working on the mouse’s nose and teeth and I’m on a step ladder, shaping the feet.  It’s dark and quiet enough to hear the scraping sounds our tools make against the snow. “Just so you know,” I tell my husband, “I would never be doing this if I hadn’t married you.” I’m not unhappy, or even complaining about the -30 temps, I’m just stating the obvious. How marriage affects us in ways we never would have known when standing at the altar. The next night this truth becomes even more apparent.

We’re laying in bed, and just before falling asleep Stan comments, “I think the tail is too wide for the body. It would look less reptilian if we narrowed it.” I agree and roll over. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I awake for no reason. I toss and turn and think about all kinds of stuff, including the mouse’s tail. Suddenly it’s all I can think about: how I’ll need to get the saw out in the morning and shave off the sides, how the mouse’s hind legs are curved, and how the buttocks should partly cover the tail. And then I think, why on earth do I care about a mouse’s butt at stinkin’ four o’clock in the morning?

But I do care. I care because we’ve invested so much time in it already. Because snow is a beautiful thing to work with. Because people like to drive by slow and crane their necks and take pictures. Because my girls look forward to the sculpture on their yard every year. Because creating something–anything at all, even a mouse’s tail–is the opposite of apathy; it affirms that there is meaning and that we have a reason to care. And I care because I married Stan, of course. Which is the main reason why I’m worried about how a mouse’s tail comes out of its butt.

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Stan cuts off a lot of snow blocks when he starts carving–they girls love to use these in their snow forts

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Saron and Free help us pack the snow

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Here

Here

I’ve hiked Andean mountain passes that plunge into lush jungle
I’ve followed wild rivers through the tundra and bathed in their remote falls
I’ve canoed on pristine lakes alongside moose, eagles, and river otters
I’ve poked at anemones and starfish in Pacific tidal pools
I’ve driven down red dirt roads of Prince Edward Island
I’ve posed for photo ops in front of the Swiss Alps
I’ve played in the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean sea

And yet

a long blade
of dying grass
curled
and golden
in the autumn sun
is as beautiful a thing as I have ever seen

-Tricia Friesen Reed

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The Story of Wonderscape 2016

I grip the steering wheel and force myself to take several deep breaths. We’re only a few miles away now from Riding Mountain National Park and my stomach feels pickled–as if I ate something too acidic–while my chest tightens with nerves. “As long as there’s enough room in the main cabin for the meals and all our sessions everything will be okay, ” I tell my friend Shalain, who is in the seat next to me. I’m speaking to Shalain, but mostly trying to talk myself out of worrying. I’ve spent months dreaming and planning for the retreat but now that it’s finally here I’m starting to panic.

Minutes later, when we turn the key to the main cabin, neither of us say a word. I survey the laminate wood floors, the plain kitchen, the stone fireplace and the cathedral ceilings.  There’s enough space but it doesn’t feel quite right. Both of us are calculating what we need to do next; the participants will be arriving in only a couple of hours.

“This corner needs something,” Shalain says. She strides past the couch to a table nestled against the log walls and french doors.

“And it’s too dark in here, ” I add, “but I think it’s gonna work.” We yank the curtains off all the windows. Shalain finds a glass pitcher and fills it with branches, to which green and amber leaves still cling. We turn up the heat. We re-arrange furniture. We jam beeswax candles into old glass bottles and set them on the mantel. We grind coffee. We light the fire log. And the afternoon light fades into the first evening of Wonderscape.

When I look at the 26 women, many of them strangers from all across western Canada,  gathered around me–some sitting on the floor by the fireplace, some on folding chairs, my childhood friend Bonnie beside my mom and clasping the hand of another childhood friend’s mom–I know exactly how I need to begin.

“Thank you,” I start. I am honoured; honoured these women have chosen to spend their time, their most precious resource, with us this weekend. I am amazed; amazed by the talent, experience and geography represented in our little gathering. I am also excited; excited to give birth to my “baby”, this idea of a creative wellness retreat I’ve carried for the last nine months. And I am still nervous.

But as the evening wears on I relax. The words and stories I rehearsed earlier seem to slip out naturally. I don’t look at my notes as often as I thought I would. It’s more fun than I’d expected. When we break up for discussion the room is loud, almost too loud, with animated voices and laughter. When we listen to Michelle share of music and vocation and love and death, the room is quiet, almost too quiet, as her vulnerability fills the space. By the time she plays the song she composed any pretense that might still be hanging in the room is shattered.

Part of the reason I designed Wonderscape as a multidisciplinary experience is for this purpose. It’s hard to be uppity or find a pecking order when there is so much diversity in craft and experience. If the attendees were all writers, or all painters, it might be more tempting to figure out who’s who; who’s more talented, more connected, or more successful. But what do singers know of crocheting roosters, painters of fiddling, or writers of embalming? (And these were only a few of the interests of the participants!)

On Saturday the group disperses. The night before I had urged people to do what they came here to do, whatever that might look like. Some people bike, some hike, some fiddle, some weave, some scrapbook, some swim in the chilly waters of Clear Lake, some photograph, some meditate, some knit, some sing, and some paint with Twila Napoleoni of Bara’ Academy of the Arts. I lead a Hike and Write workshop through a marsh where algae, sprinkled like confetti on the water, and cattails warming in the sun hear our pens scratch against paper.

“How are you feeling?” I ask the group after a period of silent writing. I wonder if they are bored, maybe frustrated with their task, or perhaps ready to move on. No one answers for a long moment and I realize they are still soaking in their words and thoughts. “Does anyone want to share?” I ask.

A woman reads what is in front of her, even as the fresh ink dries on the paper. Her risky offering is honoured. We listen. Tears fall. Another woman introduces the poem she just wrote with a good dose of self-deprecating humour but when she begins the first stanza no one is laughing. The words settle around the boardwalk, the reeds, the evergreens, and the blue sky as if from an old classic.

By supper time I am hungry. Mariana Brito and Madison Sutcliffe of The Backyard bend over their artwork using the pecorino cheese, tomatillo sauce, and sunflower petals from their palette. Partway through dinner, head chef Mariana explains the story behind each locally-sourced, organic ingredient like she does every meal. We listen with starry eyes and full stomachs. We are falling in love. In love with her ingredients, with her dreams, with her accent, with her global experience, with her leek roots fried in bacon fat, and with her passion.

Storyteller Jenny Gates and jazz singer Amber Epp are up next. I am not sure what to expect of either, but at this point–after Mariana’s food, I’m not concerned. Amber sings in English, Spanish, and Portugese. She rumbles low then sails high through her music, evocative one moment and making us laugh the next. Jenny stands in front of the group with no props other than her honesty and sense of humour. When they are done it’s my turn to wrap up the evening and I am almost without words. Almost, but not quite.

“I’m not sure I can do this again,” I say, “I mean, I want to plan another retreat, but how could it top this one?” On Sunday, after lunch and the final Artist Blessing someone suggests we repeat the whole thing next year; the same people have to come again, speak the same words, make the same connections, and do the exact same thing they did this time. Of course we know it’s impossible. We can’t repeat something we’ve already lived through, and if we tried, it would feel different.

But change has an allure of its own. The unknown and unexpected carries potential. The thrilling part of Wonderscape 2016 was that I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I couldn’t have forecast the ways strangers would connect and participate, or imagined the unique presence each individual would bring to my project. And this gives me hope for what is ahead. I don’t know where Wonderscape will be next time. I don’t know if it will be a workshop or a day or a weekend retreat. I don’t know the artists with whom I will collaborate. I don’t know who will show up or how it will change us. I don’t know any of this but I can’t wait to find out.

During our first session together on Friday evening, while my own stomach was doing flip-flops I read the following excerpt:


“Nerves are God’s gift to you, reminding you that your life is not passing you by. Make friends with the butterflies. Welcome them when they come, revel in them, enjoy them, and if they go away do whatever it takes to put yourself in a position where they return. Better to have a stomach full of butterflies than to feel like your life is passing you by.” (Rob Bell, How to Be Here)

Wonderscape 2016 is over. The butterflies came and went away. Now it’s time to look for them again.

Tricia

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Me, speaking during the Artist Blessing session

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Bonnie, looking at the magazines and books people brought for our weekend library

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Mariana Brito and Madison Sutcliffe working their culinary magic

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Arts educator Twila Napleoni leading a painting workshop

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painting in the sunshine

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Jenny Gates telling us why on earth she picked Winnipeg, MB over Sydney, Australia… and much more

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After her show, Amber Epp shows Bonnie a few tricks on the piano

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Here I am leading the Hike and Write workshop

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Canoe Tripping; Is it worth it?

Is it worth it?

The question rolls through my mind with every sleeping bag I stuff into dry sacks, every diaper, toothbrush, and toilet paper roll I zip into plastic baggies, and every dish, match, and knife I stow away. No extra article of clothing or edible slips in unaccounted; Shall I pack a sweatshirt or a long-sleeve shirt? Will we eat four bagels or five? All the little decisions I make add to my stress. When we go into the back-country with our three children it has to be this way, or else the sheer volume and weight of our so-called necessities stop us in our tracks. Literally. It sounds like a wonderful idea, to see how little we can get by on for a few days, but packing for it makes me feel anything but wonderful. After years of practise I’m getting better (I don’t pack cheese graters anymore, much to my husband’s relief) but it’s still overwhelming. Which is why the sentiment rears its head as I run up and down the basement stairs between our camping supplies and canoe trailer: This trip better be amazing or else…

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After a seven-hour drive north, and after every survival item has been packed, then unpacked, and re-packed into our canoe, we are finally on the water. The sun is hot and I turn around to make sure Vivi’s hat is on tight. I check in with Susanna, whose main job is to look after Vivian, and ask her if she’s comfortable. Then I re-adjust the pool noodles stuck to the gunwales of the canoe so it’s softer against my knees. Suddenly I feel incredibly thirsty and I haven’t even paddled more than 30 strokes. Where’s my water? And does Vivian have her water? She’ll be getting hungry soon, too. I find my water bottle under my seat and after noting the edge in Stan’s voice decide I can hold off for at least one more kilometre. I won’t start looking for the snacks just yet.

Slowly we leave the marina, cottages, and beach full of sunbathers behind us. Soon all I see is the water ahead of my paddle, the 2 other boats in our party, and the next island on our path. When we reach the landmark we were aiming for we pick a new point and with every metre gained the nightmare of packing fades. Maybe it’s the simple act of only doing one thing at a time. Lift paddle. Thrust through the water. Repeat. Or maybe it’s the calming scenery. Water. Rock. Spruce. Poplar. Birch. Repeat. Whatever it is is part of the answer to the question I had while packing.

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Vivian eating supper on the cliff with her buddy Tyler

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After our first night at Echo Island our crew is divided. Some want to stay here forever, naming every rock and tree and cliff-jumping their life away. Others want to keep moving and explore new territory. After listening to everyone’s opinion (well, except Vivian’s–but she seems to be happy as long as we’re happy), we decide to keep going. The island is beautiful but too close to civilization–we’ve seen two party barges and a handful of motor boats during our short stay. Listening to everyone’s opinion takes time, much longer than if someone would make an executive decision, but if we have one thing out here it’s time. Time to fish, to swim, to make food, to eat, and to get to know each other.

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The Reed and Walker children introducing Vivian to a traditional canoe trip dance

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This is the second back-country trip we’ve done with the Walker family and it shows. We talk about things and act in ways we wouldn’t under normal circumstances back home. Surviving in the wilderness requires vulnerability and brings a new level of intimacy to relationships, even among our own family. This deeper intimacy isn’t always pleasant, sometimes the isolation exacerbates difficult dynamics until they seem unbearable.

On the third day Stan and I paddle back to our campsite after exploring an abandoned gold mine. I’m in the bow and all three girls are in the middle of the boat.

“What’s wrong?” Stan calls up to me. “Are you okay?”

The question may be one of concern but that’s not the way I hear it, and his next phrase confirms it for me.

“Let’s see you paddle like you mean it!”

Perhaps this was meant as light-hearted encouragement. Perhaps he is merely trying to motivate his lovely wife to do her best. Perhaps he is perfectly content and grateful for his canoeing partner. Unfortunately, none of this occurs to me in the moment. All I can think about is our incompatibilities. He loves to paddle hard, feel the power of wood against water, and reach our destination as fast as possible; I love to paddle like I’m not really paddling at all, to drag my toes in the water, and have meaningful conversations while doing it. Stan wants to cover as much distance as possible and see all there is to see; I prefer to swim as much as possible and close my eyes while I’m sunbathing on the rocks afterward. As I think about this out on the lake, in the middle of nowhere, it all seems dire. Anger warms my stomach. Not every woman would take her one-year old into the woods! Not every woman would be willing to set up and tear down their campsite each night! Now I’m really seething. He’s got no idea how good he’s got it!

But it’s hard to seethe for too long when you’re on 86,000 acres of water dotted by hundreds of pristine islands. It’s hard to seethe when your husband knows how to rig up a bear cache like nobody’s business, catches you fish for supper, and navigates your fleet when everyone else is lost. It’s hard to seethe when you know, deep down, even though you are both very different, you wouldn’t want to be in the wilderness with anyone else.

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On the fourth day of our trip I wish we could extend our time away. Vivian seems unfazed by this strange way of life (for all she knows the canoe is her new napping place and the boreal forest her permanent home), and I don’t yet miss the convenience of internet connection or washing machines, even though Vivian has peed her pants multiple times–there’s always more water to wash them and a stick on which to dry them, but it’s time to head back.

For the first time in our family history, our 11 and 9-year-old will take turns in the bow to get us home. With 12 kilometres ahead of us, the wind in our faces, and steady rain, I’m not sure how either girl will perform and am worried about their morale. Sarah (the Walker’s daughter) and I are in the tandem kayak and gain ground faster than both canoes. We take shelter from the wind on the leeward side of a small island to wait for the rest of the group to catch us. When they arrive we check in with everyone, gain our bearings, and get moving again. This happens over and over, and each time our canoe pulls up beside us I expect crying and complaints from my three daughters. But it never happens. Vivi is tucked under bed rolls and sheltered from the rain with her wide-brimmed hat. Belén admits she is cold and can’t feel her fingers but she is still smiling. We keep going.

I watch as Belén puts her head down and digs into the water. I can tell Stan is impressed. Soon it will be Susie’s turn and she will prove to be as strong as her sister. There are many things we hope to teach our daughters and resiliency is one of them. If nothing else, trips like these help foster it, along with resourcefulness and stamina. So even if the sun isn’t hot, the fish don’t bite, the fire doesn’t blaze, and we don’t get any sleep (oh wait, that really did happen), not all is lost.

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“sketching”

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calm moment with no rain on the way home

After lunch Susanna takes over and the rain stops. The water calms and the distant islands look even more beautiful than before. Sarah’s brother, Tyler, is in the front seat of the kayak with me now and we race the Reed canoe on the final home stretch. Then just before we reach the docks the rain starts again, falling harder than ever. We’re already wet and all our gear is soaked so it doesn’t matter much. Tyler and I are in the lead and attempt to cut off their boat when Susie and Stan slip in between us and the dock and declare their victory.

We unload and then repack everything into our cars as fast as possible, which still seems to take forever. Nobody else is on the water or hanging around the marina. Nobody asks us how our trip was or if it was worth the hassle, so we don’t have to think about how we might answer. But on the drive home, in clean dry clothes and munching on left-over beef jerky and yoghurt-covered raisins, we’ll have already made up our minds.

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at an old gold mine site