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

Adapt, Capitalize, and Debrief

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I’m not very good at waiting around for things to happen; like babies, for example. On Wednesday, I call a small resort and ask if they have any cabins available for the upcoming weekend. I also ask if they have cell service, just in case I go into labour (they don’t), but I figure I could make the hour-and-a-half trip back to to the hospital in good time. (I bring along a clean sheet for a roadside delivery just in case.) On Friday morning we roll out the driveway, our canoe hunkered over our Mazda, ready to explore a new lake and a new way of vacationing by ourselves. Never before has our family chosen to stay in the “front-country” when striking out on our own. Over the years we’ve canoed and backpacked into many different wilderness campsites, but considering the circumstances, going into the back-country isn’t an option this time. And it turns out that hot water, cupboards stocked with dishes, and ready-made beds covered with quilts, aren’t such a bad idea after all.

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Happy to burrow my belly into the sand!

At the beach, while warming up after a swim, Susanna grabs an index card and a pencil and starts writing. After awhile she shares her work–a detailed outline of the stages of pregnancy, each with a summary of what a new mom should expect. My favourite line, in Stage 6, reads: You may notice that it will try to push itself out during labor. The “you may notice” bit sounds reassuring, like it’ll be so low-key I’ll have remind myself of what’s going on.

Inspired by her outline, I borrow her idea of “stages” and apply it to our family get-away. Like pregnancy, and most holidays, it seems to follow a pattern…

Stage 1: Adapt

This is the scratchiest part of the vacation–even if you’re at a five-star all-inclusive. Changing speeds and getting used to a new environment, especially if it’s in the woods and literally scratchy, takes a bit of time. During this phase expectations re-align with reality. Kind of like what happens when I see our cottage for the first time, nestled in a stand of mosquito-infested spruce and dressed with cobwebs. I guess I was expecting a little more charm, and a little less of the “made for a group of fishing buddies” feel. Susanna and Belén don’t seem to notice and head inside. They get busy adapting, collecting bouquets of reeds and grass for every room and deciding who will sleep where.

Later, when we launch our boat and I tentatively brush the surface of the water with my paddle, as if I’m painting rather than canoeing, Stan phrases his question carefully.

“So… I guess this is as fast as we’re going to go?”

“Yes,” I reply, even though the trout are at the other end of the lake, even though it’s a beautiful night, and even though we’ve made this canoe go much, much faster. “Yes, this is definitely as fast as we’re going to go.”

We don’t make it to the narrows that evening, where the lake trout stay safe from our hooks. And the rosemary sprigs from our garden, plucked with high hopes, never see the frying pan. Instead, I hand both girls a paddle and they take over my job from their post in the middle. They squabble, shout orders, and then congratulate each other when our vessel picks up speed and stays, relatively, on course. It would’ve been nice to reach the deep waters ahead, but we realize we need to stay within sight of our cabin, at least when I’m in the bow, and I can’t help but think it’s okay for the kids too. It’s good for children to feel the force of water against wood. To understand what happens when the paddle feathers the water away, or churns it towards the boat. To feel the thrill of managing natural elements, rather than a tiny arrow on a screen, or even the pages of a book.

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Belén, Susanna, and Stan, adapting to the compromised paddler in the bow.

Stage 2: Capitalize

On Saturday morning Belén and Stan slip away while Susanna and I are still in bed. They try again for lake trout–and reach the point we were heading for the night before–but get caught in a storm before they have any luck. Susanna and I strain to catch sight of a canoe heading for home but can’t see through the white sheet of rain quickly advancing. Feeling helpless, we start on a batch of these fluffy buttermilk pancakes (my new favourite recipe) and soon the soggy father-daughter team are dripping at the door. Alive. They didn’t even capsize or get struck by lightning and it seems silly I was so worried.

The wind howls and the clouds weep steadily for hours. It’s the kind of day that makes a nap after breakfast seem perfectly reasonable, especially after a hard paddle. Reading aloud, playing scrabble, and sketching are also on the agenda. I am thankful for the 625 square foot cabin and the blanket of slow that settles around us. There is no laundry to do, no computer to check, no work to be done, no garden to weed, and the supper is already prepped. We are steeped in rest and each other.

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When the rain stops we build a fire despite gale-force winds and study the trees around us, hoping they won’t fall victim to the wind and we, in turn, to them. Fortunately we are braver than the mosquitoes and enjoy some insect-free supper and s’mores, deciding a little breeze is better than a blood-hungry, buzzing plague.

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Yes, this is what capitalizing looks like.

Stage 3: Debrief

I love stage three, when the trip happens all over again; only this time, bathed in the nostalgic light of retrospect. We go out for dinner the day we come home (a tradition after back-country trips) and indulge in beverages and a meal, plus dessert. Like we need to reward ourselves for going on vacation or something. Between ordering and eating we discuss our favourite parts and how great everything turned out. The sun, the rain, the wind, the food, the cabin. Even mishaps, like the sharp pencil that lodged itself deep into buttock flesh when a certain family member sat on it, producing tears and flaring tempers, don’t seem as menacing in a restaurant booth.

We discuss our plans for next summer and agree on a few points. It’ll be a backpacking trip in a place without mosquitoes. Death Valley? Well, it fits the criteria. A snowy glacial peak? No mosquitoes there. Wherever we go, we’ll have to adapt–especially with a one-year-old on our backs, hopefully capitalize, and most certainly debrief.

Is this what your vacations look like, too?

Tricia

 

 

Grades and zebra stripes

Report card time is here.  Have you noticed the posts getting thinner and sparser?

I love teaching; standing in front of the class and seeing the students’ eyes light up, listening to them talk animatedly about what they are reading or writing, watching a semi-depressed child spring to life in drama class or one who can barely read, whoop everyone else in gym class, but I hate marking.  My mother tells me all teachers feel this way, but I find it especially odious.  (Perhaps like all parents think their children are especially cute.)  What makes the task so hard for me is that it has never been easy to see the world in black and white.  And, slapping a percentage on a report card is a very black and white task.

I recently told someone, “I see the world in zebra stripes.”

I thought I was being terribly clever.  The person I told this to didn’t quite get it, or maybe they got it but didn’t gush enough about the analogy to satisfy me.  I was trying to communicate that there are other possibilities to consider when analyzing different perspectives.  Some see the world in black and white, others see it in shades of gray, and still others see it in zebra strips–where the black lies, black as ever, next to pure white; neither colour diluted.  The first example that comes to mind to illustrate this is my view of God: a Creator so devastatingly beautiful and powerful, before whom we can only tremble, combined with the other stripe of  His/Her extravagant grace and compassion.  And then that view triggers even more zebra-stripe responses.  I have to ask myself: how do I live a just and principled life and at the same time practice a ridiculous amount of grace towards myself and others?

Talking about God is just one arena for figuring out how we understand the world and communicate that understanding.  There is also politics, ethics, child-rearing… and report cards.

The one bright spot, for me, in this whole process of attaching numbers to children is the speech I am preparing to deliver before I hand out the report cards.  I think I may take the students to the chapel, since we’ve never done that before, to lend an air of seriousness to my sermon.

I imagine I will need to admit, right up front, how I detest the whole business of marking.  Then I will need to explain why.  I will confess that some of them have gotten the wrong grades.  (Gasp!  Can I admit that?).  Quite likely, in their heart of hearts, they will know if the mark is too high or too low.  And hopefully some of them will have marks that are just right.  Regardless of how they feel about their marks this term, I want them to understand they will be assigned grades all their life, not in the form of report cards of course, but judgements that other people make of them.

To cultivate a resilience to the harmful effects of all this measurement they will need to be able to rely on their ability to evaluate themselves and listen to their intuition.  They will know if they have done their best or still have more to give.  As it is a Catholic school I might remind them that there is only One who does understand them; the One who knit them together in their mother’s womb.  And, since I am certainly not the One, they have to be wary of calibrating their worth from a pile of numbers I, or any other teacher, spin through a rubric, regardless if the result is 99% or 49%.

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And now, for something completely different, a few pics of some changes around here:

She finally lost them!!

One of Belén’s closest friends went to see Justin Bieber live.  Belén wasn’t particularly sad about missing Justin Bieber but she felt left out of a good time.  We decided that something special was in order…

Belén opted for camping in our backyard.

Not exactly a Justin Bieber concert, but special nonetheless.

Six reaons NOT to go canoeing with children (and why we do it anyway)

1.  Packing

Packing for three days in the back country takes me at least one full roll-up-the-sleeves-and-set-your-jaw kind of  day.  Especially when my daughters are simultaneously playing, eating, and creating like it’s the last day they’ve got left to live.

Mama’s thoughts: “AUUGGHHH. Can’t you children just sit in one spot for the whole day so we can leave this house clean???”

2.  Leaving

I hereby challenge any loving, mature couple to strap themselves, their kids, their gear and two boats into/onto a small car.  If you are able to manage the feat unscathed, you have my utmost respect.  I owe you even more if your child has diarrhea at the side of the road, five miles after setting off from home.

3.  Repacking

…from the car to the canoe, from the canoe to the campsite, from the campsite to the canoe, from the canoe to the campsite, from the campsite to the canoe… you get the idea

The trip starts with a small river… and a bit of a sprinkle

I know this is supposed to be a “con” picture, but do you see that long natural beach!

4.  The weather

Heard on the radio as we pulled out of our driveway:  “Rain in southern, central, and northern parts of the province… plan on staying at home on the couch with some blankets and a movie…”

Fortunately the rain didn’t turn out to be a problem.  We did encounter wind on the second day.  And, since wind = whitecaps = swamping our canoe, we piled all our gear into the biggest canoe, sent the men off to battle the waves, and then hiked 7 km to our next campsite with the three kids.  I’m not sure who had the hardest job.  Weirdly enough, Stan said it was the highlight of the trip…

Honestly, those whitecaps were bigger than they look!

This was our first trip with another family. It was wonderful having another 2 adults around for situations such as this one.

5.  Winged insects

I spotted approximately two mosquitoes this weekend so I feel sheepish claiming this one, but Susanna did get stung twice by hornets.  Stan looked at me immediately, then at the ground, and asked, “What do we do for this?”  I didn’t get it for a moment and then my eye caught a plantain leaf.  In the next second we were both chewing on plantain to make a spit poultice for her fresh bites.  Plantain acts as an anti-histamine and an anti-inflammatory.  It is also used to draw out poison from snake and insect bites.  Although Susanna wasn’t thrilled to have her parents saliva dripping off her, it did seem to help.

6.  Wildlife

Shalain and I were about 25 meters from our campsite when we heard a rustling noise in a nearby berry patch.  The kind of rustling that makes your blood feel like fire in your veins.  I gripped my bear spray and she got her bear bangers ready; then we met her husband Kent.  He had just run into the same bear.  It stared at him, he stared back, and then it ambled into the raspberries.  Not an epic story after all.

homemade bear bells

So why do we bother to go at all?

I could answer by recommending Last Child in the Woods or reflecting on how it feels like time travel to be in the back country-as if cell phones and blogs like these cease to exist.  Instead, I’ll just post a few more pictures.

I didn’t pack any toys, not even the stuffies, and they survived.

Shalain, Lake and Kent with Belén

Fish from the first day. Belén caught the whopping pickerel (walleye) in the middle. Next time I’ll pack less wieners and more lemon and butter.

Thanks for the bow saw, Derek.

Susanna took this from the car

How do you and your family enjoy the back country?

Any canoe trip recommendations out there?

PS.  About that kayak Stan made… it turns out it needs a few tweaks before we’ll take it on another trip.

We started the trip towing the girls behind us in the kayak. It didn’t track well and the whole thing resulted in a lot of screaming and two soaked kids. After five minutes on the water we ditched the kayak in the bush and repacked.

Ode to a sister

My sister just pulled out of the driveway with my mother, and left three of us waving frantically from the window.  She and her kids spent a week and a half with us; birthday-ing, camping, and just plain living.  Yesterday, as we sat outside folding boatloads of laundry, pitching a baseball to her littlest one, making snacks, and everything in between, I said, “Some people actually live like this.  Women all over the world are living in family groups, managing their house and children together.”

Shade, fresh snap beans, clean laundry, and a sister.

Doesn’t it sound good to you?  It’s so Red Tent-ish.  Imagine always having someone around to ask if your hair looks too greasy to go out, to take over flipping the pancakes while you set the table, or to hash over decisions you’ve already made (sparing your husband the torture).  We may have two cars, flush toilets, independence and all the privacy we want in our society but I think we are missing out on that kind of daily community.

So what are we to do?  Not all of us have sisters close by or any siblings at all.

Adopt.

Somehow we have to wriggle into the lives of other people, and let them wriggle into ours.  It’s a long, slow process adopting sisters though, and it would be so much easier if I had mine around to start with.  If you are lucky enough to have a sister nearby today, tell her to come over!  Trust me.

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Besides doing laundry and beans we celebrated a birthday and went camping with the rest of the family.

My sister had a unique idea for the prize at the end of the treasure hunt:

Each child was given a block of ice (frozen with food colouring in a margarine container the night before) and a fork.  Inside the chunk of ice was a bracelet and ring.  The kids had to chip away at the ice to get to their treasure.  The more aggressive types took to smashing their ice blocks on the sidewalk.

Grandma partaking in birthday fun

The raft project: The cousins assembled the logs and Stan helped a little (okay, a lot) lashing it together.

sitting around the fire with grandpa

The kayak is just about ready for its maiden voyage.  Stan made it so we could nest it inside our canoe and car-top them both easily on our Saturn.  Let’s hope it holds water!!

Garlic update: It’s got one week left to cure before I cut off the root hairs and green tops and store it in my basement for the winter.