Forgotten Things: Our family canoe trip on the Churchill

Evan in front of Robertson Falls (Photo credit: Kevin or Carol Kohlert)

After paddling three kilometres from the boat launch in Missinipe I remember that I left our first night’s supper back in the van. Days earlier I had cut up chunks of pork, frozen them in a marinade and was intending to skewer them with veggies for the freshest–and most bulky–meal on our menu. (We dehydrated the rest of our meals ahead of time.) Instead, we split the following day’s lunch in half. Before eating our shishkabob-less supper we go swimming to wash off our paddling sweat. Everyone throws on their swimsuits except for Vivi, because she doesn’t have one. Her missing swimsuit is one more thing I had forgotten to pack and for the rest of the week she lounges bare-bummed on the bald granite. The next morning the sun rises and our tent is as bright as a glow-bowling ball. I roll my black toque down over my eyes to block out the 5 am sun. When I rally enough to get dressed I discover my third mistake. I cannot find my underwear. I pull out each counted and precious item from our dry bags and realize I had forgotten ALL my panties in a neat pile on my couch. Which is approximately 800 km due south. I have, of course, the pair I am wearing and I continue to wear it, wash it and roast it over the fire to dry, for the next seven days.

Launching! Everything we need for 7 days (minus the parents)

Strangely, these forgotten things don’t matter as much as I think. We catch plenty of walleye and end the trip with surplus food in in our plastic five-gallon buckets. We swim off private sites where it doesn’t matter who wears what, if anything at all. We wash our clothes almost daily. The details that seem terribly important in other contexts are almost inconsequential here. On the other hand, other things becomes paramount: finding a good potty spot to bury poop and toilet paper, picking up bannock crumbs to keep bears away, monitoring the wind (and celebrating the lack of it), and becoming adept at sealing 5 sleeping bags into a 55 litre dry bag.

Vivian definitely notices the change in priorities and ambiance. Although she seems happy enough with her lot in life, staying out of waterfalls and campfires, she has bouts of homesickness. While she doesn’t complain about the dearth of toys she expresses her disorientation daily. On the last morning she stands at the edge of our island campsite and asks again, “Mommy, where’s the road home?”

I listen to her three-year-old voice pitched against the sound of roaring rapids and tell her, “You’re looking at it, girl!”

The edge of the waterway we are standing on is part of the Churchill River System and has been used for centuries as a highway for First Nations, voyageurs, and now, recreational enthusiasts. Die-hard paddling addicts say it is one of the premier paddling places in the world, and our driver Heidi, who picks us up at the end of the trip, claims she would need more than 3 lifetimes to fully explore it.

Heidi, a guide with Churchill River Canoe Outfitters who has paddled for at least 30 years, has a tanned face and her strawberry-blond braid is interwoven with silver. While she shuttles us back to our vehicle I lean forward in my seat to learn all I can from this formidable woman. She tells us about raising her kids in a boat (solo tripping with a toddler and infant in the backcountry), dealing with bears (“I’ve never had any problems except for that one time in the NWT when a grizzly totally destroyed our canoe.”) and quick-dry underwear (which is of particular interest to me). When we ask about the risks of whitewater and for extra tips she is helpful and informative. At the end of our conversation she adds succinctly, “But, you know, if I’m always thinking about the risks I’d never leave my own living room.”

We meet other paddlers who have come to the same conclusion as Heidi and it’s clear that the northern waters are in their blood. They are smitten by this land–where life can be harsh and the margin for error slim–and its bounty. A place of unlikely generosity where spongy, soft moss grows a foot deep on hard granite, where fish hooks thrown into the foot of raucous falls pull out perfect walleyes, where reindeer lichen grow a few millimetres each year into edible sculptures more delicate than an artist’s dream, where saskatoons, blueberries, raspberries and bearberry provide a buffet for the forager, where pelicans and eagles criss-cross the sky, and where even the hum of mosquitoes rings with abundance.

Although we’ve canoe tripped in other places and provinces this is the farthest north we’ve paddled and it feels like we are on the brink of something new. We buy a thick book called Canoeing the Churchill at the outfitters office before we leave. At the same time we re-calibrate to our regular ways out of the bush. We change into clean clothes. Toilets become important again. We look in the mirror in gas station restrooms and rake our hands through our hair. We check the clock, count hours, and estimate a midnight arrival back home. Priorities change. Life on land with engines, schedules, and infrastructure dictates a rigour altogether different than the water and paddle. Still, we pass the canoeing guide around our rented 15-passenger van and read snippets aloud of legends, voyageurs and possible routes for next summer. We’ve had a small taste and are hungry for more of the wide river, where loons cry as if they know about our forgotten things, mourning as if everything matters.

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Photo credit: Kevin/Carol Kohlert

Bare-bones of the Trip

Put-in: Missinipi (5 hours north of Saskatoon, SK)

Take-out: Stanley Mission, SK

Total days on water: 7

Longest paddle day: 19 km

Number of boats: 4

Number of adults: 4

Number of children: 5 (ages 12, 10, 9 and 3)

Portages: 2

Number of days to pack/dehydrate food/gather gear: 3

Number of days to unload and clean up: 1

Supper meals: hot dogs, potatoes and veggies in tinfoil packets, tortilla soup (dehydrated powder base, cheese, sour cream and corn chips), fried fish, bannock, scalloped potatoes (from a box), dehydrated ground beef and gravy, dehydrated frozen veggies, mac n’ cheese, pizza (on naan bread), chili with dehydrated beef, popcorn, apple/berry crisp (dehydrated ingredients)

Breakfast Menu: porridge, dried fruit, pancakes, dehydrated sausage, refried beans, bannock, granola bars, nuts

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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

mosquito spray performance and other canoe trip details

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View from my seat at the bow.

All-natural, homemade mosquito spray sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Picking the pungent herbs from my garden, infusing them into apple cider vinegar, and shaking the mixture every day all felt so wholesome. So ecologically responsible. So idyllic. But something happened that changed all that; I stepped out of my car.

We arrived at the campground–where we would stay for one night before launching our canoes– at about 10 pm. I covered myself in my repellent at 10:01 and by 10:09 I was reaching for the OFF like a parched desert traveler reaches for water. The bugs were worse than anything I’d experienced since Great Slave Lake (In the North West Territories).

Normally, I prefer covering up and don’t use mosquito spray at all. Planning our canoe trip, I knew we should take something for the bugs and thought my herbal remedy would be sufficient. Not only did I think it would work, but so did everyone else on the internet who blogged about their miracle spray. In retrospect, I wonder if anyone who posted those recipes ever stepped out of their paved backyards to test them. The recipes may have increased their blog traffic, but I guarantee they won’t provide much solace in the bush. In summary then: My homemade mosquito repellent failed. I don’t recommend homemade sprays unless marinating yourself for droves of voracious mosquitoes sounds pleasant. In other words, if you’ve found an effective alternative to DEET, I don’t believe you, and never will–unless you’re willing to accompany us on our next canoe trip to prove it.

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Note to self: add modifier to “mosquito spray”…

Besides the mosquitos, we battled strong winds, rain, and bone-chilling temperatures. But that wasn’t the whole trip; there were wild berries, a winding river, calm waters, sandy beaches, a rousing game of kick-the-can, and most of our menu was deep fried in butter or bacon fat. Mmm…

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All packed and ready to put in…

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We went with another family of four–Michelle, Dion, Sarah, and Tyler.

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wild strawberry on portage

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So. Hard. To Stop. (Picking berries, that is)

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Stopping for a fishing/snack break

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“He caught fish! He caught fish”

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Fileting the walleye cheeks

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Campsite at the edge of the lake. This photo was taken after supper–we really noticed the longer days here (5 hours north of home).

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Jack and Pickerel frying over the fire with loads of butter. This year I packed less food, relying on the fish potential, and we had more than enough.

When I told our neighbour where we were going, before we left, she said, “Oh, that’s so good for them.” I’m assuming she meant them as in our kids, and not the mosquitoes, but I think it was a win-win situation for all parties. While stabbing my paddle into the waves, trying to bee-line for the shore as the rain clouds kept gaining on us, I wondered about the good my neighbour was talking about. Perhaps the biggest gift the wilderness offers us is the way she deftly re-arranges our priorities. After two days in, I see the comb I packed (under the bright lights of my bathroom vanity) and it looks ridiculous against the backdrop of sand and spruce. Why did I think I’d need that? Woolen underwear became an obsession on the other hand, and I started day-dreaming about trading all the dresses in my closet for a pair of merino long-johns.

The kids adapted to the new routine quickly. Any lull of activity (between packing, eating, paddling, sleeping, etc) signaled a seamless transition into complex, imaginary play.  Before we even left the shore they had developed a “traditional” dance involving strange moves and a new language–all copyright of the Rockers (our last names combined). They considered coining themselves the “Reekers”, an appropriate descriptor, but decided it didn’t have the effect they were looking for.

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Here’s why Grey Owl–a famous Canadian conservationist who duped the world into thinking he was First Nation–thought all of this would be good for us:

I think that the souls of many of us who have had to hustle our way along are a little undernourished in some directions. We need an enrichment other than material prosperity and to gain it we only have to look around at what our country has to offer…in the lakes and streams and woodlands of our North…Go see all of these things, or only one of them, you who are sometimes tired of the hurly-burly, the conniving, the conspiring, and contriving, that so wearies you, and you will come back twice the man or woman that you went.”

Tales of an Empty Cabin by Grey Owl

I’m not sure we came back twice the man, woman, or child we went; maybe twice as itchy, twice as dirty, twice as tired… and certainly twice as lucky for having gone.

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Kudos for making it through this very long post! Have a lovely weekend,

Tricia