Monday, June 27, 2011

120 Miles in a Canoe

I’m not really the adventuresome type. I love to travel, but prefer a hotel to a tent, a car to a bike. I really don’t have any desire to sky dive or bungee jump or get my nipples pierced on a drunken dare. But I did once take a 120-mile seven-day canoe trip down the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers in Wisconsin/Minnesota when I was fourteen years old. A friend of mine and his dad and uncle invited me along, and against my better judgment, I agreed to go.

I’d been canoeing before, but the longest trip I’d done was the Zumbro River outside of Rochester – a three or four hour jaunt that had none of the rapids that would curl (or straighten?) your short hairs, no Land of the Lost waterfalls into another dimension.

A large part of me that was afraid to go – afraid that I couldn’t handle the work of paddling for that distance, afraid that we’d capsize and become wedged in rocks beneath the river’s surface, afraid that I’d get eaten by...something.

"Did somebody say 'lunch'?
But there was the bigger concern of disappointing my friend, so I agreed to go.

We did near twenty miles a day and camped at night, and that second day when I woke from a restless sleep on the not-so-soft ground, my arms and shoulders felt like they’d been filled with lead and pounded with a hammer.  But by the fourth day, my muscles grew used to the paddling, my body found its rhythm, and I was mentally in the zone.

Twenty miles a day is a long time spent on fairly calm waters, and the weather cooperated with us. There were a few rain showers, and we gladly accepted them. Rain brought its own atmosphere, its own smells, its own sounds. There was the sizzle of rain on the river, the patter of drops on our ponchos. But the best part of the rain was the respite it gave us from the deer flies.

Those were the hardest part of the trip, much harder than the endurance it took to paddle. And it wasn’t the biting, although that could be painful. What the deer flies brought with them was a challenge to maintain sanity as they endlessly buzzed around our heads. They’d dive close to our ears, and we’d swat and miss, and then they’d circle and dive and chuckle at our helplessness.

"Oh, come on - we were chuckling with you, not at you!"
I realize this doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but this went on for hours every day, with only the aforementioned rain bringing relief. There were times when I’d lose my mind and swing at them with my paddle, forgetting that my friend was also in the canoe, nearly taking his head off in the process – but if knocking his head off would’ve stopped the buzzing, it might very well have been worth it.

But mostly...

Mostly the trip gave me a profound appreciation of nature – of the beauty and the stillness and those times of not-so-stillness, of the give and take of dipping a paddle in water, watching the cold river drip off the paddle’s glistening end...

Pierre Elliott Trudeau once said this: “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other travel. Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.” 

That single canoe trip had a large influence on my life. It changed how I looked at nature. It’s made its way into my writing – most directly into the canoe journey of the sisters in Northwoods Deep. Many of my memories of that trip made their way into that novel. The deer flies, certainly - the mosquitoes. But also the pull of the river and the new mysteries and wonders it brings around each and every bend.

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