Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wild Women in Temagami - On Doing the Heavy Lifting

I had an intense dream early in the summer that stayed with me for days. I was with some men in a cabin with stacks of bunks three high. We were preparing for a canoe trip. The main leader was Indigenous, and he told me he liked how I braided my hair. I was very flattered and bashful about it. I was bundled up for the weather but couldn't find my socks. I went outside without them to sit on the rocky shore of a lake on a misty morning just cool enough to warrant a sweatshirt, and I was euphoric to be there. Jack Nicholson was there - the Five Easy Pieces version of Jack - just sitting alone, quietly enjoying the view across the lake. He was alone at a picnic table, and I was alone. I asked if he wanted to play solitaire while we waited, then laughed at what I said (because I meant a game for two - two-handed solitaire maybe). He said ‘no thanks’ and went back to looking out at the lake. I wished I had said, “gin rummy.” He might have said yes. But really I knew he just wanted to look out at the lake. And I was trying to connect because I felt like I should, not because I really wanted to. I felt awkward that we were the only people not in a pair or grouping, but he had the confidence to be totally cool with being on his own in a crowd. He was finally content with his place in the world. I joined him in silence for a moment of peace.

I typically don't heed my dreams, but this time I immediately searched and signed up for a trip after waking. I miss being on a lake, and I don't have friends that feel the same way and have the time and know-how to make it happen, so an organized adventure was the only answer. The available time slot fit neatly between obligations on my calendar.

I used to have a beautiful piece of land north of Parry Sound - 24 acres with over 1000' of waterfront on a quiet lake. An old boyfriend and I bought it in March 2005, and we built a little cabin by paddling all the supplies in across the bow decks of two canoes held together by the weight of the lumber. We had a few priceless years there with family and friends. Then in 2010, the Wednesday after Thanksgiving, shortly after succumbing to the luxury of a propane fridge, lightening hit a nearby tree sending it careening down on the cabin. It went up in smoke, leaving only the wood stove and kitchen sink as markers of what was. Luckily it was raining hard enough to save the surrounding forest. That relationship ended, and, too mournful to try to re-build, we sold the land in July 2014. I've been sick with regret ever since, and I've all but stopped canoeing. I don't seem like someone who would be teary about land, but there it is.

The air is different up there. It feels like I'm breathing for real, kickstarting my airways and blood stream out of their usual grogginess. It's instantly calming to fall asleep to loons and frogs instead of the neighbour's dog barking at every passing car, and to leave our make-shift beds to see the sun just over the horizon each morning instead of checking out the world online. At home, I go days without noticing the sun or wind unless it's bothering me. Gratefulness for the beauty of our lives is closer to the surface when I'm surrounded by trees, water, and rock than by concrete, bricks, and steel.

I needed to get out there again, but I couldn't possibly go alone. I've been on backcountry canoe trips with every guy I've ever dated, but only with guys I've dated. They've always taken the lead, picking me up in the car with the canoe already on the roof racks. I've never chanced on friends who will take me tripping; I typically gravitate to friends who drink. Can't it be both?

I didn't go looking for a women-only trip; it just best fit my schedule. But that women-only element added a pivotal dimension to the experience beyond being comfortable changing outside the tent. If men are there, they'll often offer to do the heavy lifting or sometimes they'll just do it without a word, without looking around to see if they're possibly usurping an opportunity from someone. It's efficient for the strongest to do the heaviest work. But it's reminiscent of the time I played co-ed baseball and guys dove in front of me to catch the ball pretty much every time it came near me. I likely would have fumbled it or missed it entirely, and the more capable players definitely did a better job of keeping the game moving, but sometimes efficiency and ability and winning are not what's important.

Work is so rarely seen in a positive light as a means to build stamina or character. It's seen as a chore that everyone wants to avoid. But most chores can elicit a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment; an opportunity is squandered when we avoid them willingly or without complaint. If someone's there to take up the slack, I'll totally slack-off. But then I end up feeling like a child who needs care-taking. It's disempowering to allow yourself to be helped more than is actually necessary, yet it's so easy to slip into that comfortable place of watching others do the work. At the time it can feel like a relief, but later there's a gnawing regret, like we weren't really on the same journey after all.

Without gender roles there to sub-consciously guide our actions, I was able to sit in the stern to steer a canoe through choppy waters, solo it up a steep and rocky portage, and dig out a new thunder box. I wouldn't have done any of those with a sturdy man there motivated by bravado to take on every challenge in a way that I might be less inclined. There's nothing like some hard work to forge a community of strangers into companions, and the stories we shared of our diverse trajectories to that place could fill a book.

On the final portage, I was brimming with confidence on my first pass with just a pack on my back, navigating down a steep hill after a good rain, until my foot slid the length of a wet root, leaving my knee an impressively bloody mess. Mine was not the only injury, but all were managed successfully with bandaids. Uncertain footing on the narrow path could possibly end at the bottom of a rocky slope. I think the guides managed all the canoes for that one. Without that help, we'd have had to step up and manage the pass, but ever so slowly. There's a time for standing back to watch.

I lasted seconds.
The guides made all the difference on the trip. They greeted us with an excited welcome. A brief mention of the expectation that we'll look to help each other and be compassionate and mindful of inclusivity at all times was enough to set the tone for the week. There was a bit of eye-rolling about any fear of bears - I admitted my own fears and started some tales of terror - yet it had a marked effect to see how relaxed they were.  It's like if a surgeon insists that your surgery will be easy-peasy and gently blows off any fears until it feels silly to be worried. It's not that the risk doesn't exist (enough that I wasn't the only one secretly harbouring bear spray), but that it's small enough to set it further back in our minds. They showed us the ropes and then encouraged us to do it all ourselves.

Guides bring their own knowledge and experiences to the trip, and I think we won the jackpot for the duo we had. Beyond the basics of outback camping and canoeing we tagged along for some morning yoga, learned some knots, and tried to start a fire with just the wood around us (and a shoelace) with Kie, of Lure of the North (ETA and 3rd place in season 7 of Alone!):

And we ended the days with a rousing sing-a-long from Pete Seeger to Taylor Swift with Jennifer, professional musician and knower of all the words, who, from time to time, would strike us silent with the power of her pipes!

Their energies were a perfect compliment of calm and spirited.

I came home feeling strong and capable. And a little sore and pretty much spent. But I won't miss another year on a lake with outcroppings of smooth rock slipping quietly into water that's sparkling with sunlight, with trees persistently stretching their roots into crevices of rock, twisted by the strong winds into a permanent tilt, and with that expansive horizon letting tired eyes rest on the distance. It's a recharging station for me and a reminder that there are still places where natural life is flourishing - although next time I'll leave room in my pack to collect litter on the way. Every chip bag or pop can at the side of the trail made me feel like Holden Caulfield seeing fuck you scrawled on the walls of his sister's school: "Certain things should stay the way they are." I know it's impossible to rub out all the signs of disrespect in the world, but we can made a dent in it for the people who come after us.

The trip gave me the courage to take the lead on a journey, to carry my own canoe, and the know-how to make a trip happen. And at the end, my least favourite chore of cleaning everything to be packed away for winter was relegated to an organization.

The Logistics: This trip was unbelievably well-organized. We were told exactly what to pack and what would be provided. The only thing really necessary to find that might not be in everyone's home is a sleeping bag and thermarest that pack small, although I plan to buy myself a lifejacket next time. Their one-size-fits-mosts ends up around the chin when you're 5'2" and sitting in a canoe. I old-schooled it with garbage bags instead of compression packs. The food was fantastic and plentiful, and despite all the heavy lifting, I gained weight. But I most appreciated the environmental advocacy of the trip leaders. I was on an organized trip as a teenager where we were told to lather up and jump in the lake every morning despite my quiet cautions that soap won't biodegrade in water. This group insisted on using any soap well away from the lake, separating garbage for composting, and they helped us organized carpools to decrease the impact of driving there. They offered tips on working out to get in shape for the heavy-lifting required, but everyone was accommodated as needed. I can't bring myself to work out to get in shape for later purposes, but I have just enough tenacity to muscle myself through the forest and across the lake as the need arises.


Helen Conlon said...

You have struck so many chords here...the power of the north's rocky ledges, clear dark waters, fresh, wild scented air. The inestimable value of doing the hard stuff for yourself and standing on your own two feet.
I so enjoyed reading this. It really resonated with me.
I have done a few wonderful women only trips but to far off, rather exotic places (like Egypt, the Andes)not into Northern Ontario where I went for years with my then strong, able-bodied husband. I have been aching for the North all summer but somehow not seen this avenue. So thank you.

Marie Snyder said...

Here's to next summer, Helen!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, see you for singing soon. You lead, I'll follow.