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What I Learned From a 23-Day Canoe Trip

This past summer, I was on a 23-day trip on two northern rivers in the Northwest Territories. By the time I left my home in Ontario and returned, I took a total of eight flights, paddled nearly 500km, and learned so much from my peers, from the river and the land, and unavoidably from myself. It took many quiet moments over the past couple of months to reflect and start to understand my learnings and to be able to put them into words.

Photo courtesy of Allyson Saunders

Coming back to Ontario in August, I was overwhelmed by the influx of “How was your trip?” and “What was your favorite moment?” questions. At the time, I was not ready and had not given adequate time to reflect on my highs and lows. I had so many stories to share, but did not know where to begin. Five months later, I feel settled with my experience and ready to share what I learned from my 23-day trip.

The biggest lesson that I learned is that you can plan the perfect route on your bucket list river, but the memorable moments are unplanned and unscripted. It feels impossible to share 23-days worth of stories, so I am choosing to share a couple of memorable moments from my trip that exemplify this lesson. These moments were unplanned and unscripted, some energy draining and some energy giving, but both stuck out because of their spontaneous nature.

First Night Camp

Myself and another guide flew into the lake a day early to prepare to meet the guests the following day. The pilot flew us low through the mountains — so low that we spotted a grizzly at tree line looking up at us. We quickly unloaded our huge piles of gear and watched the pilot take off, leaving us sitting on the side of a mountain — just the two of us. This immense feeling of aloneness washed over us, and for that evening, we embraced it. The evening passed quickly as we reassembled canoes, swam, hiked, and just sat next to the lake watching the patterns of the midnight sun.

Eventually, we did crawl into our tents, and it was not even ten minutes later that we heard continuous rustling outside of our tents. I hollered over to my co-guide, “Was that you?” and she replied with a quick, “Nope, I thought it was you!” We both awkwardly jumped out of our tents, as we tried to get boots and jackets on, grabbing for our bear deterrents, and combing our campsite for a predator all at the same time. We instantly froze as we caught a quick glimpse of two caribou rushing through our camp, one pausing briefly to look back at us. I’m sure that you could smell our excitement, as we quietly set off in the direction they had run. We did not see them again that night, but we had this pure moment of awe. We went back to bed wondering how we would explain this encounter to our group in the upcoming days.

Tarp Art

Photo courtesy of Allyson Saunders

Our trip started in the high alpine, and as we descended in elevation the weather gradually stabilized, and we spent less time huddled under tarps. During the first week, the weather dropped below freezing at night with daytime highs hovering between 0°C and 5°C, making it challenging for everyone to keep warm. We would occasionally pause on the shoreline to regroup, run up and down the beaches, and do jumping jacks until we could feel our fingers again. Inevitably, someone would recognize the ridiculousness of our movements, and we would collectively erupt in laughter.

At the end of the day, we would roll into camp, and start by setting up cooking and hangout tarps. There became an unspoken rule that we could not repeat the same tarp setup twice, and since trees were a rare find, we had to get creative. Our guests even started to rate our tarp creations based on their practicality, style, and time invested in erecting them. Though we were all extremely grateful to feel the warmth of the sun when it did eventually return, the chilly weather offered us a reason to extensively gather under tarps and hang out. I believe that this is what brought our group together most — sitting, listening, and sharing time, as wet and bleak as it may have felt.

This lesson of unplanned moments is one that I have carried with me off the river. Regardless of taking a 3-day trip or a 3-week trip, these memorable moments will happen naturally, sometimes in the pouring rain, and sometimes under the midnight sun.

A teacher, whitewater canoe guide, and volunteer firefighter, Allyson Saunders lives in the Madawaska Valley in Ontario with her exceptionally perfect dog, Honey. Nature inspired, Allyson can be found on a river, in her garden, on a ski trail or with a paintbrush or a cup of coffee in hand.

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