At the end of August, I went on my first solo canoe trip. I used to love going on trips as a kid. Sailing through the backcountry always felt like a grand adventure. But, having been living abroad and travelling for the last eight years, my canoe trip experiences as an adult have been few and far between. In light of exploring my own backyard since I can’t travel anywhere else right now, I booked two nights at a paddle-in campsite at Algonquin Park.
The bears are your friends I keep telling myself as I load my packs and food barrel into my canoe. They aren’t going to eat your food. Or you.
The canoe trips I used to go on as a kid were intense. They would last 3-6 nights with long days of paddling. Each afternoon, we’d pitch camp. At dawn the next morning, we’d tear down our tents as we ate granola bars, getting ready for the next day’s adventure.
I imagined myself a true wilderness woman. I began watching videos on solo canoeing and solo trips imagining myself emerging from the woods strong, sore, and weather-beaten. Then, the doubt kicked in. Was I really up for doing a trip like this alone?
The thing I loved most about the canoe trips was getting to enjoy the campsite once we arrived. Swimming in the lake, finding the perfect tent pitch, and making great campfire food in the evening.
Why did I want to plan a super challenging canoe trip for my first solo adventure? Why not find the in-between? I was reminded by something I had read by my friend Xandra,
“The question should not be ‘Can I do that?’ or ‘Is that possible?’ but first, ‘Do I want that?’”
So I started asking myself, what do I want?
I want to be alone in the wilderness.
I want to paddle my own canoe.
I want to learn how to do a bear hang and swim in the lake and sit around the campfire.
I can do all those things without pushing myself too far. Without going fully one way (a 5-day portage-mad trip) or the other (car camping with no privacy).
I try to balance my waterproof map in my lap as I paddle around the lake, getting the hang of my solo canoe which is half canoe, half kayak. Despite its small size on the map, now that I’m in the water, the lake looks big and confusing. I think I’m paddling in the right direction, but it’s impossible to know for sure.
I’m looking for a small waterway which will lead me to another lake where my campsite is.
I’m looking for the in-between.
This isn’t the first time I’ve found joy in going for something not quite all and not quite nothing. When living with a chronic illness, it’s easy to feel like if there’s no cure, there’s nothing we can do. That’s how I felt at the beginning of my illness. However, I found there was a lot I could do. I couldn’t play sports competitively anymore but I could practice yoga, and play on a couple of recreational leagues. I didn’t have the energy to finish every assignment on time, but I could work with my professors to come up with extended deadlines or different exam days. I could find a job that didn’t require gruelling days or a high-stress environment.
Finally, I find the in-between – the waterway that connects my launch point and endpoint. I paddle down, feeling more confident in the canoe now, and find the campsite I was gunning for still available, yay! I pull my canoe out of the water, set up camp, and go for a swim. In the late afternoon, the lake is calm and the other campsites are far enough away that I feel like I have the entire place to myself. Ignoring thoughts of snapping turtles I dive in and out of the freshwater, savouring some of the last days of summer.
As I sit by the fire at night cooking corn, potatoes, and sausages on the fire, I think about other times I’ve found the perfect middle ground. In living life as a nomad, I started jumping around from place to place every few days like a backpacker. Realising this was too intense for me (especially when trying to get some writing done and teach yoga!) I settled in various places on temporary visas. London for two years, Barcelona for one, Greece for one.
But my feet were itching to travel more.
So I found the in-between. I started travelling again. I loved not having to worry about work visas or accumulating too much stuff. But I knew I couldn’t keep up a backpacker pace, either. So I decided to stay in each place for 1-3 months. I found my happy medium between moving and stillness.
As I pull my food barrel up into a tree with all my strength, I pray to the bear goddess to protect my food from fragile branches or hungry beasts. Stepping away from the tree, I feel smug about all the hours I spent watching YouTube videos about bear hangs and knot tying. The food looks snug hanging high above the ground. For now.
Before retiring to my tent for the night, I take some time to gaze up at the stars and am reminded of all the reasons I love camping.
When the trip is over (food barrel intact), I paddle back to shore. I take my time now, more confident in the boat. On the way back, the lake looks small again and I paddle around the perimeter delaying the moment when I’ll have to get out of the water. At this moment, I do feel like a wilderness woman. Even though it only took me an hour to paddle in, even though my phone is still getting reception. I didn’t need to go on an intense trip to get the immense satisfaction of paddling my own canoe.