Just Around the Next Bend

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The on-going lessons learned from a canoe trip

The map showed 3 pull-overs- disruption in our forward progress that routed us around rapids impassable by canoe. We lost count at 7. We pulled our packs out, pulled the canoes over and got them to the other side, only to find a 50-yard paddle to the next obstacle. This was supposed to be a canoe trip, not an exercise in futility, but sometimes that distinction got lost! “Maybe the next one will open up into a navigable stream,” we kept telling ourselves, but by the time the river eventually opened, we had long ago stopped counting on it anytime soon.

It has been many years since I had taken a “real” Boundary Waters canoe trip- the kind where you move every day - retracing the path of the early trappers and traders who were searching for beavers so folks in England could wear felt hats. It was a challenge that Julie and I, and another couple, had laid out for ourselves. Could we still do this kind of trip in the middle of our 5th decade?

The last day began in high spirits as we shared what we were going to have for lunch when we got back to civilization that midday- cheeseburgers, fried pickles, cold beer. After 5 days of freeze-dried food, rye krisps and trail mix, the thought of this reward at the end kept us moving. When it became clear that we would miss the lunch hour due to our slowed progress, we switched to dinner, though the menu remained the same. As the hours ticked away, our goals and expectations shifted. at some point I think we all started to think, “Let’s just make sure we get out of here before dark,” though no one dared to say it out loud.

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One of my predecessors at Camp Mishawaka used to refer to an extended canoe trip as a “controlled hardship,” the kind of experience that made you appreciate the conveniences of modern life, put them in perspective, built resilience, confidence and muscles that you never knew you had. At every bend, we felt the hardship as we shifted our expectations but found the control a bit more elusive. All we could do was push forward. We couldn’t control the water level, the placement of the obstacles that nature had placed in front of us, or what the low water had revealed.

As we took the last portage into our exit lake, spirits lifted and we allowed ourselves to think, once again, of hot, fried food. The map showed about a mile of paddling left, about 20 minutes in normal conditions, but we were greeted with yet another obstacle. The river dried to a stream and then just a trickle, forcing us out of our boats and into the water to drag them forward the remaining distance. And, yet again, thoughts of an exit feast vanished. We just wanted to get out before the sun went down. It had taken us the better part of all day to cover a distance that should, in normal conditions, take just a few hours.

When we finally arrived at the landing, loaded the canoes and headed towards civilization in clean, dry clothes we had left in our car, our spirits lifted again, this time to stay. We had made it! We’d spent the last five days laughing, working, sweating and swearing. We had not seen anyone in a mask and almost forgotten about the pandemic. We were reminded that each bend in the river brings new opportunities as well as challenges, and somehow I think we all feel a little better prepared to chart the course ahead, adjust our expectations, and keep moving forward. Sometimes that’s both the best and only thing we can do.

By the way- we did get that hot meal, and just in time. We arrived at the restaurant just as they were closing, ordered two entrees each from their limited COVID menu, a cold beer, and took our place on the patio wrapped in blankets. Food had never tasted so good, even if we couldn’t get that cheeseburger we had all longed for.

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