Sunday, September 8, 2013

Canoe Tripping with Kids -- This article first appeared in the July, 2004 issue of Canadian Living, a general interest magazine

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Mix 4 couples, each with 2 kids under 11, one dog and over 400 kilos of supplies in a10-meter freighter canoe. Take away all toilets.  Jettison all computers, TVs, VCRs, DVDs and other electronic childcare appliances.  Pack tightly into the canoe.  Isolate on Georgian Bay for 6 days.  Add a few rain squalls.  Toss with large waves.  Whip with strong wind.  Grill beyond the point of painful sunburn.  Garnish generously with mosquitoes.  Then wait and see what happens....  

Most Primal Scream therapists would see this scenario as an immense new business opportunity.  Most marriage counselors would be extending their hours to handle new client bookings.  Most childcare workers would be dialing their abuse-alert hotlines.  Most of our friends, especially those with children under 11, thought we were indisputably insane. 

The trip started as a whim in an old-boy’s e-mail chat group.  What could we do together with our families this summer?  The Answer: Rent a big Montreal Canoe, a fiberglass replica of the type used by the Hudson Bay Company to haul furs from Thunder Bay to Montreal in the 18th century.   Then re-trace the voyageurs’ homeward journey along the coastline of Georgian Bay from Killarney past the estuary of the French River to the hamlet of Britt. 

My wife Trudi at first practiced sensible denial, hoping that the topic would wither on the vine.  For that matter, so did I.   I have done lots of canoe trips, perhaps too many.  But a trip with kids, all our kids, 7 girls and a boy ranging from almost 11 to just past 4, all in one huge canoe?

The project was not so demented as it sounds.  The coastline in that part of Georgian Bay is a convoluted labyrinth of islands, shoals, inlets and sheltered channels.  Lots of places to hide from nasty weather.  Very easy to get off the water in a hurry. 

We were a seasoned crew: Dave and I had worked together at Outward Bound instructing canoe courses.  We had paddled two long rivers in the Arctic.  Peter, our intrepid leader, was an accomplished white water paddler.  Tina was a strong triathlete.  Hazel was an emergency physician.  Trudi was a rehabilitation therapist.  The only newbie adult canoeists were Pam, a physiotherapist therapist and her husband Jeff, an emergency-room-specialist.   At least for those 6 days we had superb health care!

My initial reluctance about hauling our kids out on the Bay soon faded once we got on the water.  There is still an ineffable sense of joy for me in casting off into real wilderness.  This experience is becoming tragically dated as our cities sprawl and real wilderness becomes an anachronism.

The poet Gary Synder maintains that we need to go back into wilderness to find sacred space.  We need to get in touch with the archetypal forces that shaped our species.  I want my two kids to stand in these places and feel the wind in their hair.  They need to know that dramatic landscapes are not only to be found in the Lord of the Rings on a wide screen.  Special effects are fine, but children deserve to experience the real thing while there is still some wild land left.

The surprise heroes of this trip were the kids.  As we planned and packed the adults exchanged many e-mail notes over what to do with a boatload of bored children who might be experiencing early on-set technology withdrawal – no Barbie software, no TV kid shows, no Disney DVDs.   

Each family brought along a stash of books and games.  I planned a treasure hunt that would involve learning a few Ojibway words in order to claim the stash of Smarties at the end of the trail.  My wife Trudi packed a handicraft kit including fabric paints for decorating t-shirts.  In the end only the fabric paints saw active duty.   

One we were on the water the kids sang camp songs with endless repeating verses.  In an enclosed car this singing would have swiftly driven me to road rage.  On the open water their voices became another fine thread in the tapestry of wind, water, bird song, cloud and sunlight through which we paddled.  Astonishingly, Oh Canada en francais, led by the French-immersed in the pack was the top hit.  

Imagine paddling past exquisite archipelagoes dotted by wind-bent pines with the open expanse of an inland sea on your right, under a clear blue sky with a steady breeze at your back and a chorus of elementary school voices softly butchering our national anthem in French.  Rene Levesque might have winced but my guess is that Pierre Trudeau would have smiled.  If only we had applied for a Heritage Canada grant!

The kids organized themselves by creating a series of plays with specific roles for everyone. On shore they acted out these plays, gathered wild flowers and searched for unusual stones.  Their crowning achievement was the construction of a stone corral for 5 tiny leopard frogs in a rainwater pond.
In this mini-culture traditional hunting behaviours were quickly modified to fit in with the particular princess play being developed at the moment.  Each leopard frog was given a name and cherished by all.

All of their activities, except for the painting of the T-shirts, happened without any adult intervention.  So much for under-estimating the resourcefulness of children.

There were a few tense moments.  On the first evening we had to make camp in a cold rainstorm.  Some of the kids were beginning to shiver.  Lips were beginning to take on a bluish hue.  Peter quickly put up a tent and we were able stuff all the kids in together with a few parents.  Within minutes everyone was snug in the damp body heat of the small tent. 

A few days later a cold rain squall hit us just as we were scouting for a campsite.  We ran aground at precisely the wrong moment.  We were stuck in the open as chill horizontal rain whipped in from the open bay.  This time we threw a tarp over the kids as they huddled together in the middle of the canoe.  When the squall passed we were able to lift the huge canoe free and paddle to a fine campsite.

What about the adult experience on this trip?  Before becoming a father I looked forward to evenings around the fire on canoe trips.  As it turned out we had little free time.  Apart from an intermittent conversation about the dwindling moral of American troops in Iraq, we did not have time for the external world.

There seemed to be broad consensus that next time we should schedule a few days on which we do not move camp.  At least we would have a chance to do what ostensibly vacationing middle-aged adults do best in pristine natural surroundings: chat, drink coffee, swim, sunbathe, read, quaff some wine, look around and avoid exertion. 

For me there is still a melancholy sense of parting at the end of even a brief wilderness journey.  Is it because I learn once again that I cannot live in these hauntingly serene places, that I must go back to the rest of my life?  As we approached the harbour at Britt and a return to the extravagant luxuries of indoor plumbing I noticed a tinge of sadness among our kids.  This magical tribe of instant friends was about to be broken apart and scattered across the country. 

For the adults there were sighs of relief.  Now we were returning to our familiar routines.  We would soon no longer be subject to the rhythms of weather, waves, fatigue and daylight.  We could rest in the illusion of total control once again.

What started out as a chance to spend some time with old friends on a canoe trip wound up being something less and something much more.  None of the adults had a chance to spend very much undistracted time together.  The days were too full.  

But did we give something to our kids that they will remember? A few weeks before the trip I lost an old friend in his mid-fifties to lymph cancer.  In telling another friend about this death, we soon found ourselves talking about a canoe trip we had done together 20 years ago. 

In the end it is not our career achievements or the money we earned that we will remember.  It is those moments when we stood utterly alive, outside of time with those we loved as we took risks and traveled through wild country, unsure of our route but certain of our destination. 

By the end of the trip, what I saw in my daughters’ eyes gave me hope that in some small way we provided them with an indelible set of cherished life-long memories.  What else can we really give our kids?

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