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In the Thick of It:
The Experience of Wilderness Canoe Trip Leaders

by Bryan Grimwood

The narrative that follows highlights the experiences of wilderness canoe trip leaders and is the culminating piece of a qualitative research project (Grimwood, 2005). The data analysis of the research project incorporated behaviours, anecdotes, events, emotions, and the meaning of episodes experienced by the wilderness canoe trip leaders and expressed by them during the data collection process. The story describes a canoe trip leader immersed within a wilderness setting interacting within nature, with other people, and within him or her self. The meanings attached to the experience by the leader, as well as his or her relationships, connections, behaviours, and emotions, collaborate into a desirable vision of being in the thick of various positive and negative interactions which reveal themselves in the betterment of self, others, and the natural environment. As author, researcher, and fellow wilderness canoe tripper, an element of my lived experiences in nature is embodied within this tale. My sincere hope is that readers will also recognize elements of themselves within the story, triggering reflections on their own wilderness canoe experiences and the deeper meanings associated with these journeys in nature.

In The Thick of It
Spooning the last bite of dinner into my mouth, I grumble to my feet from my fireside perch. The day has been full and I’m happy that two of the kids are cleaning the dishes tonight. In fact, I am also quite pleased and impressed with the tasty rice dish that a couple campers prepared for supper. Enjoying the feast of campers’ successful first cooking attempts is always a delight. Stacking my plate and utensil upon the dish pile that rises next to the charred pot set, I feel a need to sit alone for few moments and bathe in the space that overflows this serene landscape. The sun has settled low along the forested horizon on the west shore sending orange and pink highlights towards the wispy clouds—a surprising sunset given the cloud cover that dominated the skies today. A pleasant breeze from the north discourages the bugs from their regular munching hour but hints to the arrival of a crisp morning. Something scrambles along the shore of the river. I just caught a glimpse. A beaver? The last of a brood of ducklings keeping up with mom? A cautious racoon? Perfect! I am off to explore.

Before my third step towards the boulder-abundant river shore, I am reigned back to duty by a 16 year-old camper.

“What do we do with the left over food?” she asks.

A quick slouch in my shoulders may have given away my frustration. In a friendly guise I reply, “Rachel, this is our 13th day on this trip and we’ve had left over food before. What did you see the others do with it?”

“Didn’t they just bury it?”

“Right on,” I applaud. “Remember to bring your partner with you and bury it well back into the forest. You can use a stick to dig a hole.”

As Rachel returns to the task of cleaning up the cooking equipment for the night, I imagine her hesitation as she wanders with a friend into the thin but untouched forest to dispose of the left over food. I gaze up the path that the two campers will likely follow: past the two tents that stand among the moss and short shrubs, around the base of a rocky cliff, and into the scattered green cover of the forest. She’ll do a good job I’m sure.

Immediately, my interest swerves back to my investigation of the shore line creature and the yearning for a few quiet moments to myself. I reach the spot where I think I saw our wildlife neighbour. Because of our group size and the noisy disturbances we make, seeing wildlife really is not all that common. Searching for the identity of the animal, I look for hints in the slabs of stone that trace the river’s edge. My tracking skills are not up to the task but, for some reason, I get the sense that our little friend has rambled up towards the trees. No problem, something else has captured my attention. This evening’s campsite is located at the end of a portage trail that wraps its way around an impressive elevation drop in the river and subsequent wash out of rocks, waves, and current. I had managed to examine the rapids earlier in the afternoon but failed to notice this particularly incredible feature of the white water. In the fading colours of the evening sky, I see a surging wave roll its way back towards the centre of the river and swallow a second wave that attempts to maintain its path downstream. The cycle of the two waves is rhythmic and calming: the surging wave swells, peaks, crashes, and engulfs the second smooth and steady wave of liquid glass. A few seconds later, the sequence repeats itself. I sit down and observe how the ferocious rapids disclose a melody of order and structure between these two waves. At the moment, my thoughts are nowhere. I relish in the calm evening and the movements of the river. I am feeling like I belong here.

Still staring at the waves and delighting in the company of the vast landscape, my thoughts begin to deliberate where exactly ‘here’ is. I imagine a map of Canada with a tiny pin poking into the approximate location of our campsite. The contour lines and river features highlighted on our topographic maps that we carry along with us present themselves in my mind and I am enticed to consider the elevation changes of the river we are travelling. In order to spend this personal moment on the river’s shore watching these two waves converge, a lot of things had to happen. Here I am. I begin to reflect on our first 13 days of trip.

After spending two days travelling in a 15-passenger van to reach the starting point of this journey, I recall savouring in the relief and tranquillity that accompanied my first few paddle strokes. Finally, I was back. The space out here is so real I thought. So pure, so original, and under no command of human developments. It’s humbling knowing that there are vast environments sustained by natural processes that I can travel in and experience a connection to. Watching the rippling swirls of water that trailed my canoe, I was enthused that the preparation efforts we had made for this canoe trip were being realized. Although somewhat nervous about the upcoming challenges, hazards, and obstacles of our voyage, the noise, smell, and pace of the city were behind us. Ahead were 24 days of potential and exploration in the wonderful natural environment. I remembered how healthy I felt on my last trip: eating and sleeping well, being physically active outside, interacting with young people in nature, not being distracted by the drama of urban life. I was gushing with anticipation for feeling that way again.

That first night on trip was a bit chaotic. The kids were unfamiliar with each other and with their duties around the campsite. My co-leader and I struggled to establish within our group the routine behaviours and responsibilities expected from us leaders and our campers for the duration of the trip. Discussing with the kids where to set up tents, how to dispose of waste, why we want to burn toilet paper, how to efficiently collect wood for fires, and other environmental practices was partially effective, but my co-leader and I recognized that there would be a lot reminding in the next couple days. At one point during our discussions, a camper mentioned that he had seen a pile of garbage back in the forest that was obviously left behind by a previous group. Together with all our trip mates, we followed the camper over to the location of the rubbish and, like he had described, there was trash everywhere. How could humans be so careless and leave such a distinct scar in the forest? All the campers were shocked and disenchanted as well. Scenes such as this seem to inspire with in me the squabble of whether humans are a part of nature or, in fact, divorced and separated from it. I put this contest to the kids. They agree—perhaps the answer lies in the perception of each individual. I slept with a smile that night.

As I seem to recall, the next morning brought with it clear skies, warm sunshine, and our first significant rapid of the trip. As a group, we scouted the rapid together and highlighted the various features of the moving current. Navigating through this set would involve a simple ferry into the centre of the river and angling our canoes directly downstream to paddle straight through a gentle train of standing waves. The last canoe to descend the rapids had some difficulty with the initial ferry move. The camper in the stern of the canoe would establish her angle in the eddy only to lose it as she entered the main current. As a result, the boat continued to circle in and out of the eddy as the camper struggled and struggled to maintain control of the canoe. Rather than giving up and allowing her more experienced bow person an attempt at the manoeuvre, the camper continued trying. She made it! As they paddled through the wavy washout, the smile on the camper’s face was much different than any other I had seen on campers’ faces that morning; it showed a hint of satisfaction and persistence. She had done it! Adversity and challenge were going to be common components of this trip and I was proud and happy to see this camper accomplish so much already. “Awesome effort!” I told her. “Your determination is remarkable.”

The personal growth and group development that our trip members experienced in the first week flourished on our seventh day. Our first week together was laced with getting comfortable with the daily slog and I am sure some campers, who were not enjoying themselves, wondered what it was that made people love these canoe trips so much. We had camped the night before at the beginning of a gruelling portage trail and, as we packed up our camping equipment and were making breakfast preparations, the rain plummeted. Relentless and unforgiving, the rain quickly saturated everything around. Streams of water poured from tree leaves, rain gear was soaked, and hands were icy. Our group decided that some people would begin moving our canoes and gear to the end of the portage, while others would get a fire started and begin breakfast. As lighters and matches dampened in the rain, however, so did our hopes of starting a fire to get breakfast ready. With the rain and cold pelting us, wet fire starters, the daunting portage ahead, and the kilometres of river needed to be paddle, I was getting frustrated and short tempered. The difficulty I was having getting a fire started made me question my competence as a leader. How can I be responsible for a group of youth if I can’t even get a fire going? I imagine that a few of the campers are feeling a bit hopeless as well and fighting back tears of frustration and uneasiness. This was not fun and our plan of paddling 35 kilometres that day seemed like a foolish dream. Although a warm meal would do our group well on a morning like this, I was beginning to consider the option of having a cold breakfast of trail mix and dried fruit.

Just then, I overheard a kind exchange of encouragement and support between campers. I can’t recall what was said exactly but, at that moment, I glanced around at each group member and recognized the efforts that the group was making in order to accomplish the necessary tasks for us to break camp, eat, and move downstream. To overcome the adversity of the morning—the cold wet weather, the rigorous upcoming portage, the enfeebled spirits of our group—our team began working well together. People just knew what had to be done and, despite the early morning struggles, were focused. When our canoes pulled into our anticipated campsite late that evening, a sense of accomplishment beached upon the river’s shore with us. Around the campfire that night, we revisited the toils of our morning and enjoyed laughing at our fleeting hardships and earlier feelings that the day would never end. The persistence and resilience that these kids demonstrated today was inspiring and I felt privileged to be part of the group.

Although the downpour that accompanied the beginning of our seventh day had vanished by early afternoon, the cool temperatures continued into the evening. A cloudless sky offered no blanket to trap any remaining heat from the day on the earth’s service but, to the joy of our group, the sky was flaunting its dazzling array of celestial twinkles. One camper in particular, who had expressed his fascination for the night sky throughout the trip, was hoping this night would also be decorated at some point with the northern lights. Anxious but optimistic that his hopes would be fulfilled, the camper, with his personal trip journal and flashlight in hand, poised himself upon a flat rock writing and watching in the dark. I would have been content to just slip into my sleeping bag early that night and sleep off the building weariness of the day but I felt an urge to join the camper in his quest for observing the northern lights. Our patience and enthusiasm was rewarded as the dancing lights appeared. The show was brilliant. The camper and I watched the spectacle and shared the thoughts that were being inspired within us by the fluttering colours. Reflecting back on that scene, I realize that I was sharing a very meaningful experience with him—one that both of us will likely treasure for many years. As we lay gazing up at the heavens, the camper and I spoke quietly to each other but never did look at each other. Our vision was concentrated on the magical natural scene above us. My interactions with the camper were kindled by the marvels of nature. Nature, in that situation, encouraged us to share meaningful moments together. At the same time, my relationship with nature was mused and more pronounced because of my interactions with this other person. Sharing this time, with this person, in this space, observing something beautiful, enriched my connections to nature. As thoughts begin to settle on the significance of merging both human – human relations and human – nature relations, I hear a yelp and recognize it as a brief cry of pain. My attention is immediately brought back to my place by the riverside shore at our campsite on day thirteen.

The camper who had bellowed in pain had touched his hand on a pot that was recently removed from the fire and suffered a burn to the skin on two of his fingertips. The kids responsible for washing the dishes tonight had left the pot, filled with hot soapy water, unattended for a few moments. Silly and avoidable, the accident required my immediate attention and diversion from the reflective moments by the shore. This is just another instance of when my leadership responsibilities distract me from the simple delights of being in nature.

“I’ll get back here in a minute,” I thought to myself as I rose to my feet and strolled up to the campsite area to investigate the accident. The injury sustained by the camper was only a minor burn but it would certainly be painful. At my request, the camper filled a small bowl with cool water from the river and began soaking his fingers.

“I’ll fix you up with some clean bandages once you’ve soaked the fingers for a bit,” I informed him. Although the burn looked quite innocent, I etched a mental note to keep it clean and bandaged and to observe it regularly for infection over the next number of days. After I reassured the injured camper and discussed with him and the dishwashers ideas for preventing similar accidents from happening again, I made my way back to my spot where the wavy river features had seized my fascination. I parked myself at the river’s edge intent on having a few more minutes alone before documenting the events of the day—including the burn accident—in my trip journal and assisting with the final chores of the night.

The cycle of the crashing waves continued to captivate me, though my concentration began to ramble frequently to thoughts of upcoming elements of the trip. The burn to the camper’s finger triggered my first concern that his paddling, lining, or portaging abilities may be hindered. With the upcoming elevation drops over the next few days, there will certainly be many instances where the focus, ability, and skill of each group member will be tested. I hope his burned fingers do not cause him or our group too much trouble.

I consider the upcoming route and inspect the image of the maps that I have laid out in my head. How far have we travelled? How far do we still have to go? What sections of the river are likely to require the most time and patience? Are we on pace to complete this trip in the designated number of days? I feel secure and comfortable with the tentative logistics that I have envisioned for the final 11 days on the river. Once I subdue the fear and anxiety that rises occasionally when considering the events of canoe trips such as these, I begin considering other important outcomes of the wilderness experience that our group is living. Similar to other trips I have led in the past, I am amazed at the capabilities and determination that some of the trip participants have demonstrated and developed. Their paddling skills are noticeably improved and one camper solo carried a canoe for the first time on a portage today.

I wonder, however, is this canoe trip meeting the expectations that the kids had for themselves and this canoe trip? Are they enjoying themselves? Are they learning a lot and experiencing the grandeur of this river community to its fullest? I have been impressed with the care that the kids have taken in behaving responsibly towards the environment, but ponder at how we can extend this learning further as a group. Maybe our group is ready for an adventure? Perhaps we are ready to safely paddle more advance rapids? After following the direct guidance of two leaders for 13 days, maybe the kids are now capable of assuming more leadership duties of their own? Perhaps we should allow the campers to use and follow the river maps as we continue downstream? There are many things to consider and many things that I need to discuss with my co-leader. Before I sleep tonight I will be sure to do so.

Off again my mind rambles. Now I consider the dynamics between my co-leader and myself. Are we getting along? Is there any tension or problems between us? How is our relationship perceived among the campers on this trip? Is it a good one or bad one? Although there have been instances of disagreement and confusion between us on this trip, I feel that my co-leader and I are working well together. I hope the campers recognize that and that we are setting a good example for them. My thoughts turn to amazement as, again, I consider how the varied episodes in the past 13 days have shaped the lives of the people on this trip. The shared experience of the last 13 days has united this group of people and changed so many individuals. I find it amazing how much I can learn from and experience with a group of youth in an environment such as this. Nature certainly provides inroads to powerful lessons and group bonding. To know that we still have 11 more days in this environment is awesome. The flood of images and thoughts of the upcoming days continue only briefly before being replaced with thought-less journeys within my own mind.

The sudden halt of scurrying feet was what finally shattered my fascinating and contemplative state. The evening sky consumed most of the land but a low dull light from the horizon provided enough glow to decipher the details of things close by. Immediately to my left, only centimetres from my outstretched leg, sat a curious chipmunk. I must have been quite still in the moments leading up to the chipmunk’s arrival and have been unnoticed by or perceived as a non-threat to the tiny creature. Even little critters like chipmunks are welcomed and infrequent surprises to observe. If I could only touch it! That would make it seem so real. Struggling, I resisted the urge to extend my hand. I knew that any slight movement would send the chipmunk fleeing. So I just starred and watched. Perhaps the critter had been wandering from its evening’s home for a final scout of food and water before the cold night. He seemed in no particular hurry to get on with his plans and peered at me as though he was just as excited to see me, as I was to see him.

When the chipmunk lowered his front paws to the rocky ground, I experienced a brief feeling of elation and anticipation. He moved closer towards me, hesitated, and then leapt on top of my left thigh. Taking a moment to scout his next move, the chipmunk rose on his hind legs before dashing off in amongst the rocks and, inevitably, into the forest. I was amazed! I had heard stories of people sitting so still and quiet that an animal would approach and crawl upon them but never had I experienced that myself. I was inspired to have been so close to and so trusted by an animal. The feeling was incredible.

This certainly is a grand moment in a wonderful and amazing place. The song of the moving river and painted evening sky provided a backdrop for my earlier reflective and contemplative thoughts that had meandered alongside the clean full breaths and thought-less minutes. Initially, in this place, my head was clear, only to become occupied with thoughts of friendship, shared learning and teaching, processing the daily struggles of being on trip, the wonders of nature, and the approaching days of continued interactions with people and the natural environment. To crown and reward my solitary presence, the chipmunk demonstrated to me a tremendous favour of trust. Now, the freedom of occupying this space with no sense of boundaries or artificial distractions encourages me to stretch out my senses and continue to sit comfortably and calmly here on my own. For the events that I have experienced here this evening, I shall offer this place a token of thanks before I rest tonight. Perhaps some tobacco or a song on the harmonica will suffice—just something to acknowledge my thanks for the opportunity to be here doing what I am doing.

For now, however, I am in no hurry to move anywhere or think anything or be anyone. My trip mates are safe and secure at the campsite and my leadership duties for the day are dwindling. The moment is perfect. The crashing wave continues to engulf the flowing downstream wave in the current of a larger rapid. Upstream are memories and stories of personal growth and learning, friendships, communion with nature, feelings of triumph and adversity. Lying downstream are similar tales and experiences yet unturned. Interactions flourish. At this moment I am here. Things just feel right. I am in the thick of it all.



Grimwood, B. S. R. (2005). Nature experiences of wilderness recreation leaders: Throwing a stone. Unpublished master’s thesis, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.




Bryan Grimwood, MA has worked as an outdoor educator and wilderness canoe guide with various organizations in Canada and Europe. After a two and a half year stretch as the Director of Outdoor Education at Camp Kandalore in Haliburton, ON, Bryan returned to academic studies in 2007, where he is currently pursuing a PhD in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON. Please contact Bryan via email at:


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