In the Thick
of Wilderness Canoe Trip Leaders
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
S. R. (2005). Nature experiences
of wilderness recreation leaders: Throwing a stone. Unpublished master’s thesis, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.