Last year at the end of the season, I purchased a Swift Algonquin 16 Kevlar Fusion canoe with carbon Kevlar trim. It comes in at a whopping 35lbs and I love it. I have christened her “The Catnoe” for #reasons and this year I took her on her maiden trip with Sam for three days and two nights in back country Algonquin Park.
First, a pop quiz. . .how many other canoes do you think we encountered with two women identified people in them? Don’t just jump to the first conclusion, think for a minute. . .naw, I’m just kidding. Your first conclusion is likely totally correct. The answer is none. It was just us. We saw two male gendered people, we saw male and female (male in the stern of course) but there were no other women tripping partners to be seen. This is consistent with my 6 years of annual trips to the park. I am almost always in the only two woman canoe, with the exception of a group of 5 women (2 canoes and one kayak) we saw two years ago.
I’ve been thinking about why this is for all 6 years I’ve been doing it so I’d like to share some of those musings here, in light of the spectacularly successful Catnoe excursion.
I first tripped when I was at overnight camp about 32 years ago. It was awful. My shoes got wet. I didn’t have a sleeping pad for the ground. The mosquitoes were in the tent and I didn’t like doing my business in the woods. Yet somehow, I went back to it as a staff about 5 years later. I think it was because it seemed to me that the cool kids were volunteering for trips. It may also have had to do with that Israeli, gymnast, ex-paratrooper person who was on the trip but we won’t pay any mind to that now. My most vivid memory of the trip was of my unit head grasping the yolk of the canoe, yanking it up to sit on her thighs and then magically hoisting it over her head. I had never seen a woman do that before. This was not made of Kevlar either. It was aluminum. It was on this trip that I learned about multiple pairs of socks and the necessity of drying your footwear as much as possible between soakings. I had hiking boots instead of sneakers. I think I may have had a pad to sleep on in the tent too. I played with camp cooking and I sterned my own boat. I came back to camp dirty and stinky and proud of myself. Over all, a total success.
It was not until 20 years later that I finally went out again on a portaging canoe trip. There are some things you have to accept when agreeing to go on a back country trip. You will get dirty and stay kinda dirty. You will use every part of your body to its maximum at various points in the trip. You will struggle. You will occasionally feel some pain. You will get bug bites and at some point, you will be alone at night in the forest sitting on a wooden box with a hole in it doing your business.
Let’s face facts, none of these things are the kind of things most girls are brought up to expect to enjoy. I was certainly not brought up with the idea that this was a fun thing to do. I got the idea because of who I hang out with (and I’m so grateful for that). However, I have learned to love them. Surprisingly, sitting on the aforementioned box (a privy) is one of the more pleasant things about camping in Algonquin. It’s far better than sitting in an enclosed space doing the equivalent activity. Even in a light mist, it’s quite refreshing.
I love the challenge of getting from one place to another. I love figuring out how to cook yummy things with my camp burner. I love the little comforts, a good sleeping bag, mat and tent, a book, a cup of coffee, dry socks. I love swimming in wicked cold water I would normally not bother to swim in. I love not looking in the mirror for 3 days. Of course there is the actual place, so beautiful and further in, so serene you can feel like you are the only human for kilometers, even if you are not really.
But back to the canoe. The one limiting factor for me has always been that extraordinary act of flipping that sucker on my head. My customary tripping partner (Sarah) is a life-long athlete whose physical strength and attitude have always leaned toward “of course I can do that”. And so, she does. In all years past, she has been chief canoe-flipper-upper. I have carried it occasionally (either the 45 lb version or, one time her 60 lb canoe) but always with her help to get it up and only for the shorter distances (200m). It meant I always had to have a person with me who could carry the canoe. That meant her or someone else, maybe a man. I know there are other women in my larger friend circle who can do it but they aren’t close enough to be going on trips with me. Like I said, not a lot of two women canoe partners in the park or available generally, even when most of my women friends are queer identified.
Enter the Catnoe. She is so eminently flip-up-able. She allowed me to master the technique without being afraid I’d accidentally take my head off. She allowed me to say, when Sarah couldn’t go, “Hey, Sam! Will you let me take you into the back woods for a trip?” and know that no matter what, even if Sam couldn’t carry the canoe, I could! If something bad happened and I had to go get help, I could. I had the capacity to fill any role on the excursion and let me tell you, that is power. A whole world opened up to me.
(Just to be clear. . .Sam could carry the canoe, I just didn’t let her.)
I could have done more overhead presses and heavier squats. Then I could have a hope of working with the 45 lb canoe. But, my Catnoe has let me have access to this entire experience now, without my usual fears. It has also likely given me the muscle memory to flip that 45 pounder up there if I had to and so launched me on a path to even more freedom.
Isn’t this the reason why we struggle to acquire fitness and if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be? I’m 46 years old and next summer, as long as my 71 year old mom can get up and get down from a sitting position on the ground, I’m taking her in to the park with me. I will set her up on a chair at the end of the portage and I will bring the pack and the canoe. I will feel powerful and happy and free. What else can you ask for?