More Than Just a Paddle in the Park

I love Algonquin Provincial Park, a gorgeous area about 3 hours north of Toronto. While it has a few car camping spots along the main highway, it is best known for its back-country camping. The hundreds of lakes and multiple rivers are connected, web like, with well used portages, each one opening up to another spectacular vista and a loon call. It’s heaven and a place I go to disconnect from all. . .this. . .*waves hand dismissively*.

It was about 10 years ago that my dear friend Sarah, the oft mentioned, occasional contributor and mischief maker around here, introduced me to the experience of putting all your stuff in a couple of packs, putting a canoe on your head and waltzing off to adventures of all sorts. In my many trips with her, I learned the value of good gear, how to set up a camp, how to keep from getting too wet, what you need to survive and what you can get away with that is pure luxury in the experience of the trip. I have since introduced my kids and my mom to the experience, with a lot of FIAFI blogger help (Sam, Sarah, Cate, Mallory).

So, when my other Bestie, Jenn, said they wanted to go, I knew I would make that happen. Now, Jenn is no slouch when it comes to camping. They were in the Girl Guide organization for something close to 20 years as a participant and leader. They know a thing or two about tents, fires and outdoor cooking. They also love the water but somehow never put all these things together into a back-country experience. So, I planned a little trip. And when I say little, I mean little. We would put in at Tim River, do a little paddle to the lake, pop over a 350m portage to another lake with only two sites on it and establish our private resort on the point for a couple of nights. Easy, peasy. Except it wasn’t exactly that.

You see, while the park is well used and the lakes are small, nature is big. Sometimes, she gets really freaking huge by way of wind and rain. Also, the park is always changing. When a portage is marked on a tree by the shore, it doesn’t mean the trees around it stop growing and maybe obstruct that sign so that a paddler can’t see it from the direction they are coming from. And further, while my canoe is AMAZING and weighs about 37lbs, putting my fat friend Jenn in the stern or bow, proved to be a more complex issue than we anticipated.

Susan and Jenn standing in front of Susan's blue Prius V with a yellow canoe trapped professionally to the top. Susan is wearing a blue shirt with the blog name on it.
This is us just after we wrestled the Catnoe on the car. What a great shirt I’m wearing.

And you know what else? One of the things I have learned about being a woman in the park, is that I need to decide to do things the way they work for me (and the people I’m with for whom I am responsible). So, this is really a story about how we make it work, even when it doesn’t look like what we thought it would or what other people think it should.

First of all, the two of us don’t fit the profile of canoeing partners. I used to experience this with Sarah too, and basically with everyone I’ve gone with except my ex. Most of the time it’s a couple of cis men or a cis man and a cis woman. Now there is nothing wrong with this configuration of tripping, obviously. What a pleasure it was to pile the heaviest pack on my ex and put a canoe on his head and go while I picked up the lighter pack and the spare bits. But that wasn’t an option with us, no man to power through. We had our own strengths, our wits and the “sense god gave us” as I imagine one of Jenn’s New Brunswick relatives saying, more colourfully than that I suspect.

This is how our put-in day went. Everything was going swimmingly. The stuff was tucked in our packs, everything was in a dry bag or a zip lock and all was efficiently strapped down. I am totally obsessed with everything being in dry bags, even if it makes the pack itself look a bit awkward. I have never tipped, or had never tipped yet (more further down, a little foreshadow here) and I have been slightly mocked by this obsession. We went to pick up the canoe, got it on the car in a half hour, grabbed the paddles, gloves and life jackets and within the next hour, we were at the put-in. Damn ,I was impressed with us.

Susan obsessively dealing with her gear, making sure it's all tied down.
I take gear seriously people. Sarah, this picture is basically you, but me.

The plan was to put Jenn in the stern because they were heavier and off we would go. So off we went. It felt a little unstable but my canoe always feels that way at the beginning. It takes some getting used to because of the flex. Well, we were about 15 meters out and the dry streak broke. The dog moved and the people over compensated and over we went. . .in front of 6 dudes who had just paddled in off the river. We were fine, we could stand up. The dog was swimming and the canoe swamped. Yet we lost not one piece of gear because it was all strapped to the canoe (another obsession) and everything was in a dry bag. There were offers of help and a lot of suggestions from our dude friends. In truth, they were gracious and kind. One of them insisted that putting me in the stern and Jenn in the bow was a better idea. I was skeptical but we tried it. We paddled for 2 minutes and I knew that was an even worse idea so I turned us around and got us back before more wetness occurred. 

Picture of a ziplock bag of money and bank cards encased in red goo. Also a waterlogged lottery ticket
These were the only two casualties of the dump. The scratch ticket was unscratchable. The red goo in my “wallet” was Tylenol.

We were at a cross roads. It wasn’t going to work that Jenn sat in a traditional place. But hell if I was going to leave without trying something else. So, I asked them how they felt about sitting in the middle like a 5-year-old and they were thrilled. It worked! We were stable and I could maneuver and we happily (like supper happily) went off down the river. 

Jenn and Susan happily paddling with bonus yellow lab Shelby in the middle.
I don’t know who is cuter or happier in this picture, Jenn or Shelby?

It was windy but the wind was behind us. We were just glorious sun and smells and the world’s happiest people and dog. Then we hit the lake. Going down the shore perpendicular to the waves with a tail wind was fine. Yet, I knew something was wrong about an hour in. We should have seen the portage by then and I stared hard at the map, trying to discern were we were, meanwhile, the wind was gathering force in a way I had never experienced there and we were down at the end of the little lake clinging to a log, parallel to the waves and in danger of going over again no matter how good a ballast Jenn was. 

Friends, I panicked. I was hungry and exhausted and my dog was freaking out in her quiet dog way and I didn’t know how the heck I was going to turn this boat around and try to make my way back to the mystery portage we had clearly blown past. Jenn, on the other hand, was having the time of their life. What a weirdo. The log was acting as a break water and Jenn noticed that if we pushed along it for a bit, and around a stump and a rock, we may be able to turn ourselves around in calmer water. It took everything in me to make that corner and get us to temporary safety. I knew we were actually in real trouble in the sense that we didn’t really know how far back we may have to paddle and that I may not have the strength to keep us stable and going in the right direction. But, fear not. . .a miracle occurred. As soon as we turned around, we saw an empty camp site. It wasn’t ours but I made the call and set off for that shore. We would camp there and deal with being double booked or whatever later.

After that, the trip proceeded in the way I dreamed it would. Everything was dry and we made camp quickly and efficiently. Jenn put up the hammocks and I made the most amazing dinner on my little MSR burner. We always have a lot to talk about but we had even more this time. We talked about our experience of the day and where it was hard for each of us. It turns out that the hard was in different places. Jenn’s hardest point was when I asked them to stay as still as possible while I turned the canoe around when they were in the stern. They didn’t want to let me down by facilitating dumping us again, although that was a very real possibility and wouldn’t have actually mattered given we were already soaked. It was hardest for me when I realized that I was responsible for their safety and I briefly doubted I could meet the task, that I got us lost and now we were going to drown. The solution was breaking it down into small tasks and smaller moments. When I think about it, the entire trip is just that. It forces me to break everything down into one thing at a time because if I don’t, I get overwhelmed by all the things and bits and pieces and gear and stuff. When I’m focussed like that, on what I can do right there in front of me, then I am successful and move to the next step. 

There was a lot about that trip that was so hard. Yet I loved it and will do it again in about 4 weeks, this time with another friend and my kid and her pal. I will remain obsessed with dry bagging everything and I will look very very carefully at the map before we go anywhere. But nature is big and who knows what it will throw at us. The thrill of that possibility is energizing even when it’s a bit painful or fearful.

Don’t think you can do something like this? Of course you can. Find an experienced friend and do it! Everyone, every body, every gender deserves the magic to be found in places like this. Just remember. . .dry bags, PFD’s, and one thing at a time.

Jenn, like a fat camping superhero with their hammock on their back like a cape in a "fuck guilt" shirt.
This is one of my favourite moments. Jenn was singing “Fat People Can” in the way they do.
A very happy yellow lab
Look at this dog. Is there a happier dog? No.
A camp fire at twilight
Perfect campfire moment.

4 thoughts on “More Than Just a Paddle in the Park

  1. What an adventure! One of the (many) cool things about your story and your trip and your relationship with Jenn is that you two can and do talk about the hard things, and it sounds like you both learn and appreciate each other more through this. yay y’all! And no, there is no happier dog than your dog…

  2. As a fat canoeist whose favorite canoe partner is much smaller than me, I too have dealt with the challenge of balancing a canoe. This is an access issue. Most canoes are build assuming either similar weights or that the heavier person will be in the stern. It’s a failure of gear. My canoe has a movable seat (which helps) but I’ve also considered installing a seat that is at the right place for me and my adventure partner. Not at the usual place, not at the assumed place, but at the space that is the actual right space for us. It makes me think about hidden barriers to access, and ways fat people get taught our bodies are wrong. Our bodies are not wrong. The canoe was built for us, and then the seat was installed with someone else’s body in mind. All of us need equipment that enables us.
    I’m really glad you figure things out. I’m sorry that it made for a wet start. Big love to both of you.

    1. Thanks j for putting your voice in here. It is super important that people see themselves reflected in activities so they know they can do them. Yay! Canoes!

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