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.

Trying to Make Peace With Peri-Menopause

I’m in the front hallway and it’s 8:45 pm on a Tuesday night. I’m about ready to get in my PJ’s. My daughter has woken herself from a power nap about a half hour ago. She puts on yoga pants, a t-shirt and her hair up in a messy bun. She dons running shoes, picks up her bag and kisses me goodbye. She’s going climbing. Cheap rates start at 9pm. I watch her walk out the door and down the path to the car. She is nimble, energized, unconcerned. I am struck at the contrast I suddenly recognize in a fully embodied way. I will never be able to do anything like that with such ease again.

This is mid-life, right here. I am fully conscious of the experience in this moment. I am tired, aching, knowing I have to conserve to perform. I am without the reserve that exists in my 18 year old daughter and that’s reality from now on.

Peri-menopause. “The Leadup to Menopause Can Be Very Uncomfortable and Poorly Understood“, read the headline of one of Sam’s #blogfodder posts on our community group. That post happened to go up on my birthday last Friday. I was smack in the middle of a massive mental break down for no reason. Sure, I had worked in the morning and sure, I had my mother coming over for dinner. But for godssake, my kids were around, the weather was beautiful and one of my two best friends was already on the train to come hang out while I cooked. All was well. Yet there I was, on my couch, hyper ventilating while my poor kid offered me water and I choked out the sentence, “It isn’t you, it’s my hormones”. I wanted to die. Instead, I took an Ativan from my dwindling supply.

What’s happening to me is deeply personal and physical and psychological. It is everything all at once. I am both worn and worn out. I am needy and needed. I am at the peak of my career and confidence and simultaneously challenged to justify my life. It’s a mess and the “failing ovarian function” is just one more frickin’ thing that I have to deal with in unexpected places.

I really struggle with the language of “treating” peri-menopause. Is it not after all, a natural part of life? Why should I have to treat it? On the other hand, declining estrogen is already affecting my heart and bones and I have too much I want to do and see before I retire to a rocking chair. I think back to that moment of watching my daughter saunter off at an ungodly hour to be intensely physical and I am so so so jealous of that ease. When I prepare to go out to do something strenuous, I spend my time prepping and unravelling my tired, stiff body, hoping that whatever I am about to do doesn’t break something, or at least not too badly.

“How was your ride?”

“I do not seem to have any undue injury.”

That is success now.

I am so very proud of what my body can do. I did my metric century two weekends ago and last weekend, I did a quick 40k before I went and stomped around the streets of Toronto for the Toronto Pride Dyke March. I was fine. I wasn’t even unduly sore. I have to make peace with the fact that every morning, likely for the rest of my life, I will have to unravel my aching body to face my day. No wait, “my STRONG aching body”. That’s better. My aching, strong, peri-menopausal self will get up, unravel, take the dog for a walk, fuel up with coffee and do what needs to be done because that’s what it needs to do. Ease will not be a part of that process in the way it is for my daughter, but grace can be. I don’t have the endurance of youth but I do have the sure knowledge of how far past the edge I can go without falling. This is mid-life, right here, right now.I think I’m almost ready.

A peri-menopause meme: Warning, Due to the influence of hormones I could burst into tears or kill you in the next 5 minutes. There is a purple fluffy minion kind of weird creature looking freaked out waiving her hands everywhere.
This is me.

Cycling: Five Years On

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a road bicyclist for five years now. In that time, I have accomplished a lot of things that I never thought I would do. I have successfully buzzed around cities and towns, country roads and quaint paths, all with my feet latched securely to my pedals. I have gone up and down the Niagara Escarpment more times than I care to count. I have eaten a lot of bananas, drank a lot of coffee and known the agony of the “bonk” (a sudden drop in blood sugar due to insufficient calorie intake on a longer ride).

There are a few things I have not done. I have not become immersed in hard core cyclist culture. I was tempted. There is a lot of nobility in that crowd but there is also a lot of toxicity that my middle aged feminist self was not interested in. “The Rules” epitomize the complexity of it. I’m not knocking the folks who really get off on that sort of thing. It just is not me and never will be.

Still, the thing I enjoy most about road biking is the social component and without it, I doubt I would have carried on as long as I have or upgraded my bike to my delightful new one (Trek Domane 5, for those who care). In order for the social component to work, the cyclists have to be like minded in some way and I am so grateful that I found a little tribe of people who find the same things important that I do. Whether they are more experienced, stronger or faster what counts is the experience of the whole ride. We try hard and wait at the top of the hill. If someone is really full of beans, they buzz ahead and loop back. We drink coffee and eat butter tarts to fuel the adventure and as we speed along, we tell each other all the stories of bike rides past and those yet to come.

We look out for each other while we pee in the woods. We share water and tell each other how good we look on the bike. We praise strength. I have never felt so strong as I do riding my bicycle, amazed at my capacity to endure another 10km or to haul myself another 50m up that wicked hill on Limberlost Road. There is something about the rhythm of biking, especially in hilly Muskoka Ontario. It’s natural interval training amongst the call of the crow and the loon. It’s getting chased by the black flies and watching them fall away as you pass 11km/h. I can’t wait for the heat of summer when I can come back into the drive of my family cottage, lean the bike on the pink granite rock, take off my shoes and walk straight into the lake, bike clothes and all. That is pure joy, I tell you.

The older I get the more I realize that the benefits of exercise that we all read about are a synergistic package of things. It isn’t just the movement or the heart rate or the metabolism or the blood flow to the brain. It’s the feeling of competence, the possibilities of connection, the agency and the joy. They all work together whether it is a mountainous cycling trip or a social walking group.

You know, I didn’t know where this post was going to end up when I started it, but I think I’m starting to see my own point. Road cycling is the hardest, most extreme exercise I have ever done, and enjoyed at the same time. The reasons for this are the fullness of the experience as described here. What it is most decidedly not, is solely a mechanism to change my body or allow me to eat more ice cream. It is not the thing I punish myself with or do out of duty. It does not purify my moral short comings and neither does my skill or lack thereof speak to my worthiness as a human. I’m not doing it because my doctor threatened me. It’s just firkin’ joyful.

I hope you find that movement that is that thing for you.

Five happy people in bike helmets midway through second day of riding the giant hills of Limberlost

I Gave My Car Away

I live less than two kilometres from where I work and given all the things I like to do and hope to do in the future (like biking around NFLD) you’d think a small thing like biking to work would be a choice I’d make. Nope. I really like biking and walking, especially when I’m walking my dog but you know what else I like? Sleeping. Sleeping is one of my most favourite activities, especially in the morning when I am not supposed to be sleeping. So often, in spite of my best intentions to wake up 15 minutes early (that’s all it would take), I press snooze and take my car.

I feel like part of what I’m doing with this post is publicly shaming myself for that. Most of my good friends and lots of my fellow bloggers bike, walk and run to work. It’s certainly the more “virtuous” thing. And also, we are human and we just don’t alway live up to our virtues. I’m cool with that, you should be too. However, I’m also aware that I have planned this really cool trip and I don’t want to die. Consistent biking around my town during the day would go some way to keeping me moving in useful and constructive ways. it will also make it easier for me to get out on the weekends for more substantial training. It’s all about the baseline. And yet and yet, nothing.

Sometimes the solution to persistent motivation problems is to create a “safe emergency” situation. Lucky for me, the opportunity presented itself this week. My delightful son, who has just completed his second year of uni, had dutifully got himself a job as a labourer at a farm. What we hadn’t really worked out was how he was going to get there. His day starts at 7am. Remember that I like sleeping more than biking, walking and getting up early. So, There was no way I was going to get up at 6:30 in the morning so I could drive that boy to work, just to drive my own self 2 hours later. I did what any good middle class mom would do, I gave up my car to my kid. Yes he is spoiled rotten, his work is only 10k away, he could be biking up there, but selfishly, I am not letting him bike. I’M biking! Even though I had to give up my car to get myself to do it.

It’s only day one and there are going to be more than a few days of exceptions when we will have to figure out something else. It only goes until June, conveniently, just before I leave for the epic trip. Maybe by then it will be a habit that I can stick with.

a picture of six stylized bicycles in rainbow colours
A rainbow of bikes I lifted from the Australia Bikes to Work site.

I’ll Open My Own Jar, Thanks

I don’t remember who it was but I think it was a client that I had years ago. We were talking about a break up of her marriage or relationship or something and she was telling me about her mom’s reaction. We had focused in on this one thing that seemed to distress her mom, or maybe it was just part of the argument for why she should try to keep her relationship. Her mom said, “Well, who is going to open jars for you?” As I remember it, the comment was matter of fact and so very out of context of the pain the person was feeling both in the relationship and because of the break up. However, it did seem self-evident to her mom that jar opening was a thing you wanted a man around to do.

There is a part of me that can imagine writing this piece from a place of grief after death of a partner and taking that phrase in that sense. I vividly remember my own mother’s grief after the death of my dad, encapsulated in the question, “Who will watch the snow fall with me?” This evocative moment speaks to connection, shared pleasure in company and its loss. The jar could be the same. I walk into the living room to find my loving partner and hand him this jar so he can do me this kindness, but he is not there and my heart breaks.

Except, that isn’t what that client’s mom meant. She meant that we need a man to help us with the hard and heavy and strenuous things and that we should put up with all manner of crap to keep that presence. Or alternatively, she thought so little of men that she only kept them around to open jars and clean the eaves in the fall. Either way, connection, pleasure in company, jars as symbols of love, this was not what was getting evoked.

I have been thinking about the jar issue as I adjust to being the only adult in my home that houses me, two pets and an occasional child. I am thinking about what it means to be self reliant and relying only on myself. Last week, I came home at 10pm after starting my day at 7am. It was garbage day the next day and my dog just refused to take the garbage out for me. The nerve. The cat was similarly uncooperative. I took it out myself. Laundry baskets that are full to the brim and well over 20 lbs must be carried upstairs. Snow was shovelled all winter. Bags of salt need to be emptied into the softener and cat litter needs to be moved from car to litter box. And yes, there were jars that I had to open. These were all things I used to defer to “someone stronger than I was”. It’s based on a rational division of labour, at least in theory. Yet I have come to think that I was doing myself a disservice by deferring even as much as I did. The dependence it can create, when we fear we can’t manage the heavy or hard things, can cloud judgement. It can stoke fear. The fear is that of being alone, lost and struggling, protectorless, perhaps vulnerable.

I’m not saying I’m not vulnerable. I’m just saying I’m strong. I’m strong enough to lug the garbage and the laundry and the salt and the cat litter. I have friends to lug motors to boats with me and honestly, I haven’t met a jar that ever beat me. It may take me a while, it may end up looking like the lid has been in a car accident, but it’s open.

Lasting companionship and connection is lovely. Lives don’t always work out that way. Opening our own jars gives us options and a certain clarity. I like that quite a bit. 💪🏻


Getting Real in a Perilous Time

I cut my hair. Well, I didn’t do it, a professional did. I asked for an “asymmetrical pixie” with a side and back undercut. She refused to do the side as a full shave so, stages, you know, getting used to things. This new identity, this alone version of me. Just try it out and see how it fits. I’m trying.

Almost every afternoon I go down in my basement and plug my phone into the TV. I play a yoga video and my body follows along. “Take a breath in. . .exhale. . .again. . .” I move and listen to what my body tells me. I try hard to hear and then I also shush it. No, you can’t cry yet, not now, no time. Breathe in, breathe out, let it go.

I walk the dog every day. One foot, the other foot, the dog just dogs and I am a body moving. I need to keep moving, keep going, don’t stop, I’ll be stuck. I can’t get stuck, not here, not like this, not today.

I make food. I eat it. The emotional eating that soothed me so well in December is getting old. It’s not regulating anymore but slipping into not eating is so dangerous for me. So I take care to eat. I eat with care. One mouthful after another, with love, like my video yoga instructor tells me to.

In the basement again in a ball on the floor, “Breathe lots of love in. . . Breathe lots of love out. . .” I do it. All the love, universal, it’s enough, it will be, maybe sometime.

I go get the tests, the mammograms, the bone densities, the colonoscopies. “Do you have any difficulty breathing after going up one flight of stairs?” “No” “Do you ever have breathing difficulties?” “Only when I feel my heart breaking.” I didn’t say that to the doctor. I thought about how well I am doing with this 50 year old body that is definitely not alone in the world. But. . .I am alone. . .shhhhhh. . .not yet. . .breathe in, breathe out, let it go.

This 50 year old body that has grace and balance, more than ever, deeper than ever. This 50 year old body that has wisdom, a well of wisdom so vast, so full of answers. . .but we know there are no answers to the questions I’m asking. Why the heart can’t have what the heart wants, not all the time, not most of the time, if we are being real here. I don’t have that answer. Even in breath as a mountain, still, there is only silence to that question.

I bought a body pillow, the kind you can entwine between your legs and arms like a lover. It prevents aches and pains of more than one type. It has no tears on it yet. I sleep well. Sometimes I drug myself to sleep but there is no shame there right? Breathe in, breathe out. Take an Ativan because sometimes s*&! is just too real for being in the moment.

Every day I walk on a knife edge of abandoning my body, of forgetting to feed it or leaving it lying flat in a fallow field, unmoving. Every day I think about the cost of this lack of tears and wonder where they will choose to emerge, or where I will choose to let them emerge. Every day I am grateful for all these choices and knife edges and hard questions and the beating of a strong, broken heart. My heart can climb at least 4 flights without even thinking about minding one bit. At 50, my grandmother was barely leaving her apartment, weighted with a broken heart and no tears to be seen, just silence.

So reader, I’m sorry to break this silence with my broken heart and my 50 year old body clinging to populist yoga in 25 minute increments. But it’s what I got and it’s where I am and I bet I’m not at all alone in this. “Breathe lots of love in. . .breathe lots of love out.” I got you.

A white woman in a pink top with a black cardigan posing jauntily for the camera with her curly hair falling in front of her face
This is my new cut. It’s pretty cute.

Sorry Dr. Seuss…

I will not will not with a snake, not with a joint, I won’t get baked.

I cannot cannot with a beer, just get that bottle out of here, not with a snake, not with goat, I can’t in the car but could on a boat.

It’s Yoga, you, I thank the sun. It’s Yoga, that’s it I’m done.

No, not even with you, cutie-pie

Inspired, in part, bythis story about snake yoga.