Into the Woods Part Deux (Guest Post)

canoe head me

Canoe Head Me


There have been a bunch of posts on this blog lately that have to do with canoe camping. We are mostly Canadian around here and it’s our precious summer so that’s not really a surprise. My post last month was about canoe camping and making it hard on purpose. I wouldn’t normally post yet again about paddling but the experience of this trip compels me so here it is.

Once again, I went into the lakes and rivers and woods with three dear friends, my 72 year old mother, my 15 year old daughter and my perfect canoe camping dog. I have had a long think about what perspective I want to bring to this experience. I need it to be more than a narrative of what happened because going into the back country in the way that we do is beyond mere narrative, beyond mere activity or fun times. It’s elemental and transformative. It doesn’t matter which trip or who I go with or what happens. I come out of the park different than when I went in and everyone else does too.

But this trip, what about this trip? What is the reason my chest clenches in joy when I think about it and everything we endured, experienced and created? I know I love the self containment. Bring everything in, eat some of it, bring everything out. I know I love the physical challenge of lifting heavy packs and canoes. I love the logistics. I love the care taking that I engage in by planning and executing whether that is setting up a tent, a hammock or a meal. I love helping other people to do the same. Even when they make me nuts, I love to make it work.

That’s not it though. Something else was going on. It was the waning days of summer and the evenings were cool, the angle of the sun generating that familiar melancholy, the leaves whispering their coming end in the night wind.There were conversations around the fire that were silly and irreverent. There were others that were deep and somewhat sad. There were moments when a therapist, a professor, a PhD consultant and and engineer discussed philosophy and queer theory while my mom and daughter listened in. That was a moment of intensity for me and I know in retrospect that was because it was both revealing to my mother what I had become and to my daughter what she could be. My mother got lost in memory on one portage and spoke so beautifully to all of us about the time my late father had me on his shoulders while my brother was on my mom’s, walking by a rapids in the BC interior. “It seems like yesterday” she said. I cried because it did and it was, just yesterday I was small and full of potential. Today I am grown and growing stronger, more solid in me with every step and paddle stroke.

Three generations

Three Generations


I see we are at this perfect juncture and I am the fulcrum between my mother and my daughter. My friends stand by me in this middle place, this middle age, where we can still learn from the elder how to be our better selves and show the younger the many many ways she can be herself in this complicated world. She didn’t know we were teaching her. My mother’s feminism evident in her refusal to stop moving or be cowed or become small in her waning years. She still pushes. Me and my friends manifesting our articulate and enacted feminism, the way we speak our minds, live our lives, love how and who we want, give back, keep pushing. It’s not utopia or some Algonquin version of Paradise Island, but hell it was close.

Next year we may do it again, different people, different constellations perhaps, but we will likely emerge from the liminal space in the forest changed, stronger, more expansive and powerful. That is why I go into the lakes and rivers and woods and why I will write about what they teach me over and over again.

Happy paddling.

Best camping dog ever

Best Camping Dog Ever



Camping with “extremely active bears”

Last weekend Sarah and I headed out canoe camping. We’d first considered Algonquin but the bits of it that weren’t on fire were booked. Instead we decided to camp at Massasauga Provincial Park.

It’s known for:

  • Backcountry camping on Georgian Bay stretching from Parry Sound to the Moon River
  • Park takes in hundreds of windswept islands, inland forests and lakes
  • Camp by the bay or paddle to inland lake sites
  • Protected sanctuary for the Massasauga Rattlesnake

Though it’s known for the Massasauga rattlesnake, it was clear from the very abundant and insistent signage that the creatures we needed to watch out for weren’t snakes, they were bears.

The “extremely active” bear signs amused me to no end. I don’t know if this blog is to blame but I kept imagining bear bootcamp. Bear burpees! Bears running laps on the track!

Like these bears…

Or these ones…


In the end we didn’t meet any bears. We did hang our food pretty high out of the way. There were frogs and chipmunks and loons and ducks.

We had a speedy paddle to our site on Friday night, trying to make it across the big bay by dark, and plans for a more leisurely paddle on the way back. On the way back though we met up with wind and waves on the open water. I got to learn how to paddle the canoe through wake. Thanks motor boats! Grrrr.

But no bears, extremely active or not.

Okay, one more video. It’s a personal favourite. Rick Mercer tagging bears in Algonquin Park.

Talk of camping and bears always reminds me of my Australian friends who seem horrified that we camp where there are creatures that are large enough to attack us. I think of spiders and snakes and box jellyfish and salt water crocodiles but apparently bears are the things that are truly scary. For the record, black bears eat primarily grasses, roots, berries, and insects, though they easily develop a taste for human foods and garbage.



Where the Wild Girls Are (Canoeing in Killarney!)–Guest Post


Bell Lake, Killarney Provincial Park

Over the last few summers I have taken my daughter on a number of canoe trips, and we’ve always had a great time. She loves stopping at little islands to explore and eat snacks, and when she was really young she would nap in the canoe. This year, I signed us up for a three day “Women and Girls” canoe trip in Killarney Park guided by Wild Women Expeditions. While I love planning routes and organizing trip menus, my work schedule has been heavy enough that a bit of luxury seemed in order. With the fab WWE guides in charge, I just had to pack some gear and get us to the trip access point. Better yet, on this trip my daughter would have other girls to play with. I want to nurture my daughter’s sense of adventure and offer her challenging opportunities, but I also want it to be fun. Kids are the experts there.

And they had fun. They swam, jumped out of canoes, and took over a tiny island which they quickly determined was for “kids only.” (No Lord of the Flies, so far as I could tell…) They ran wild for hours and encountered many fascinating creatures: a water snake, a beaver, a barred owl, and the usual frogs, minnows, loons and hawks. The trip was also just the right length for 7 year olds. We spent enough time in the canoes for the girls to get the feel of travelling by canoe, but not so long that they were bored. And there was only one short 30m portage, so the girls got to experience portaging without its unique hardships. They can find out about those later.

The trip was great for the grown-ups too. Laughs over gritty ‘cowgirl coffee,’ lots of swimming, and a break from the usual demands and judgments of everyday life. It’s also really good to connect with others who want to nurture wilderness skills for girls and foster their sense of adventure. And I found the trip freeing in the way that backcountry trips usually are. In wilder places, I feel light and peaceful.


Cowgirl Coffee Time

Nothing brought home the full meaning of our trip more, though, than two comments directed to my daughter and I at its end. As we unloaded packs onto the dock, one of the outfitter guys challenged “Isn’t this women-only trip sexist?” Later that night, we were eating dinner at a resort and a man stopped at our table and “joked” to my daughter “You know what I like most about you? You look like your mother.” This man – whom I suspect has been entertaining women with his comedy for decades – was probably unaware that his jokey compliment contained an insult. Among other things, he conveyed to my daughter that what might be best about her is her looks and moreover, that what is good about her looks is that they involve looking like someone else.

The comparison over appearance that women and girls engage in, and are subjected to, is a source of much unhappiness. So is the entitlement that some men assume in their interactions with women and girls by virtue of the fact that they are male. These ways of relating with women and girls steal joy and dampen feelings of adventure, wildness, strength, and capability.

On the bright side, these two fellows offered up some fine teachable moments. I explained to my daughter why I didn’t like these comments in an age-appropriate way. More important, though, is that we had just been on a fun adventure. She saw women charting routes, hauling packs, building campsites, paddling lakes, all the while not giving two hoots about appearances. She experienced first-hand the energy of strong, capable, respectful, fun-loving, and risk-taking women. And she got to feel wild and free. Such experiences fortify girls and women against poisonous compliments and willful ignorance about social power, and do so in ways that may run deeper than conceptual points or clever come-backs (however fun). Where the wild girls are, and how they spend their time, may be more important than we realize.


Fireworks from a kayaker’s perspective: a photo essay

Boston, like many big US cities, takes its July 4th fireworks seriously.  As a prelude to the spectacular show over the Charles River, there is a concert of the Boston Pops and selected pop and country stars of the moment, broadcast over loudspeakers and radio.  Hundreds of thousands of people attend the fireworks every year, so it’s pretty crowded.

Even on the water, dozens of boats large and small gather between the Longfellow and Harvard bridges to hang out, eat and drink, and view the fireworks from near the barge in charge of the show.

This year, some friends and I decided to join them.  But we didn’t have big boats– we paddled out in kayaks.  We, along with dozens of others, rented kayaks (which we booked months in advance) to paddle out into the river, in search of the perfect spot.


There were also people with their own boats there.  Some of them were experienced kayakers.



Some of them were trying to figure out how to assemble inflatable boats they had just bought.


Most of our party of 7 had paddled on the Charles and elsewhere before, so we boldly set off to join the big boats in the central viewing area.


Boats of all kinds were out there.


One of the rules stated that any boat in the area between the bridges after 8:15pm had to be anchored.  We didn’t bring anchors with us, but the kayak rental place sold us this for $10– a cinder block tied to 75 feet of rope.  My friend Janet was the elected representative to tote the anchor out to our spot.


We tied it to my boat, heaved it overboard, and miraculously it worked; we drifted a bit, but maintained our spot (holding onto each others’ boats).  Then we proceeded to sit back, relax, and wait for darkness and the show.



We had to wait a bit more than 2 hours, but it was worth it.  We had ring-side seats– the fireworks were in front of us and above in perfect view.  Oddly, they weren’t incredibly loud.  We think this was because we were far away from the buildings and their loud claps of echoes.  Here’s a bit of the show:





For me, one of the best parts was riding my bike to and from the river.  The traffic leaving the fireworks show was, in its own way, as astounding as the show itself.  But I was able to sail past the cars in the bike lane, getting home in record time.

What a celebration of freedom– under my own power to, from, and during the show!


Nature Rx: My prescription needs refills!

“Are you feeling tired, irritable, or stressed out? Well you might consider… Nature. A non-harmful medication that’s shown to relieve the crippling symptoms of modern life.”

I love, love, love the outdoors, and not just any outdoors. Though I do appreciate urban wildness, it’s serious wilderness that I like best. My short holidays into Algonquin park with a canoe have been among the best vacations I’ve had in terms of quickly getting a sense of peace and restfulness that lasts long after I get back.

Maybe it’s the beauty of the place, maybe it’s the wild animals such as actual loons and possible bears, or maybe it’s that cellular signal cuts off on your way driving into the park and I don’t wear a watch or look in a mirror the entire time I’m there. Life quickly takes on an easy rhythm of swimming, napping, food preparation and clean up, eating, paddling, swimming, more napping, sleeping…

I also love the lack of people. Normally I love people but a break from crowds is lovely and I appreciate the focused time with the people I’m with. There’s very little small talk with strangers, okay there’s almost none, and that’s my most stressful kind of social interaction.

My plan for the fall and winter this year includes more wilderness time.

I want to:

Ride my cyclocross bike on trails and gravel roads!

Cross country ski!

Camp in a yurt!

Hike in the woods!

See more here.

And then there’s this, Feeling awe may be good for our health.



A Very Big Little Paddle

I have been going to Algonquin in late August for a back country canoe trip for the last 8 summers. Usually I go with my friend Sarah and we are often the only women pair that we encounter on our trip. Three summers ago, at the end of the season, I bought a Swift Algonquin 16 Kevlar Fusion Canoe. It has Carbon/Kevlar Gunwales and weighs 36 pounds. I blogged about the freedom that gave me here. Last year, Sarah couldn’t come and I took Sam. It was the first time I’d been “in charge” of a trip and between that experience and a feather light canoe, I was ready to take on more. What kind of more? Well, how about me, my two teens, three friends (Sarah, Sam and her daughter) and my 71 year old mother?


My mom has been saying for the past four years or so that she has always wanted to go on a real portaging canoe trip. When I came back last year, empowered by the freedom of that canoe, I knew I could make it happen and “it had better be sooner than later”, as my mom has observed.

My mom isn’t your usual 71 year old, although she is actually much like the folks who hang out at this blog. She came to fitness in her middle years and has been consistently active ever since. Her main thing has always been Pilates and the great thing about that system is it’s ability to scale up or down, depending on capacity, injury or illness. She has a trainer she has known for years who keeps her going. I told her as long as she could get in and out of the canoe and walk a path, she could do it.

She accomplished so much more. She carried some stuff and paddled pretty hard. She credits her swimming with giving her the strength to paddle like she did. She got in and out of the tent in whatever way worked for her and she was constantly thrilled by the whole thing.

Mom by her tent

Mom by her tent

The element of that trip that struck me most was how we experienced a mutual appreciation of each other that we had perhaps left unnoticed for many years. Like all moms and daughters, there have been “interesting times” between us. While most of that trash has been put out, the real understanding of where each of us are in our lives right now was not always at the forefront. But on this trip, she got to see a skill set of mine that was newer to her and I got to see how hard core she could be. I also got to give her time with her grand kids and grand dog that was super high quality. I got to feel like a good daughter and she got to feel like a good mom and grandmother.It’s not that we haven’t felt that before, but this experience somehow intensified this feeling between us.

It helped more that a lot that I had fantastic, supportive, hillarious friends with me. Sam and I drove our matchy matchy cars (Priuses)  with our matchy matchy canoes on top (she has a Swift Keewaydin 17, also with Carbon/Kevlar gunwales, although mysteriously heavier feeling at 47 pounds). Sarah and I had our competitive control freak moments. It’s only fair. She taught me everything I know about canoe tripping so asking her not to have an opinion is kind of impossible. Mallory kept her mother in line, on track and in the canoe (mostly, except the time she wasn’t). The children spoke actual words to us, a lot! And read books, paper books! My kids are usually delightful but this trip gave them an opportunity to step it up. It helped that they were actually having, you know, FUN. Finally, there was my Super Dog, Shelby. She has grown into a truly impressive canine canoe tripper. She stays still in the canoe, carries her own stuff, keeps away the chipmunks and is available for belly rubs at any random time.


This trip accomplished the kind of thing that you hope a trip will. It was epic on every level, the beauty of the place, the friendships and family and the smoothness of execution. It was a trip I could only do because of the investment of time in strength and skill that everyone of us made in our lives, especially evident in my mom. I hope it sets a good example for my kids but I will try not to pressure them about it. After all, both my mom and me waited until we were closing on 40 before we woke up to the possibilities our lives could hold if we started to mind our bodies. Yes, an epic trip. We might do it again next year. . .

Why hello new canoe, lovely to meet you

When I’m away my partner sometimes goes into advanced shopping mode. He enjoys the research, the negotiating, and the actual purchasing. (Not me. According to family lore, though it’s not quite true, when I want something I just walk into a store and buy it.) His process is more involved, takes much more reading and research, and it’s something he finally has time to do when I’m away.

One rule though is checking in before buying.

Before the rule, a few years ago he bought a new (used) car and posted a picture to Facebook captioned “our new car.”

“Who’d you buy a car with?” I commented. I was serious. It wasn’t entirely implausible that he might buy a car with someone else. I was on sabbatical very far away. But no, it was a car for our family, and since then we’ve agreed to check in before major, shared budget acquisitions.

(You reading this, honey? No buying a Willard 30–the most recent boat infatuation/search–while I’m in Algonquin. It’s true there’s no cellular service and I don’t have my phone but please wait till I get back.)

We’ve been talking about buying a canoe for about a year so it was no great surprise when I got a text message from him while in Montreal, after the bike rally.

“Do you have any concerns about me buying a canoe?”

Susan and I found it highly amusing. We were tired and giggly after our very long bike ride. Of all the things I might have concerns about while I was away–we have teenagers, aging parents, a new puppy– buying a canoe was pretty low on my list. He meant did I have any specific canoe features I really cared about. Oh.

Weight. And stability.

In a series of texts, I got the details. It’s a Swift canoe, a Keewaydin 17, “in guide fusion with kevlar carbon gunwales,” I’m told. Not quite sure yet what that means.

I do know that it’s 17 feet, 46 pounds.

We are going to do two kinds of touring in it, Algonquin back country and river trips. New adventures ahead! It seems pretty light, good for gear, stable.

I’d been inspired last year by Susan’s canoe purchase. I encouraged her to buy a road bike so it seemed only fair that she play a role in my getting a share in a canoe.

Susan, Mallory, and I are going to Algonquin today! They’ll be seven of us in total including mothers and daughters and Sarah who did the Port Stanley bike ride with us. All women.

We’re taking three canoes, including my new one. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m excited!



So far no name..

Do you name your small boats? Mallory even names her bicycles. Maybe we’ll wait until one suggests itself to us.

I think I can actually name it. Jeff has a generic name for all of his boats, mostly small sailboats. When asked to supply a name they’re all “Trouble.”