Endings and Beginnings

When I was still in my teens, I went wilderness canoe camping in La Verendrye Provincial Park a hundred or so miles north of Ottawa, in Quebec. The trip was about a hundred mile circuit in which we would paddle across a lake, portage to the next lake, and so on, until we returned roughly back to where we started. Some of the most enchanting experiences I’ve ever had, I experienced on that trip. And some of it was scary and grueling. Paddling in the cold rain wasn’t much fun, nor was paddling with a stiff crosswind blowing the canoe sideways across the lake. My then boyfriend and I were in an aluminum canoe with a keel that was made for white water canoeing, which meant it could turn very easily, but had very little resistance to a wind blowing it from the side.

One evening we pitched our camp on the shore of a small lake that had wild rice and other grasses growing up out of its shallows. The colors of the sunset were reflecting off of the gently rippling waters and loons were paddling among the grasses making their wild and lonely-sounding call. And to top it all off, we could see Skylab up in the sky as it was making its orbit above Canada. It was one of the most beautiful evenings I can ever remember experiencing.

That evening was made even more memorable by the events of the day leading up to it. We had paddled across a long and winding lake as the waters got more and more narrow and shallow. The water became choked with grasses and reeds with just a path of water winding along down the middle of it. Eventually we had to get out of our boats, wading through the shallow water, towing them by their painter ropes. The water got more and more shallow until the boats were bottoming out on reeds and sand. Still we pulled and scraped the boats along. Finally, there wasn’t enough water to keep towing, and the ground wasn’t firm enough for portaging. We were stuck. According to the map, there should have been a lake right there were we were. But we saw no lake.

It was decided that two or three of us would scout ahead to see if any navigable water could be found, while the rest of us pitched a bivouac to shelter us from the rain, and have some lunch. It was cold and wet, and we were all very miserable and cranky because we didn’t know how we were going to get out of there. I don’t remember how long we waited for the scouts to return, but when they did, they said they didn’t see anything, and there was nothing for it but to keep going in the same direction and hope for the best. We were very close to despair, but we got back up and started towing.

The water continued to get more and more narrow and shallow, and we continued to pull and drag our boats over and through the sand and grasses, until we were finally brought up short by land. Just land, in the form of a sand bank that was about eight feet high. The water ended, just like that. No more water at all, just land. To say we were shocked would be an understatement.

After a moment or two of giving in to our shock and despair, the people in the two lead boats decided to climb up the bank to see what could be seen. When they got to the top, they let out a yell and shouted, “Quick! Get up here!” We all scrambled as fast as we could through the grasses and the sand and climbed up the sand bank until we reached the top, and there, spreading out before us, not more than ten or twenty feet away, was the largest lake we had seen so far on the trip. Our relief was palpable, and we jumped and hooted and hollered for joy.

By the time evening was beginning to close in and it was time to find a spot to pitch our camp, we had paddled the length of that lake and had portaged to the next one. This was the small lake on the bank of which we enjoyed the perfect evening watching the sunset reflecting off of the waters to the sound of the loons.

I like the memory of that day and evening certainly for the beauty of it, and the experience of just being there in that place. But this experience I think has a life lesson in it as well. Sometimes in life (certainly I have had such experiences more than once in my life), circumstances and events, and even life itself, seem to be closing in on a person, choking off options and even a path forward, to the point that it seems like one simply can’t continue. One becomes mired and sinks into despair, not having any idea how to proceed or to find a way forward. In my own life, when things have gotten to that point, I have reminded myself of the experience that day in the canoes, and then I know that there is always a way forward, even when it seems that there isn’t. Sometimes you can’t see that way forward, but you just have to keep moving until it shows itself. That was a great lesson for me.

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