“Sunglasses, sunscreen, sunhats, sunflower seeds…” A seasoned outdoorsman rattled off items we were to take on our canoe trip. Sunflower seeds? I wondered with which hand he planned to eat them. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to let go of the side of the canoe to hold a paddle.
One day last summer a group of colleagues and I had the chance to see the rugged beauty of the Souris River up close. When Paul, our host announced that he’d arranged a canoe trip, unlike everybody else, I felt no excitement about stepping foot into a wobbly boat.
‘I am not taking part in this.’ I thought to myself. Floating down a river on a wonky piece of fiberglass meant venturing too far from my comfort zone. Besides, just thinking about being in any body of water bigger than a bathtub makes me nervous. From all I’ve heard about canoeing, being tossed into the water is often part of the adventure. ‘No dip, dip and swing her back for me.’
“Linda,” the voice of my friend, Dora cut through my muse. “Let’s you and I go too.” My eyes turned into saucers ready to leave their socket. I looked at her, hoping to see that she was joking, to no avail. She really wanted me to go. Not wanting to dash Dora’s hopes, I agreed to go, despite a boatload of apprehension.
A few hours after agreeing to this crazy idea, we were getting ready for our excursion. “Better leave your phones behind.” Someone warned. “Too risky.” By that time I had told myself repeatedly, ‘I’ll sit very still, right in the middle of the canoe, so I should be ok’. Hearing the word ‘risky’ was unsettling, but I didn’t ask what the risk was. Reluctantly I left my phone behind. As nervous as I was about this, I’m not sure how I planned to take pictures anyway.
With a trailer full of canoes in tow, we headed to the Souris River, in my home province, Manitoba, Canada. As we donned life jackets and lugged canoes down the steep bank, I still had some misgivings. Climbing into the canoe, as it rocked crazily, didn’t wash them away either.
Nevertheless, a few minutes later I felt relatively comfortable as we paddled down the river. Paul, the experienced canoer was our stern paddler. In the middle, Marcus, the young son of another teacher, entertained us with his childish chatter, while I ended up as the bow paddler. I soon found myself humming Margaret Embers McGee’s Canadian folk song.
My paddles keen and bright. Flashing like silver.
Follow the wild goose flight. Dip, dip and swing.
“Rapids up ahead, but we’ll be okay, they’re not very fast.” Paul announced, drowning my urge to sing. “Don’t paddle when we come to them. Let the current take us through.” The first part of the order seemed logical enough, as I knew I’ll need my hands to hold on, but handing my life over to strong currents and huge rocks seemed insane.
As we approached the rapids I felt my sit-still-and-you’ll-be-fine theory along with the few ounces of bravery I’d mustered, drift down river. However, with no other option, I placed my paddle across my lap, clamped my hands to the side of the canoe, squeezed my eyes shut and prayed we wouldn’t capsize. In mere minutes we were on the other side of ‘the risk’ that was mentioned before we left and I didn’t even scream.
Reaching calmer waters, I slowly pried my hands from the canoe, grabbed my paddle, looked over my shoulder, and found Paul casually eating sunflower seeds. “Those rapids were not very strong; some are worse,” he stated in the same tone he’d say, “These sunflowers are too salty.”
“Very comforting.” I mumbled. But it did bring me a measure of comfort to have a laid back captain on-board, one who obviously was able to read the river well.
At one point we got hung up between two rocks. I tried to push, since I was in front, but couldn’t dislodge the canoe. Rocking the boat didn’t help either. Then Paul moved towards the middle to help push away from the rocks. We finally got free, struggled to paddle away from the rocks and ended up being taken through the rapids backwards.
In the wake of each rapid, along with utter relieve, I felt a bit braver. After an hour or so I was even beginning to enjoy the rush of dodging rocks while being pushed by the force of the river. However that didn’t hinder me from leaving my fingerprints on the side of the canoe.
Between rapids there was ample opportunity to paddle along leisurely and enjoy this scenic river. Lush forests, in multi-shades of green, hugged this waterway. Oak, poplar and Manitoba maple trees tower from high banks. In some places majestic cliffs jutted straight up towards a cloudless azure sky. Paddling along this picturesque river was like stepping into a remote wilderness. I regretted not bringing my phone to capture some of this rugged beauty. (The pictures featured here were sent to me by a friend, long after our trip.)
Soon Paul’s voice broke into my reverie. “Keep to the right. Seems like the best way to get through these rapids.” From where I sat there was no best way. All I saw were the wildest rapids yet. The rush of turbulent water and being jostled from rock to rock were a strong reminder that nature can also be terrifying. My brain was painting vivid pictures, I prayed would not become reality. I was thankful that wet clothes and an elevated heart rate were all I had to deal with. As we settled into calmer water, I felt like kissing at least one of the rocks we dodged.
One of the last rapids we faced proved to be too much for some of our friends; their canoe was immersed to the point where it seemed the stern paddler was sitting in water. This is not good. I worried knowing we still had to get through these same rapids. But we got through without incident. As we came alongside our sinking friends, the sight resembled a comic strip. The bow paddler was paddling furiously, while the stern paddler was bailing water with his shoe. Having forgotten to bring bailing buckets, they ended up paddling to shore to get rid of water.
Later, stiff, wet and hungry, I gingerly made my way out of the canoe after three hours on the river. Had I known about the rapids beforehand, I would not have been brave enough to set foot in a canoe. Going into something blindly, I concluded, has its rewards – terrifying or not, I would go again.