My Compass Points North

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“Be aware that this area is like ‘Algonquin on steroids’: some lakes are bigger, the portages are tougher and the hills rockier” – The Adventure Map, Temagami 2

About 2 weeks ago, I led my very first canoe trip. It was one of the most intimidating, most exhausting, most inspiring, most challenging and most rewarding things that I have ever done. In about 2 weeks, I’ll be doing the same thing all over again with another group of 15 year old kids. Just the thought of it gives me butterflies….except this time they are butterflies of excitement rather than the nervousness I felt this time last month.

As most of you know, I just did my tripper training in May of this year. I didn’t even get to warm up and lead a trip in the areas around camp that I am familiar with. Instead, I jumped right into a 5 day adventure in Temagami on a rather remote route that I had only paddled once, four years earlier. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I’m using my journal (which came with me on trip) to help me with the details of this post and looking at the ones leading up to the trip, I wrote almost everyday about my fears before our departure. I think that’s normal though. I was about to have the lives on 18 people in my hands. I was the one calling the shots. I was responsible. And holy hell, I was nervous about it. All I could do was pray for courage, patience and sound judgement.

I’m not going to give you all a play by play of our route because lets be real, you probably don’t care. I am going to try to give you all an insight into my feelings on the trip, as well as the hardest and best moments. Just for some background, I was leading a trip that consisted of myself, my co-faciliatator Liam and 16 of our leadership participants who are 14 and 15 years old. The trip was a loop in the southern part of Temagami that totalled 90km and included 7 portages of varying lengths. Temagami itself is incredibly beautiful…clear blue waters, wind swept old growth pine forests, tall rock faces, small and pristine portage in only lakes. It is the true north and a stunning definition of Canadian wilderness.

Day one was fairly uneventful. We made it to our site in early afternoon and had a lot of fun hanging out, swimming, exploring and getting to know each other (although dinner was a disappointing fail). One of the coolest things about trip is the bonding that happens. Without any outside distractions, you get to know the people you are with very well. Liam and I quickly realized how awesome our trip group was – wonderfully hilarious and so much fun to be with. I can’t brag about my kids enough.

Looking at our map, we knew that day 2 was going to be our longest day on the water so we got to bed early. Sure enough, it dawned a beautiful day but I was really nervous about navigation. Relying solely on a map and compass versus knowing the area like I do around Kitchi was super intimidating. Not to mention, everything looks the same!! The trees, the water, the islands. Looking at the map and then looking up and trying to figure out which little piece of land you are looking at is pretty difficult. Lucky for us, we passed lots of friendly cottagers and between taking bearings, I got into the habit of calling out “Which island are you?” every once in a while to pinpoint where we were on the map. We were never lost but it was a nice way to assure myself we were on the right track.

But day 2 was also my lowest point as a tripper. We were stopped for lunch after our first real portage. It was only about 75m and took us over 40 minutes to accomplish because the kids just didn’t quite get what portaging was all about. The wind was picking up and we were about to head out into the stretch of what I knew was going to be most difficult to navigate. The kids were already complaining about being tired. I was overwhelmed by the weight of it all and truly thought I might cry. Liam looked at me and asked what I wanted to do; I needed to make a call. I knew we had to keep going, and more importantly, I knew that I had to put on a brave face for my team. So that’s what we did. I took a bearing, we packed up the canoes and off we went. That day we were on that water for 11 hours, portaging a total of 5 times and completing a huge chunk of the trip. It was long, it was hard and I was so, so tired. Yet that night I was so proud of myself. We were safe and we had accomplished our goal. I knew then that I could do this.

The next day was the “Death March”. A very long, hilly and rocky portage that is notorious for making L1 trip hell. I don’t want to bore you with the details but it was another long and challenging day. The highlight however was meeting up with the other half of the group and spending the night at a campsite together. We swam at a beach all together with crazy waves – it felt more like we were in the Mediterranean than the Canadian North. Those carefree moments laughing and playing with the kids, all together and relaxed after a couple hard days is something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. That’s the point after all. That’s why we do this trip. It’s to form connections and make lasting memories. That’s what it’s all about.

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In the past, I don’t think I ever really understood how many things a trip leader has to be thinking about at once…until I was actually doing it. One of the kids made a comment at the site one night that I was making leading look effortless. I mention that only because I remember thinking the same thing about my tripper when I was in L1 and it is only now that I realize just how many things she was juggling at once! From checking the map and compass, to watching the weather and assessing risks, making sure everyone is feeling well, drinking water etc, setting up camp, coordinating food, communicating with camp and still acting like a regular human being who interacts with everyone on the trip…Liam and I both were surprised by how constantly focused and busy we were.

I love being out on the water. I love laughing with kids and cooking outside and the feeling at the end of a portage when your whole body hurts and you have a huge sense of accomplishment. I’m proud. And just to put it out there, it’s in huge part thanks to the amazing instructor I had; more than once i found myself repeating to the kids something he had told me on trip. Marty, if you’re reading this, thank you.

I can’t wait to do the trip again with new dynamics and new adventures. Never stop challenging yourself friends, you can do things you never thought possible. Also, confidence is key; trust your own abilities.

Until next time,

-Sam

p.s. Shoutout to Liam MacLeod…there is no one else I’d have rather had with me on trip. Your humor and support kept me calm and you made me keep going when I was the most overwhelmed. I appreciate you a lot.

 

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4 thoughts on “My Compass Points North

  1. Sarah Kelly

    Congratulations on your first trip of a lifetime in a remote leadership role. You’re amazing and your blog just perfect. To those of us lucky enough to have done this exact trip portaging for 6 days in a loop called the ‘Lady Evelyn circuit ‘ in Tamagami. We went to one of the few wilderness outfitters in Tamagami, outfitted by Hap Wilson himself (although we didn’t know what a legend he was in those days) and was somewhat aware of the types of terrain we’d encounter from our Algonquin portage trips. But the things we saw, the sounds we heard, the silence like no other, the Aurora Boreallis, the trillions of stars, the slapping of the beavertails at night because we were intruders, the drifting silent and motionless through 60 congregated Loons for their evening social gathering, the paddling with all your might, against white caps, crying with the winds whipping the rain in your face, the terror in a little 2 man tent under the protection of trees while you are under a massive thunderstorm, rigid with fear until it passed by. Then by massive contrast only a day later, to drift with the current within an established beaver trail through and under old flooded forest with fallen trees overhead as you duck under,flat against all the packed items you repack in your boat, under tarp. after each new portage or campsite….those views, those smells, that pristine lakewater (it was about 25 years ago now) it’s as clear in my mind as if it was yesterday….thank you so much for your account of your trip, I almost felt like I could have been there….one day….

  2. Andrea Kosturik

    Sam!! This is amazing and I’m glad I will always be able to look back and read this to re-experience everything I felt during trip! Love you!!

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