35 Trails Project: Grace is a Canoe

algonquin park, canoeing, canoer, paddlingNote: This canoe trip was totally one of my 35 trails because it was a water trail, complete with trail markers. There were also portages, if you’re of the belief that a trail only counts if it’s done on foot. I have no idea if anyone thinks this way. Probably nobody does except my inner critic and I’m coming across as weirdly defensive, and now you’re starting to wonder if a water trail actually ISN’T a thing after all. If so, please see my disclaimer above. 

This year I celebrated Canada Day in the most Canadian way possible: by going on a canoe trip in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. Algonquin, as a quick Google search reveals, is Canada’s oldest provincial park, and roughly 1.5 times the size of Prince Edward Island.

I fell in love with the park during the year I spent at an Outdoor Ed college in Muskoka. The multitude of lakes, the stillness, the kaleidoscope of fall colour, and the good memories I have of that place form a heady mix. So when I had the opportunity to visit with a friend on what was otherwise a family trip this summer, I couldn’t say no. It was like visiting an old fling and wondering if the feelings would still be there. They totally were.

Since my friend, J, was driving up from Ottawa, and we had both been too busy to do much planning, we hadn’t actually booked any campsites. Luckily, I HAD booked us a canoe, and the folks at Algonquin Outfitters, despite literally melting in the heat wave and facing hordes of equally melty Canada day revelers, were extremely accommodating.

They brought us to a giant plastic map of the park and traced out a 3 day route that was likely to still have paddle-in sites available (the park has a mix of reservable and first-come, first-served sites), showed us how to strap the canoe to our rental car so that we could get it back again in one piece and snuck us some extra rope for our bear cache. They even called me 3 days later to let me know that gramma was in the store looking for us.

My vision for the trip was something like this: 

Me: [Dipping a paddle serenely into a quiet lake] “J, tell me all about everything in your life!”

J: [Also dipping a paddle serenely into the lake, tells me about everything] “What about you?”

Me: [Deftly steering the canoe exactly where it needs to go, tells J everything]

J and Me: *lighthearted laughter*

[Lots of good feelings and bonding. And swimming. Miraculously, there are no insects because the heat wave has killed them all. An attractive and woodsy-looking man appears in a solo canoe beside us.]

Woodsy-and-Attractive Man: You two seem like great company AND experienced canoers -would you like to paddle together, and possibly share a camp fire?


The reality was more like this: 

[Yelling, above a strong, gusting wind]

J: “I’m having trouble keeping us on course.”

Me: “Should I paddle on the other side?”

J: “No, I’ve got it. KEEP PADDLING!”

[I am now using my paddle to swat at a horse fly that is biting my foot.]

Me: “Sorry, this fly keeps trying to bite me!”

J: “Ok, but it’s more important to keep paddling right now.”

Me: (Thinking: OMG, did she KNOW a fly was about to bite my foot and just DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING?)

Me: “Ok, but could you let me know if the fly comes back?

J: (Thinking: Is she not aware we are ONE PADDLE STROKE AWAY from being caught in a wind eddy that will keep us spinning in circles forever?? [No, I was not.])

J: “I’m pretty busy trying to steer us in the right direction…”

Me: “Ok, just let me know how I can help!”

J: “You can help by CONTINUING TO PADDLE!”

[I am swatting at the horsefly again, because it is EATING MY ENTIRE FOOT.]

Me: “Sorry, this stupid fly.”

[I kill the fly]



[I switch sides]

J: “Could you stick with one side?”

Me: “Ok, just let me know what you need me to do.”

J: “Just keep paddling. I’ll let you know if I want you to do something different.”

[We have now been spun 90 degrees by the wind and are heading in entirely the wrong direction]

Me: (unable to let it go) “Do you want me to switch sides?”

J: “What do you think?”

[I assume not.]

J: “SWITCH SIDES! We’re turning in a circle!”


It turns out that what felt like a stiff but otherwise pleasant wind from my place at the bow was actually a violent gale that was making steering impossible (shows how much I know about steering a canoe…and why I was in the bow). J was exhausted and worried we would be blown across the lake, never to return, while I was convinced she wasn’t taking my horsefly issue seriously enough.

Algonquin, park, portage, algonquin park

I’m sure the gust of wind is a metaphor for something. It was sunny and calm everywhere else except for that lake crossing (I think it took us 2 hours to cross on the way there and about 45 minutes on the way back). The wind felt fine to me only because I wasn’t the one steering the boat. I just thought J maybe had a weak J stroke.

Maybe the metaphor is this: what looks like weakness from the comfort of the bow might actually be strength in the face of some powerful, but invisible, adversity.

Or maybe it’s the fact that we don’t see the half of the adversity that other people face.

Maybe a canoe cutting a jagged path across a windy lake is just another way of saying, “be kind” — a reminder to choose grace.

algonquin park, lake

J and I eventually made it across the lake, and found the trail marker ushering us into a lazy river of extreme tranquility, many more horseflies, and a whole lot of frogs.

We completed the portages (with J carrying the canoe through swarms of mosquitoes) and set up camp at the first campsite we encountered at our destination lake.

algonquin park, campsite, staircase

Staircase to heaven…

algonquin park, tent, ray of sunshine

Ray of heavenly light

The tranquility of the place sank in, the breeze on our camp day kept the bugs away, and the other people in the park were evident only in the tiny campfires that dotted the far shores. As we read our books, lounged, caught up and snacked on our trail mix, the tension of the lake crossing dissipated and I think — I hope — that we regained our sacred common ground.

After sunset, before curling into my sleeping bag, I slipped into the dark, cool water, the only sound my easy strokes. Yep, nature can be fierce, but sometime, it is kind.

algonquin park, canoe

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1 Comment

  1. David McCullum

    I love this! More, please.