Our trip this summer was a steep learning curve for me on multiple fronts. (I mean, sure I had paddled before… but 46 straight days of paddling really gave me an opportunity to perfect skills that I may have previously considered to be more than adequate...) To my surprise, the most important lesson that I learned had nothing at all to do with canoeing. Don’t get me wrong; it was arguably very important that I learned how to set up and take down camp efficiently, or to navigate boulder gardens safely. However, the key skill that I learned on our trip was to be positive in the face of adversity.
It’s funny, because before this trip, I would have described myself as a very positive person. I mean, I like to have fun, and being outrageously positive means that I get to have more of it. But as the trip unfolded, and as I saw how my travel partners behaved on even the most challenging days, I realized that fair-weather positivity is not the real deal. For a good attitude to really count, it has to happen during thunderstorms, on 5 km portages, and when battling both the current and a headwind.
The best evidence of the difference between my compatriots and myself at the outset of the trip can be found in my journal:
We paddled 9 hours in the rain with a fierce headwind. I was colder than I have ever been before, and the mosquitoes were horrible. But, I made it to the end of the day without complaining!
This entry says quite a bit about what I thought being positive consisted of in the early days of our adventure. If I was well fed and warm, I was as chipper as could be. But if I was tired, cold, and hungry, I considered it an accomplishment to silently endure hardship without any complaints. I very quickly came to realize that stoicism was not what my friends were all about.
Paul has a nasty rash all over his stomach and chest from wearing a wet cotton shirt in the rain yesterday. It looks quite painful, and yet he has been carrying all of the heaviest loads while laughing, joking and singing loudly all day. I don’t really understand how he has the energy for it.
Slowly but surely, I worked to learn the ways of the eternally positive. I tried my best to laugh and joke around between portage runs, even when I was so tired that I wanted to just have a quick nap on the tundra. I tried to stay up and spend quality time with everyone, rather than getting into my sleeping bag the instant that dinner was over. And while I never reached the point where I could happily carry on an effortless conversation while hauling a canoe and a pack over a 1.5 km boulder garden, my journal provides the proof that I at least reached the point of successfully deceiving myself into thinking that I was being positive:
I had a tough morning, and wondered (for the 1st time) if I could really do this trip. But, I battled through this mentality while crying sneakily into the wind and rain. Now I feel much better and more hopeful.
Woke up to crappy weather. Paddled for a half hour and barely made it a kilometer because of the strong north wind. We headed for shore and set up camp within sight of the previous night’s campsite…I haven’t cried yet on this trip, which is quite surprising, frankly.
Look at that! I seem to have managed to block out the memory of crying in the rain within less than two weeks. If that’s not a remarkable example of the effectiveness of my friend’s positivity brainwashing, than I don’t know what is.
Once we reached the Little Partridge River, our trip got a whole lot tougher. We were traveling upstream in very low water, and we constantly had to drag our canoes over reefs, or portage around stretches where the river was barely even visible through the rocks. We were averaging 13-hour days, with some as long as 16. It was at this point that I was introduced to the ultimate way of being positive: redefining the meanings of common words, such as ‘fun’. On one particularly rough day, my friends explained to me the meaning of Type I and Type II fun. For those of you unfamiliar with these terms, they are defined as follows:
Type I fun: This is the genuine article, the kind of fun that we all know and love. This is when you are doing an activity and feeling happy and joyful throughout.
Type II fun: This is the slightly more questionable kind of fun. This is when you’re working really hard and pushing yourself, and mostly you’re tired, hot, and sweaty. It’s only later, when you are looking back and feeling proud of your accomplishments, that you realize that what you considered to be hard work at the time was actually really fun. Type II fun is the quintessential kind of fun on most canoe trips. It is satisfying, and when you set up camp at the end of the day, you have the energy to laugh, and chat, and relax.
Type III fun: This is the type of fun that we had to invent on the Little Partridge River when we realized that there was no possible way to categorize what we were doing as ‘fun’. Type III fun is simply backbreaking work over long hours that is exhausting and demoralizing. While looking back at Type II fun stimulates positive feelings and good memories, looking back at Type III fun is something that you just don’t do…because there is nothing good to remember.
Joking about what type of fun we were currently experiencing helped us keep it positive through some of the most exhausting parts of the trip. It was also at this point that I learned an entirely new meaning for the word, ‘good’.
Everyone laughed pretty hard today when James told them what I said to him last night in the tent. “I don’t understand. Why does everyone high five and say, ‘Good day, guys!’ when it was actually a really shitty day?”
It turns out that while there are various ways to interpret the word ‘good’ that I previously had been familiar with, there are actually others as well. To me, ‘good’ could mean that we had fun, or that we worked hard and covered a lot of ground, or that we made it to the campsite that we were aiming for that day. However, none of these meanings were true for most days on the Little Partridge. We consistently had Type III fun, covered less than ten kilometers, and we took two times longer than we had budgeted for that particular 70-kilometer stretch. Apparently, ‘good’ can also mean, ‘no one died/we’re moving slowly towards our goal/let’s keep it positive or we might lose all forward momentum/teamwork is the only way through/let’s get up and do it all again tomorrow’. After July 16, when everyone laughed at my confusion, the definition of ‘good’ grew to include, ‘hilariously and outrageously bad’ as well.
In contrast to the first five weeks, the last week or so of our trip seemed like a tropical vacation. The temperature rose into the twenties, we camped on a beach every night, and we were far enough ahead of schedule that our day of ‘paddling’ often consisted of rafting up the canoes and laying in the sun listening to Steve read to us from an assortment of books. Our adventure ended on a high, and gave the whole trip a warm glow in retrospect (one that hadn’t been present with the low temperatures and eternal cloud cover that we had experienced up until that point).
* * *
“So, how was the trip?” is the first question asked by every person that I’ve seen since returning home. Each time I pause, and depending on my audience (and how impressive I want to seem), I consider some possible responses:
“Incredible. I saw so much wildlife!”
“Freezing. I never imagined that I would spend that much time wet and cold. We got Chilblains, which none of us had even heard of before this trip!”
“Challenging. I didn’t really understand how hard we would have to work every day.”
“Amazing! I may never have the opportunity to do something that inspiring and life-changing again.”
“Hard. So much harder than I thought it was going to be.”
As I’ve tried to decide how to answer this question, I’ve realized how difficult it is to encompass our trip in only a few adjectives. So, I settle for the word that I’ve learned means so much more than I originally thought.
“Thanks for asking. The trip was…good.”