Lessons in Positivity

Lessons in Positivity

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:

July 5:

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.

July 6:

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.

Paul's positivity working wonders on my morale.

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:

July 13:

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.

July 25:

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.

Has a long portage pushed me to the edge of tears? We'll never know, because I've omitted it
from my memory.

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.

Just another day on the Little Partridge River: wading in frigid water on slippery rocks for 12+ hours

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’.

July 16:

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. 

Pondering what type of fun I am having…

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).

* * *

Our tropical beach vacation

“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.”

-Augusta Stobbe

 

A Land of Stories

A Land of Stories

If you have ever paddled on a seldom-traveled river, you likely know the joy of seeing a rock that has been marked with canoe paint.  Rocks donning red, green, and yellow streaks can be found in shallow creeks, at campsite landings, and in eddies along the river. To me, these little splashes of colour have always been reassuring.  They suggest that you are on the right path and act as a reminder that you are part of a larger community of paddlers. When the 16-hour portaging days on the Little Partridge River seemed nearly impossible, streaks of green paint acted as beacons of hope for our group.  They offered a reminder that people had travelled this way before and that completing this difficult section was possible. Often, this paint scratched off on rocks has become an inspiration for storytelling.  After a few sightings of paint, the groups I travel with will begin fabricating stories about the people who were in those canoes.  We invent names, imagine their personality traits, and hypothesize some wild adversity they’ve had to overcome. While this may seem like a silly activity, seeing those small ribbons of colour always reminds me of the rich history that humans have etched upon the landscape.

The wilderness is a space of stories: those we create, those we decipher, and those that will be told about us after we’ve gone.  If we look closely, we find numerous signs that the land has been travelled before us.  Portage trails, abandoned garbage, fishing outposts, and fire pits scar the land, telling tales of its inhabitance by humans.  Some of the stories we discover are recent – such as intact footprints on a muddy portage – and some of the things we uncover tell much older stories.  Finding arrowheads, tent rings, and trap lines reminds us of the thousands of years of history the land holds.  The Canadian wilderness is ripe with reminders that even the most remote land is not “unknown” but has been (and is) intimately known to those who have lived on it and those who continue to harvest from it.

  Hadley inspects a caribou skull we found on the bank of the Seal River

Hadley inspects a caribou skull we found on the bank of the Seal River

The canoe, for me, sits within a complicated nexus of meanings and symbolism.  It simultaneously represents a form of escape and a sense of return, a luxury and a return to basics, a tool of connecting to our history but also a means for ongoing colonization.  The language that surrounds canoe trips is both troubling and exciting.  We often use words like untouched, exploration, and voyageur.  The language we use is a way of understanding what we do and a means of explaining it to others – a way of describing the different essence of a remote wilderness trip to those who may have only ever camped out of their car.  This language is exaggerated for storytelling, for headline grabbing, and for our own hubris-tinted reasons, but in trying to reflect our feeling of adventure we sometimes get lost in language that repeats the terms and phrases of colonization.   

  Visiting Environment Canada's water station on the Seal River. A log book in the cabin has entries from canoe trips that have passed through since the 90s. An older log was rescued (and not returned) when a forest fire grew uncomfortably close to the area.

Visiting Environment Canada's water station on the Seal River. A log book in the cabin has entries from canoe trips that have passed through since the 90s. An older log was rescued (and not returned) when a forest fire grew uncomfortably close to the area.

After our trip, Know the North was lucky to receive some media attention including a few online articles, a radio spot, and a short television segment about our adventure.  Although grateful for the opportunity to be featured, a number of these stories used language that described our trip as ‘exploration through unknown lands’ (or some variation of that phrasing).  While this narrative adds a sense of importance to our trip, it also silences a more accurate history of northern Canada and its peoples.  Although this was likely not the intended consequence of those reporting, our group became frustrated with the ways that our story was being retold.  This summer we were not exploring unknown places, we simply traveled through places that are known to someone different than ourselves.  We were not on unnamed rivers, just on rivers whose names have not been printed on maps. It is humbling to remember that an ‘epic expedition’ (such as ours has been titled) is actually just a recreation of the past – an attempt at imitating the deep knowledge and skill of those who have come before us.  At its best, the words we use to describe canoe expeditions are an ignorant repetition of the language of colonization.  At its worst, they are a continued act of injustice – erasing the stories of indigenous people who have lived in the area for centuries. We hope that the stories we tell will honour those who have travelled before us and will reflect the rich history of Canada’s North.

  We stopped to peek in the windows of Caribou Post on Little Duck Lake, where The Hudson Bay Co. would buy furs from local Dene trappers. The post closed in 1956 - the same year the Dene people of Little Duck were relocated to Churchill by the Department of Indian Affairs (information from   http://www.thelodgeatlittleduck.com/area-history/  )

We stopped to peek in the windows of Caribou Post on Little Duck Lake, where The Hudson Bay Co. would buy furs from local Dene trappers. The post closed in 1956 - the same year the Dene people of Little Duck were relocated to Churchill by the Department of Indian Affairs (information from http://www.thelodgeatlittleduck.com/area-history/)

Now that we have left our mark on the wilderness (hopefully it was a minimal one) our stories will continue to tell themselves to those that come after us.  A pair of shoes forgotten at the end of a portage will fuel future stories about who we may have been and where we may have been going (not to mention how we managed without our shoes).  Our lost tackle box may lead to fabricated assumptions about clientele of nearby fishing lodges.  The paint we’ve left behind will warn future paddlers about shallow rocks, and will alert them to possible portage landings.  Hopefully, in time, our stories will fade. The paint will wash away and future travelers will collect our lost items.  What will not change is that the land will always be full of stories.  We were not adventurers exploring new and undiscovered places; we were young canoeists visiting a land rich in history and full of meaning.  Telling the story in this way is more exciting, meaningful, and honest than any tale of “exploration” will ever be.

In the coming weeks, this blog will be a place for us to tell our stories.  Some of them will be of the challenges we faced, while others will focus on the beauty of Canada’s north.  Some will likely include exaggerations, but all will be in our own words.  As you read these stories, we hope you think of them as simply a chapter in a much larger novel – a minuscule peek into a history that came before us, and will continue to grow long after we have gone.  We hope that in the least, these stories inspire you to think about, learn about, or even visit Canada’s North and intertwine your own life story with this magical place.

-Kira Burkett

Snapshots of the trip

As the trip's media coordinator, I have the delight and honour of getting almost daily updates from Know the North. Even 120 characters can paint quite the picture. Here are a few highlights (edited for coherence, grammar, and spelling) from the past two weeks that the trip has been out on the water. Lots of challenges already, and many more to come. But endless rewards. 

D2 - still windy - big day - raised RCGS flag. Great headwinds again. 

D3 - headwind & rain still killing 40+km days, love life, camped at a 2km set shoot tomorrow! At a lean-to built by Hads in 2014!

D6 - no sun no dark all is grey all day. Headwinds duh. Saw brown bear, black bear, lotsa birds, 39 km, loving life. 

D11 - biggest paddle day ever, 14 hours on Partridge River upstream tracking like mad, more to come next 4 days! Pushing physical and mental limits like a boss

D14 - in NWT!! Crazy gorgeous!! Still tracking and portaging 99% of day, only paddle 2km at a time at most! 

Start the Conservation Conversation!

Start the Conservation Conversation!

KTN Proud to Partner with CPAWS-MB

Whenever I head up into the far north it feels like I have gone back in time. For the most part the remote Canadian wilderness is the same now as it was a thousand years ago - eskers and drumlin fields dominate the landscape, and forests of black spruce and tamarack provide cover for the creatures that call this region home. It’s easy to think it will stay this way forever. Sadly, in a world of resource scarcity and profit rule, the survival of our pristine wilderness will depend on the continued work of dedicated individuals advocating for its protection.  One such organization working here in Manitoba is the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). 

Living in Winnipeg for most of the year it is easy to turn a blind eye to what is going on elsewhere. It’s easier to be apathetic than stand up and fight for causes that don’t have a voice of their own. This is why it is so important to explore our northern regions and educate ourselves on the challenges facing remote northern environments. The trips I’ve done in Manitoba have shown me first-hand the impacts of large-scale development projects. I’ve paddled by the clear-cuts where old-growth forests used to exist. I’ve seen the huge swaths of trees laid to the ground in order to make way for power lines. I’ve had to use a bandana to filter the particulate from water before it is fit for consumption. I’ve spoken to individuals living in northern communities who tell me that their traditional way of life is not feasible due to the environmental impact of hydroelectric dams. And I know that I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s going on. 

    
 
       
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-CA;}   Paddling the Nelson River in 2014 was an eye-opening experience as to how industrial development projects can completely alter an environment. Holding flowers made me feel better though .

Paddling the Nelson River in 2014 was an eye-opening experience as to how industrial development projects can completely alter an environment. Holding flowers made me feel better though.

So what can we do about it? As members of Know The North, we believe that education and advocacy are essential for preserving our remote Canadian wilderness. Our aim is to bring back home what we see and learn on our expidition in order to educate the next generation of Canadians to become active participants in preserving our natural environments.

This is also why we have teamed up with CPAWS Manitoba. Since 1991, the Manitoba Chapter of CPAWS has been a champion advocate for our wilderness, and a leading voice in provincial conservation efforts.  Currently, the Manitoba Chapter of CPAWS is working toward a process that would see protections for the Seal River watershed in Manitoba’s far north; one that is undertaken in full partnership with Indigenous communities and the province. Not only is the Seal River the last of Manitoba’s great rivers to remain undammed, but the landscape within the watershed bears few signs at all of human impact. 

This lack of industrial development has allowed the region’s ecological diversity to flourish. It means the harbour seals can still travel over 200 km upriver from Hudson Bay, and beluga whales can still use the river as a safe place to birth their young (see CPAWS’ fantastic piece by Joshua Pearlman regarding the Beluga Habitat Sustainability Plan recently released by the province, and the need for a holistic approach to species and environmental protection here). It means the subarctic forest can still provide habitats for a variety of species such as black bear, moose, wolf, fox, wolverine, beaver, otter, eagle, osprey, and other northern birds. It means that the estimated 400,000 animals of the Qaminuriak caribou herd can winter here and continue to contribute to the ecosystem and provide for the members of Inuit and Dene communities in northern Manitoba and Nunavut. Paddling within the Seal River watershed this summer will no doubt be a unique, unforgettable, and humbling experience for all of us on Know the North.

For more information on CPAWS Manitoba’s Seal River campaign, head to their site over here

    
 
       
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-CA;}   The rugged and remote Bigstone River, Manitoba. The difficulty involved in getting to and away from this river means hopefully it will stay this way!

The rugged and remote Bigstone River, Manitoba. The difficulty involved in getting to and away from this river means hopefully it will stay this way!

By raising public awareness and support through our expedition and new partnership, we aim to forward the cause of protection in the Seal River watershed from the threat of industrial development projects. In what is a fragile environment, it is not hard to fathom the huge impacts that mineral exploration or power generating systems would cause.  We take great pride in standing with CPAWS-MB as they celebrate 25 years of conservation in Manitoba, and are excited to contribute in our small way to their valuable efforts. 

If you’re interested in reading more about the Manitoba Chapter of CPAWS and their initiatives to protect Manitoba’s parks and wilderness, or wish to donate to their cause, please visit their website at www.cpawsmb.org

-Paul Schram

 

Lessons In Fear

Lessons In Fear

Ask anyone in my family and they’ll tell you that I love adventuring. And by adventuring, I mean: any activity that has an element of discovery to it. Hiking through the woods and checking out weird looking mushrooms? Done! Watching ants collect picnic leftovers? Sold! Learning how to white water canoe? Already on it!  However, if you asked that same family member whether I enjoyed strenuous activity and pushing my body to the limit… Well, suffice it to say, they would laugh in your face. Because here’s the thing: while I love mental challenges, I am scared of physical ones.  

I had learnt in theory, but James was determined to help me make the low brace an instinctive reaction.

You know how things that happen to you as a kid shape your adult life? Well, I grew up with a father who had been a university athlete, and he expected all of his children to play sports. Now don’t get me wrong, my dad never outright demanded that I excel at soccer or volleyball (or whatever sport I was trying at the moment). He said exactly what parents are supposed to say, “It’s not about winning. What matters is that you have fun out there!”  But kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and I knew exactly what would make him proud: I had to be both the best player and the captain of the team…and maybe even help coach on occasion. Sadly, my still developing physical coordination didn’t match up with my lofty goals, and after one too many humiliating failures, I eventually dropped out of organized sports entirely. All of my (and my dad’s) broken dreams left me with a crippling anxiety surrounding physically demanding activities. It’s not that I don’t enjoy using my muscles, it’s that I’m afraid to look stupid while doing it.

Fast forward to this past fall. When James suggested that we do an epic canoe trip in northern Canada, I had two thoughts in very quick succession. This first one was, “I love canoe trips! Nothing better than getting out into nature! This will be great!” And the second thought came from that deep part of my soul, the part that doesn’t want to try and then fail. “1400 kilometers in 50 days!? That’s madness! You won’t be able to do it!” I was terrified at the prospect of getting two weeks into the trip and then realizing that I wasn’t cut out for it. 

Paddling Lake Winnipeg feels like paddling on the ocean. We had an offshore wind, and I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if we were just swept out to sea. 

I agonized over whether or not to join the expedition for weeks. One day, I was explaining to my dad how much I really wanted to go, but also how afraid I was of being seen by my fellow canoe trippers as not good enough, or strong enough, or skilled enough. My dad looked me in the eyes (which was mildly alarming, as he was driving at the time), and he said, “Augusta, one of the most important things I’ve learned in life is that you shouldn’t be ruled by fear. Don’t base important life decisions on whether or not something is scary or you will miss out on some incredible opportunities.” 


And that was it. No matter how challenging the trip was going to be, I knew that I was going. 

-Augusta Stobbe

We're Headed North

We're Headed North

Packing only what we’re willing to carry (and then some, for good measure).

Last summer, right after I got back from a six week canoe trip, I got to spend time with my cousin’s kids, who were four and seven. We spent the entire morning playing at Canoe Trip: paddling down waterfalls, carefully tying up our imaginary boat on shore, meeting a crotchety one-legged trapper who promised to show us the best place for trapping beaver if we would carry her over the intervening mountain (far-fetched, I’ll admit). I lost several pieces of gear for weeks, as my bag was unpacked, each piece carefully examined and discussed, and then carried around the house and ‘cached’ for later.

People who spend time in the big outdoors or the wild are handed the incredible opportunity time and time again to reach out and change lives. We travel to places others only dream about. In that interaction, what do we do? Hopefully, we do not boast or swagger. We do not keep the best spots hidden away for ourselves, for fear that too many people undo a wilderness. We say “let me show you”. Growing up, the eight of us were all fortunate to have such people in our lives – be they guides, friends, or relatives. People who knew the names of wild things, who had travelled widely, or who convinced us to carry a heavier load than we might have liked, or trusted us to walk alone in the woods. We were uncomfortable or over-confident or afraid – and we were enabled by being allowed to try. We learned that there was a lot we didn’t know, and we learned.

It is our humble hope to enable others through our adventures.  

 

"In between thunderstorms, we climbed a hill and looked back up the Berens River. We realized our small path was one of an infinite many, swallowed by the land."

Our trip will take us 1,400 kilometres through Canada’s north. Though we travel as eight, we hope to share our trip as widely as possible. Many of us are educators, all of us are storytellers. That four year-old sat down with me and said that, in twelve years, it would be her turn to go on a six week trip with me. We talked about how to build fires and the animals I saw. She had me teach her paddle strokes in the front hall. 

The first time you hear about the thing that will become your passion, it is as if an incredible secret has been kept from you up until that moment. You wonder why everybody isn’t talking about it incessantly, dropping everything to follow that one spark. Or, perhaps, that thing is instead an ember that inspires you in subtle ways throughout your years. In so many of us, this appreciation of the wilderness, of wild spaces and species, has not yet been touched upon. We hope to start that conversation in our classrooms, our schools, our lives. It is more important than ever, as wild places erode through development or shift under climate change while more and more humans live in urban areas.

– Sydney Toni

 

P.S. We’re hitting the road in July, but each of us will share stories, dreams, and expectations right here as we prepare to head out. Stay in touch, follow along, and find stories of your own!