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.
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.
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.
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.