Our group was all talk most of the time, and what we did wasn’t easy to justify, what with the constant buzzing of millions of mosquitoes and black flies just outside our bug tent each night.
Besides bugs, we were in the Canadian Arctic and the waters up there were cold, bracingly cold.
Yet, we had to do it. We had to swim. The act of swimming after a long day of paddling and portaging a canoe is worth it — always. The added reward for the heart-stopping task in wilderness we were in was nothing longer than 30 seconds of bug-free bliss. After dunking in the frigid waters, skin is too cold to appeal to bugs, making getting wet one of the many fleeting and oddly transcendent moments we experienced on a daily basis during an adventure north.
I was fortunate enough to spend a good chunk of last summer canoeing in the Canadian Arctic with several close friends. It was there that we became immersed and hyper-aware of all the fleeting moments that weave throughout our lives every day, moments that if we don’t miss them create a magical appreciation for the world we live in.
We were a group of four former trail guides that, oddly, hadn’t ever hung out all together before. In retrospect, it was funny we all agreed upon a long, 38-day trip. Our love for canoeing, wild places and coffee is what kept us together. One of us had worked for the YMCA’s Camp Menogyn on the east side of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the other two had worked at Y’s Camp Widjiwagan to the west. I’d worked at both camps. All of us had paddled Arctic rivers in Alaska, and Nunavut and the Northwest Territories in Canada through our work for these camps. The allure of thousands of miles of untouched tundra waters was too much to keep us from returning for long.
We paddled the Back River, starting out in the Northwest Territories of far northern Canada and finishing in Nunavut and the Arctic Ocean. A chartered floatplane from Yellowknife (the capital city of the territories and roughly 2,000 miles from the Twin Cities) dropped us off at the river’s headwaters on Sussex Lake. The four of us paddled our two canoes nearly 700 miles through lakes, wide river, fast current, white water and ocean. Two fishing boats transported us across the Northwest Passage, the waterways that connect the northern Pacific and Atlantic oceans, to the hamlet of Gjoa Haven. From there we boarded a commercial flight back to Yellowknife and commenced the long drive back to Minnesota (A trip within itself. And, yes, we also had driven up there.)
We became very aware of everything we take for granted while out those 38 days, what passes you by without you even knowing. Consider the effects of the sun. The sun was a stranger to us the first three weeks, so much so that we typically referred to the 12th day of the trip as “sunny day” because we could all vividly remember how glorious it had been. Having only Gore-Tex rain gear, synthetic-filled jackets and nylon tent walls to shelter us from the elements, we really channeled our inner weather forecaster, willing the sun to come back out. The transient moments of intermittent sunshine would lift our moods and warm our souls as we traveled through the vast tundra landscape.
Thoughts of home
The wind was ever-present. One becomes uber-attentive to what is coming on the horizon when you are in the elements 24/7. The Back River is the longest river in the Canadian Arctic and located entirely above tree line. Canoeing on big lakes allows you an unencumbered view of the entire horizon for 360 degrees. The Back River travels largely to the east before heading straight north. For most of the trip we encountered headwinds out of the east to varying degrees, sometimes rendering us wind-bound. Those wind-bound days made me think of living in Duluth in November or December and looking out over an angry Lake Superior full of whitecaps. The pervasive headwind really made us appreciate the occasional tailwind. It was glorious, pushing us effortlessly forward. Combined with some current, at times, we were moving fast to the point of motion sickness. We wasted not a tailwind or smooth current to help us get our food- and gear laden canoes downriver, providing minor relief for our achy backs, hands and arms. Paddling a strong tailwind would produce fits of uncontrollable laughter. How many times could something so simple as this produce such elation and amazement?
We came to realize that we were exceedingly aware and appreciative of all of these small moments amid stunning, vast beauty. Collectively, they proved vital to making an enjoyable trip.
Minnesota summers illustrate the point. There is much build up to get there through the long winter and then the wet spring. Suddenly, it’s Memorial Day. Then, it’s Labor Day. Did we stay mindful for all we hoped for? The more we can be present during the transient nature of everyday life, the more we’ll find joy in simple moments that otherwise would pass.