Pierre Trudeau paddled the South Nahanni in 1970; his love of paddling was clear: “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other…. paddle 100 miles in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”
In 2003, Justin Trudeau retraced his father’s journey.
Trust was the key that opened the South Nahanni door for me; six memorable days in this pristine isolated northern paradise. It’s what Outward Bound does best – open doors. I will be forever grateful Outward Bound opened this door for me.
Unexpectedly, my fear offered an opportunity. In my canyon-rigged double canoe, I didn’t have to concentrate fully on paddling this imposing river. I could focus on everything else; the power of the river, the cliffs, the colors, the shapes of the rock, the trees and forests, the sounds of this force of nature, the smells of wildness, the tastes of meals earned.
We paddled through 1000 meter deep canyons that dwarfed us, we were bugs on big water. If I needed proof that I was not the center of the universe, the rush of the river, the majestic dominance of the canyons, the roil and sweep of the clouds, the icy splash in my face, the bite of the cold as I staggered out of my toasty warm sleeping bagfor my midnight ‘break’; all affirmed my insignificance. I am a speck on the edge of this magnificent, timeless earth.
These waters ran eons before I was born and will run eons after I die, my six days here is but a blink. The Gate and Pulpit Rock stand as testimony of the relentless, overwhelmingly force of the Nahanni, cutting a channel through a crack in the rock to find its journey to the sea.
As further proof of my insignificance, Jamie and Mark wake us to a deep blue-black 3 AM sky, a background pierced by stars, an amped-up big dipper, dancing northern lights and my very own shooting star. I marvel at their luminescence. We are dwarfed by the cosmos.
Counter-intuitively, to be reminded of my insignificance, paddling down this river, on this earth, in this universe, is reassuring. The burden of my grandiosity is lifted – maybe reading some of those books on Buddhism is finally paying off.
Weather commands our attention, out here it is ubiquitous, more than what happens between my car and my front door. Our first day is warm, then it turns cooler, rain clouds ebb and flow; with no horizon, we can only guess at what happens next. The rain gods look kindly on us, showers magically abate when we hit shore to set up camp, sun breaks through for our shoreline lunches, we put up overnight camp in relative calm, we eat our meals around the impromptu kitchen, our special Outward Bound evening campfire chats unchallenged by untimely weather. But the rain comes and the cold seeps in; part of the patina of our adventure.
We are not alone. A Dall sheep delicately prances across a precipice high above us, defying gravity. We find Grizzly prints and scat along a creek bed, then one of us spots a small black bear scurrying away through the bush. We see wolf tracks along the shore, revel in the majesty of two trumpeter swans restlessly readying for the long flight south. We canoe silently past a woodlands bison herd then slow as we pass a majestic, solitary bull.
Tender mercies are in abundance. Adversity tests us, challenges bring us together; I am blessed with an instant family of friends. The simple abundances of kindness, cooperation, pitching in; helping hands for everything from portaging gear, loading and unloading canoes, setting up tents, sous-cheffing the veggies while Ursula cooked, washing dishes, setting up the tarp, lugging water, gathering driftwood. All this is done amid laughter, banter, a few pauses for stories, insights, shared wisdom, trusted confidences. The fellowship is genuine, generous, spontaneous, with no strings attached.
We are all present, fully aware and mindful, sharing the adversity, the opportunity, the adventure of it all. We have a sense of purpose and have joyfully accepted the challenge – I can say this now from the comfort of my canyon-rigged canoe cockpit.
Meals are beyond expectation; every meal a feast – steaks for dinner, Eggs Benedict for breakfast, fresh fruit and vegetables every day. Ursula greets us with hot food, hot drinks and a smile every morning, creates special shoreline lunches to match the spectacular views and, after a long day, while we set up tents, she and Jason pop up their instant kitchen and fill our tummies with wonders from a Coleman stove, a small fire and their big cooler. SWEET!
In true Outward Bound fashion, every evening, we talk about our experiences as they happen. Jason asks us to write down our fears and hopes for the journey – he only gave out small bits of paper so I wrote everywhere, even in the margins. Sarah asks us to try to take a picture in our mind of something special that happens; to fix it like a polaroid in our minds, to fashion a visual talisman to remember forever – one that will take us back instantly to this singular experience.
Our first night camping, on a sand dune between the river and Marengo Creek, Rob, my tent buddy for the duration, finds a site, pitches our tent, anchors it, pumps our air mattresses and fluffs the down bags in Olympic time – befitting a true Olympian; he’s also a successful businessman, a proud OB supporter, a jokester and a perfectionist. I can’t figure out the tent so I help him get started then wander off to help others unload canoes and set up the kitchen. It seems we both snore and we are both a bit deaf. We are a perfect match. A true raconteur, he tells a few stories, we laugh a lot and we set the rule – when someone snores, two pokes of the other’s air mattress means “roll over!”
Anna and Alex have invited us to attend their anniversary celebration – they have no choice, there’s little privacy on a canoe trip. They are graceful, engaging and unflaggingly positive, always smiling, willing to try anything. They graduate quickly, bravely from the Canyon rig, to the sponson supported canoes to full canoeing; within days, they are at home on the water.
Mark is my renaissance man, he’s mastered every sport except Ballet, bagged two Ironman triathlons, is a pilot, a lawyer, a businessman, an unrepentant adventure junkie and a certified dog lover. He knows the wild, loves the Outdoors and has become a fervent OB supporter. He’s not a bad canoeist either; unfortunately he and Jamie cannot match Rob and me at setting up a tent quickly…:-)
KC should be charged twice for the trip; she does twice as much and has twice as much fun. She is everywhere, all the time. She squeezes every drop of experience out of our adventure; first up, best sous chef, commander of her canoe. I try to carry a canoe and manage about 50 meters; she portages that same canoe all the way around Virginia Falls.
I met Maria at our impromptu canoe training session in August, she had never held a paddle before that day. By end of our Nahanni trip she’s rejected the canyon rig – not enough fun – moved up to be a fierce front seat paddler. From her front seat, she runs the rapids at George’s Ripple – yelling like a crazy woman (obviously she is, crazy that is, what more proof do you need?).
Jamie has been an Outward Bound mainstay, fundraiser, donor, and supporter for decades. He’s done many OB adventures, this is his biggest Outward Bound river expedition since college – only a few decades ago. He is my poster boy for Outward Bound; gregarious, enthusiastic, helpful, fully contributing and fully engaged. On our last morning, rain settles in; Jamie, up early as ever, delivers coffee to our tents. He, Mark and KC walk breakfast around for the late starters. That, friends, is a Tender Mercy, no greater kindness can be imagined. A leader, a raconteur, a team member, successful in everything he does and a fine gentleman.
James signs up late, in July, yet he manages to fast-track three paddling camps in as few weeks; wetting his paddle, and himself, as he gains serious experience in preparation for this adventure. A sailor, he is one up on me where it counts, he has no fear of water. On our last day, a six hour paddle in cold, rainy weather, he entertains our canyon rig crew with story after story of his experience freeing unjustly imprisoned Canadians. I’m cold and wet, I don’t care. I am enthralled with his floating seminar. We become the dish pigs for the final dinner’s flotsam and jetsam – two erudite philosophers squatting on the ground, up to our elbows in plates, cutlery, pots and pans, battling to keep our self appointed jobs while the nattering naybobs of dish cleanliness hover about us. Geez folks, we can handle this, get a life already.
And Olivia, our fearless wonder woman. She carries her weight in gear, paddles with the best, stands up in her canoe to use her special paddleboard paddle (I gasped, literally, when she first did it), and amazes us with her gusto. She is also the star of a quintessential Canadian moment. We return to Fort Simpson after the trip and are doing our final dinner. Olivia marches over to the restaurant, the Pandaville, having been there once years ago and, conversing in Cantonese, orders a special meal with the two proprietors. Best Canadian-Chinese food ever! Where else, I ask you, could this happen?
This is Susanne’s second long Outward Bound adventure, one more and she gets to wear her Supergirl outfit everywhere. We did Kili together – she and Liz taught me the secret to a happy productive life – find a strong determined woman who is going for the same goal as you are and just draft in behind her. Life becomes a whole lot simpler and success is guaranteed. She grew up in a small northern town, nothing about this trip or any of her many OB trips phases her. Suzi is a real chef, the rest of us are only apprentice grunts; Susanne and Ursula were THE camp chefs. BTW, stay tuned folks, a cook book is coming.
And now for something completely different – our leaders!!!
Ursula is all of 26, way less than half my age; smart, funny, happy, positive and in love with the river. She doesn’t seem to sleep, still cleaning up and rearranging as we toddle off to our tent; yet she’s up before anyone, making breakfast and lunch, planning dinner and sorting out our needs for the day. She portages the heaviest loads, lashes up the canyon-rigging, paddles with joy and elan, and cooks up a storm in conditions that would have Anthony Bourdain throwing in the towel. She’s earned and possesses the local knowledge instrumental to safe travel through this beautiful, hostile land.
Jason was my zen, my soothing presence. He masters his canoe without thinking, he’s done it so long it is instinctual. His first seminar on paddling is simple, clear, pitch-perfect and confidence building. It gives me skills and confidence. He wraps himself into Ursula’s routine with grace and efficiency. He leads quietly and offers space for those who want to choose a path for themselves. On the day we do George’s Ripple, we all park our canoes on a sandbar and scout the rapids. He and Ursula encourage a conversation about what line to take through the rapids. He calmly encourages each canoe team to plot its own line. I am in the canyon rig – silence is my contribution to the discussion. When most choose the “Sporty” water, he is supportive, calmly, subtly offering fine points of advice. I am stifling my desire to yell “you are all mad!”, instead I silently pray. We run the Ripple; we all emerge giddy with adrenaline and excitement. I silently thank the gods of the Nahanni…. and Jason.
Sarah is the jewel in our Outward Bound crown. Without her, I would have caved into fear and anxiety; without her, I may not have had the canyon rig option and my little sweet spot, a front row seat on the adventure of a lifetime. She has it all but never draws attention to her enormous storehouse of knowledge, skills and accomplishments. No talk from her of her long list of accomplishments, she is much too modest. A gifted athlete, she has a deep reserve of energy to call on, dotes on others, is present and aware of our needs, sometimes before we know what we need. Understanding, confident, optimistic, cheerful and thoughtful, I could go on, I should go on, but she might find it embarrassing…
A final note on trust. On the second last day of our adventure after we had exited First Canyon, I begin to feel a glimmer of confidence. It’s sunny, the river is smooth, we have but an hour to go to our camp for the night; things are groovy. We pull over to the bank for a break. I decide to try a single canoe, jump out and announce to the world that it is time to get in a canoe. I ask Jason if I can canoe the rest of the day with him. With a straight face he responds immediately, “Sure Bob, would you like the front seat or the back seat?”
I burst out laughing!
That he would even consider allowing me to steer was insane; I demurred, of course. That he would offer was a delightful statement of trust in reverse, that he might trust me! It is the most memorable line of the trip, a memory to carry with me forever – a polaroid moment.
As for me, I emerge enriched. Enriched by the physicality of it all; it is hard work. Enriched by this amazing piece of Canada; I think of this incredible land, this river – NAH?A DEHE, the Tragically Hip and all that makes me proud to be a Canadian. Enriched by the water, the rain, the clouds, the sky, the cliffs, the wildlife – my place in the world has been recalibrated…again. Enriched by sharing an adventure with 13 other unique, amazing, gracious individuals. Enriched in the restoration of my faith in life and the human condition. Enriched because I managed to find trust to push back fear. Enriched and humbled. Enriched and grateful.
Next time, however, there may be less open water in my adventure.