We were sitting on a strip of beach, the nicest one we found on the small lake. We were all exhausted and sweaty. We had spent all day portaging and paddling through the summer heat. Now it was maybe 7:30 at night, and we were starving. There was no place to make a fire, and when we tried to use our camp stove, we realized it was broken. So we sat on the beach, swarmed by mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and black flies, as we ate tortillas, Nutella, peanut butter, and almonds. As soon as we had gotten some food in our bellies, we made our way to the tent, fighting through thick brush as we forged a path, our feet sinking through moss and roots into cold water. Then we fell into an exhausted slumber, promising ourselves, “Tomorrow will be easier.” Little did we know, tomorrow would be even more taxing.
This was one of many memorable nights from my summer. Through Camp Widjiwagan, located outside of Ely, Minn., I embarked on a 28-day canoe trip throughout Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, with five strangers, soon to become sisters.
I know you’re probably thinking, “Why would you sign up for a trip that sounds so miserable?” Trust me, there were times when I asked myself the same thing. When I was waist-deep in mud with a canoe on my shoulders, or when I got sunburns so bad they scabbed, or when the sky opened up and rained so hard it stung. There are always low points on trail, when you think, How did I get here? Wouldn’t a shower and a cheeseburger be great right now? But just like the hundreds of other campers at Widjiwagan, I just keep on coming back.
It’s because of the stunningly simple beauties of life on trail -- the sunsets, the loon calls, and the way a canoe looks when it cuts through still water. I come back for the smiles of my sisters, the unconditional love and support we have for each other, and the truths of life that we encounter. I come back for the inexplicable beauty of the North, the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen, and the self-discovery and empowerment.
Today, I’m here to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned from my travels.
One of the most significant things I’ve gained on my trips is a connection to the Earth. I had to rely on the land for shelter, for transportation, for water, and for heat, which led me to become thankful for the little things. I felt so thankful for sunny days, so happy to see birch bark when I was making a fire, so grateful for a flat tent site. Traveling through the wilderness taught me to appreciate every single part of nature. I found and watched spiders climb on leaves and spin their webs, and I saw lightning strike down a tree right before my eyes. Appreciation is an essential key to happiness. Being able to find joy and life in the littlest moments possible makes it a lot easier to enjoy the big moments too. One day we were paddling a lake with huge headwinds. We had been struggling all day, and for a while, we had to pull off the water because the waves were rolling over the sides of our canoes. Eventually, though, the lake’s angles changed, and we were being pushed along by a strong tailwind. Then, all of a sudden, rain started to come down, hard. It was so hard that we thought it was hail, because it would sting your thighs when it hit. And the waves were the biggest I’ve ever seen. The lake looked like it was made of lines. We were paddling like crazy, soaked to the bone, fighting against the waves. And then, just as soon as it had started, it stopped. I know that that doesn’t necessarily sound like a joyful moment, but the experience really stuck with me because I felt so alive. It was like someone had sent an electrical current through my blood. And looking back on it, I’m so grateful for that moment. The powers of nature are a force greater than any human can imagine, and to be able to ride along with that strength is incredible. To have my life dictated by the whims of the sky teaches me to be grateful for whatever I get, and see the benefits in anything. In this day and age, we have so many ways to combat things we don’t like, such as bad weather. That makes it really easy to become disconnected from nature. But when we have to paddle our canoes regardless of whether it rains or not, it’s impossible not to feel connected to the land. Returning back to the basics, living like people did hundreds of years ago, that’s so humbling, and from that and other experiences, I have learned appreciation and connection.
One of the best things about Widji trips is the people you meet. Once someone told me, “You’ll never have the best trips of your life with your family.” That was both true and false. It was true, because part of what makes a trip great is the fostering of new relationships. At the beginning of my trip, I didn’t know anything about the five other women that I would be spending the next month with. By the end of that month, there were so many shared moments and experiences between us that we became sisters, united by love, laughter, and support. Those new relationships are what define a trip. Now, when I think of this trip, I’ll remember my girls: Elsa, Sidney, Corbin, Ana, and Hannah. We shared something unique that brought five strangers together, and that’s why this trip was one of the best trips of my life. But that statement is also false, because this trip formed a new family. It created bonds that will last a lifetime. From that, I learned how important it is to reach out to strangers, to give them a chance. You never know what kind of person you’ll find.
The last lesson I want to share with you is that our Earth is important. Being outside all the time gives you an acute appreciation for the value in pristine wilderness. Some people will never see it the way I do. Some people see only rocks and trees and water. And yes, I see rocks and trees and water too, but to me, nature is more than the sum of its parts. There’s an inexplicable beauty to the areas that are untouched by humankind, that are exactly the way they have been for millennia. That’s why it is imperative that we save these places for the generations after us. I have been able to set my eyes upon the same rocks and trees that indigenous peoples did, and later, the voyageurs of old. I had the opportunity to see some pristine pictographs, left by people there to show what was important to them. It astounds me every time I think about it, that hundreds of years ago, there were other people sitting in a canoe, maybe right where I was sitting, touching the same rocks, people who valued and respected the land. I want people after me to be able to see those exact same rocks, and have those exact same thoughts, except maybe about me. It saddens me every day that that might not happen.
So I urge you to be mindful in your living. I’m not saying you have to live in an off-the-grid hut without a shower or a toilet. But little things can make a huge difference, like using less electricity, recycling, biking to work, or composting. Much like in the gospel today, a little sacrifice is necessary in order to protect the things we value.
To end, I’m going to read my favorite quote of all time, from T.S. Eliot. It goes:
“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I encourage you to explore more, to go out and see the world, and to come back to your known place and share what you have learned. - Anna Dupont