I close my eyes and I’m sitting at a patio outside a Shopper’s Drug Mart in Bracebridge, Ontario. The sun is shining bright and I can feel its warmth on my slightly sunburned skin. My arms are toned from hundreds of thousands of paddle strokes; the dirt in my pores still lingers. Occasionally the warmth is interrupted by a passing breeze, my attention interrupted by the cottagers as they pass me by. They are in town running errands, grabbing coffee, going shopping, before returning to their Muskoka summer houses.
I don’t have my own cottage, but I have a cabin on a lake as my temporary home. It’s one I share with five other young women. We are all adventure leadership trainers at Camp Pine Crest. As adventure leadership trainers, we take teenagers on multi-week canoe trips across the Ontario backcountry.
Sitting here now, I hold an envelop in my hands. Inside are 54 photographs – two disposable camera’s worth. I have just returned from a 24 night trip along the Missinaibi River and I’m eager to see how the photos developed. This feeling of anticipation is one of the many reasons I still love disposable cameras.
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With a long exhale, I open the envelop and begin combing through the photos. Suddenly, I am back on the river.
These days on the Missinaibi River have been some of the best days of my life. This river is one of contrasts. In parts it is narrow and fast moving, punctuated by series of rapids. The river loses elevation quickly as it escapes the Canadian Shield, onward north.
The latter part of the Missinaibi, on the other hand, moves so slowly you must think twice in the morning so as not to paddle up current by mistake. Here the river is wide and straight as an arrow; you can hang a tarp from your paddle like a sail and the wind will push you for dozens of kilometers, with little need for steering. Eventually the Missinaibi River will become the Moose River and flow to the chilly seawater of James Bay, the end of the river and the end of our trip.
Our group is comprised of two leaders and eight campers. A few of us know each other from prior summers; some of us know no one at all. Yet by the time we catch our train home in Moosonee, a town on the edges of James Bay, my campers will been a tight knit group and refer to me as Trip Mom. I’ll share a unique bond with my co-leader, the type of bond which forms only after so many days spent with no one else your own age, the type of connection born out of shared responsibility over eight adolescent lives.
My reminiscing is interrupted by the ping of an email notification. While at the moment my mind is in Bracebridge, remembering the first time I opened these photos and could once again visit the Missinaibi, my body is elsewhere. It is in downtown Toronto, 600 km from the river. In a country as vast as Canada, this is merely a stone’s throw. However, anyone who has left the river for an office job will tell you 600 km feels like a lifetime away.
As such, I reflect on my final summer as a canoe guide with nearly painful nostalgia.
In all the time which has passed, I have yet to accurately articulate why this job means so much to me. In the months and years which separate Mikaela-on-river and Mikaela-in-office, others have routinely told me I was simply a glorified camp counsellor, this wasn’t a real job and I should move on.
But I know it was a real job. I, and every other person who has worked at overnight summer camp, know the importance of this work. Sharing the beauty of Canada’s wild landscapes, coaching leadership and teamwork, supporting youth as they overcome obstacles they never thought they could – that is the work of a canoe guide and her river.
I cannot count how many times my campers added their tears to the waters of the Missinaibi.
The first comes during a particularly challenging set of rapids, one where half the campers tip out of their boats and it takes me several hours to retrieve all the people and equipment. The final tear sheds when I hug each camper goodbye, shortly before their parents drive them away. Real Mom to Trip Mom and back again. I hope I have returned each camper a little bolder, a little more confident, then when I found them.
Scattered in between start and finish, there are tears from typical teenage drama. There are tears brought in from the troubles of home. Bullying. Divorce. Mental illness. Being fifteen is not easy. Seldom do teenagers get to breathe easy, away from the stress of school, parents, peer pressure, drugs, social media. The list goes on.
Here things are easy. The river commands all of your attention – wake, cook, paddle, portage, cook, sleep, repeat. Yet all it expects from you is respect.
I’ve gone off on a tangent. My mind has wandered done one of many moments on the river. I bring my attention back to Bracebridge. In my bag is a second envelop. The same photos, just an extra copy. My campers have agreed to hold a reunion in the fall. I would give each of a photo or two from the river. A keepsake. A time machine.
As I flip between the photos, I am unsurprised to find some of them damaged beyond recognition.
Toward the end of the trip we encounter the most violent thunderstorm I have ever experienced. It remains the only time I have ever been truly scared on a canoe trip.
Prior to the storm, we lazily meander down the Moose River. We are forced to stop at one point; we can hear thunder in the distance. Yet there is no rain, not even clouds. Just a thick haze of humidity. On the shores we build a shelter to protect ourselves from the beating sun, eat candy and tell stories while we wait for the thunder to cease long enough to rejoin the current.
As much as I remember the exciting rapids and challenging portages, it is these quiet moments which linger. The moments of stillness, talking with my campers.
Once the thunder has subsided, we continue to our campsite. Following dinner, we clean up camp and get into our tents for the evening. It isn’t long before I hear an exploding crackle echo across the sky and into my bones. And so begins the violent dance of thunder and lightning which will continue for several hours. Lightning is the only thing on trip which terrifies me and it is because, with lightning, I am powerless. I cannot portage around a Class 3 thunderstorm, nor can I scare one away from my campsite by banging a pot and making myself appear larger.
With a thunderstorm like this all you can do is hope and wait.
Luckily our camp on the rocky banks is far away from any trees, so I do not fear one being struck and falling on us. However I do fear one being struck elsewhere and starting a forest fire. Without the cover of trees, our tents are victims to the violent winds. I’ve never known wind so loud; I am sure the tent poles will snap.
To my relief, the storm subsides. In the morning, my campers are cheery as any other morning – completely unfazed by the storm. Had this occurred at the start of our trip, would their response have been different? After almost a month in the wilderness, were my campers more comfortable with the environment? With each other? With themselves?
The wicked storm took exactly one casualty: my second disposable camera. It was lying in the corner of my tent – the only corner of the tent where the rain soaked through.
Looking at the photos now, I am surprised at the lack of damage. Many of the photos were completely ruined, but some were merely streaked with blue lines, and others turned out fine (albeit, with some colour alterations).
I could tell a thousand stories with these photos.
I could fill pages and pages with tales of thunder storms and thunderboxes, rapids and portages, oatmeal and wraps. Press me and I could tell you about the conversations we had while we paddled, the times I cried myself, the love I feel for these people and this river. Yet, I still don’t think I could capture this feeling, in words or in photos. Maybe no one but canoe guides will ever understand when I say something like a river can mean so much to me.