Canoe Trip—the Freedom of Self Reliance

Terry Rapoch remembers the exhilarating freedom he felt as a young man on a wilderness trip - the freedom that comes from a recognition of his own abilities to survive. Then the constraints of urban life close in upon him.

Terry Rapoch remembers the exhilarating freedom he felt as a young man on a wilderness trip - the freedom that comes from a recognition of his own abilities to survive. Then the constraints of urban life close in upon him.

The wind relentlessly in our faces, raising whitecaps on the lake, challenges our every stroke. It is the last day of the canoe trip, and it will be a long and difficult one for us as we head back to camp. The wind is gusting and chill under a roiling grey sky, constantly pushing the canoe off course on every stroke. In the stern, my task is to keep us on course by quickly turning my wrist outward after every stroke. Stroke after stroke, and the shoreline just inching past. I have time to see every detail – high watermarks from past years, lichen speckling the boulders, pines and spruces crowding, darkening the water’s edge, an abandoned beaver lodge. These small milestones mark our progress, and minutes become hours as we struggle to the first portage. Unfortunately, there is no alternative because we have to be at camp before sundown.

Canoes became a significant part of my life during my years at summer camp. My father had died unexpectedly when I was seven and my brother nine. My mother had to work and raise us, so summer camp was a solution for two months, giving her time to think about the coming school year. At first, camp was uncomfortable and lonely, but learning new skills got me past those feelings, and my most exciting new skill was learning how to travel in a canoe. First, I had to master the rowboat, that safe but ever so ungainly watercraft. In a boat, I could be rowing for an hour, my hands and back getting ever sorer, the oarlocks endlessly squeaking, barely making any headway, but a canoe was from another world — my paddle noiselessly dipping, pulling me along, gliding smoothly, swiftly, with scarcely a ripple, and out on the lake there was such quiet and freedom.

There are six of us in two sixteen-foot canoes, all in our mid-teens. We seemed impossibly young to be out here on our own, but we paddle as one, with skill and strength, experienced at traveling by canoe. I know we can depend on each other to overcome the challenges we face. For me, this is the best of summer camp, away from the school-like daily routines and discipline. Because of our experience, the Director of Trips had sent us out to clear logs and branches from a portage to make it easier for other, less experienced campers. The trip was for three days; one day out, one day of work, and the last to get home. On the first day, we make good time and set up camp under the late afternoon sun on a small, rocky island tucked in an inlet, close to the portage. The tent goes up, the fire is lit, and I help prepare supper, making up a dough with raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon that I will cook in a reflector oven, placed against the embers. We eat our fill, then chat around the fire, and then to our sleeping bags pitched on the soft pine needles that lie under the floor of our tent.

There are six of us in two sixteen-foot canoes, all in our mid-teens. We seemed impossibly young to be out here on our own, but we paddle as one, with skill and strength, experienced at traveling by canoe. I know we can depend on each other to overcome the challenges we face.

After my first summer at camp, I went to boarding school, living in a dormitory upstairs from the classrooms from Monday through Friday. It was a private boys’ school built on the English model, complete with school motto and song, affiliation with the local Anglican church, and mandatory participation in 690new boys joined me. I struggled to catch up. I had never written cursively, let alone used a fountain pen. So during my early years, my hands were always ink-stained, drawing comments and criticism in a competitive school environment. It was about individual excellence but always balanced by the need to conform, to be part of some greater good with boys from far different circumstances; many were scions of Old Montreal Families living in Westmount. So there were classes within classes, and for me, the only way forward was to be better than the rest. The collar and tie, and the moral suasion used by teachers, made it a harsh place with little room for happiness or freedom.

Mornings come early on a canoe trip. The air is chill as we wake up and stretch out. Daylight is precious, so we quickly eat, clean up and head ashore to start working on the portage. The landing spot is good with a sandy bottom, but the portage soon turns muddy as we wind through spruce and birch then start to climb the watershed to the next lake. As expected, some trees have blown down across the trail. We clear them with axes and continue to slog up the trail. It is steep now, the footing slick with mosses and lichens as we move from stone to stone. Tree limbs have grown over the path, and we cut them back with axes and machetes. Some chocolate squares for lunch, and we make it to the lake at the other end. We finish our work, clearing some final obstacles as we walk back. The sun is setting as we paddle back to the island. My friend cuts his hand badly trying to make kindling for the fire. I bandage him up after a quick rinse in the lake and some peroxide. Later, the camp nurse would tell me that I should learn how to butterfly dress a wound, but he didn’t bleed out and will have a story to tell about that scar for years to come. Supper is a stew and, despite the flecks of ash, tastes fantastic! Full, we sit around and relax – no trouble falling asleep as the wind rises, moving the canvas of the tent walls above our sleeping heads.

We are at the portage. The trail starts on a sandy beach, and I quickly rig the canoe for portaging. I push the paddles through the lashings on the thwarts to create shoulder rests and run a leather strap across the paddles. This “tumpline” will sit across the top of my head, balancing the weight between my neck and shoulders, as the early “coureurs de bois” did. I flip the canoe up, settle it on my head and shoulders and start walking. I repeat this at the next portage, the longest we must cross at over two miles. It runs through a deep evergreen forest following an old logging road. The light dims as I enter the forest, the sounds die away, and the air is heavy with the scent from the needles, bark, and gum. My view of the world shrinks to the next fifty feet of the road as I out under the bow. I move steadily, going up and down the rises and falls of the road. It is work, and I am puffing when a ranger comes by in a horse-drawn wagon and offers us a lift. Happy to take his offer, I load the canoe, climb aboard and let his horse take us to the next lake.

I did not know that this would be my last canoe trip. That autumn, my mother, tired of living in Montreal, bought a two-hundred-acre farm in upstate New York inland from Lake Champlain. While I had planned to go back to camp as a counselor the following summer, it became clear that I should work on the farm instead. So, after the school’s closing ceremonies, I left the city and my friends, heading south to Crown Point, New York. Farms are simply a constant stream of problems needing someone to solve them, especially with old equipment and no money, and are even worse if you have livestock. These were all new lessons that I had to learn. Many of the skills I had developed at summer camp became very valuable, but most of all, the self-confidence I had gained to take on new tasks – using a chain saw, driving a tractor, even riding a horse in the morning to check the fence lines! And there was a hay crop to get in the barn, and I did most of the work alone. I felt unique happiness after a hard day, sitting for a few minutes at sunset, drinking a beer on the stoop with my stepdad, George. A new kind of freedom for a sixteen-year-old, transplanted from private school, city kid.

The ranger drops me off, and I see the wind is still gusting strongly but now under broken clouds—patches of sunlight race along, dappling the water and the trees. The wind is not directly in our face, but the waves threaten to swamp our canoe. The constant spray chills our arms and faces, soaks our jackets, but we warm up when the sun pokes through the clouds. Approaching the next portage, we see smoke coming from a wooded area jutting out into the lake. We paddle over to find smoke pouring from animal burrows holes as a fire burns under the forest floor. One hollow stump is fully ablaze, sending sparks and embers into the air, threatening to spread the fire further into the forest. Some of us empty rucksacks to carry water to the fires. Others use axes and machetes to lay open the ground and build a fire break. After an hour, the fires are out, and we repack everything – wet sleeping bags and clothes – and paddle the short distance to the portage.

The rest of the trip is just hard, and we are on autopilot. The fading daylight adds a sense of urgency to our efforts. We make it quickly across the two next portages and the lake in between. It is fully twilight now, as we start paddling to the final landing, where we will drop off the canoes. The lake is a darkened mirror barely reflecting the shorelines with their banks of conifers. As we pull into the final landing, darkness is settling in, and there is still a three-mile walk back to camp. I am tired, dirty, and reeking of smoke. I pull on my wet backpack, pick up my paddle, and join my friends as we head off down the dirt and gravel road to the camp. We step to the side as a truck approaches, but it is from camp, sent out because we did not arrive home on time. Worried, the Director of Trips came out to find us. We are so relieved and happily jump in the back for the ride to camp. I head to my tent, drop off my gear and rush to catch the last minutes of the final movie of the year. I stink, and my friends want to know why.

The camp closes four days later, and I board the train to head home to the city. A few hours later, I step off into the noises and smells of a city on a hot summer evening. The contrast is jarring, and I feel out of place. The school will start again in a few days, and those special moments on the lakes, in the canoe, fighting the wind and waves, and just being out there will fade into memory. But the confidence I gained in my ability to meet whatever challenges awaited remained. I never went on another canoe trip, but at other moments in my life I have been fortunate to relive that unique sense of freedom and peace that comes when you know you are where you are supposed to be at this moment and nowhere else.