Different trip, same canoe, same food barrel.

There was a time before we had kids.  The memories of it are sketchy at best, but I have photos so I can prove I was there.  And emerging from the foggy haze of those days are a few vivid mental pictures.  Some therapists spend a lot of time talking about repressed memories.  There is no repressing this one, my friends!  It is August 1998 and I am staring at a stunning blue sky, because I really have no other choice.  I am face upward stretched over a food barrel on a deserted path roughly six hours from the edge of nowhere. I am alone and I am crying…with laughter. 

But let’s back this up to a few weeks prior.  My family were campers.  We loved setting up tents, cooking over fires, staring at stars.  My husband was also a camper.  So, when he and one of his best friends, Scott, suggested a camping trip, I was in before I knew what I was in for.  They had regaled me with tales of “back country camping” and assured me that it was infinitely better than the “car camping” that I had always naively thought was camping.  The distinction, which it turns out was not a subtle one, was that my idea of camping was driving up to a camp site, pulling your stuff out of the car and setting up your tent.  I was informed that all my life I had been missing an essential step.  And that not-subtle step lay between pulling stuff out of the car, and setting up the tent.  Now by step, I mean, many, many, many steps and much paddling of canoes.  As Richard and Scott recounted their past trips, I was captivated.  To this day I am always looking for an adventure, and their stories assured me of one. 

We settled on a date, three nights if I recall, and decided on Killarney Provincial Park.  For some reason it was left to me to book the lake.  Yes, the lake.  On the map stretched across the table were tiny triangles indicating camp sites, but when back country camping in Killarney, you can’t book a site.  You book a lake, and when you get to the lake you find an open site and claim it.  This added to the adventure!  Booking a lake turned out to be more challenging than I had hoped.  On the phone with the parks reservation service, it became clear that the only lake available for our nights was Three Narrows.  I looked at it on the map.  It was a large finger-y lake stretching through the middle of Killarney.  It seemed perfect!  The representative from Parks felt compelled to tell me it was a challenging trip and asked if we were all experienced campers.  I assured her we were, and voila! We were booked.  

A few evenings later the planning began in earnest.  When I proudly showed them the lake I had chosen (because it was that or nowhere) they began to study the map carefully and debate in a form of English I couldn’t really understand. 

“OK, if we put in there, that’s an 80 and a 380, but that’s a 3 point 1.”

“There’s a 1 point 9 here, but look at the topo lines.” 

“And where would we put in?  I think it’s the 3 point 1.”

“We are going to have to do that in one shot or we are setting up in the dark again.”

They looked at me, “Did you ask about Carlyle Lake? Or David? Or Johnny?” 

I was confused by their apparent concern. “The Parks lady said this was the only lake available for our dates.”

They looked at each other.  “Ok, we definitely need to put in early.”

The night before we left, the packing began in earnest.  I had already been warned; we take nothing but essentials.  One pair of underwear in the bag, one on your body.  Same with socks.  When I tried to pack a towel, I was handed a chamois.  We had gone shopping a few days earlier to purchase a sleeping bag that could be squashed to about half the size of my head.  Everything was unwrapped and packed in plastic bags or reusable containers. No cans. No bottles.   Single ply toilet paper and biodegradable soap each went into ziplocs.  
Three backs, three packs was the mantra of the evening.  That 3 point 1 was long and we would do it in one go, they assured me.  I figured out that  “3 point 1” was kilometers, the distance of one of the four trails between lakes that we had to negotiate to get to Three Narrows. By the end of the evening a miracle of packing precision saw a mountain of gear disappear into just three containers; two very large backpacks, and a food barrel.  

Let’s pause for a moment to acquaint the uninitiated with the food barrel.  It is exactly as advertised.  It is a blue, plastic barrel with a snap-style lid that is bear proof (which is really quite important when you wander into the Canadian wilderness many miles from the nearest 7Eleven for several days).  It is ingeniously equipped with a removable “harness” that enables its victim to wear it like a backpack, a round backpack that nestles cosily up against one’s most prominent vertebra while being carried.  At roughly 30 inches tall and maybe 2 feet in diameter it can hold a LOT of food, as well as pots, pans and anything else one might need in the backcountry.  I should have been concerned when the guys explained that it had a “tump line” to make it “easier” to carry.  A tump line, I was made to understand, was a strap that wrapped around the top of the barrel and then across one’s forehead, so that the wearer could hunch forward, a la Quasimodo, helping to keep the weight forward.  Apparently, that mattered.  A padded strap around the waist (the only truly merciful part of this contraption) when tightened above the hips, could defer much of the weight from one’s shoulders to hips, and finally, a chest height clasp that ran between the two shoulder straps held it all together.  The guys fitted the food barrel for me.  Although it was heavy, their packs weighed almost as much, and they each had to carry a canoe.  So my 60-70lb load was still probably 40lbs less than either of the guys had to carry.  

Well before dawn the following morning we headed north to Killarney.  It was magnificent.  It remains, to this day, my favourite Canadian park.  It is a stark rocky landscape with wind lashed evergreens growing defiantly out of granite cliffs.  I LOVE Killarney. It isn’t nearly as well travelled as the better-known Algonquin and Frontenac parks.  It is raw and rugged.  The thought of Killarney makes me breath more deeply.

We checked in at the park office and then pulled our canoes off the vehicle and carried them to the water’s edge.  Grabbing our packs, we carried them to the canoes.  Well, the guys carried theirs. I dragged my food barrel.  I couldn’t get it up onto my shoulders, but I was assured that once it was on me it would be much easier to manage.   We arranged ourselves across the canoes.  Scott soloed his with the food barrel and a pack in the front.  Richard and I put his pack between us in our canoe.  We slid quietly through the waters of George Lake on our way to Freeland.  It was magical.  Between George and Freeland we had to carry our packs and canoes along a path of about 80 meters.  As promised, the boys helped me get the food barrel on my back and cinch it around my waist.  The tump line instantly made sense as I wrapped it around my forehead pulling the weight forward.  It turns out carrying half your body weight behind you can throw your balance off a little.  It took a minute, but once I found the right degree of hunchy-ness I was able to lift one leg off the ground at a time without tipping.  I was actually pretty amazing if I do say so myself, until I got to the other side and had to figure out how to put it down.  I knew if I leaned back even a little, I was going all the way.  I had to find something to lean against.  I noticed a flattish rock about a foot high near the water.  Squatting in front of it, I was able to control my fall backwards until the barrel rested on it.  With the weight off my shoulders, I could undo the chest and waist straps.  Dismissing the knowledge that I had just travelled 80 meters, and the next portage was 380 meters, followed by one that was over 3 kilometers, I nervously congratulated myself and headed back down the path to help the guys.  On the short portages it was unnecessary to make the trip in one go so they made two trips. I joined them carrying paddles and life jackets.

So far so good.  Freeland Lake was more of a short river, so the paddle was quick.  The next portage into Killarney Lake was a challenge but I was generally quite impressed with myself.  Again, the dismount was sketchy.  I found a tree, leaned back into it and slid to the ground while pushing the pack against the tree.  From my seated position I could undo the pack.  Success!  The long paddle across Killarney Lake was breath taking, it was also really pretty.  As we steered our canoes toward the portage, I sensed the guys steeling themselves for the what was to come. We unloaded the canoes and paused for lunch.  Peanut butter on crackers, cucumbers, and some dried sausage, a few handfuls of GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts liberally sprinkled with chocolate chips, pretzels etc) and we began to load up for the dreaded 3 point 1.  My confidence was waning, but I was determined.  Richard put my pack on me and helped me cinch it to the most comfortable setting possible and set me on my way.  “Stay on the trail.  When you bump into a lake, wait for us.”  This was the portage the guys had determined to complete in one go in order to get to our site before dark.  As I hunched forward and picked up one leg and then the other I could hear them strapping on their packs and balancing their canoes above them.  I did not envy their task.  

Off I went.  The path almost immediately became quite steep.  I trudged onwards and decidedly upwards. Thankfully, that only lasted a couple hundred meters and then the path became quite flat.  At a certain point numbness set in and I began to imagine that I could have handled a canoe as well.  Numbness, delirium… same thing, right?  The sounds of the guys were long since swallowed by the woods around me and I felt quite deliciously alone.  We had bumped into only one other group of campers since entering the park.  This was the wilderness, and it was glorious. 

It was also a bit hard to breath with this much weight on my back.  I leaned against a tree, shifting some of the weight off my shoulders so I could take deep breaths.  Still no sign of the guys and I didn’t want them to find me resting so I only paused briefly.  I continued my trek.  I found I was pausing quite frequently.  It was surprising how much I enjoyed breathing and how much my pack infringed on my ability to do so.  But I was still making progress and had kept ahead of the guys.  I had to be more than two and a half kilometers along the path.  Ahead a large rock protruded nearly to the height of my waist.   There was an embankment to one side and a little drop off on the other.  I had to shimmy to get around it without tipping.  As I cleared it, I straightened just a little with relief.  The relief turned comic as I realized I had over straightened. I was tipping ever so slowly backwards.  The pack touched the rock almost setting me right but it was too narrow and slid off to one side and suddenly I found myself staring at the sky, lying on a food barrel.  Barrels, as you are probably aware, are round and the shoulder straps pulled me backwards around the barrel.  I tried to unclip the chest harness, but my arms couldn’t reach.  The waist harness was even more inaccessible.  I was stuck.  Like completely, ridiculously, helplessly stuck.  Have you ever seen a turtle on its back, legs waving around helplessly?  That was me.  I tried rocking against the embankment.  I tried flailing my legs.  It was the most ridiculous situation I have ever found myself in, physically at least.  I started to giggle.  It may have been hysteria, not sure, but I could not stop.  Suddenly there was a rustling and my husband emerged from the woods behind me, pack on his back, canoe balanced with one hand on his head.  That man is a beast, always has been.  Strong, capable, confident but even he looked spent and slightly alarmed when he suddenly found me lying at his feet.  He paused, but realizing that my tears were laughter, he inquired, “Are you ok?”

“Yup,” I responded still giggling. “I just can’t get up!”

I could tell by his face that he was weighing more than his pack.  He had a decision to make, and in under a second, it was made.  He stepped carefully over me explaining. “Scott dropped his canoe.  He’s right behind me.  He’ll help.”  Before the canoe on his head had disappeared into the bush, Scott emerged and happily dropped his pack to unclip me.  He helped me get right side up again, food barrel back in place and I finished my trip without further calamity.  At the end of the portage, I pumped water through our little filter while Richard and Scott went back for the second canoe.  

We found a little island all to ourselves when, after a short paddle and one more 300 meter portage, we finally arrived on Three Narrows.  That trip was the beginning of a love affair with the Canadian wilderness that I maintain to this day.  We had that huge sprawling lake to ourselves.  I think we saw one pair of paddlers the whole time we were there.  You have to be the perfect combination of courageous and crazy to go to a place like that. We have gone three times now, most recently in the summer of 2020 when I was much older and no wiser, so you can draw whatever conclusions you choose. 

I reflect on that trip often.  The beauty, the peace, the sheer ridiculousness of being completely helpless strapped to a barrel.  Honestly, it was hilarious.  I cried laughing. But it was only hilarious because I knew someone was coming up the path behind me.  It would have been much less funny if I and my bear proof barrel were out there alone.  The fact is, I was stuck.  I couldn’t help myself.  There was a massive weight tied to me and I couldn’t reach the clasp to free myself.  Can we just take a moment and agree that it’s kind of a metaphor for life a lot of the time?  It’s not that funny in reality. 

And here’s where I’m going with this.  I have been thinking about (maybe obsessing a little) the woman in Proverbs 31 who is called “a wife of noble character.”  If I’m honest, I have not been her biggest fan.  She’s pretty stinking amazing.  She’s a hard working, dawn till dark kinda lady.  She is wise, kind, a smart, successful business woman.  When I read about her I tend to just feel bad about myself.  But lately I’ve been looking at her more closely.  Whatever kind of impossible wonder-woman she may be, she is enviable too.  There are qualities she has that I would like in me.  I think the verse that grabs me most is Proverbs 31:25 She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.  

Read that twice, especially the second half.  She laughs without fear of the future.  What?  Who does that?  We are stressed people, am I right?  We are worried about the future.  It feels irresponsible to not be worried about the future.  And she laughs?  This is a really impressive woman.  She is not irresponsible.  She isn’t deluded.  And she, like you and I, is carrying one heck of a heavy food barrel.  Look at the preceding verses.  She is working her tail off.  So why is she laughing?

I think she is laughing because she knows her God.  She knows that he is completely in control.  She knows that he has a purpose in EVERY thing he allows.  She knows that he loves her and wants her to become the most fulfilled and joyful version of herself possible.  She knows that he is powerful enough to help her no matter how heavy her load is.

I think she is laughing because it IS ridiculous that life is this heavy.  It’s insane how little control we have over our lives.  Often, we can’t even take the load off our own backs.  But we have NOTHING to fear because God is with us on the trail.  

It may be time to laugh a little more.

4 thoughts on “On camping, turtling and a wife of noble character

  1. Hope I loved reading this!! Can’t wait to share it with Scott. Thanks for sharing this verse- Proverbs 31:25 She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. —- I think this is YOU!! You are pretty damn amazing !! Love ya!

  2. Willie Mitchell says:

    I can’t wait to share this with my prayer circle ladies! Most of us are getting older and some have serious health challenges so we were just talking about if we knew we only had a few more days how would we live our lives? I think this perspective on ” laughing at the future and frankly the present” is the only true response. And I believe our God laughs with us because He knows how safe we are in His hands. He is our greatest cheer leader! Loved this story!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>