is an adventuring freelance journalist with a base in
Seattle, Washington. Travel writing is only one of the
many facets of reporting that this journey woman is involved
in. We're delighted to be publishing her story!
Eighteen women, nine canoes...
"Never seen anything
like it," the grizzled, white-haired man said, scratching
Eighteen women had
just unloaded nine canoes into the Churchill River at
Missinipe in northern Saskatchewan. He watched in amazement
as we put on rain gear and life preservers.
"I don't like canoes.
Too unsteady," he offered. "Never seen a bunch of women
go out there alone. You're gonna get rained on, you know."
We knew. All morning
as we drove north on the narrow dirt road from Wadin Bay,
we watched the big Saskatchewan sky grow darker and more
ominous. As we got into our canoes at Missinipe, and paddled
toward Grandmother Bay, thunder rumbled ahead. Bravely,
we paddled on.
We were the first
all-women canoe expedition organized by Canoe Ski Discovery
Co. The fully licensed and insured eco-adventure tour
company has been guiding, outfitting and instructing wilderness-oriented
programs in the Churchill River area since 1989. Owner
Cliff Speer, a former schoolteacher and certified instructor,
did not expect the response to his first women-only canoe
"I thought we'd
have four or five participants, maybe," Speer admits.
"But we filled up nine canoes quickly, and there were
seven women standing by on the waiting list."
A trip of firsts...
The first four-day
"Women's Challenge" canoe expedition promised a total
immersion into the natural rhythms of Saskatchewan's newest
Canadian Heritage River, the Churchill. We would learn
to paddle, portage, navigate by map and compass. We would
help with camp cooking and learn environmental ethics.
We would retrace the historic (and mostly unchanged) routes
of the legendary voyagers of the 17th century and ancient
The all-women canoe
expedition represented another major "first" for Speer.
It would be the first trip he did not personally guide:
"I had to give up control. It made me very nervous, but
I knew Sarah Lee could do the job."
An all female staff...
His faith was well-placed.
Sarah Lee, 27 years old, our fearless leader with an unlikely
name for a Canadian Outward Bound Wilderness School instructor,
was enormously calm and capable. Lee did everything from
pitching tents to baking apple crisp cake in the camp
oven (which she constructed from birch logs) to teaching
basic canoe techniques.
Lee didn't work
alone. In addition to Deb, the helpful co-leader, Canoe
Ski Discovery Co. staff included musician-chef Nissa,
a 19-year -old Wunderkind who supervised Speer's very
tasty recipes and then entertained us around the campfire
after dinner. A lovely addition to the trip was Catherine,
a professional massage therapist, who put her magic to
work on aching shoulders, tired arms and stiff necks at
the end of each day.
and wilderness safety briefings took place at Wadin Bay
on the first day. We were to keep the plastic bag-encased
maps of our route and the safety whistles with us at all
times. Two short whistle blasts for attention, one long
blast for "Help!" Dangers included, but were not limited
to, black bear encounters, canoe capsizing and getting
No men to help and, we did get rained
Most of us were
novices. Those who had canoed before had done so with
husbands. Canoeing with men, I was informed, is different
from canoeing with women.
"Men tend to overcompensate
for the women," our leader agreed. "Men generally sit
in the stern and do the steering. They carry the canoe
during portages. Men usually gather the firewood, pitch
the tent, do the heavy work on a trip like this."
The reality of traveling
without men was daunting to many of the women, who ranged
in age from early 20s to mid-50s. The paddling distance
was more than 25 miles, with three portages. There were
no telephones. Camping was primitive. We were on our own.
We did get rained
on. It was the end of August, but the nights were cold.
The wind howled and the loons cried eerily at night.
But the sun shone
through the clouds every day. On the second day, after
setting up camp on a tiny, mossy island, we saw a double
rainbow amid a spectacular sunset.
Tired but triumphant!...
Our "J" stroke improved
as all of us got a shot at steering. We got stronger and
more sure of ourselves.
The old man wasn't
there waiting for us when we returned to Missinipe. Too
bad. He would have seen 18 women, tired but triumphant,
lift canoes back onto the trailer rack and talk about
what the experience had meant to them.
We felt exhilaration
at the pristine beauty of the river and the successful
accomplishment of the physical challenge. One of the women,
a physician and mother of five, was very proud of herself-especially
since she'd been thinking of bowing out of the trip after
the first night in Wadin Bay. Another participant, a nurse
from Colorado, was surprised to discover that she was
stronger than she thought.
"I was able to forget
about work and home and responsibilities," she said during
the long drive back to Saskatoon. "Concentrating on survival,
I got to live in the moment, close to the elements, responding
to nature. It truly was a genuine physical and spiritual
Amen to that!
Challenges - one woman's view....
I have not ceased
being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.
I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the
fear of change, the fear of the unknown, and I have gone
ahead despite the pounding in my heart that says: turn
back, turn back, you'll die if you venture too far.
(Source: Erica Jong, The Writer on Her Work, 1980)
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