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Algonquin Back Country Paddle Final Day

28 Dec

The alarm went off at 3:00 AM. The world was dark. The other leaders and I went around and woke up the students. Some ate a quick breakfast while others (myself included) chose to embrace the hunger for the final morning. Following the small meal, everyone quietly loaded into their canoes and pushed away from the shore.

We instructed the students to have their lights ready but to keep them off unless there was an emergency. We paddled through the dark, tranquil night by the light of the moon.  The only sound was that of the paddles cutting in and out of the water with each stroke. It was peaceful.

Quietly we pulled up to our first portage of the day. The group had become quite accustomed to portages and was significantly faster than they were at the beginning of the week. It was fun to carry our canoes through the woods in the dark, although most turned on their headlamps for the portages. One-by-one we marched down the trail towards the next body of water and climbed back into our canoes.

The sky began glowing with a myriad of colors as the morning sun rose. We stopped for a moment to drink water and admire the beauty we all-too-often miss. A bank of fog surrounded us on the lake and the sky was vibrant with color. It was like we were rowing through a cloud.

A journey through the last swamp of our trip granted us a close encounter with a beaver. The encounter was so close that when it slapped its tail, one of the students in another canoe was splashed. We were very excited to have seen a beaver on the last day. During our trip we saw a moose, beaver, loons, seagulls, mice, and some small fish. Both students and leaders enjoyed the wildlife that surrounded us.

As we entered the final chain of lakes, the student in my canoe decided he didn’t want to paddle anymore. I encouraged him to continue to paddle and told him we didn’t have that much further to go. This worked momentarily but he quickly reverted to sitting with his paddle in his lap. I informed my partner that it was not going to be okay for him to sit back and for myself to paddle for two. Even the most petite girls on the trip were still paddling the best that they could. This only got him to go through to motion of paddling, dipping the very tip of his blade into the water.

After a few strokes he asked how much further it was until the pullout. All of the other students were enjoying themselves and commenting on how they wished the trip was longer, but not this one. He had wanted to be home since we did our first 100-meter portage. To answer his question of how much further we had to go, I used a line a raft guide in West Virginia had taught me two years earlier. I told him, “It’s just around the next bend.” Sure enough, this line worked, I had a happy camper and he started paddling the best he had paddled all day!

Once we rounded the bend and saw there was no pullout, the paddling once again ceased and the complaining threatened once again to start. So, trusting the wisdom of the raft guide, I once again said, “It’s just around the next bend.”

This sequence went on for a while, carrying us around about seven bends. Each time he paddled towards the next bend, it was with less effort and he took more breaks, but at least I kept him paddling and kept the complaining down so the rest of the group could enjoy themselves.

I got quite a workout as I did the vast majority of the paddling for my canoe that final morning, but I was prepared for that. Being one of the larger guys in the group I tended to be paired with the smaller individuals. I have never minded this, my concern as a leader is not to have an easy job but rather to make everyone in the group have the best time possible while remaining safe. My job had been completed well. My canoe partner for the final morning felt a sense of accomplishment as he had pushed himself to keep paddling when he didn’t want to; the other students were sad to say goodbye to a week filled with such great memories; and the leaders were happy and proud of having accomplished another exciting and safe trip.

We pulled our canoes onto the dock at the rental store and loaded the vans. We, the leaders had an eight-hour drive to bring the students back to campus.  It was going to be a long drive, but the high spirits of the students made it an enjoyable experience. Everyone was thrilled along the way to get the food they hadn’t had in a week. Everyone got Tim Horton’s and either Taco Bell or A&W’s. I got to enjoy milk, the substance I had craved most while on the trip. I drank three liters on the drive home.

Upon reaching Calvin’s campus,  the students were eager to reunite with their parents. They quickly said their goodbyes to their fellow students and the leaders, unpacked their gear and left. The process for us, as leaders, however, was far from over. We still had to clean the gear and organize it all back into the proper places on in the gear locker. This process took the rest of the evening and the following day. It is amazing how much behind-the-scenes work goes into leading these sorts of trips.

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