Category Archives: Canada

Algonquin Back Country Paddle Final Day

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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A Perplexing Storm (Algonquin Back Country Paddle – (Year II day 3))

Algonquin Back Country Paddle – (Year II day 3)

Day 3

            Sleeping under the tarp with my comrades turned out to be a mediocre decision. While it was wonderful to be outdoors, sleeping on the ground, I was accompanied by hordes of mosquitoes and the loudest snoring I have heard to date. Although I had gone bed on time, hardly being able to keep my tired eyes open, I got very little sleep during the night. The sun peaked over the far tree line and I rose with it. It was 5:45 AM, I was exhausted, but the camp was quiet and the world was serene. I enjoyed the first truly quiet time of the trip thus far.

An hour later Jesse, a co-leader, joined me in the quiet stillness of the camp. Together we passed the hour sipping our hot drinks – I had black tea and Jesse had coffee – and watching the sun climb to its high perch in the sky. Afterwards, we woke the rest of the camp to begin the day.

Following breakfast, we climbed into our canoes. Each had a new partner to paddle with, as was our daily custom. My partner and I were paddling in the back of the convoy to assure that none would get lost. We started our day paddling in a lake, but spent the much of the rest of the day passing through swamps. The swamps were calm and quiet. Once the group spread out a little, we could no longer see each other around the bends in the river; my partner and I felt like we were the only canoe around. In reality, we were only about 100 feet from the group. I loved the opportunity to be separated from the group for a few moments at a time. It allowed me to relax and witness the serenity of the part of the world we were in without the distractions of constantly monitoring the others. While paddling through the swamps, many of us caught frogs as we paddled past them. This took some skill and very quick hands, but there were hundreds of frogs to practice on. I caught six frogs in one section of the swamp.

To travel from one swamp to the next, we needed to portage our canoes. We had two portages for this day. The first was 500M and the second was 700M. These were very manageable after the 2.3Km portage the day previous. I carried my pack and a canoe down each portage without breaks – I do not like to take breaks on portages unless I absolutely must.

The first portage, although shorter, was far less enjoyable than the second one. The reason for this was the mosquitoes. By the second portage, I had learned from my mistakes and applied 98% deet bug spray. The first portage, however, consisted of me attempting to outrun the mosquitoes down the path (in crocs, while carrying a full pack and canoe), I bet it was quite a sight! Often the mosquitoes would be caught in the air pocket of the canoe, and they could keep up with me and would land all over my arms. I, in turn, while still running, would attempt to blow them off my arms with a strong breath. This was only somewhat effective. I was certainly much happier during my second portage when I was protected by my bug spray.

The second portage brought us to a lake. My canoe (nicknamed “Zephyr”) and the Big Bertha canoe (nicknamed “Mother-ship”) made plans to ambush the senior leader’s canoe. We faked a race in order to get in position and flank the canoe from both sides. The senior leader paddled away from us as quickly as he could because we had announced his bow as the finish-line to our “race.” By the time we flanked him, we were in very stagnant, swamp-like water. Despite the “beaver fever” water, our efforts would not go to waste. We soaked the canoe and took little water back in the counter-attack.

After passing through the stagnant water to the next lake, I jumped out of my canoe to wash off. Next, our alliance ambushed the next few canoes as they emerged from the stagnant water. Other canoes joined our alliance, but I did not trust them. Faking a revolt, I lead some canoes to attack “Mother-ship.” When our attack force was in place, I turned on those who revolted with me and showed my true loyalty to the original alliance. “Mother-ship” and “Zephyr” (my canoe) laid claim to Little Trout Lake and Big Trout Lake that day. Their authority has not been questioned since.

Later, in this most eventful of days, we encountered a very perplexing storm. We had claimed the most sought-after campsite on the lake. It was a peninsula with a light, constant breeze (a zephyr—one of my favorite words), and a rock to sleep on right next to the shore. The students tied the tarp in place, set up and guyed-out their tents, and went to the evening meeting around the campfire. While admiring the beauty of the sunset, we noticed some clouds moving towards us quicker than they should have. Quickly we packed up everything that was loose in the camp and made sure guy-lines were bombproof. About half of the group finished these tasks when the storm front hit the camp. A canoe began rolling through the camp, but a fast-acting student jumped in it and held it in place.

Scrambling, we pulled the camp together in moments. The storm had come from being out of sight to being right on top of us in minutes. Once the camp was bomb proof, the group took some pictures of the storm and I checked on the GoPro I had set up for a time-capture of the storm. All was well. We crawled into our respective tents and waited for the storm to pass (we expected this to take until morning). Several minutes later though, the storm was completely gone, and there was no sign that it had ever existed. Having grown up in Western Michigan, I am used to storms growing in strength as they cross Lake Michigan; I have never seen a storm come on so strong and last for such a short time though. This was one of my favorite experiences of the trip.


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Back Country Paddling – Algonquin Provincial Park (Year II – day 2)

Day 2 (28 July 2011)

After the group finished their morning tasks of cooking, packing tents, or retrieving the “bear bag,” we had our morning yoga session. This was a fun way to start the day for the group and allowed for each person to spend some time quietly enjoying their place in the outdoors. I am not a big fan of yoga, but I must admit that the stretches felt good and the quiet atmosphere was very nice. Once the yoga session was completed, the student whose task that day was to choose partners for the canoes assigned each new pair and we climbed into our canoes.

Photo provided by ATK79 on Flicker

The biggest portage of the trip (2.3Km) was this day and we, as leaders, knew group morale would be the biggest factor in how well the group would fare. We encouraged the students and got them excited for the challenge. When we climbed out of the canoes, (most of ) the students were almost too excited to start the portage to even wait around for the brief instructions we needed to give. After a short talk, and some helping of loading canoes onto student’s backs, they were off. I carried my pack of about 55 lbs (The previous year I had a pack of about 80 because of all the heavy pots and granola—so I was excited this year at having a less-heavy pack) and the large 3-person canoe. I started in the back of the group, but a brisk pace allowed me to work up to the middle of the pack.

Along the trail I passed several groups moving the other direction on the portage. The first group I passed, after only about 100 meters, told me I was almost there. I laughed. I knew better than that—I was not even 5% of the way there. As I came across other members of my group I made sure they were okay before moving on. My body was aching under the weight of “Big Bertha” as we had begun calling the 3-person canoe. I had neglected to pad the yoke that sat on my shoulders. I could feel my clavicle (which was displaced in a sports injury and remains slightly out-of-place still) get angrier with every step. My bare shoulders were forming rash that would soon bleed.

I carried that canoe the entire distance of the portage. At one point, a students had to help me place it on a resting bar (horizontal plank of wood nailed between two trees), but besides that instance, I carried the weight of that canoe and my pack the entire distance. When I finally reaches the next lake, I was ecstatic to see nothing bit smiles on everyone’s faces and a little extra energy floating around in the group. I was  quickly greeted with a congratulations for finishing the portage and joined in to congratulate those who were yet to come. The group had pulled together. Those who needed help in the portage received it, all were encouraging, and all had made it safely without a single complaint. Morale was high.

Everyone was ready to continue. We piled back into our canes and set off. The small lake we were on had a nice zephyr with cooled our bodies after so much exertion. The far end of the lake flowed into a swamp. J.B., the senior leader of our trip, challenged every other canoe to make it through the swamp without ever bumping the sides (even if someone rammed your canoe you would lose). All winners would receive a prize of three Tim Horton’s donut-holes when we arrived back in the front-country. The swamp was narrow, but I was steering and my partner followed my commands. Without a single close call we made it through the challenge and earned our prize.

After paddling for a good while longer, our group made their way to Tom Thomson Lake where we would camp for the night. We checked several campsites that we were not thrilled with before finally deciding that one was sufficient for our groups needs.

After enjoying some much-needed lunch, the group took quiet time. While the students read selected reading we gave them and had time to reflect on them, we leaders organized our bags and took a nap. It is unbelievable how much extra energy is expelled as a leader on a trip rather than a participant.

When we awoke, we gathered the students for a hands-on lesson. We told them to put on their suites and be ready to get wet. When to students came back from changing, we began to instruct how to perform a T-rescue should a canoe flip in the middle of a large lake. This was a timely lesson because the rest of the trip would be filled with lakes that take hours to cross.

While pairs of students paddled into the lake, flipped their canoes, and rescued one another, those of us on shore made up stories about them. As soon as a pair of paddlers would be beyond earshot, someone would begin to set a scene that they would unknowingly be acting out. I would share the scenes that were played out, but without knowing each member of the group in detail, it would not be nearly as funny as it was then and there.

Once the last canoe tipped and was rescued, the group went swimming and washed with Dr Bronner’s biodegradable soap. The stuff is amazing and the label is quite funny. It can be used as soap, spice, and even toothpaste! I tried it as toothpaste later than night—I will not, however, be using it as such again unless I absolutely need to.

After cooking pizza over the fire for dinner, I went to bed exhausted. The students stayed up a little while longer, but soon a group of them joined me as well sleeping under the stars.


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Back Country Paddling – Algonquin Provincial Park (Year II – days 0-1)

Pre-Trip: (August 2011)

 Having completed my Wilderness First Responder course and as well as some leadership training through Calvin College, I was hired to lead Wilderness Orientation trips for incoming Calvin College students beginning in the summer of 2011. The trip I would be leading was to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I had been a student on this trip the year prior and fallen in love with my first back-country experience. I was very excited to lead others back to the place where I had gotten my back-country start and was very eager to accept responsibility as the certified medic on the trip.

As a leader I was responsible for pulling all the necessary gear for the trip, inspecting it for defects, and organizing it for the students. I was also responsible for the groups’ food rations. Our Wilderness program made a menu for all the trips, including mine, and bought the rations together in bulk. We spent thousands of dollars on food during rations’ day. Next we brought the food back to Calvin College for our re-packing (standard food packaging is wasteful and bulky and thus many foods much be re-packed into sealable plastic bags more fit for back-country use). Another leader on my trip and I worked together through this process to make sure there were no mistakes. We labeled meals by duct-taping the meal names on their respective bags and packed them into stuff sacks accordingly. Everything went very smoothly and the group of leaders preparing for their respective trips had a lot of fun together. Our whole pre-trip planning, rationing, inspecting of equipment, and plethora of other miscellaneous tasks took us about a week before we finally met our students.

Day 1 (27 August 2011)

After some meet-and-greet time with the students and a road trip of about nine-hours, we finally made it to Algonquin Park on the 27th of August 2011. During the van ride all students were taught various paddle-strokes, played car-games (mostly riddle-type games), and got to know one another. The group was getting along well (which was one of our primary concerns before the trip) and we had arrived safely (another major concern). We ate lunch, received our canoes, paddles, and life jackets and loaded into the canoes. There were five leaders and twelve students. Canoes were assigned to students by the leaders for the first day to ensure more experienced canoer’s were paired with the less experienced paddlers.

As we rounded the first point on the first of many lakes we would explore, I noted that this group was much more proficient than the group I had paddled with as a student. Most canoes were running in fairly straight lines (a tough task for an inexperienced canoer to master). The group was having a great time and we were so happy to finally be out of the van and on the water.

Quickly we came upon our first portage of the trip. It was child’s play – only about 100m long and was extremely flat – unlike the portages we would face in future days. This was just enough distance for the group to get a taste of what we would be doing a lot more of over the next few days. My canoe partner, a girl with a lot of fight in her, wanted to be the first girl in our group to do a portage. I gladly took her pack and watched her carry the canoe right along with the boys. Without warning came a question I never expected to hear, “are they all going to be that long?” The answer he received, “yes, in fact the rest will be at least five time as long” did not seem to make him excited, but he took it well enough.

A little ways after the first portage, we came across the cliff jumping site. This was a highlight of the trip for many students and stands out in my mind as one of the most fun event’s during the trip. There were several heights from which to jump. Whether to conquer a fear of heights or to enjoy the adrenaline rush most chose to jump from the highest part of the cliff. One of the other leaders jumped first as a demonstration. I filmed with a GoPro camera as the students jumped, some more hesitant than others. Eventually my turn came and I gladly threw myself off the cliff to plunge into the cool northern waters.

I proceeded to deep-water solo (free climbing with water below you so a fall doesn’t result in injury) while keeping an eye on the students. Everyone had a great time and remained safe throughout the entire cliff-jumping experience.

Once back in our canoes, we paddled for a few more hours before making camp for the first night. Students pulled their canoes out of the water and laid them upside-down as instructed. Next, the students set up tents (quite a teaching opportunity for the first day), and we taught them how to tie trucker’s-hitches to secure guy-lines. Finally, each student went off to complete their task for the day. Some were cooks; others gathered firewood or set up the tarp. This was the order of activities every time we got to a new camp for the week. By the end of the trip, the students were becoming rather proficient in all the various tasks.

We ate dinner, had a fireside meeting, and got to know one another better. I do not like to sleep in tents so I put my sleeping mat outdoors in a rut on the cliff edge (if you have read my other posts you know this is a common practice for me). I convinced three others to join me outdoors for the night. The mosquitoes were bad, but by the end of the trip, nearly the entire group was sleeping outside with me. It was a great experience for everyone.


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