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I took my seven-year-old on our first father-son wilderness trip. Actually, a wilderness-trip-lite; we stayed at an eco-lodge because I didn’t think we were ready for full-out camping.
Noah is sparky-bright, but also young for his age; physically tentative and quicker to frustration than his peers. I was hoping our trip might push him – a bit – but expected to use all my outdoors and parenting skills to make it work.
We had a lovely hike to the lodge, a home-cooked meal and a good night’s sleep. At daybreak we packed lunch, Noah’s new fishing gear (he still didn’t know his hook from his sinker), and set off into paradise.
Algonquin Park is stunning most days, but in September it is glorious.
Noah had paddled just a few strokes before he asked when we could stop to fish. He complained that he was tired and refused to help cross the rest of the lake. He whined at the only portage and left me to carry everything. I began to think that even this simple trip was beyond him.
Thankfully, as the day progressed, he started to relax and enjoy himself. We ate soggy peanut-butter sandwiches and fed dried cranberries to the fish (they otherwise didn’t bite). We trapped spotted frogs in loose-topped Tupperware. We walked in creeks and swam below waterfalls.
The whole afternoon was sun-dappled and sweet beyond telling, and with the day (and the boy) waning, I aimed us for the lodge reluctantly.
We reached the portage again with Noah lying sun-dazed in the bottom of the canoe. He begged to be carried.
I didn’t want to spoil things with an argument. I found a faint blue line on the map suggesting a way to paddle back. It was off the marked course, but I figured the worst-case scenario was we’d have to portage anyway. Noah was happy to agree.
The stream we followed was Middle Earth magical: late-afternoon slanting shadows, steep banks, hushy-green and quiet. Now and again we were blocked by beaver dams, but Noah was willing to stand on them while I pushed the boat over.
After an hour, though, the light and magic were becoming fragile. We hadn’t reached the lake, and we’d come to what seemed an impassable end: A tree had fallen across the stream. It was huge – no way around or over it.
Then Noah (sparky-bright, remember) saw what I hadn’t: space enough to push the boat beneath.
With boy and packs on the log, I stood in the waist-deep water and pushed the canoe under. I left the stern end wedged, counting on our sitting weight to set us free. But after we got back in, we were still stuck.
Now I was tired. I was getting anxious and increasingly sloppy. I should have got out. How many times had I told Noah not to stand in the boat? Instead, I used the paddle and then my whole body to lever us off.
The freed canoe shot forward. I went hard backward. The world spun and I found myself lying in the water. I tried to move, but couldn’t.
For a moment I feared for my spine, but realized (with bizarre gratitude) that I was only impaled. The broken end of a branch had gone through my life jacket, sweater and the muscles of my back.
It was then that I realized Noah’s danger. He was sitting wide-eyed in the swamped canoe.
I had been dad-confident in my ability to protect him – from bears, bees, drowning – but I had never considered what would happen if I got hurt.
I pulled myself free despite the splintering pain. Noah put on a brave face. We sat wrapped in an emergency blanket while I made a plan, talking in my nothing-to-worry-about voice. I did my best to hide the blood; he did his best to hide his tears.
We emptied the canoe, wrung out our clothes and packs and carried everything in the vague direction of the lake. We found it half an hour later, the sun almost submerged in its western end. The lodge lights were directly opposite.
Crossing the water, I had time to replay all my irresponsible choices. I felt sick imagining what might have happened.
But when we reached the dock, Noah hopped out, calm and smiling. The last twilight had turned the water, sky and his face to fall colours. “Don’t stand!” he pretended to scold.
And then it struck me: Noah had paddled the entire way back. He had carried packs uncomplaining through the woods.
I saw in that dim orange light my shining child, his hand extended, a “father of the man.” I was pierced a second time.
This all happened six years ago. My son is now a strapping 13. His shoulders are broad; he’s big enough to wear my clothes.
I often think of that trip – the first of many father-son adventures. I still have the ragged badge on my back as a souvenir.
It reminds me to keep Noah safe, but not to overestimate my ability to do so. And not to underestimate Noah. Like all of us, his real strengths may only emerge when tested.
Matthew Stern lives in Toronto.
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