Little tornadoes whip by with every paddle stroke. Wind howls as I pull water; the metal Grumman canoe wobbles slightly. Dark clouds sweep overhead, and a metallic zing pierces the air: rain is coming. Hopefully, only rain.
I drag the blade into a J-stroke, adjusting my group’s direction toward the Western shore, where a small orange sign indicating the next portage is supposed to appear. The kids are lily-dipping again – slumping their paddles into the water ineffectively. The adult boat – their parents – is far ahead, hugging the shoreline as I instructed earlier. As we battle headwind, the approaching waves are poking a little high. We need to face them, bow first. Otherwise, the kids’ first canoe trip will be remembered as a cold nightmare of soaked clothes, chattering teeth and that time they lost the food supply. I pretend everything is completely normal. Nervousness only increases chances of tipping.
“Hey Lindsay, what’s the next thing?” I call to the 10-year-old sitting on a mud-caked pack in the middle of my canoe. It’s a game I resurfaced from my days as a camp counsellor-in-training, a riddle-of-sorts where you merely ask “what the next thing is” and anything said after works – as long as you include the required words.
“The next thing is … that wave,” she giggles. Her 13-year-old brother, Cole, is sitting at the front, uninterested in the riddle he probably figured out hours ago.
“Ah, right!” I say, noticing the rising goliath before us. Rain stamps the water. My goose-bumped arms struggle to pull back my paddle.
“What’s after that?” I call, as we ride over with a thump and splash.
A flash of white light ignites the sky; a thunderous rumble rolls. Wind screams and the waves rise higher. “No more lily dipping, guys,” I say, about to lose my cool. Another dagger of electricity streaks through clouds. “Paddle HARD!”
A month prior, I was sitting in a cubicle desk toward the end of an internship. I was about halfway through my graduate program and overcome with nostalgia for my summers as a canoe tripper for a camp in Northern Ontario. We led four day canoe trips in Algonquin Park. I missed the adventure: getting dirty, howling at the moon and laughing with a belly full of s’mores. I missed that sense of pride that came with campers accomplishing small tasks – gathering wood, building a fire, completing a portage – and that blast of tranquillity that settled deep in your gut with each Northern breath. There was a feeling of satisfaction with that job that I just wasn’t able to find anywhere else. And, that day in the cubicle, wearing a tucked-in dress shirt to meet the demands of casual business attire, I was struck with an inescapable yearning to feel it all again. And soon.
I shot a message to two of my best friends who grew up attending the same summer camp: “What if we started a canoe trip business? Took families on trips in Algonquin?”
It had been about five years since we closed the summer camp chapter. We had moved on to the next thing – building a career and determining what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. But something inside us made it difficult to stop looking back. They responded immediately.
We worked throughout the following weekend on an application for an Ontario summer company program, which awarded grants to young entrepreneurs between the ages of 15 and 29. After detailing a business plan with projected costs and foggy marketing strategy, we hit “submit.”
Weeks later, our application was approved, and we were given some financial wiggle room to get off our feet. We purchased an assortment of new gear and scheduled a “beta trip” to see if I still remembered how to lead trips. (It had been some years since I last carried the Canoe Tripper title, and I was bound to be a little rusty.) Weeks later, with bags packed, food sealed, permits booked, and a family willing to give us a shot, we were ready to rumble. And so was the sky.
“Are we gonna tip?” shouts Lindsay.
“No! of course not! Just paddle harder!”
“So why do you sound like we’re gonna tip?”
“We’re not! I don’t! Just give me some C-strokes!”
“What are C-strokes again?” calls Cole.
“MAKE SOME C’s!” shouts Lindsay.
The canoe quakes. Rain streams over us. I squint through the storm to see the parent boat rocking next to the shore, facing the waves. Another lightning strike flashes.
The stress of this situation is as exhilarating as it is familiar. I’ve faced my fair share of canoe-trip challenges but something about this situation was profoundly different.
I wasn’t just fighting the headwind, I was fighting to keep my new business afloat. I was afraid. Not so much of the water, but what falling into it would mean. I was afraid that my hopes for blazing a new path would be squandered by a storm demanding I no longer have what it takes, that my nostalgia-driven ambition would be ripped apart by rocking gunwales and spitting rain.
I was afraid of returning to that cubicle.
The kids paddle impressively hard, the lightning stops and we make it to the portage. A sense of calmness settles with the sudden glow of sunlight seeping through parting clouds. We’re a little behind, but a lot relieved. I play it cool with the parents, as if the six-foot waves were nothing out of the usual. The morale is dampened but still strong. I assess the map, and we soldier on.
An hour later, we find a campsite facing west. The sun sets and burger grease spits on the sizzling pan. As I cook dinner, leaves rustle with a light breeze. On the rocky shore ahead Lindsay, Cole and their parents watch the final blaze of orange and red slipping over the horizon.
I’m back where I want to be.
The next thing is … stars. And the feeling that this could work.
Mitchell Consky lives in Toronto.
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