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Illustration by April dela Noche Milne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I had finally convinced my boyfriend to take me on a canoe trip.

He was nervous. It would just be the two of us, you never know what could happen, he said, and proceeded to describe a variety of terrible situations that could very well happen. I wasn’t deterred. They could also not happen, I said. Why not give it a go?

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My boyfriend loves a good canoe trip. Before we met, our mutual friends warned me, “I hope you like canoeing.” He’s been going on trips for 15 years, as a camper and then as a guide. He’s been in lakes and rivers all over Northern Ontario, Quebec and in Labrador. He describes himself as a canoeist first, a backpacker second. His most prized possession, the first thing he bought when he got an adult job out of university, was a dark red, wood-and-canvas-covered canoe. It was handmade for him, and he loves it. So you could say he’s a bit of an expert.

Me? I’d never been canoeing in the backcountry, so I could understand his concern.

Sure, I’ve camped before. But it was car camping, and not in years. I’ve hiked and love being outdoors, but I’ve never had to use the woods as a toilet. And while I’ve paddled with him on the lake at his cottage, I’ve certainly never done a portage. I’d always wanted to try proper camping, but like many others I just never had the time.

This year though, I was determined; this was a love of his, and I loved him, and what better time to give it a go than during a pandemic, when no one can go anywhere? I wanted to prove that I was tough and capable of adventuring. Instead of hearing all the details of his trips, we could tell stories together about ours. I trusted him completely as head of safety and guide; I ignored what fears I did have about bears and how to dig a toilet. We could totally do this.

And maybe (just maybe) this would be the place where he would tell me he loved me, after I impressed him with my natural skills (non-existent) and tenacity (present in abundance). This would be the ultimate romantic adventure. After a few weeks of persuasive tactics and sending canoe route map links, I finally won him over. We’d go in early July.

So he packed his axe, our food, the maps and the tent; I grabbed an emergency first aid kit and an old sleeping bag from my parent’s house. He planned all the routes, chose campsites and measured portages, while I went to a camping store where a nice man helped me choose a dry bag and wished me luck for my first trip.

Thus unevenly prepared, we drove to Temagami, Ont., a canoeist mecca. His happy place.

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We arrived at the lake access point, and after an easy hour paddle on the first lake under a beautiful blue sky, I was confident it would all go according to plan. He’d be totally in love with me by dinner.

It did not go as planned. Instead, it all went downhill.

First, we hit a headwind, and didn’t make it as far as we had hoped the first day. Then the blackflies were the worst he’d seen in quite a few years. The campsite he wanted was taken by the time we arrived, so we had to settle for one way too close to the water for his liking. An unknown critter rifling outside our tent in the night forced him to get up twice to scare it away with his axe. The portages were in really rough shape. We waded through knee deep mud; we had to manoeuvre around so many fallen trees and overgrowth that we lost the trails frequently. It was over 30 C and we had an unexpected thunderstorm on our second night that lasted hours. We hid in our tent from the bugs, too exhausted and bitten to even hold each other. The water was lower than expected and we hit the canoe on many rocks because I didn’t know how to cross draw.

At the end of the three days (only three days!) we were back in the car. My skin was hot and angry with bug bites, I had barely slept in 72 hours and I had a bruise on my forehead from hitting it on the canoe.

Yet as I lay on my bed in Toronto, so tired I couldn’t move, I realized that I wanted to do it all again. Because I did learn how to cross draw, and how to navigate a map. I swam in a lake so warm it felt like a summer pool and was almost as clear as one, while a loon drifted by in the water beside me. I ate lunch on an island with the most beautiful pine trees and paddled past beaver dams, lily pads and towering cliffs of bedrock.

I felt exposed during that thunderstorm, but I’d also never before appreciated how thunder can make the ground tremble. I had a rush of confidence after reaching the end of the longest and worst portage with a bag almost bigger than me on my back.

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That trip was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in a long time, and I had made it. My boyfriend is a great teacher, but there is so much I still have to learn. It was fun, as much as it was humbling. I’ve already started planning my next trip with a few of my girlfriends.

I think I know why he loves going out there so much. It’s for the challenge, the space. The beauty of moving forward with your own two hands in a place of natural wonder. Gliding through the water.

My boyfriend said he was impressed with my paddling, my ability to read a trail and that I didn’t give up. He didn’t say I love you. He said I was a good partner, and that next time, it would be easier because now I’d seen the worst a canoe trip could be. He shared a place that is truly special to him, and whatever happens with us, I’ve found something that I really like to do. That’s the more important thing. I can wait for the rest.

But next time I’m bringing AfterBite.

Gillian Webb lives in Toronto.

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