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Estée Preda

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“Is this making us old or keeping us young?” my husband asked as he lifted one of three heavy backpacks from the canoe on the third portage of the first day.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “The jury’s still out.” The heat and mosquitoes were getting to me, and I was seriously questioning our sanity in embarking on a canoe trip through Ontario’s Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park during the hottest week of the summer.

But even in the fall, our canoe trips – while certainly cooler – are no less arduous. I’ve always loved getting away from civilization to bask in the serenity of nature, to be on a news blackout and to ponder the year that was and the year to come. Which is why we’ve been doing this regularly for most of the 38 years we’ve been together.

Now as we’re getting older, it’s getting harder – sore knees, sore feet, sore backs. So we’re changing our habits. Instead of white water trips in the far north, we’re going on lake trips closer by. Instead of pulling on the heavy pack myself and rising from a sitting position, he lifts it up while I thread my arms through the straps. Going down a steep ledge, instead of negotiating it with the canoe on my husband’s shoulders (and risking a turned ankle), we both lower the canoe together.

On this summer’s 1,500 metre portage, we each keep our own pace. I treat it like a pilgrimage or a sacred labyrinth, starting with a question and pondering the answer with each step, a mindful meditative walk through the old-growth forests. Along the way, I might stop to notice the multiple shades of green in the ferns beside the path or feel the soft surfaces of the lichens and moss. He’s usually waiting at the other end, wondering why it’s taken me so long.

In the old days, I wore my bathing suit and shorts. Now I’m completely covered from head to toe with a long-sleeved shirt and pants, gloves, wide-brimmed hat and neck scarf, which I sometimes pull up over my nose, like a bandit. I can’t take the sun or bugs any more. And instead of plastic sandals, I now wear sturdy hiking shoes on the boulder-strewn trails.

Like us, our equipment is wearing out – this year a lace on the bow canoe seat broke when one of us (not mentioning any names) kneeled on it to get out of the canoe. Do we repair it, replace it or leave it? The filter on the water purifier gave out on the last day – thankfully, we didn’t need any more drinking water. I keep taping up the hip belt on my back pack. At what point do I buy a new one? And would it last for another 38 years?

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Over the years, we’ve split up the camp chores – I handle the food, cooking and clean-up, and lay out the Therm-a-Rests and sleeping bags, while he navigates the route, lights the stove, filters the water and chops the wood. We both set up the tent and hunt for the best branch on which to hang the food pack to keep it safe from bears.

Some things never change. He still gets frustrated with me for not remembering how to tie a bowline. But I figure, I don’t need to know it any other time, so why learn? I do know the rhyme: the rabbit goes up the hole, around the tree and back down the hole, but which tree, which hole and which way?

These days, we have a lighter attitude to the whole experience. One night he said he thought he heard an animal growling outside the tent, but then realized it was just me snoring. And I don’t do fancy meals anymore, such as baking brownies in the hot coals or toasting bannock on a stick. It’s just one-pot dishes, such as curry or falafels, followed by a fierce game of cribbage.

Since we’ve done this particular route six times, we don’t have to look hard to find the portages, the campsites, the canoe put-ins or take-outs. We don’t even worry about making a certain distance each day. We can stop to take a photo of the pickerel weed or pitcher plants in the fen, to pick blueberries on the rocky barrens or to find the peregrine falcon’s nest on the cliff where the white guano drips down.

I know that our memories are going – when my husband asks for granola to snack on, I realize he means gorp: good old raisins and peanuts. And I was sure that I’d packed a small container of margarine, but couldn’t find it anywhere, and really thought I was losing my mind. But on the last day, lo and behold, there it was in the lunch bag, tucked away in the far corner.

In the past, we’d paddle and portage for seven or eight hours till suppertime or later. Now, we like to stop after three or four hours and spend the afternoons lazily doing our own thing – me scouting out the best tree to sit against while reading my book and savouring the smell of the sap dripping down the bark. My husband wanders around identifying plants, making notes on the birds, picking up garbage left by previous campers and arranging wood for the evening’s campfire. Later on, we’ll go for a swim together, then do Pilates and yoga on the rocks.

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Instead of staying up late to see the stars, we now retreat to the tent by 9 p.m. – exhausted after our exertions – and drift to sleep listening to the whippoorwill’s plaintive call.

Over the years, my canoe-tripping experience has evolved to focus less on the physical and more on the metaphysical. Like a solar battery, I store up the energy I absorb from the forest, rocks and waters to sustain me through the rest of the year. The rhythm of paddling becomes a moving meditation rather than an endurance test. I love listening to the layers of surround sound – the frogs croaking, the dragonflies buzzing, the loons calling and the hermit thrushes warbling.

“How long can we continue doing this?” asks my husband at the end of the last portage.

“I don’t know,” I answer, but inside, I think: “As long as our bodies and minds hold out. I hope forever.”

Joanne Culley lives in Peterborough, Ont.

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