Peter Raymont is the president of White Pine Pictures. He has felt the joy of canoe trips for 58 years.
Just about every summer, since the age of 10, I’ve gone on a canoe trip.
Those few years I didn’t, I felt empty, out of sorts. I was missing something essential. Life was incomplete.
While there are wild rivers and lakes in parts of the United States, some corners of Europe and elsewhere, canoe tripping is a quintessential Canadian pursuit. Canoe trips are our birthright.
A canoe trip is a deeply spiritual experience, an opportunity to leave behind cellphones, politics, shootings, Donald Trump, Maxime Bernier and everything else that weighs on our too-busy lives. We turn off the noise and listen to our hearts, feel the soft breezes in the pines, hear the magical stillness of the planet, commune with the spheres.
Part of the joy of the canoe trip is the planning – poring over topographic sheets and route maps, digging out musty sleeping bags, tents, Therm-a-Rests, pots and pans. E-mailing good buddies. The excitement and innocence of childhood reborn.
The best time to go is August – no black flies or mosquitoes – although the water levels are lower. There are fewer paddlers once you are one or two portages from the road.
We especially love Temagami and the hidden corners of Algonquin Park.
We were blessed this year. The fire ban was lifted the day before we set out. A canoe trip without a campfire misses some of the magic.
There’s something about the rhythm of paddling that’s in sync with one’s heartbeat, triggers deep muscle memory and connects with the subconscious. Even portages can be mystical – following old game trails between lakes or around dangerous rapids, stepping gingerly around roots on cedar paths trodden for centuries by moose, deer and native peoples.
Last year, we paddled and hiked to Shish Kong Lake in Temagami, a spiritual grove of 350-year-old white pines that somehow eluded the loggers’ axes. Many years ago, my dear wife and paddling companion told me that if you wrap your arms around an old tree, close your eyes and listen deeply, you can feel the fluids moving through its core, sense its spirit, touch its soul. Henry Thoreau wrote that he felt that spirit, too.
Now there are books – The Secret Life of Trees – and practices called forest bathing, to remind us of our connection to nature’s secret, hidden rhythms.
One rarely meets an unhappy person on a canoe trip. There’s banter, joking and fun. This year, we met families towing a white unicorn raft behind their canoe, a gaggle of kids giggling and singing.
On one lake, 12 teenage girls in six canoes loaded to the gunwales with large canvas packs sang She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain as they paddled down a long lake under the late afternoon sun. They’d been on the water for 20 days. They seemed so happy and healthy.
As I lounge in my little foldaway camp chair beneath the red pines, reading Margaret Atwood, I hear voices from far down the lake. There are four paddlers in a bright yellow canoe – mom, dad and two small children between them – paddling and laughing. Enveloped, protected, in the bosom of nature.
On a canoe trip, one lives for hours each day in an ingenious conveyance of Kevlar and ash, a craft that can never be improved. Light, buoyant, deep and wide, with gentle tumblehome, our 16-foot Prospector carries us and our gear silently, cleanly through cool black lakes and rivers.
We paddle silently – no schedule, no meetings, no one to see or talk with or phone. Indeed, no phone. Just us, in this wondrous world. Sometimes lunch is on the water, a handful of peanuts and raisins, an apple perhaps, and that cool, clear water that washes away all cares.
Evenings are languid swims in velvety lakes, with cool springs to surprise us, fresh pickerel grilled on a wood fire, singing corny camp songs, frogs chiming in on “Why are there so many songs about rainbows,” the lonely cry of the loon, lying on our backs, amazed by the first bright planets, a delicate crescent moon, the Milky Way, the delightful drama of shooting stars and the mysteries of the universe.
Long, deep sleeps, awoken by a blue jay or a raven.
And then, one morning, there’s a sharpness in the air, a cooler breeze, the breath of change. We paddle silently back to our homes, returning to families, responsibilities. The spirit has been cleansed, the mind reopened, the soul restored.