After what she thought was a disastrous first attempt at big canoeing, Tori Baird learns that trial and error is all part of the process. In her new series for Outpost “A Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing” she’ll explain it all, and tell you how you can do it, too.
By Tori Baird
(Feature photo: Cobi Sharpe/Spark Adventure Photography)
My first multiday canoe trip ended with me running onto the road and flagging down the first car I saw and asking them to call us a cab once they were back within cell reception. It was early spring and we were paddling the Skootamatta, an advanced level whitewater river in Ontario, and I had never paddled whitewater before in my life. As a matter of fact, I barely had more than a few hours of experience being in a canoe before setting off on this trip, but my new boyfriend had assured me we’d be fine.
The river was high, there were ice shelves lining the bank and the previous evening we had dumped our canoe mid-rapid, forcing us to swim to shore in the frigid water. Needless to say, I was ready to go home.
Flash forward to nine years later and that boyfriend is now my husband, and despite my fairly traumatic first whitewater experience, I’ve gotten back in the canoe more times than I can count and together we’ve paddled multiple local and remote wilderness whitewater rivers.
So you may be wondering what made me get back into a canoe after smashing nose first into a massive boulder and going ass over tea kettle in the middle of a raging rapid of freezing cold water.
Well, if you’ve ever heard of “Type 2 Fun,” this was that for me. In the moment I was scared, cold and exhausted; it was miserable. But when I got home and recapped the whole situation I realized that we were never in any real danger. We were wearing dry suits and life jackets, so even though it was cold my clothes didn’t even get wet, we were able to get a fire going right away to warm up and all of our gear was waterproofed and strapped down to the canoe, so we didn’t lose a single thing.
Dumping in a rapid is always a possibility when paddling whitewater, but being new and inexperienced made it seem much scarier and more intense than it really was. In retrospect it was just a new and exciting experience and now I have a fun story to tell.
READ more Tori Baird’s “Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing”
The fact of the matter is, canoe tripping requires work. There’s a ton of prep beforehand, from trip planning to finding and packing all of your gear. The trip itself takes a lot of physical effort; paddling and portaging your canoe and gear, setting up camp, breaking camp, etc. Even when you return home there is still plenty of work to be done, like airing out damp tents and reorganizing gear into its proper storage area. But you know what they say, the greater the effort, the sweeter the reward, which I found to be exceptionally accurate after each canoe trip I went on.
My first remote wilderness canoe trip took me to Northern Quebec down a seldom paddled river called the East Natashquan. Prior to our trip in 2015, there were no recorded descents of this river since 1999, which meant there were no up-to-date river notes, and portage trails would be scarce and unmaintained.
The float plane dropped us off on a lake that sits in a narrow glacial groove and abuts upon the Labrador border; some 120 kms from the nearest road. As the floatplane took off, leaving us alone on a beach in the middle of nowhere, I remember thinking, “what have I gotten myself into?”
From there we needed to paddle and portage 300 km down rapids, around waterfalls, through canyons and lakes to make it back to our vehicle, which was parked in the small community of Natashquan on the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.
Though extremely challenging, both mentally and physically, this trip turned out to be a pivotal event in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of my own personal transformation. Making it through an entire 5-km canyon full of Class II-III rapids right side up made me realize I am capable of learning a new skill and performing under pressure.
The portage from hell that took us two and a half days through a trail-less old burn made me realize I am strong and resilient. The bear bursting onto our campsite in an attempt to join us for dinner made me realize I can face and overcome my fears. And the relentless black flies biting every piece of exposed skin made me realize I will always hate bugs.
But despite the hardships, we encountered a beauty that one may not appreciate in the same way had there not been any effort put forth. We got to enjoy spectacular waterfalls, incredible wildlife, and enchanting northern lights, all on our own terms as if we were the only people on earth. Experiences like this last a lifetime and are always worth the extra work.
Canoe tripping has helped me build a new confidence in myself that has transferred over into my day-to-day life. By pushing past my mental and physical barriers, I’ve trained my brain into being able to handle other adversities outside of canoeing.
Small accomplishments (or big ones) paired with exercise can help boost your norepinephrine and serotonin levels which together help promote antidepressant effects and can have therapeutic benefits, according to the Hormone Health Network. So it goes without saying that completing a canoe trip can positively impact your mental health—and it sure will increase physical health as well. You may not love it right off the bat, but just like taking up running, it’s something you have to want to like and grow to appreciate.
After all, the canoe can take you places that other vessels simply cannot. It can take you into that backcountry trout-fishing lake, or up that shallow narrow stream to get a better look at that beautiful waterfall. It can take you away from the business of the city and the chatter of people. Away from the stresses of everyday life, and bring you into the present moment, so you can take in every sight, sound and feeling.
It will allow you to connect with the land around you while giving you a profound respect for the power of Mother Nature. So, get out there and start exploring.