Over the past decade, we’ve been indoctrinated by the green revolution. It’s all the rage. We’re supposed to do the Earth good by cultivating an awareness of our ecological footprint, somehow averting the climate crisis. Unfortunately, most modern Americans are cut off from the kind of first-hand wilderness experience that might actually have an impact on our psyches. With the exception of Alaska, our most northern frontier, we don’t have much access to the great planet that our lip service seeks to preserve, at least not in the same sense that we did two hundred years ago. But this isn’t true for all of North America.
Canada is our continent’s most underrated nation. Despite having a deservedly low-key reputation on the international scene, it’s the world’s second largest country after Russia. For many young Canadians, a summer canoe trip through Canada’s vast stretches of wilderness is a rite of passage, and for the more adventurous, this means forgoing the domesticated rivers and lakes of cottage country to pursue the deep unruly waters of the far north. In the summer of 2008, I accompanied seven of my favorite Canadians on a grueling, month-long canoe expedition. This adventure exposed me to the great spoils of wilderness that the green revolution seeks to keep us from plundering.
Our journey began on a vast, cerulean-blue lake in Quebec, approximately thirty-five hours north of New York City. We set out armed with maps of a route that no one had ever attempted before. If all went well, in four short weeks we’d come to the James Bay of the greater Hudson Bay, where the tides of the Arctic Ocean would lead us to the community of Waskaganish, the heart and capital of the Aboriginal Cree Nation. Our plan involved navigating three lakes and five rivers in canoes loaded to the brim with all the supplies that we would need, including every ounce of food and drink necessary for the survival of eight people over the course of a month.
With no other human vessels in sight across the endless lake, our first day on the water we paddled for hours under the late July sun. But this serene beginning soon gave way to endless stretches of challenging whitewater and over twenty-five portages (or over-land travel), which required us to carry all of our canoes, supplies, and equipment across difficult terrain. Although my friends were experienced canoeists, I’d personally never paddled any serious whitewater; the longest canoe trip I’d undertaken was ten days. I knew it would be arduous, but the truth is, I had no clue. By the end of the first two weeks of our journey, my face was so swollen with black fly bites that I was literally unrecognizable.
Although we were canoeing in one of the most beautiful countries on earth, the terrain that we passed through was not. The taiga is rocky and barren; the boreal forest of the north has evolved to withstand the extreme cold, and the summer months often bring rain. Needless to say, it was no vacation. But on the hot, sun-bleached days, when we paddled through gut-wrenching sets of churning whitewater, it was always worth it—unless, of course, something went wrong, which it seemed to often enough, given the technical sets and inevitability of human error.
After scouting the sets, our most experienced pair of paddlers would blaze a trail through the course, with all of us observing their fate. If they were successful, each boat would follow suit one at a time. Each canoe, regardless of who was in it, dumped at one point or another, sucked down the river in the paddlers’ attempt to navigate set after gushing set of whitewater. Rescue missions involved fishing each other out and into a waiting canoe before corralling renegade boats, equipment, and other supplies. Soaked to the depths of their bones, the dumped canoeists would take their seats at the bow and stern, and once again we’d take off, four canoes moving swiftly down the river. Sometimes, we fished. But it didn’t take long before we’d lost almost every single fishing pole to the rapids, and suddenly making the catch of the day wasn’t the first thing on our minds; we were most concerned with survival.
Leadership is crucial to team survival in wilderness scenarios, and this was a particular challenge given the range of personalities that we had along for the ride; there was no shortage of arguments on our journey. But somehow, we survived. Our meals were well earned and meticulously planned, thanks to our friend and teammate Heidi, who labored for weeks before our departure organizing quite possibly the tastiest canoe-tripping menu imaginable, which included falafel, curries, and stews.
Across vast sets of rapids that cut through rocky gorges and fast-flowing rivers that led us inches from churning waterfalls, we paddled onward. There were near escapes from black bears and, on one set, a dumped canoe literally wrapped around a boulder in the middle of a river, spiking fears that we would lose the boat entirely. Somehow we managed to save it. I spent much of the trip with my heart in my throat and my stomach below my knees, but I’ve never felt more human in my life. Resolute in my capacity to survive, yet keenly aware of how insignificant I was to the world at large. After paddling over 600 kilometers, we made our final journey across the rising waters of the Pontax River to the mouth of the James Bay, where we waited for the tides to come in before paddling into Waskaganish. I’ll never do that exact trip over again—I’d be crazy to—but Canadian canoe tripping is surely the kind of adventure that the green revolution seeks to preserve, and proof that putting our lip service to work is a very good idea, indeed.