I pushed for years to send our son to Keewaydin, and though my wife was familiar with the surroundings and people, she was always reluctant to agree. That is, until a snarky, eye-rolling 12 year old appeared on our doorstep recently. Gone was our Lego-playing, cuddly little boy. Here to stay was this man-child who clearly needed a different attitude, not to mention some deodorant. ?Where?s that Keewaydin application,? she asked in a huff, recovering from an Xbox altercation with her first-born. ?I think YOUR son needs to go NOW, as in TODAY.? Secretly, I was overjoyed, but I tempered my enthusiasm in case she waffled.
Six months later, nervous and a bit sad, we left Will at the Memphis airport and watched his plane take off for Toronto. He was pumped, having listened to infinite retellings of trip stories from my eight years as camper and staff. Amy, remembering Will?s pre-departure directive, ?Mom, seriously. You can NOT cry at the airport,? did a pretty good job holding it (mostly) together. I took the stoic route. ?Nothing?s bothering me,? I kept saying, but my moodiness for the next few days suggested something different. ?How will he fare? Will he like this place that I hold so dear,? I wondered. A few days into the season, photos posted on Keewaydin?s website of a smiling face covered in the expected amount of dirt and grime eased my worries. I exhaled; relieved Will looked happy and was acclimating the Keewaydin Way.
Fast-forward six weeks to a glorious, sunny August morning, where we -wife, daughter, grandparents- wait on the Algonquin dock for Will?s Section to paddle in. Straining our eyes, pacing back and forth, we watch the horizon for far away flashes of light glinting off paddles of incoming sections. It?s an interesting moment for me, to be the one waiting this time. Thirty years ago, I was in the canoe, paddling in. Now, it?s Will?s turn. Like the smallmouth that swirled near my lure earlier this morning, mixed emotions and myriad questions rise to the surface. ?Did he like it? How was his staff? Was the trip too hard? Too easy? What will he be like after this experience? How much has he changed??
My dad has said repeatedly that Keewaydin saved me (from meeting an early death due to parental frustration, I assume). And as we wait together on this particular day, he recalls the smart-ass, inconsiderate, selfish 12-year old who left on a similar trip in 1980 and paddled in six weeks later a harder working, confident, more mature young man, willing to help and be much more respectful of those around him. Would this be as transformative a summer for Will?
Around 9:30, one group approaches, but eases to the west side of the island. A Waubeno section, it appears. Another comes through the narrows to the north and heads toward the Manitou dock. A section of girls paddle by to Songadeewin, cheering the familiar ?Quay, quay, quay? as they pass. I notice they are fit, strong, determined, and I think about my daughter joining their ranks one day.
Finally, one group appears near Seal Rock, south of Keewaydin. Is it Algonquin 1? The section draws closer and I recognize the guide from mid-season photos. Then I see Will paddling in the bow of the adjacent canoe, wearing the flannel shirt I helped him pack back in June. Laughing to myself, I?m certain the only reason he is wearing that heavy shirt on a sunny, warm morning is because it?s the only clean one left in his roll. (I am glad the Keewaydin tradition of clean clothes for paddle in remains strong.)
I notice Will?s broad smile first, then his arms, stronger than before, tan with a mix of dirt and the odd mosquito bite scratched to a scab. He recognizes us on the dock and leans into the paddle a bit harder. I am amazed by his strength, watching as his boat slides quickly over the smooth water.
A quick unload: first the double packs, then the wannigans. I know they are lighter at the end of the trip, but I?m impressed by his ease as he lifts them from the boat and his focus on the tasks at hand. I stand aside and wait for the hello. I don?t want to crowd him until his work is done, but I can?t wait to hug him. I know his mother is feeling the same way; she keeps her distance, as well, until he approaches. The boat comes out with some effort, but as soon as it?s stowed on the rack, he comes over to hug his mother. ?Hi, Mom,? he says, with a smile that affirms how proud he is to have arrived at last. My eyes fill, and I marvel at the physical changes he has made. Leaner. Taller. His blue eyes, brighter than I remember. He looks at me confidently as he shakes my hand, and I feel like we share a secret now. We hug.
I ask about his trip and hear names of places I haven?t thought about in years: Isbister, Turner, Diamond, Sharp Rock, Lady E, Laniel, Kipawa, Obabika. We talk about the weather, trip food, how his gear held up to the rigors of Keewaydin. He mentions in passing that he thinks he broke a toe two days back. He has a slight limp, but doesn?t let it slow him down. And he brushes off questions about a noticeable scar on his neck, from an apparent run-in with the tie-off cord to the kitchen fly. ?Is this young man really the same kid who left me in Memphis?? I wonder. Six weeks ago, either of these incidents would have been a calamity. Now, ?It?s no big deal, Dad.? I see a confidence in my son I have not seen before, and I begin to understand what my dad has told me for years.
Stroke. Stroke. Turn. Everywhere the sunlight shines. It does not stop at the top of the water; it shines all the way through. The hills rise high around us, seemingly coveting the lake away from prying eyes. As we stare at our surroundings, our pace slows, almost to a stop. Only a few more miles, but it seems like eternity in this deep wilderness. The only sounds are the birds, and our paddles as they dip deep into the liquid turquoise. Someone is singing, some undecipherable song, probably by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Stroke. Stroke. Turn. Repeat.
The campsite is ahead, a ragged, imperfect cliff hanging out over the utter stillness. The wind has fallen to a mere whisper, shaking the very tops of the pine and cedars. Stuart hops out of the boat as we approach a small loading zone, and pushes our bow off of the oncoming rock. The area is almost unblemished; the last person through here must have been at least a week. The only noise is the sound of Boots unloading his canoe and a few rowdy chipmunks fighting over some forgotten morsel or nut.
After a steep inclined portage, we reach the top of our campsite and toss down our duffels and wannigans. The clearing is split in half by a crevice stretching down to a small beach of pebbles, and on either side, sand tops the platform. It is the perfect campsite; beautiful scenery and the landscaping is perfect. The focal point being a double fireplace coupled with a rock outcrop stretching out far above the water. Our section slouches against our packs, with the sun slowly bouncing off the lakes and creating a sunburn yellow glint spreading across the whole clearing.
Joe and I slowly retrieve our bags after an hour or so of just basking, and trek back up into the forest, until we find a flat mossy clearing, surrounded on all sides by old birch trees. They are peeling, their age and the wind are finally getting to them. Once our tent is erect, we unroll, then return to the campfire, where preparations for pizza are beginning. There is nothing more we can do to help, so a few of us stumble down the crevice to the beach, and swim across to a small island. On the island there is a memorial to a man, someone the world has almost forgotten except for here, and now.
The day is almost over, and now we are full. Slowly we trickle off back into the woods, where we rest before tomorrow and its habitual movements. Stroke. Stroke. Turn.
This summer, Tim Nicholson and I lead the 12 members of Section A to the Inuit settlement of Umiujaq on the Eastern shore of Hudson Bay in Northern Quebec. Our 45 day trip took us almost 500 miles from the last available road through some of the most remote and spectacular terrain available in North America. The focus of this trip was the Nastapoka River, a new river for Keewaydin with numerous perils and highlights, the least of which was a 40 kilometer paddle on the bay.
Our trip began near the end of the Trans-Taiga highway in north-central Quebec, a point that is as far north in Eastern Canada as one can drive. From there we continued northwest with the aid of some Keewaydin routes that have been established in the last 10 years. There were long days as we crossed several large drainages which included the Kaniapiscau River, the Great Whale and Little Whale rivers. With the help of some favorable weather we made great time to Clearwater Lake. Here we were greeted by calm waters and had a couple beautiful days among the towering islands and expansive shores that are believed to have been formed by a meteor. This lake is large enough that it can be seen on most world maps.
On day seventeen we paddled north on Big Seal Lake and pushed into territory never before traveled by a Keewaydin section. We were immediately met by an elusive freshwater seal. A favorable omen ? we hoped. From there we pushed for the Nastapoka.
The Nastapoka River did not let us down. Trees became rare and we were pulled by strong current through a mixture of sandy hills and massive rock mountains and cliffs. This river was spectacular. There was plenty of whitewater to run and portages as we made our way around one incredible falls after another. We reached Hudson Bay by way of a long portage that put on the mouth of the river between a towering 85 foot waterfall and the bay. It was here that we were greeted by an Inuit family with offerings of fish. We offered bannock.
The last challenge of the trip was the paddle along the shore of the bay to the settlement of Umiujaq. A paddle we had been dreading for the length of the trip because of being exposed to the wind and weather of the open bay. Fortunately, a rim of islands, named the Nastapoka Islands form a protective barrier against the wind. The morning we pushed off to paddle along the coast to town we were greeted by a large pod of Beluga whales that swam into the river. Another favorable omen, it seemed, as we had a smooth paddle to Umiujaq. The next day the weather turned and we could not have paddled.
In town we were met by some friendly, curious and helpful people who have become familiar with the camp over the last few years. We were fortunate to meet town members willing to share some of the history of the area, and we were also able to learn a little about the Inuit culture and how it is they have inhabited this area for two thousand years.
It was an amazing trip and it was totally made possible by an incredibly strong group of guys who helped each other out constantly and showed a great passion and appreciation for traveling in the north.
I see his canoe with six others. They are evenly spaced out like moving ink dots in a horizontal line on the water. I cannot pick him out, but I know he is in one of the boats and that he is a stern man. He is nearly the youngest in his section, but he is strong. A stern man, cool, quiet and steady; not how it has always been, but here in Canada, he is confident and serene. The boats get larger as they paddle steadily, stealthily towards us. Elliot?s four years at Keewaydin have led him to this moment and to the cheering crowd that awaits his group, the last, to come in from their seven week trip ending in Umiujaq and Hudson Bay.
We will hear stories of bear tearing through wannigans and moose swimming across streams, of freshwater seal playing in the rapids for their own pleasure and of Beluga whales swimming in the arctic saltwater of the Bay. We will hear about Inuit settlements and trading bannock for smoked salmon. There will be a necessary drop of supplies from a pontoon plane - six hundred miles is too great a distance to travel without some re-provisions. But all of the stories are coming, tomorrow, and then for many more tomorrows. Elliot will tell about clouds of mosquitoes and black flies, five-mile portages around waterfalls and conquering the never traveled Nastapoka River. For Elliot, the stories will filter their way into his life at home and alchemize into the interior narrative that will help him to understand himself.
For now, as I watch from the shore, the boats are big enough on the horizon to make out my boy. He is so startlingly handsome that I cannot breathe. He paddles in with his mates and glances at me as I frantically angle for the right shot, a series perhaps of this moment. But I don?t want to miss it, so I put my camera down. He passes me with his first load of supplies. He walks up the hill with a smile and a ?hey?, then comes down for the second load and he stops to give me a big hug. He smells like the very inside of a piece of burnt wood, almost like petroleum ? his dirt and sweat and fire smoke smell is glandular and sweet. I want to whirl him into the air and shout - here is my boy, look at how he is, look at what he has become! I want to thank God or whatever law of nature has brought us to this place and also ask if please, could he stay this way? Please, can he take this with him as he goes forward and enters the cotton gin of high school once more?
Watching Elliot paddle in is one of the most thrilling and deeply rewarding moments I have had as a parent. As I observe him folding into the crowd of onlookers who congratulate him, I imagine the extraordinary distance he has traveled. I pray that I, too, may always find a way to access how I feel today as we all trudge back to the noisy demands of Gotham and the routines that shape our family.
My Daughter had an incredible summer. She came back more confident about her physical capabilities. She also came back with a more mature outlook so it seems to us. She grew emotionally with her new sense of self and accomplishments. THANK YOU FOR GIVING HER THIS OPPORTUNITY TO BE PART OF THE KEEWAYDIN FAMILY!!! She wants to return next year and be part of the older group. With best regards,
Wilderness experience -- staff are great role models for strong, independent women
I like the challenges that are faced when she is one these expeditions. I love the camaraderie that develops among the girls.
It was very challenging for him, and definitely pushed him out of his comfort zone. Overall I think it was a positive experience for him. He grew a lot, and had a positive sense of achievement.
It is really important to have highly intelligent (in all ways) staff on trip since the kids spend so much time with them. I have not been disappointed, as she always comes home with new ideas (often ones that she wouldn't listen to from me).
My son is growing up to be a confident, kind, compassionate leader and I believe the wilderness experience offered by Keewaydin has played a key part in this. I am very grateful to the camp staff and leadership for being sensitive to child development and providing challenging but safe wilderness experiences.