Team-work triumphs

From Canoe Lake to Joe Lake to Little Doe Lake and Burnt Island Lake, a group of 10-year-old boys -- Alex, Matt and Morgan from Ontario, Simon and Laurent from Quebec and Aquila from the United States -- paddle and portage miles away from home base at Camp Ahmek in Algonquin Park. They are nearing the end of Day 1 of a seven-day adventure and have already experienced every challenge and triumph of canoe tripping.

The six boys -- each weighs about 70 pounds -- have hauled packs that weigh more than half as much as they do over rugged portages that took them to the kind of stunningly beautiful lakes that most people know only from Group of Seven paintings. Beginners' bravado turned to grunts and groans as well as the odd whimper on the first portage of the day as the boys moved food, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, pots and pans, paddles and life jackets from one lake to another.

Their counsellors -- themselves lugging three 85-pound cedar stripped canoes -- offered words of encouragement. And finally the portage trail ended and the next lake came into view, eliciting yelps of joy and relief. Heavy packs were replaced by paddles and the trippers once again headed off onto water, counsellors at the stern.

Loons frolicked undisturbed by the passing canoes and the tree-lined shores stretched out for what seemed an eternity. This first day was familiar territory for the boys, who last year had paddled these same lakes on a shorter canoe trip. Joe Lake was just ahead and the campers knew what it promised -- the best jumping spot in the area.

With shrieks of excitement and a loud splash, three of the six trippers land feet first in the lake from 20 feet above. This jumping spot has been visited by trippers for decades. Many choose not to jump from the rocky, coniferous edge, but those who do always do it more than once. The jumpers laugh and clamber up for more, while those who watch from the safety of their canoes mutter "no way!"

Then they're off again, and when they reach the shores of Doe Lake, it's time for lunch. For most trips longer than two weeks, supplies are brought in by service road or sea plane. But the six Ahmek campers are carrying all their food for their seven-day trip with them. They don't much appreciate the food as they haul it over portages. But at lunch, the sliced ham and cheese on white bread is transformed into what Aquila calls "a delicacy." And two packs of cookies are devoured in minutes.

The days' portaging and paddling finally over several hours later, the boys are put to work setting up their tent for the night, a job that requires teamwork. And it takes some time to get duties straight and the tent stable.

The boys argue about what has to be done and a very droopy attempt has to be taken down before the counsellors are satisfied. "Learning to live with five other individuals isn't easy," says Matt Buck, 23, Camp Ahmek's in-camp activities director. "You can go a whole week without seeing anyone except those in your group."

The six, cabinmates at Camp Ahmek, will spend a month together over the summer. The camp keeps cabinmates together on canoe trips to enhance the team-building experience, Buck says. And when possible, groups are kept intact from summer to summer.

The canoe trip "can be a very individual experience" too, Buck says. What each person gets out of the trip can be very different. A group of 15-year-olds had arrived back at Ahmek from a 30-day trip in Ontario's wilderness the day before the 10-year-olds left on their trip.

One tripper said he had come for the challenge. "It's hard work without having to use your brain." Another said he liked the contrast between city life and the camp/canoe trip life -- and much preferred the wilderness.

All said it was a huge adjustment to come back to camp from a canoe trip, so to go back to the city....

Both Camp Ahmek for boys and Camp Wapomeo for girls, brother and sister camps forming The Taylor Statten Camps on Canoe Lake, have been taking children, teenagers and young adults from around the world tripping in Algonquin Park, northern Ontario and northern Quebec for decades. The canoe trips are an integral part of their camp programs, which include swimming, sailing, wind surfing, equestrian events, high ropes, crafts, drama, tennis, basketball and environmental sciences.

Canoe trips are also key components of the experience at more than 20 Ontario residential camps. Camp Wanapitei, for example, which is located in the Temagami region, is busy all summer taking campers aged seven through 15 on canoe trips through northern Canada, the longest lasting 60 days.

After camp has been set and supper consumed, the counsellors send the campers off to bed. The day has been filled with fun and challenge and tomorrow offers the same.

The next morning brings a slight surprise, temperatures that dip to single digits. A hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast gets the troops motivated to pack their gear and take down the tent -- together!
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