Canoe Tripping and Life Lessons

canoe loaded for a wilderness trip

by Sharon Brodin

I’ve learned some very key life lessons on wilderness trips as short as 3 and 5 days. And the most valuable lessons I’ve learned were condensed into less than 24 hours…

Lesson #1: We Can’t Control the Wilderness

A wilderness canoe trip means you’re in an environment you can’t control. We can prepare as best we can, but we can’t control the weather, conditions, animals…even other people out there. Sounds a lot like Life, doesn’t it? There’s a lot in life we simply cannot control.

Lesson #2: How to Deal with the Unexpected Hard Situations

Sometimes we’re presented with unexpected and hard situations. We have to make decisions (sometimes quickly) without the option of a quick call for advice or help. That requires resourcefulness and self-reliance.

Many years ago I was co-leading a Boundary Waters trip full of junior high girls. On our first day out we ended up behind schedule for a variety of reasons. By the time we reached our destination lake, all the campsites were full.

We knew if we kept going it would be very dark very soon (no moon that night), and the next lake’s campsites might also be full.

After 11 hours on the trail, we decided we had to camp right there at the end of the portage for the night (against BWCA rules). There wasn’t even room to put up a tent. We laid a tarp on the ground and our sleeping bags on top of it.

Between the mosquitoes feasting on us, wondering if every twig crack might be a bear, and knowing I was responsible for seven junior high girls in the middle of the wilderness, I don’t remember sleeping that night!

What I do remember: Learning you do what you have to do when you don’t have another choice. Sometimes it’s good for us to be in a position where we can’t get out of something unexpected and hard. We just have to deal with it as best we can.

canoe portage

Lesson #3: What Perseverance Looks (and Feels) Like

You learn that when you can’t quit, you can keep going…because you have to. You discover what kind of grit you have, and what kind of attitude you have.

Our society loves comfort, safety and convenience. The wilderness takes that away.

My second canoe trip story: Just 2-1/2 years ago I was on a 3-day trip with three other women. We only needed to paddle about 10 miles a day to stay on target with our route. We all thought: “No problem!” Three of us had just done a 22-mile day trip the month before.

What we didn’t count on, half-way through the first day, was a set of three of the worst portages we’d ever been on. Over rocks, through swamp, over fallen trees (a couple of them waist-high), and at times, knee-deep in mud…in the rain.

The tree branches were crowding the portages so much we couldn’t force the canoes through alone. It took two of us on each canoe, then back for the packs (none of us were strong enough to hoist on a pack, then throw the 65-pound canoe up—keep in mind, two of us were in our 50s!)

After several hours of this, we were on the third portage when we turned a bend and the trail simply ended. It was thick forest going uphill on one side and a sprawling beaver pond on the other (we concluded later that the beaver dam must’ve flooded the trail).

We searched for an hour for any sign of the portage continuing. The sky was mostly overcast, but we could see enough of the sun to know we only had about an hour of daylight left. With the cloud cover, it would be pitch black that night.

About the same time, we all realized we’d have to turn around and go back on those horrible portages. We also knew we wouldn’t have enough light to do more than haul our gear and canoes back on this portage to the previous lake and settle in for the night.

So, for the second time in my life I camped at a portage. We had room to set up one tent, which we all crowded into.

We wrapped a tarp over our packs to keep the rain out. The food pack was right there, too, next to our tent—a major wilderness no-no. I remember thinking, “No bear is stupid enough to be on this portage!” The woods were so thick we didn’t really have another option, nor the energy to try.

But we were out of the rain and out of the bugs—and thankful for it!

Not giving up. It’s a valuable life lesson that definitely helps produce mental, spiritual and emotional health and maturity.

Lesson #4: Controlling Our Words

Really hard things with other people are made better if we choose to silence our gripes and vocalize our encouragements. We worked together to make the best of a very sorry situation, when we just wanted to call Uber to come get us!

(By the way, the next morning the sun was shining, which made our outlook twice as bright. We knew what we were in for with the next two portages, so we were mentally prepared. When we completed our final leg of the last and longest of these nasty portages, we dubbed it Victory Portage! We will never intentionally take that route again.)

canoe trips and life lessons

Lesson #5: Cross-Over Application

The wilderness has a way of bringing us down to the lowest common denominators—what’s really necessary.

To overcome hard physical challenges, especially in wilderness, hugely boosts our confidence to face other life challenges…

“I can’t believe I was able to do that…I bet I can do this, too!”

Are you planning a wilderness canoe trip sometime soon? Please do—and prepare yourself to learn what the wilderness can teach you!

How can we help? Our friendly Customer Service Team is ready to answer your paddle questions: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

More for you…

When Paddling Trips Go Awry: Can We Prepare for the Unexpected?
Canoeing the Road Less Traveled in Quetico Provincial Park
One Woman’s Fight with Cancer…Using a Canoe Paddle