Backpacking in Canada – A Never Quit Story

I’ve had a few “never quit” moments in my life. Not a lot, but a few. This is a story about my first experience with pushing past limitations and the power of the mind.

It happened on a backpacking trip in my early to mid-twenties. It was me, my younger sister, and her (now ex) husband and we had a 5 day trek planned for the wilds of Canada. This was back in the 90s before all this fancy ultra-lightweight gear really came into existence and my pack weighed 70 pounds. I was also fairly new to backpacking, so I’m sure I was just making it harder on myself.

Anyway, we get to the trail head, load up and head out to our first campsite 10 to 15 miles away thru the wilderness. Piece of cake, an easy first day.

Well, the Canadian wilderness had other plans. It was brutal. We slogged and slogged thru what felt like endless uphill miles and it kept getting later and later into the evening. At some point my sister’s pack was getting to be too much for her to handle, so my brother-in-law and I divided up her gear and stuffed it into our packs. I have no idea what my pack weighed, but it was oppressive. Eventually it started to get so dark we needed to use flashlights to guide our way.

For whatever reason I was ‘point man’ and I scanned the trees with my flashlight looking for the small trail markers so we knew we were heading in the right direction. This went on for hours and we were getting broken down.

Then the flashlight batteries started to die out. We had backups, but when they started to die we stole batteries from our cameras.

I remember at some point we stopped to rest and, to conserve batteries, we turned off the flashlights. And there we sat, in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, exhausted, in the dark, and we started to hear what sounded like wolves howling in the distance. It was ominous. Needless to say we flicked the lights back on and kept going.

By this time, now 10 hours into the hike, my left knee was really starting to hurt. Every step was painful and I was limping. But I continued on, as ‘point man’, trying to find our initial campsite.

Sometime within the next 2 hours my sister broke down. She’d had enough and was crying, wondering if we’d ever get to the site. We were too head-strong to just pitch a damn tent and camp out anywhere, we were, you know, trying to follow the rules. Ha, silly kids.

I had to help talk her through it and get her to the campsite, which we eventually found after 12 hours of hiking with those hellish packs on our backs through some of the toughest terrain I’d experienced.

Needless to say we were elated to find our site but decided that after that horrible start we were going to turn back and head to the trailhead in the morning. Which we did, and it took us two 8 hour days of walking to get back out. On the final day it thunder stormed for the whole hike.

12 hours of hiking with nearly 100 pounds on your back, in the dark, in pain, with flickering flashlights, while trying to keep your sister together can show you what you’re made of.

I’ve had other ‘never quit’ moments since, but that was my first real taste of it.

The Canadian canoe trip of 2000

“You better dry off or you’re gonna go into shock!” yelled my (now former) brother-in-law.

4 months earlier…

Planning began for our (my sister, brother-in-law, and myself) second trip to Canada. We had decided that we were going to do a canoe trip this time since the first backpacking trip was an utter failure. I’ll save that one for another post, but suffice it to say, we got our butts kicked by underestimating the wilds of the Canadian wilderness. This time we were looking for something a tad easier on our bodies, and minds.

Canoeing sounded nice, just float along the river and rather than lugging everything on our shoulders we could load the canoes with our gear and comfortably let the miles flow by. A little research on gear loading methods for weight distribution and we were on our way to making a nice 4-5 day trip of it. My brother-in-law seemed to have a good sense of trail planning, and the drive to do it, so he set out to plan our route thru the Algonquin Provincial Park river ways.

Around the time we started planning I met my future wife and over the weeks things started to go really well. She’s the type of gal who likes camping and doesn’t mind getting dirty, so I invited her to join us on the upcoming trip. She was game. Cool.

Planning continued and we were all getting excited for our super fun trip!

Now to launch day…

It was a miserable, windy, rainy, cold day in Canada. We were loaded up in our rain gear and were determined to get moving, it was going to be clearing up later that day anyway. But at that time, it wasn’t very pretty out. The packs were securely strapped to the bottom of our canoes, and covered with tarps. Then we loaded ourselves into the boats and shoved off. The water was… rough.

I’m reminded of the great quote from George on Seinfeld: “The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to return soup”.

We floated and directed ourselves into the middle of the slow moving, mouth of the river orientating ourselves for the start of our journey. We were, I’d say, about 100 yards from shore.

Once we rendezvoused with my sister and brother-in-law and were pointing in the right direction it was time to get paddling. In the water the oars went and with a “1-2-3” we rowed.

I, apparently, put a bit more power into my thrust and the canoe immediately… capsized. Yes, we and all our gear, were now upside down under the canoe in the cold Canadian water. I surfaced, angry beyond belief, to find my girlfriend laughing while treading water. She was not a swimmer and treading is about all she could do. So I swam over to her, had her grab me and I the boat, which was luckily within reach, and began trying to swim both into shore.

Halfway in, handling both her and the boat was getting a bit too much for me to manage. So I ditched the boat and brought her into shore. Once I knew she was safe on ground I jumped back into the freezing water to retrieve the canoe and whatever remained of our gear. As I was pulling the boat in I was trying to reconcile what had just happened and couldn’t shake the thought that all of our stuff was now sinking to the bottom of the lake.

With the canoe now within 10 feet of the shore and me standing in knee deep water I grabbed one side and flipped it over. To my amazement everything was still there! All strapped in just as we left it! Wow. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Maybe everything would be fine after all.

By the time I got the canoe on shore my sister and brother-in-law had made it in and were frantically trying to get us dry and warm. They were very concerned about us going into shock from the cold. It wasn’t that bad.

After I dried off a bit I figured I’d survey the damages and opened my pack. Sitting right on the top was my $800 SLR camera roughly wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. Surely that thing was ruined. I pulled it out of the bag and found it completely dry! Not a bit of moisture at all. Digging thru the rest of the pack I wasn’t as lucky, everything else was soaked. Even all my valuables that were “safely” stored in a “water proof” bag, UGH!

We returned the canoes, regrouped, and rented a cabin for a day while our stuff dried out. With dry gear, and a few more days of vacation left, we ventured out looking for somewhere to camp. Found a site, pitched the tent and spend the next couple days exploring the nearby hiking trails.

But, after a couple days we couldn’t break the chill and our gear was still a bit damp, so the decision was made to take off and head back home, stopping at Toronto on the way. My sister and brother-in-law continued camping for a few days after we left.

So, that was the second time the wilds of Canada bit me and I haven’t been back to challenge it since. Some day, some day I’ll get it back! And, the moral of the story? Pack your valuables in loose plastic grocery bags, it works better (not really!).