Somewhere along the way it occurred to me that the most limiting factor for trips across the Great Northland might be "time". Or to quote Ernst Ferstl: "Everyone has a watch, no one has time." While adequate equipment contributes to comfort and safety, poor equipment could be compensated with more time. Outdoor savvy certainly helps but could also be replaced (to a certain degree) with time. And canoeing skills are without dispute of advantage but again can be substituted to a certain degree by time. You simply portage doubtful rapids. In other words: you don't have to be a superhero to make it back in one piece from the far reaches north of 60. Common sense and a humble approach will take you a long way.
Any trip along the shores of any river or lake north of 60 is firstly and foremost asking for your time.
Greg Allen – a paraplegic to canoe the Mackenzie River 3 times solo – initially brought this to my attention. He once wrote:
Being solo becomes a matter of time not physical ability. Rushing almost always leads to mistakes. Mistakes almost always lead to problems. Problems almost always lead to disaster in a wilderness situation. When you travel solo you can not afford any mistakes. Any mistake can be disastrous.
www.stillmevoyage.com on web.archive.org.
An appreciation of Greg Allen on normpaddle.
Advice from George Luste:
In the 1996 winter edition of the Nastawgan (the quarterly journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association) George Luste wrote about another of his epic trips („Canoeing“ Great Slave Lake in June). And among his reflections I found good advise.
George (at 56 years of age) wrote:
“So today I am more apprehensive about getting myself into dangerous and extreme situations. As I age I have become more conservative, more careful, in what I commit myself to. I no longer possess the physical resources of a younger me, and I try to use my experience, and ‘an ounce of prevention’ instead of relying on quick reflexes and pure strength as a ‘pound of cure’.
I am still a good ‘plodder’, however. I can put one foot in front of the other on a long steady grind on a good portage trail – but I no longer have the agility to skip across wet rocks while carrying a canoe. I no longer want to test my survival ability by running an intimidating rapid. I no longer care to be as casual in expending my energies in futile efforts. And so today I am more inclined to paddle long hours on a calm day or evening and not paddle at all if the weather looks unstable and threatening. I’m more inclined to stop early at the end of a normal day if faced with a rapid, or the possibility of a dump, or even the need to make a marginal decision late in the day. I have convinced myself that plodding is alright when tired. Dealing with risk is not.
Thus I have come to embrace a varied and flexible paddling schedule on my long trips. There are advantages to doing so. One expends less energy for the same distance and I think it makes for a safer overall trip. But it also means that one is faced with more decisions and uncertainty about when to stop and start than a rigid nine-to-five routine implies. Perhaps if the conditions are stable, then a schedule makes sense. If the conditions vary considerably, then a varied schedule is preferred.”
Meet George, talking about his 50 years of canoeing.
To be, or not to be.
For some people a similarly difficult question may arise. Namely: to go solo or not go at all. This was the question for me in the very beginning – some 20 years ago. There was just no one with ample time and money and a congenial mindset at hand. And today I am glad I went. Though, admittedly, with my pants plenty full. Without much of a clue really about wilderness travels. But with a spot of luck I made it all the way to Dawson City on the Yukon. Today I chuckle when I recall launching my historic Klepper folding kayak. So heavily laden that the stern upper (canvas) deck was under water. And only by levelling out my stupendous cargo perfectly I was able to move on with an inch of freeboard down the Teslin River from Johnson’s Crossing. Those were the days when I was carrying a huge family-size cast-iron frying pan weighting more than 10 pounds.
I am writing this to encourage people to go on their own. There is a lot to gain when going solo. There are many blank spots to discover within oneself on a solo tour, from Angst to pure bliss, the whole works. And I found prominent backing of this point of view in an interview with Robert Perkins on herondance.org.
Advice from Robert Perkins:
“With another person it's twice as hard. If you are with five people, it's five times as hard. You end up tuning in to them, wanting to take care of them. Letting them take care of you. Are you alright? Can I help? Your mood is up. Mine is down. We are always looking in each others eyes. If I am alone, I don't experience that. Instead, I have the sights and the sounds of nature. Of other creatures. They become companions.
Solitude is the deepest well I have ever come across. I imagine it would be different if solitude was forced on you, but to choose it is to find a source of sustenance that never runs out. It places a person in proper alignment, in proper order....Some people are less interested in trying to understand or pursue or embrace their inner life. Every time I go on a solo canoe trip, I have to listen carefully to my thoughts and memories. It's the impact of stepping outside with a minimum of things and a great deal of landscape around you. A great deal of quiet. You begin to listen to what is around you and to what is going on inside of you.
It doesn't matter what your concerns have been over the past year -- they just kind of boil off over the two months. Like maple syrup. You get down to some pretty fundamental, beautiful moments where you just catch yourself doing something. With no prior thought and no afterthought. You are totally absorbed making a fire, cooking dinner or just paddling. Those moments are the reason I do it. I just love those moments."
www.herondance.org on web.archive.org
Along the same line from Audrey Sutherland:
Go simple, go solo, go now. The only real security is not insurance or money or a job, not a house and furniture paid for, or a retirement fund, and never is it another person. It is the skill and humor and courage within, the ability to build your own fires and find your own peace.
Nobody should be going on a solo canoe trip in the Barren Lands unless they are a very experienced canoeist and an experienced wilderness traveller. The Barren Lands are the Himalayas of wilderness canoeing. You only go on a solo trip there after you have proven yourself in lesser wilderness locations.
And regardless of your proficiency out of doors: Make sure to put some tobacco down before you leave. And practice gratitude, for every day granted without a mishap, for tailwinds, a good campsite, sunshine and so much more. Time and again! Cause "It’s not the happy people who are grateful. It is the grateful people who are happy." (Sir Francis Bacon, 1561-1626) And for those who like it more scientifically, this article might be worthwhile: Why Gratitude Is Good. Or, about gratitude's "sister" appreciation: A Scientific Reason to Stop and Smell the Roses.
Both, the (First Nations') rite of offering tobacco for a safe passage and the subsequent gratitude, if practiced over and over again, will take your mindfulness to a new level, bolster your awareness, and ultimately make for a safer journey. May sound esoteric, but it really isn't. But of course it's not foolproof, as I found out the hard way on the Burnside River.