Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
The measure of a canoe trip

Today’s post is a polite rant from Quetico Provincial Park Librarian Jill Sorensen.

We seem to constantly hear about expedition-style travel. Grumpy narratives in which people have broken speed records, rowed the longest distances, or been “the first” to complete a route. The blisters. Lack of sleep. The resistance.

And that’s fine. I have no problem tracking mileage or running attempts. But if you insist on measuring all your trips, may I suggest you tell something else? Something that, instead, connects you with the landscape or with a piece of cultural history.

A little less rhythm. A little more place.

Here are some suggestions for other things to tell:

1. Waterfalls

Water falling on brown rocks

What if you measured your trip by how many nights you could hear the water running from your tent? How could you change the dynamic of your trip by prioritizing waterfalls?

2. Nights under the stars

Stars over the trees in a dark sky.

Quetico was recently designated a Dark Sky Park by the IDA. In a decade, how would you remember a trip in which you counted the total number of constellations seen instead of the transportation meters traveled?

3. Types of fish you ate

fishermen fishing lake at sunset

Is it really worth overdoing walleye over bass? In a blind taste test, can you or your canoe partner distinguish between trout and pike? Try and taste a variety of types of fish and satisfy your curiosity.

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4. Places to swim

sandy beach by the lake with cloud reflections

There are some spectacular swimming holes and the famous natural “jacuzzis.” Why don’t you bring your swimsuit and see how many places you can take a dip?

You may even notice more turtles, ducks, and frogs.

5. Campfires

Group around a campfire under the northern lights.

When I was 22, I spent an entire summer in the Quetico backcountry without taking the time to light a single campfire. It was leaving. Go. Go.

Now, whether I’m paddling 10 hours a day or not, what I look forward to most is staying by a campfire at dusk. What if you measured your trip by the quality of your campfire light?

6. Natural things you have identified

Red Columbine flower in the forest

Have you ever wandered through a swamp or stream and been intrigued by all the wildflowers? Or maybe you’ve always wanted to learn about bird songs or the lichens on those stunning cliff formations.

If you intentionally plan your trip around a field guide, you may find yourself in awe of the biodiversity.

7. Stories

Canoe on the shore during sunset.

You don’t travel through a desert without paths. The earth contains countless stories of those who came before you or who are still present on the earth.

For example, in Quetico, you can follow the paddles of the Ojibwe past Warrior Hill, the voyageurs or Simon Dawson along the north end of the park, or Aldo Leopold along Basswood Lake.

You may come across an indigenous pictogram. The mysteries of its creation really begin to resonate as you make your way up and down along prominent rock walls. How high would they be if someone painted them standing on a frozen lake, instead of leaning out of a canoe? Who was here and what stories were they trying to share?

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How might measuring your journey in stories reveal your own sense of belonging?

“How long should my route be?”

When Bill Mason was asked why he paddled those “slow, wooden canvas Prospector canoes,” he liked to answer, “Why would I want to go fast?”

Many campers must travel long distances to reach their destination, just to run around the park.

Staying next to waterfalls, pictographs, or under a starry sky can offer a longer, more meaningful narrative (and a lot fewer blisters!).

So when campers call me to ask how long they should take to complete a route, I expect the answer: “As long as possible!”