At 6:30 a.m. on September 22, 2015, fourteen very excited grade eight students and one slightly anxious yet enthusiastic class teacher boarded a charter bus at the Halton Waldorf School. We were more than ready for the six hour trip north to Temagami as we had been anticipating this seven day canoe trip for the last couple of years. One of the highlights of the grade eight year is an outdoor wilderness adventure.
Upon disembarking at the lakefront of Temagami, groups of four were thrilled to fly on a float plane to Langskib – one of the two base camps for Northwaters – the canoe outfitting company who was managing and leading our trip. Flying above the trees, we saw that the fall colours were just beginning to show themselves on this late September afternoon reminding us that despite the warm temperature, the nights would be cool. It was also marvellous to see that the water we would soon be paddling on was glistening blue under the golden sun. Fifteen minutes later, Langskib came into view, the lodge and cabins so rustic and natural, they seemed to sprout out of the beautiful and rugged terrain of the island which housed them.
With trust-inspiring expertise, the pilot made a smooth landing on the waves of Lake Temagami and glided the plane silently towards the dock. The students quickly alighted from the plane with great exuberance, sharing greetings with the staff and eager to explore this small island that was to become their home and training ground over the next 24 hours.
Once the students had been shown their cabins and eaten a light snack, training began in earnest. I was impressed with the trip leaders and continued to be throughout the trip. These young men and women come from far and wide to work for Northwaters. Most have come up through the camp and all have taken rigorous courses so that they can successfully instruct and lead groups on trail. They are strong, capable, insightful and kind, but not sentimental or soft. These leaders know that their job is to empower the young people in their charge through both the soft skills such as reflective time and the hard skills such as paddling and portaging. The leaders foster a reverence for the environment very much in keeping with the values of our school. Indeed, they are wonderful role models for the students.
Once the training of how to portage a canoe, carry a wanigan on the head, set up a tent, paddle a canoe and pack properly for the trail was completed, some free time, a hearty supper and an early night in anticipation of the adventure which awaited, ended our day.
The next morning, the students found that they were divided up into two groups for the major reason that most of the camp sites are small and wild and can only accommodate few numbers. No matter. Plans were made to meet up throughout the trip to re-connect and share experiences.
The Temagami area is a beautiful region of Ontario made up of inter-connecting and isolated lakes and surrounded by forests of largely red pine, white pine, birch, poplar and conifer trees. It is perfect for long and short canoe trips. Everyone was looking forward to the next five days as we set off in our canoes loaded up with wanagons, Duluth packs and personal gear. There were two to a canoe and throughout the trip, all the students would change partners and have the opportunity to bow and stern.
We paddled hard that first day; each canoe finding their own stroke and rhythm. The route over the five days would be about fifty kilometres. September brings shorter days and we knew that we had to make it to our campsite before darkness fell.
While the tenor of life on trail was filled with good humour and warm friendship, there was a serious overtone as well. The students were on this trip to learn and realize their potential; the extent of their incredible capacities and strengths. Expedition mentality rules – there are natural consequences to behaviour and actions. Whether collecting firewood, bow-hopping on slippery, moss-covered rocks, cooking over an open fire, looking after equipment and gear, all must be done with care and diligence. An injury or the loss/damage of gear could negatively affect the success of the trip for all concerned.
Portaging was the most difficult activity for the students. We had five in total – some more challenging than others. The portages were opportunities for the students to persevere, gain inner strength and feel empowered. As one trip leader said, “Carrying a heavy wanigan or cumbersome canoe is 25% physical strength and 75% inner fortitude.” For the most part, young people grow up in a society being told they can’t, but here in the wilderness with each other for support, they realize they can! Admittedly, at first here were some tears, but by the fifth day, all the students had become a lean, mean portaging machine.
On our last day, the home stretch, there were strong headwinds coming off the lake as we paddled with all our might towards the home base camp of Northwaters. With muscles straining, paddles digging hard into the water and our “teeth to the wind”, we felt like Viking warriors coming home after time away. Indeed, we all felt two feet taller than when we set out.
As a teacher and participant, I was able to observe my students and notice qualities in them that are not so evident in the classroom. All possessed strength, compassion and empathy for each other, a willingness to offer a helping hand and the courage to try whatever the leaders put before them. I observed leadership qualities emerge in many of my students that I had not seen before. All were capable, competent and gracefully accepted hardship.
Such a trip is really a rite of initiation for these 13 and 14 year olds. Fourteen years of age is a new stage of development in life and young people need such experiences to test their newly developing capacities and to overcome personal fears. Young people need to feel confident, able and empowered.
The closing circle on the final day of our trip had a reverent, almost sacred feel to it. As we shared our thoughts, memories and reflections of the trip, the circle, facilitated by the trip leaders, created a depth of meaning and authenticity to the group and individual experiences.
This trip will live strongly in the hearts of the students in the years to come. It is a life-changing experience for them. I would like to express my gratitude for having the opportunity to accompany my grade eight class and observe the growth in each of them and the chance to relate to them differently than at school. I would also like to thank Northwaters for their incredible facility and staff and for making this adventure unfold as profoundly as it did. Lastly, I am grateful for the opportunity to paddle through the clear waters and immerse myself in the pristine wilderness of Temagami.
Suzanne Hill, Class Teacher