Seeking to reclaim a glimmer of her pre-motherhood self on a canoe trip through the rugged Canadian wilderness, a somewhat overconfident ESMERALDA CABRAL picks up her paddle only to find that the hands that give her strength as a parent have been made tender from years of mothering.
I STEP INTO THE bow of the canoe and steady myself on my knees while Eric, my husband, slips into position at the stern. As soon as we push off, I regret it.
We are afloat on the Yukon River, heading north from Carmacks to Dawson City, and now there is no turning back. For the next eight days, we will paddle more than 400 kilometres through Canada’s remote northern wilderness.
What have we done?
The “Land of the Midnight Sun” has long held poetic appeal for me, but this trip is about reclaiming a glimmer of my old self—my pre-motherhood self—and reconnecting with the wilderness. It has been a long time since I have done anything more adventurous than car camping.
For our Yukon expedition, Eric and I have chosen the “Call of the Wild” tour with Up North Adventures. Hiring an outfitter was an obvious choice, not only for ease of logistics but also for the camaraderie of a group and the reassurance that help would be available should the need arise.
The day before our trip departs, we attend an orientation session at Up North’s Whitehorse headquarters. I take one look at the river and am surprised to see how fast it is flowing. I picture myself floating effortlessly downstream for the next week. When Roger, one of the guides, suggests we bring gloves to prevent blisters, I chuckle. “Really?” I’m tougher than that.” I am reminded of my former paddling days; gloves are for rookies. What I fail to consider is that perhaps all my years of mothering have turned my hands soft.
SETTING UP CAMP the first night brings tremendous relief to my stiff legs and aching shoulders. I am so tired I barely eat supper. The next morning, I look at my canoe with dread. It’s only our second day on the river and the last thing I want to do is pick up my paddle. This is not the easy downstream float I had imagined.
In the days that pass, I find my paddling muscles, but I am still uneasy with the isolation. There is no cell phone reception and I am unnerved by our children's inability to contact us. They are almost adults, and capable, but what if something goes wrong?
Despite my aches and pains, I find a meditative rhythm to paddling. I stretch my arm and dip my paddle, then pull and twist. Stretch, dip, pull, twist. Stretch, dip, pull, twist. It is mesmerizing. I feel calmer by the day, and I worry less about my kids.
By day three, I think nothing of heading to the bushes to pee whenever we land our canoe, or when in camp, of reaching for the bear spray and heading to the mobile “Biffy,” about a hundred metres away. This is in sharp contrast to the first day, when I had asked Eric to accompany me and stand guard nearby. I was still in city mode then, unnerved by being alone in the woods— even if alone meant wandering barely out of sight of my companions.
Our week on the river becomes a wildlife safari. I stand in awe on day two while a grizzly sow plays with her three cubs on the opposing riverbank. One day, a moose cow and her calf amble so close to our boat that I can almost reach out and touch them. We see a black bear every single day, and it is impossible to count the Dall sheep that dot the hillsides. Our days are peppered with the slap of a beaver tail or the sight of a porcupine tracing the shore. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons watch us from above.
We encounter the only whitewater on the trip at Five Finger Rapids. In the days of the Gold Rush, this is where the paddlewheelers sometimes ran into trouble. These days, with modern canoes, the danger is more perceived than real, but the rapids still demand respect and attention. Our guides give us instructions, then position themselves to offer assistance should any of us fall in. We shoot the rapids, one boat at a time, yelping and screeching with glee, then pumping victorious fists in the air as we arrive downstream, boats upright and relatively dry.
One memorable night is spent at Fort Selkirk. Once a bustling stop for those making the trip downriver to the gold fields of the Klondike, it’s now a designated historic site co-managed by the Yukon government and the Selkirk First Nation. The site’s tour guide, Freda, enlivens the trading post’s historic past, regaling us with stories of the Northern Tutchone peoples before and after the arrival of Gold Rush settlers. I am relieved to arrive at a camp with real buildings and a few staff. I have been struggling with a pounding migraine all afternoon and somehow feel less vulnerable in a place that touches civilization. Yet insecurity needles at me with a tempting thought: if I need to opt out of the trip, this is the place to do it. Eric caters to me, encouraging me to rest, and my headache slowly fades away.
On our second-to-last night, we experience a big storm. We pitch our tents on a gravel sandbar, then gather around a campfire to trade stories and savour some well-earned chocolate. When we head to bed, the sun is still up—just as it has been every other night. Ah, the midnight sun. Hours later, I wake to our tent fly flapping wildly in a gale. Thunder rolls and the wind howls. “Eric, I’m scared. It feels like we’re going to fly off this gravel bar,” I whisper.
He pulls me close and reminds me that we’ve weathered far greater storms in our 25 years of marriage. I’m easily reassured and recall that we went to great lengths to peg the tent down. I relax and fall back asleep, even as the storm rages on outside.
AS WE PADDLE INTO Dawson City, I feel nostalgia already seeping in. I don’t want the trip to end, but of course it must.
That evening, our group gathers at the infamous Diamond Tooth Gertie’s for a celebratory beer. We chat excitedly, radiating the glow of our accomplishment. My face burns from a week of life outdoors. I hold my beer glass and let the cold soothe the callouses on my hands. I examine them closely, remembering the blisters forming just days before. I look up and catch Roger watching me.
“Well, I made it,” I say with a laugh. My motherhood hands had not let me down—it just took a little determination and perseverance. “But next time, I’m bringing gloves.”
PS. This article originally appeared in our Summer/Fall 2020 print issue
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