The River Rat

The River Rat

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Post Script: Unravelling

I had no idea it would be so difficult to just show up. That there would be such a visceral fear made no sense to me.  I am not afraid of these Muskoka lakes or rivers; they are kind and the shore is visible on all sides regardless of my distance from them. The water this September remains warm, regardless of outside temperature today. Yet, my stomach is in knots. My bowels twist. My breath is shallow and expectant of peril.  Still, here I am, with my River Rat.

I tuck in my yoke, tie on my food bag, my bivvy sac, my bailer.  My spare paddle.  My backpack with emergency rations, dry clothes, navigation lights. Attach the GPS spot that will keep me visible. I fight the urge to run or hide and try to just breathe. Right now, I'm okay.

I launch the River Rat into the water, in the rain, in the dim morning light. We all float out into the river; I hold a position behind the pack and still I fight the urge to disappear. Just breathe. I'm still okay.  I meet Heather from Peterborough - the only other solo female in the race, on a stand up paddleboard.  You're braver than me, I tell her. We share a dream of showing women younger than our 50+ years that they shouldn't be afraid to show up for this type of event. If we can do it...

The gun sounds and we are off.  I'm still okay.  Just paddle, and breathe. Tall, quick, quiet. Into Fairy Lake, I find I am keeping up to a male SUP and am just behind another in his solo canoe. The rain pours. I expect the tandem paddlers to pass me at any moment as I move into the big water of Fairy Lake, but I find that it's not until I'm almost off the lake and into the canal that they begin to overtake me. Greg and Lane among them, shouting out encouragement through the rain and I shout my smiles back to them. I carry on. Tall, quick, quiet. The rain pours.

Into the canal between Fairy and Peninsula I paddle along side a male kayaker; we have a comparable stroke rate at this point, but he is chatty and I am not.  Approaching the point where the road passes over the Canal from Deerhurst, I can see the bridge above lined with people waiting in the rain.  They are ringing bells and they shout encouragement from above.  Finally I smile as I am buoyed by their attention, their appreciation for this padding we do.  I am grateful for their presence on this bridge, on this morning, in the rain.  I feel my smile broaden as I glance up towards them, raining their cheers down over us all.  It's a blessing, an acknowledgement that there is more to it than just the paddling.

Through the Canal then, and out into Peninsula Lake. I could just detour over to my friend's home, I think to myself, and call it a day. I stay true though and skim the eastern shore, continuing on towards the Portage, Ratty and I not wavering from this journey we are on. The  rain pours down and the wind picks up. Thankful for my bow and stern covers, there is already plenty of water sloshing around my feet from the rain.  As yet another tandem boat passes me, we shout out encouragement and thoughts on the weather. The bow paddler notes how, in a movie he recalls, an actor says, "At least it's not raining now", and then it comes down in buckets.  As he tells this, the rain upon us intensifies.  "Oh, are you That Guy?" I shout back - we laugh.

The short distance from Hills Island in Pen Lake to the Portage is made longer by the wind.  It's in my face and I'm disheartened by the number of boats passing me. All tandem, but still.  I try to keep up my pace. Finally reaching shore, I jump out. Paddle, pack, water. Put my yoke in place. Lifting the stern, Ratty is unusually heavy and hesitant. This is not going to be pretty, I think to myself as I smile wryly at those shouting encouragement from the beach. It takes a few tries and as I finally slosh Ratty over far enough to have the water run out and shower down, I scoot under and into the yoke to begin the walk over the portage to Lake of Bays, where my journey continues.  Friends join me on the portage and I appreciate their company, yet my thoughts are on what will happen on the big lake.

At the beach I slide Ratty into the water and jump in, quickly paddling away from the landing and the crowd.  How did I get this far, already? I have had little nutrition yet which I know is a mistake but with the wind... how to pause?  Just before leaving the bay, I find some shelter behind an island and quickly eat a boiled egg before heading out into the wide expanse of lake. It surprises me that there are still tandem boats passing me. Am I not last, yet? Why do I care?

Around Brittania Point, I'm now in to the wide expanse of the lake and I know this is my test. The wind is from the south - southeast, and my paddle dips in on my right side probably 15 times more than on my left. I remember to breathe and think how I'm still okay, even though the Advil hasn't helped the pain in my wrist. How warm it is in spite of the wet weather. How it could have been foggy, but it isn't - and so I don't have to pull out my compass for bearings. How, even though it's windy, and choppy, there is no small craft warning. How the wind is just wind, the same wind for everyone, propelling maple keys and frosting the tops of the waves with white foam. It is not sinister, it just is. Like the rain. It does not conspire against me; in fact I cannot live without it.  I am grateful for it.  I am part of it.

Alone on the lake with my thoughts, paddling hard into the wind. I watch the shore and note my slow forward progress. I cry as I think of those times in my life where I felt left behind, abandoned.  The littlest sister - never fast enough or good enough or big enough or tough enough or girl enough.  This is not one of those times.  I am not Little Monik any more, but she is here with me and I honour her today - her bright spirit and big smile.  My heart leaps for her.  Today is for her.

My arms keep paddling, my boat dips and bobs through the waves yet feels steady beneath me; it comforts me.  I think how far ahead Greg and Lane are ahead of me, and I know they will be okay and I am proud of them. Thankful for Greg, for not questioning my changes and indecision, and for supporting me.  Thankful for Lane and of his commitment to family - both the one he came from and more importantly the one he is creating here, now. I hear in my head the soundtrack from Eryn's most recent music.   It keeps me company now as I travel through the waves, through this emptiness of water and space, and I am grateful for her company.  I laugh my gratitude for my family to the rain, to the wind, the sky. I am connected. I am part of the oneness of this life and I know it, I feel it.

In spite of being out in the middle of Lake of Bays, in the wind and the rain, a sense of calm rolls over me like a tide. The fear is gone, has dissipated. I remember why I love to paddle as the boundaries between myself, my boat and the environment become blurred. My sense of not being "enough" can remain behind me, I have paddled through and I have persisted and I can smile. I understand I can do this.  This paddle, this life. In my wet, sore, tired solitude, I feel I have won my race, and this feeling sustains me the rest of the long way to Baysville, where I finish.  With no regrets.


As I lie on her table, Allie coaxes the stories out of my shoulders, out of my heart.  It's a curious process, a process that supports the idea of muscle memory and, more than that, of cellular memory that's deep - deep within my tissues and begins within my DNA. I can't deny it though, as her strong, persistent pressure on these shoulders that paddled almost 40km in 7 hours, through wind and rain, reveal their knots and stories to her, to me. Stories I am still coming to understand, myself. Stories that I feel in my muscles and feel in my heart, and with my tears. Stories I didn't even realize were there.  Thank you Allie, for helping me to see; for your part in helping me unravel my story.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fear and Courage

I was finally able to pick up a yoke for River Rat. Being a solo canoe, the yoke isn't built into the boat; instead, it mounts on the seat rails. It's fairly easy and quick to take in and out.  So, now I'm ready for portaging and practicing the river sections where I'll be in and out of the water more than 10 times over the course of the day during the Muskoka River X. At least, technically ready.

I think I'm getting to the heart of why doing this 80 km "sprint" solo is important to me.  It's a call to action for myself. I have a friend who signs up for something, creates a training plan or study plan, follows the plan and then does that thing. It seems so easy, I think. Very straightforward. Why can't I do that? For me, the battle is in my head. If I can get out of my head and into the action, then I'm okay. But those ghosts in my head have a pretty strong grip and don't seem to want to let go.

"You're not doing it right," they say.  "You're not good enough, smart enough, strong enough. You're just a woman, just a girl."

So, I need to prove it to myself. It can be exhausting as I try to silence the voices long enough to try and discover for myself. Any difficulties or setbacks I encounter, rather than providing opportunity and challenge, can bring the voices back so loud that they are deafening and make it even more difficult to return to the task. Sometimes they have won but never without a struggle... I am on to them.

There are practical challenges for sure, like simply getting out on the water for training. Being considerably slower than tandem paddlers, it doesn't really make sense for me to go out together with them for distance training paddles when they are working on their speed. The solo paddlers I know are men who can easily keep up to the tandem boats, I don't want to slow them down or to be left too far behind. Memories of trying, and failing, to keep up to my older brothers aren't too far below the surface for me, even after all these years.

That leaves me going out on my own.  I am discouraged from paddling on my own for safety reasons, particularly the remote river sections and "big water" sections on Lake of Bays.  I do understand this in my head, and I know it is appropriate, but I feel it in my gut and it undermines my precious little confidence.

I have been out on the lake though, both on my own and in paddling clinics.  The clinics have been terrific practice. They were well attended by a great bunch of people, all with different skills and abilities. I've learned a lot so far, and have lots yet to learn.  The Coach was skilled and supportive, with words of wisdom and mantras and generous sharing of his knowledge of and appreciation for the water.  "Tall, quick, quiet." "Keep energy in the boat." Good advice that I am hoping to make my own, to replace my dark ghosts of "Not enough."

The clinic phase is over and now I need to put together the whole package - packing, paddling, portaging. It almost doesn't matter where - the river through town will do.  I won't even need a spotter for that; the river is narrow and with no hazards other than wayward power boaters or rafts of ducks.

As far as practicing in the tougher sections of the river, I've discovered that the assumptions I've made about being "not enough" to paddle with others were truly arising from my own ghosts.  I've been invited to join in on expeditions with others from the clinic, when our schedules align.  August is looking pretty good.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Maiden Voyage

I loaded the River Rat on the truck this morning as a hawk circled overhead, gliding on unseen currents of air, circling once then away, lost beyond trees. Tied my craft snugly on and drove out to the lake. A flurry of family as we reach the cottage - comings and goings, hugs and laughter. Breakfast, second breakfasts and one last coffee. Dispersing then - the younger set to kick a soccer ball on the beach, dogs discouraged from joining in to eventually find their own resting place in sun or shade. Noses lift now and again to consider a new scent arriving on the warm breeze, then settling back to resume the chase in their dreams.

A group over at the docks, surveying the damage post ice out, and considering options for repair. Attempts and progress, and reconsidering. The brothers working together, all ideas considered. Grateful for the companionship of each other, of the shared experience on this land that has been loved by this family for four generations now.  A part of each of them.

Another group cleaning up in the small comfortable cottage where kitchen meets dining, and sleeping, and sitting and fireplace. The love that the cottage has felt over the generations has seeped into the rounded logs of the building itself so that upon entering, a guest is greeted and warmly embraced by it, and is at once made to feel at home and at ease.

The whispered conversations on this day reflect concern and caring; there is courage needed to face the demons that come but in this place the strength can be found. The trees provide the grounding and the shelter, the stones provide the strength, the water refreshes and sustains and reveals many ways to yield.

I release the River Rat from its perch on the truck and gently carry it down to the waters edge, easing it into the water from the beach. Life jacket secured, I timidly step in and make adjustments. Unfamiliar still. Although protected here in this bay, the wind is whipping up some small wavelets and I'm not feeling particularly ready for those yet. A few strokes and the boat proves to be sure and certain as it knifes through water. I slow and feel the boat pull away with the wind. Paddling into the swell created by a fishing boat across the bay, my hips dip and as the boat responds my heart is in my throat - but we recover.

This is a new dance partner for me, my River Rat, and I will need to learn its steps. How it responds to my light touch on the paddle, my shift in weight, or a breeze or wave across the bow.  I paddle into deeper water, around a point and then back into shelter, feeling at times like the driver and at other times the passenger. This learning will take some time but I realize I am enjoying the quiet company of the boat, of myself.

Returning to shore, I pull in and step out, lift my boat from the water to rest softly on the shore. My dog greets me as if relieved I've made it out and back again without him. He leans against me for comfort, then follows beside as I step away, back on earth to find comfort in a chair and a notebook for reflection.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Training Mode

"There's no time like the present."

Actually, that's not true.  An even better time is probably tomorrow, or next week, or on the weekend. This, in a nutshell, is why I have to start thinking about a September event in April.  It's not just training and fitness, its also endurance.  The only way I know to start to build up endurance is to start now.

I'm not an out of the closet procrastinator, oh no. I'm firmly in the closet, sitting in here, hunkered right down.  I'm thinking about getting out of here and doing something else, though. Soon. Right after I finish this great book I found while I was looking around in here.  If I'm half way through a chapter, not finishing the chapter before putting the book down is like half-finishing a...  Hey, is that the wool I was looking for? Are my knitting needles in here too?  Down the rabbit hole I go. Alice has nothing on me.  I even Googled to see who I could attribute the opening quote to... and made it back about 20 minutes later. Without the reference. With hobbies like reading and writing and knitting, and days at work sitting on my butt with a computer, I really need to get up and go outside and play!  There are so many things that I'd like to do, and never enough time to do them all.  

This is why I signed up for a 4-week core workout class.  Plus an added bonus - the instructor has SUP experience and knows all about the value of core strength to paddlers. It was a small group for the first workout last Saturday, but we got our moneys worth.  I was a puddle of sweat after the 20-minute warm-up. I thought it was 30 minutes but apparently the clock was fast... it felt like 30.  Some great exercises though, most I'd never tried before. To be honest, without someone telling me how its done and then watching to make sure I'm following through properly, I'm not sure I would have tried them.  There were no situps and no crunches (I KNOW!), but we did do a whole bunch of these crab-type movements where we're on hands and knees, but knees don't actually touch the floor... for a very long time... yeah.  Apparently.  Core stuff.   We paused for hydration and continued on. 

The circuit was next.  Three exercise stations for upper body, three for lower. At each station, one minute for working on one side, then switch and one minute for the other side. Then 30 seconds to switch to the next station, through all six stations. Then - did I mention the clock was fast? We had to do it all AGAIN.  I was sure our time was up. We did have a hydration break first, but this time, it was almost as though we should actually remember how to do each of them. 

Of course, any instructor worth his salt also has a bit of cheerleader in him and Trey is no exception. He encouraged us as if he really cared (actually I'm sure he does), and I didn't even notice him laughing at my poorly balanced - loosely performed - medicine ball lifts- from one side- low lift- to other side- high- cross over body - while standing on one foot- knees knocking- elbows shaking- shoulders trembling.  Now that one I do remember from basketball practice in high school, only it was with a basketball not a medicine ball.  (I think the medicine ball is mis-named, by the way.)  I'm hoping this week I'll be able to do more than three in a minute.

In any case it was a great start and made my long run on Sunday seem easy-peasy in comparison.  I'm actually looking forward to the next one, although I wish I had written myself some better instructions so I could practice more.  But I am getting out there.  I'll soon be at the point where I take my dog for an after-work run and then drop him off at home while I go for another lap.  

C'mon outside and play - race you to the canoe!  Good thing I'm not paddling yet, my arms are too sore!

Friday, March 25, 2016

March 25 2016 - Throwback - Turtle Island

We had been paddling, it seemed, for hours.  The four of us in our cedar strip canoe. Bags piled high with our two little ones perched on top. Snacks. Books. Crayons. It was peaceful, happy. The cry of a loon, quiet whispering as we paddled around a curve to see a majestic moose and calf, just there in the water lillies, grazing. Slowly, large heads dripping, lifting to look at us; Lane and Eryn with eyes as big as saucers, looking back.

“They’re having salad,” Eryn explains in a hushed whisper.

I smile and nod back at her, feeling as though my heart might burst. Here on the water, in the woods, both families enjoying the bounty before us.

Paddling further still, we aim towards an island in the centre of the lake, its’ campsite not yet taken by another. We stop and the children spill out of the boat, their happy noises echoing out over the water.  Greg and I, working as one, unload and transition from water traveler to resident camper. The fire is started and in this action we declare our presence. Our daughter is back on the beach, singing out across the water to the loons, calling out – she owns this day. Our son is tending the fire – he is fascinated by it and is busy like a worker bee going away to forage for dry sticks and back again to watch the sparks fly up.

I catch Greg’s eye, he smiles and I return it. We belong here in this place of solitude and silence, of togetherness and peace, and I am grateful.

Thank you for the water, that affords us transport through these vast forests and deep into the land, that nourishes us on our journey, that provides life to everything all around, home to fish and turtles and to animals that graze down into it. Thank you for the earth, the trees that provide shelter, transportation and fuel.  For the eyes that saw those trees and dreamed the canoe, and for the hands that created it. Thank you for the diversity of life, all life, for bulrushes with their tender roots providing food for moose and even for us. Thank you for the seasons, ensuring the continuity of the circle of life, and support for each of us along our journeys. Thank you for the sun, for the light that helps us all to grow, for all things to grow and to be plentiful. Thank you for teaching me to have patience, and to trust, and to know that there is an order of things in the Circle, and that I am all of it and that I am a tiny speck in it.


I am rock. Low in the water, I peek out from under this land on my back, out across the dazzling blue. I wait. I hear them first, the thud of the paddle against the gunnels. I have heard it before; for hundreds of years have I heard that sound of people approaching me from across the water. Now and then, between the waves, the pause between each wavelet as it laps up against me, smoothing my surface, I can begin to see the tops of them over the sparkling blue. Their paddle blades splash and as they approach closer I can begin to hear their gentle, low voices, and the musical quality of their laughter, especially the children’s.

I wait for them.

I watch them pause, fishing out a hat from the water with a paddle blade.

Still I wait.

Then suddenly they burst out of the blue and are upon me – paddle blades again, this time reaching out to find a niche where they can make steady their craft against me.
Small feet first – I feel them, cool against my warm, smooth surface, warmed by the sun. They tickle as they skip over me, off to the earth. A more solid foot then, the woman as she steps out, steadying herself on me first then, crouching, she steadies the canoe against me for him. Another solid step out, then they are all there, crouched on me and they take care not to rub the canoe against me. Their packs are being set out upon me. I offer them this – the security, the stability of the land. My heat is theirs. They are respectful of each other, of their craft, of me. They go inland and I remain at the water’s edge. 

I wait.

Monday, March 21, 2016

March 21, 2016 > Race Strategy

My strategy for the MRX sprint paddling race in September is to sneak up on it.  Thinking about the whole distance at once makes me feel kind of sick actually, so instead I'm distracting myself.  You may have noticed in my previous blog post that I've got a nice new "River Rat" decal for my canoe. There's nothing athletic about that. It might almost seem as though I'm preparing to paddle downriver with some friends (you know, Toad and Mole) and and a fully loaded picnic basket. Kind of paints a nice picture, doesn't it?  That's my strategy.

In truth, I took my calendar out yesterday and plotted all the events that I'm using to distract myself from the main event.  I've registered for the Band on the Run 1/2 marathon on June 11th, and I'm running on a Triathlon team in the TriMuskokan on June 26th.  I'll run The Limberlost Challenge, a 14km run through lovely woods and around 5 or so lakes, in July.  Because it's fun.  Because the "real runners" in that race do another 3 laps of the course after I'm finished, and they are so inspiring.  And because, actually, I think it will help.  I do need to have strong legs for the portaging portion of the race, so this fitness component will work in my favour.

I also had a writers workshop scheduled two weeks prior to the "Main Event" but it was just cancelled; I'm so disappointed. That would REALLY have helped me to sneak up on the race. Writing for a week! Mind you, the workshop was scheduled at a lodge near Port Loring and I had planned to bring Ratty with me for some leisurely paddles.

I've decided against signing up for the Big East River X because it's too early in the season for me (I still need to learn how to paddle solo), and also because it is a more technical course, I didn't want to put myself under that much pressure. I already have a full time job, and at 50+ years old I don't want to over do it. Call that an excuse if you like, I'm just managing my reality.  Oh -  and it's held on June 18th.  I don't think I can handle 3 events in three weeks - I'm not remotely like those Aussies who can do 8 Iron-Man Triathlons in 8 days...!  That's just crazy.

That leaves upper body strength and endurance training.  I did some raking in the yard yesterday and I must admit my shoulders are a little sore today.  Well, maybe not sore exactly, but tight, yeah. Nothing a little yoga can't handle. So yep I'll need more raking practice, and I think I'll do some swimming in the pool as well.  If I were a real swimmer I'd sign up for a class, but classes just scare me, frankly.  I have taken a swimming "stroke improvement class" in the past and I did manage to stay off the bottom of the pool and under the radar of the instructor (sorry, Jane - it's not you it's me), but there's something about heading to the pool in the evening that just makes me turn into a whimpering kitten.  The water's just too cold. I know it needs to be cool because swimmers get warm swimming, like in any activity, but I have deja-vu moments where I'm back  to being a scrawny 8-year old kid with knobby knees, shivering away with hypothermia and blue lips.  I might need hypnosis to get past that. Once I can get out onto the water with Ratty, it'll be mileage that will make the difference.  Out on the water often, with friends.  Yeah, nice.

Come and join me, I'll pack the picnic basket.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

March 19 2016 > Getting Started

What's the first thing you do after signing up for an 80 km solo C1 Sprint Expedition paddling race?  Well, I have no idea what you are supposed to do, but what I did was email Gus at Hilltop Signs to create a decal with my race/boat name, River Rat, for my new (used) solo Wenonah Advantage canoe.  I picked the name River Rat after one of my all-time favourite books Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  I figure that Ratty will be able to help me through this event, even though the rules clearly stipulate "unassisted". Please don't tell.  I will need all the help I can get.

I don't know if the previous owner had named the canoe, but to me it will be River Rat. Or should I say, he. You see, I am already working on a relationship with this boat.  I am going to have to get into shape and train and practice, and he will have to perform as well.  We're going to have to learn to get along with each other, to learn just how far we can push each other. I feel like I'm the lucky one in this deal; this boat has already proven itself over the past three years of racing the Muskoka River X, and I've never raced solo in a boat. Anywhere. Yet.

I know I have my work cut out for me.  I'll have to paddle at least 12 hours pretty much non-stop.  I'll have to portage my Ratty over 10 + portages which might not be quite so bad if I didn't also have to portage all the required survival gear as well. I did manage to get Ratty on and off the truck today (to get him to Hilltop Signs), and portaged him around the house, so that's a start.  I still don't have a yoke for him but I know I'll have to figure that out at some point. 

I still haven't been on the water with him; I actually haven't even sat in him yet. But here we are, signed up for an 80 km race from Huntsville to Bracebridge. I'm not sure I'll be able to go in a straight line on a lake with a slight breeze - never mind on Lake of Bays with a stiff 15-20 knots blowing from the... wherever the prevailing winds blow from. Never mind navigating down the Muskoka River... on the one hand, at least the current will be favourable (I'll be going downstream); on the other hand, there are quite a few places that I'll have to be sure to hit the portage before being swept over a falls.

Did I mention I haven't even sat in this boat yet?  With his billowing sides and pointed bow and stern Ratty looks to me as though he might just decide to toss me out on a whim. Flip in fast water, lose the riff-raff (yours truly) and carry on.  I'll only be slowing him down... but that's not the kind of relationship I'm hoping for. Time will tell.