“Be safe. Be careful. Take care,” my friends’ words run through my mind.

I dig a wave’s crest and haul a J-stroke and stare down the next hay-bale. Foam laces its crest.

Since I was just a bump in my mom’s belly, I have canoe-tripped. My family paddles flat water. My parents love bird-watching, map-reading and packing my late grandfather’s musky, old, green canvas canoe packs that he used in the 1950s and 60s. We never really ran rapids, but contemplated swifts. We always packed lightly and followed my Poppa’s long-observed rules. It’s just who we are.

I moved out of my parents’ home. Since then, I have planned all my own trips. I married and moved to the bow seat and bought a house and sold the house and moved to Toronto and bought another house and watched my husband leave me and return and leave and return. And leave. I completed my masters degree and I changed jobs.

I also started canoeing rivers.

The next wave swamps Sarah’s waist. The boat angles towards jagged, sandy rock face.

When I told my friends I was going to Norman Wells this summer, they said, “Cool! Where is that?” I smiled, pointed north-west and said, “That way.” I really had no idea where Norman Wells was except that it was away from the city and my long work days and legal battles and empty fridge and sooty, smoggy, yellow-grey air.

A current catches our red canoe’s stern and my hips shift left. Grit grinds my knees. Ahead, Sarah points up-wave and we wobble towards the rock wall. I lean right and arc a sweep.

“I could never do that,” my friends say. “You are so adventurous.”

“I don’t really think so,” I say. When I canoe flat-water, I use my long, wooden otter-tail paddle. It delves deep and purchases more pull. The prospector canoe’s distinct keel holds a strong, straight line and I lose myself in the slow drip, drip, drip, dig, pull, swing, dripdripdrip motion. I read northern Ontario topography like a favourite, dog-eared book. There, I always know where I am going, read weather accurately, anticipate the challenges and with my canoe buddies, shape our route accordingly.

“DRAW,” I yell over the roar of waves. Sarah’s tanned, muscled arm reaches out, sun glints off her paddle blade and the river catches and splashes as she corrects our line.

These past few years, the map I once read with such conviction, clarity and complacency dissolved with each shift in my life’s landscape. With each realization, my expected future path shrouded. I booked my trip with Canoe North Adventures to celebrate, to honour and to mark the changes in my life. I landed at the edge of the remarkable turquoise Keele River in the Northwest Territory with a bag full of woollens, a mind full of worries, a pen and a journal.

Sarah whooo hooos. Water breeches the bow and hugs her shoulders. She gargles the next class-four wave. I steady my back arm and the Keele nudges my elbow. The rock face slips by. A wave fills my lap. I laugh.  I dig my paddle again and Sarah bursts upwards and out of the wave. The river bends left.

Rebuilding my life, I learned, is both quite easy and quite tough. Logistics are the easy part. Trust is the tough one. I am learning to trust again, to trust others to support and guide me. And I am learning to trust myself – that I have enough and I am enough to deal with whatever faces me.

Al and Lin, the Canoe North Adventures Team, and the amazing group of people on our trip rebuilt my trust, my sense of fun. The river, the mountains, the long days and profound beauty recovered my sense of wonder in this truly majestic place.

Taking back the stern seat on the Keele River taught me to trust myself.

Sarah laughs and splutters. “I just swallowed that wave,” she yells.

Yeah, I think as I point us into the next wave train, that’s just how it should be.