Reflections on the Keele River Expedition, August 2006

By Cathy Macdonald


I think it’s safe to say that my husband, Jamie and I are at the “Is that all there is?” phase of middle age. We are constantly busy with such things as work, kids, volunteer commitments, elderly parents, meetings, and socializing – but we struggle to find meaning in all the commotion.

So it was that as I was approaching a “big” mid life birthday with a dream of touring the Tuscan countryside, Jamie signed us up for a 2 week wilderness expedition with Canoe North Adventures. I suspect this is because it is something he had always wanted to do, so thought it would be the perfect birthday gift for me!

I considered the prospect of paddling the Keele River located in the Northwest Territories. Let’s see… paddle hard all day, no showers for 12 days, do our own cooking in some kind of soot-covered pot over a fire, lug around heavy gear, sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground in a tent surrounded by bugs and wild animals, with all the experience of a weekend or two paddling in Algonquin Park. How perfect does that sound??

I had several months from signup day to departure day for my trepidation to build. Might I get “up close and personal” with a bear? Would my inexperience let the group down? Was I fit enough for the physical demands of the trip? A practice excursion on the Grand River in the spring with Guides Al Pace and Lin Ward eased my mind somewhat as “eddy turns”, “draws”, “cross-bow draws” and “lean downstream” became part of my vocabulary – although they weren’t yet a big part of my skill set!

Well, it turns out there’s a lot one can learn in a canoe. Over the course of this expedition I learned a few things I expected to learn, and many, many more that I didn’t.

Jamie and I were the least experienced paddlers in our group of ten so naturally, whenever we paddled in the same canoe, we seemed to lag far behind the others. He suggested that I paddle just a little harder but my arms were already feeling like rubber. Then one day, out of the blue, (well, with a little coaching from Lin and Al), we GOT IT. It was all about finding the current and allowing ourselves to be carried by it, rather than fighting it – “going with the flow”, so to speak. Suddenly everything felt effortless. Great life lesson learned!

Then there was this issue of confidence. I didn’t have much – fast water paddling was just so far outside my comfort zone. But here’s what I learned – confidence is the sum of good teaching (thanks Al and Lin!), experience (say, paddling 375 km. of river) and an enthusiastic cheering section. I couldn’t have asked for more encouragement and support than I got from our wonderful paddling gang. The amazing thing was that by the final days of the trip, Jamie and I had abandoned the safer gentle water on the inside of the river bends in favour of the “big bouncy water” on the outside of the curves – with whoops of delight, I might add. Riding those waves, feeling the icy water spray on our faces, was more fun than any roller coaster ride. Exhilarating!

One day on our trip we had a hiking adventure that truly stands out as a memorable learning experience. The plan was to hike several hours along the nearby Ekwi River valley until we reached the Godlin River where we would be rewarded by a shower in an ancient hot spring that gushing from the mountainside. We had discussed before setting out that this was a challenging hike, and that teamwork and possibly a little luck would be required if we were to reach our destination. The group decision was that if any portion of the hike seemed to be too much for even one hiker, we would turn back together.

As we tramped through the woods, singing loudly (and poorly!) to deter any wildlife from venturing near us, we came upon our first obstacle. The fast-moving Ekwi had to be crossed in order for us to continue up the valley. So with hands grasped tightly to one another, we waded through the bone-chilling water in a single line, each of us protected from the swift current by the person upstream, until we arrived, breathless, at the other side. We sure appreciated the value of teamwork at that moment.

The second obstacle proved even larger than the river crossing. This one was more of a mountain climb – on a “goat path” a few feet wide in places wide in places with a small drop on one side down to the rushing river far below. This little section of the hike didn’t make any of us jump for joy, but for two in the group who had a more serious fear of heights, it was nearly heart-stopping. We knew turning back was an option, but at the same time, that hot-spring dream was awfully appealing. Much hand holding and encouragement ensued and a rope was rigged up the steep hillside for climbers to hang on to. In the end, though, it was the summoning of extraordinary courage and inner strength by our two apprehensive hikers that allowed us all to proceed. We returned to camp that evening, exhausted from our day-long adventure, full of respect and admiration for those who dared to push their personal limits. And, yes, the incredible experience of bathing in the ancient hot-spring perched high over the Godlin River was a memory for life indeed.

Spending time on the river clearly taught all of us a bit about having fun – something we seem to forget in the day-to-day rat race of city life and “to do” lists. But it all started to come back to us on the banks of the Keele. There were hilarious moments as we tried to write group poems after a particularly hearty selection of cocktails at Happy Hour, or attempted to crush opponents at euchre under the midnight sun. On the night of my 50th birthday, Jamie baked a chocolate cake in the dutch oven which we devoured while watching a black bear walk along the river’s edge! I recall spontaneous “bocci rock” tournaments at our riverside campsites, and the excitement of swimming with a brave few in the icy waters of the Keele. Hearing the whoops of delight from the guys down at the fishing hole as they caught (and released) another huge bull trout was unforgettable! And I’m not sure I have ever laughed as hard as I did watching one of the more reserved members of our group perform a striptease – from a discreet distance, of course! – as he waded into the pristine water to wash. (Perhaps we have to blame that one on Happy Hour as well.)

But by far the most important lesson I learned over that marvelous two weeks was to slow down and appreciate the world and people around me. I remember our last night on MacKenzie River, when one of my co-mates and I were finishing our drinks by the fire and talking about some of the challenges and frustrations in our lives. We looked up and just above the trees on the horizon was a huge yellow moon perfectly reflected on the shimmering water. It was breathtakingly beautiful. All thoughts of problems and frustrations faded – I felt like a little part of something much larger, and all I had to do was “go with the flow”, not fight the current.

So I don’t really know what I was looking for as I set off on the river last August, but I think I found it. In the year since we have returned home from our paddling trip, Jamie and I have noticed subtle changes in our outlook on life. We are no longer satisfied with the mundane, or the busy treadmill that takes us nowhere. It makes more sense to slow down, consider what we really want, and then set about going after it. Our confidence buoyed by achievements on the river, and inspired by others on our trip, we try to push our own limits. Brave enough to venture outside our comfort zones, we dive into new challenges, and sometimes even succeed!

When life gets too hectic, or presents us with set backs, Jamie and I endeavor to find that same sense of inner peace that surrounded us that magical night under the moon on the Mackenzie. We have promised each other that if we should ever feel that calm, that confidence, that inspiration slipping away from our lives, we know it is time for another wilderness encounter.