Paddling the traditional canoe route from Windigo Lake to Peawanuck is something Jack Palen always wanted to do. His mother did the same trip twice when she was younger.
The 16 year old is one of ten Americans from Camp Wabun near Temagami, Ontario to make the annual 35-day canoe trip. There is a “sister” canoe trip of women mapping a different route at the same time. The teams will meet up on the Winisk on their way to Peawanuck. The male group spent two nights in Webequie, and were able to check out the Powwow the weekend of July 21.
The majority of them are teens coming from the United States of America, mainly from Ohio and the East Coast. Each of them had different reasons for wanting to go on the trip. For some, the trip and trip leader had reached legendary status, but others were just up for adventure.
“I had no clue I was coming on this kind of trip,” said canoer Kiran Paris, 17.
The group began their journey at Windigo Lake, south of Weagamow Lake, Ontario.
After 22 days, the canoers landed in Webequie. They explained that they are following a centuries-old Indigenous trade route up the river system, but it’s also a journey Wabun campers have been taking for over thirty years. The camp is an offshoot from the oldest camp in North America, called Camp Keewaydin. The trip is advertised through word of mouth, between past campers and families.
With 13 days remaining, the canoe team travel approximately four kilometres per hour, nine or ten hours a day, or almost 40 kilometres per day. Portaging with six weeks worth of food and camp gear is a lot of work, but worth it they say.
“Physically it’s very demanding, but it’s not anything that your body can’t handle,” said Ryan Nelis, 18. “But what’s put to the test is your mind. You learn a lot about yourself, and what your body can do.”
The crew said they are learning a lot about teamwork and setting aside their differences on this trip.
“Not only are you learning how to interact with other people, in a setting you haven’t been in before,” said Nelis. “But for six weeks you are with other people 24/7 and you have to cope with them.”
Resolving conflict and working together in this situation is different, they explained, because you can’t walk away. Out in the bush - at the end of the day, survival and getting to the destination depends on working together.
“Out here we’re all together, we may clash when cutting wood or cooking dinner, but at the end of the day we all get along,” said Nelis.
The team joked that it’s physically demanding, and mentally, but that it’s “spiritually awakening.” Their mentor and canoe trip leader, Pete Gwyn, tells them “The true journey is from your head to your heart, that’s the longest distance you can cover.”
The canoers stressed that the physical exertion is nothing compared to the mind over matter mentality that they’re developing while canoeing and portaging.
“Mentally you learn the significance, like your place in the world, and that you’re just one part of the environment that surrounds you,” said Nelis.
“It’s peaceful,” said another canoer, Liam Makosky, 16. “We’re totally away from any other signs of civilization.”
They’re not totally away from civilization though. Landing in places like Webequie, and getting to meet community members, are some of the highlights of the trip says Makosky. He said they were happy to experience Webequie celebrating the Powwow, and being welcomed at the event.
The thing they all miss the most is the food back home, and of course their families. They all wanted to pass on the message of “Hi mom!” in case their mothers see this before they got home. Some don’t miss anything at all. Jack Walker, 16, claims he wrote his sister a letter, but wants her to know it won’t get to her before he sees her again. All in all, they say learning so much about themselves and the land is an incredible experience for them so far.
“This is an opportunity you can’t get anywhere else,” said Makosky.