Covid has been hard on us all. Our lives have been changed in so many ways. Some good and some less favourable. Regardless, it has meant stress and confusion at times. As I relate in my Achieve the Outrageous keynote (based on my unsupported and unassisted ski to the South Pole), it is important to focus on emotional intelligence and recovery to help you maintain performance in challenging times. For me, a solo canoe trip, helped charge my EI batteries. Here’s my journey.

Staying Close to Home

I would normally have been off to some exciting part of the planet on an expedition a couple of times in 2020 and would have also had many flights within Canada, the United States and internationally for keynote speaking. I love the travel and the adventure, and like so many of us who have experienced limitations in travel and in so many other ways, I turned to my backyard instead.

I have always enjoyed travelling and adventuring in Canada and this year I have had more opportunities to do so. As a family we always try and do at least 1 canoe trip every summer. With the extra time from modified work and less travel I was able to enjoy 4 canoe trips with family and friends. We even took our dog on her first canoe trip and she loved it.

One thing that I had never done was a solo canoe trip. I have always admired those that strike out on their own into the wilderness, but I had never done it myself. I am always either guiding others or want to share the experience with family and friends. But 2020 was to be the year of my first solo canoe trip.

My Solo Canoe Route

I chose a route in Algonquin Park starting at Smoke Lake. I was able to get 4 days and the October weather looked reasonable. It was a great personal and learning experience and I will share some of my experience in this post.

Day One

I chose a route that would get me a little further into the park and away from others, but I also wanted to avoid big open lakes when possible as they can often be windy and dangerous especially in a solo canoe.

My first day started sunny and warm with a light tail wind (rare and welcome for a canoeist). I made good time to my first portage which was a small 240m test. I did well and got across in one trip, but my style was lacking, and a longer distance would have posed challenges. I did learn and would adjust for the next portage aptly named the Devil’s Staircase.

The solo paddling was wonderful. No sounds but me and nature. It was a well needed mental recovery retreat. The fall colours were at full bloom and I could not help but think how fortunate I am to have this land in my backyard and to have the skills and experience to enjoy it.

The Devils Staircase was not as bad as advertised. It was longer at 590m and was uphill most of the way. It was quite a leg burner with my backpack, my canoe on my head and carrying my paddle and daypack. I got across no problem and learned more about how to streamline my portage system to make it easier and more comfortable when I hit the 1.5+ KM portages later in the trip.

I made it to my first camp on Bonnechere Lake after about 5 hours of travel. I selected a picturesque South facing camp with a beautiful Granite shoreline. I would have sun in the evening and in the morning and was protected from the winds.

To keep busy on a solo trip I planned to experiment and learn with different tarp set ups and I had brought my Hennessey camping hammock which was new to me and would take some learning to figure out how to sleep warm, dry and comfortable in it. I also planned to bake bread and make cookies which are not only delicious on a canoe trip, but also take up time keeping me busy. I would have quiet time once the sun set at 7:30pm.

Eating dinner and looking out upon the water was enjoyable and relaxing. Just what I needed at this time.

That night the wind picked up and it rained most of the night, but I was warm and dry under my tarp and snug in my hammock. I love the sound of rain on my tarp and the wind in the trees.

Day Two

The next morning was sunny and the wind had mostly stopped. After an enjoyable breakfast of bannock bread and an egg and sausage sandwich I packed up camp and was back on the water moving towards Head lake which would be my home for this night.

While paddling along I was able to use the time to reflect upon what 2020 has brought with all the challenges and changes and what we have learned as a team building company and what I have learned personally. We have pivoted as a company and now offer many great virtual team building and training programs. I have even delivered several virtual keynotes. Personally, it has been a time to reflect upon resilience and happiness which at times have been difficult. Not every day has been a good day, but by using the teachings from our training workshops it has helped me, my family and my team get through this challenge in pretty good style.

As I was entering a small marshy area, I saw movement ahead. As I drew close, I saw a mother moose and a calf grazing in the shallow water. They watched me without much concern as I drifted closer.

Soon they were no longer enjoying my company as much as I was enjoying theirs and they made their way to shore, shook off the water and disappeared into the trees.

It is rare to see large animals when on these trips. They usually hear you coming and vanish before you get close enough to see them. One of the beauties of solo canoeing is that I am almost silent and do not disturb the animals around me.

Day Three

My next camp was also a beautiful and tranquil place. Once again the rain started at night, but it had stopped in the morning (but not for long). I started out on the water early and was making good progress when the wind switched 180 degrees to blow right in my face and picked up and became quite intense. It also started to rain quite heavily at this time creating the perfect storm for a solo canoeist.

As a solo canoeist it can be difficult to paddle into a strong headwind. You need to provide power forward and steer at the same time and that can be difficult in a strong wind. I struggled along until I got to Little Island Lake and there the wind grew to crazy strength. I stayed close to shore to try and stay out of the worst of it, but at one point the wind caught my bow and threatened to spin me around and flip me into the freezing cold water.

I dug in with my paddle and stroked for all I had. This kept me from spinning and flipping, but also took me out into the middle of the lake which was not an ideal place to be. Committed to this new direction I paddled hard and eventually made it to an island where I took shelter holding onto a tree on the shore.

Looking at my map I knew there was a camp no more than 200m ahead, but the wind was so strong and the water so rough I could not make it there for now. I just held the tree until there was a slight break in the wind and I rushed forward to get to the safety of camp.

This was far from the best camp site I have had, but it would do. I was safe, but wet and cold. I got my shelter set up, made some hot chocolate, had something to eat and then crawled into my sleeping bag to try and warm up.

The day stayed gloomy and I spent the time reading and watching the wind and rain on the water.

As the sun was setting I was laying in my hammock and as I peeked outside my world was ablaze in red and orange. At first I thought there was a forest fire and I was in big trouble, but then I realized it was the most amazing sunset I had ever seen.

The water was a brilliant red and orange reflecting the same colours in the sky. By the time I found my phone, turned it on and took a photo I had missed the peak, but I was still able to capture a pretty great shot.

Day Four

The next morning I was up early to try and beat the wind which I knew would increase through the day. All went relatively well until I got to the final large lake.

I hugged the shore in the lee of the wind, but knew I would soon need to push out from this shelter and face the wind head on. I had about 2km of open water to cross to get to my end point and they were a hard won 2km. In a solo canoe there is no rest in the wind and even a short break will send you backwards losing ground very quickly.

Eventually making it back to shore I had completed my first solo canoe trip. This is not enough to put me in the same category as the solo explorers I admire, but it is a start.

For me this was a great escape and a mental refresher, and we all need this every now and then. I applied some of the learning from my previous expeditions to Mount Everest and Antarctica which you can hear about in my virtual keynotes Learning in Thin Air and Achieve the Outrageous. Overall it was a renewing and rewarding experience, the kind we all need from time to time.