One Day in Minnesota, this Happened…
Ok, the canoe didn’t really fall on me. It was actually dropped on me. By my giggling younger sisters.
Let me back up.
It was my last summer in Minnesota for my last (summer) class of college before graduating and moving to California. My sister, Coley, was also home for the summer after her sophomore year of college. Ang, my other sister, had just graduated high school, and my younger brother Mitch was 15. The point is, my mom viewed this as the last time all her children would live under one roof and convinced me to go on a family camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness in Northern Minnesota on the Canadian border as I was the last of her children to do this and she wanted all of us to do it together while she was still housing and feeding us and could make us go. Did I say convinced? Oh yeah, I meant told.
Well, for my siblings, all who are rock-climbing, sleep on the ground under stars, outdoorsy people, this was not a problem. Somehow, I didn’t get the “roughing it” gene and I was a bit terrified of the Minnesota Boundary Waters.
Why was I terrified? Well, for starters, you carry your canoe on your head. The Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness (often referred to as BWCA) consists of over a million acres of land that looks untouched by modern society. Most areas of the BWCA do not allow motorized boats and no mining or logging or any type of industrial activity is allowed in the area. So how do you get around? You canoe. And that’s pretty much all that’s allowed. In order to keep the land as untouched by human kind as possible, visitors also can’t use the water for bathing or washing dishes or anything that might put chemicals into the water unless you want to get a huge fine. You can’t even burn garbage in the campfire as they don’t want any toxins getting into the air.
Mom had gone on a camping trip to the Boundary Waters a few years earlier and became obsessed. Background information about my mom. She is a Physical Education teacher who teaches an outdoor education gym class. It is no surprise why she took to the BWCA immediately. Then she took my sisters and brother and they also all fell in love with the place. I was the last one to conquer the great outdoors and pretend I was living back in the 1800’s again.
My family quite loved this fact that I was the last one to conquer the Minnesota Boundary Waters.
“You can’t wash your dishes at all, Gina,” Ang taunted as we drove up to the BWCA. “You have to just keep reusing it.”
“You wash it out with spit,” Mitch added.
“What?!” I exclaimed.
“They’re joking,” Coley said from the front passenger seat, always the one to keep the peace. “We can rinse them with water and wash them with biodegradable soap in the woods.”
I sighed in relief. “Aren’t we going to be eating birdseed the whole time anyway or something?” I grumbled. “We’re going to starve to death.”
“You’ll be fine,” Mom said, looking back at me in the rearview mirror as she kept our vehicle pointed north on the Minnesota highway. Two canoes were strapped to the top of our SUV. “We have cheese and meats and a grain and nuts mixture. More than enough to sustain you.”
Hmmm. I wasn’t convinced about that.
Several hours later we were gliding through the pristine, still, and incredibly quiet canals of the Boundary Waters. I was sitting in the front of a canoe with Mitch and my mom and as I paddled, all I could hear were birds chirping and the swish of our paddles as they broke the water. All around us were tall pine trees – and that’s all we could see. There were no other people, no other boats, no other sign of human life anywhere. I would’ve thought that this wasn’t so bad and was actually pretty awesome, except for the portaging process looming over my head. We hadn’t had to do it yet, but since a dead end was looming in front of me, I was assuming we would have to soon.
And…then we were there. At the dead end. We all climbed out the canoes and I saw a small trail leading through some trees and thick shrubbery. It kind of felt like we were on an island, except we obviously weren’t since we couldn’t go around it, hence the carrying our canoes on our head part that was about to come up. I’d already been instructed by Mom that I would not be portaging the canoe this time around. Instead I was to observe.
Unless you’re really strong, portaging consists of the canoe sitting in shallow water, one person standing next to it in the middle (the portager) and two other people standing next to the canoe on the same side on each end (the helpers). Then together, all three people lift the canoe up at once, their knees bent and arms straining to lift it gently over the middle person’s head. In this case, it was Coley.
“Why can’t you and Mitch just help her carry it?” I asked Mom as she and Mitch stepped away from the canoe and Coley headed down the trail into the trees. “Wouldn’t that be easier?”
“No, because we have other things to carry,” she said and picked up one of our waterproof bags that are holding the tent, food, utensils, and other items we need to camp and handed it to me.
I took it from her and nearly toppled over. “Why is this so heavy?” I groaned. “Are they all like this?” I moaned, staggering a few steps away from the shore, wondering how long this trail was.
“Yes,” Mom answered and then as if reading my mind, added: “It’s only a couple minutes and we’ll be on the other side.” Then she turned to my other sister to ask if she needs help with the other canoe.
“Nope, think I got it,” Ang answered.
Of course she does.
Ang expertly moved the canoe from the water to her head and also seemingly with no effort headed into the trees. Turned out you don’t actually carry the canoe on your head. You carry it on your shoulders. Still, looked pretty impossible to me.
I sighed and staggered behind her with my pack.
We took off again in our canoes once we got to the other side and found one of the secluded designated spots to camp shortly after that – you need to claim your spot early to get the best ones in the Boundary Waters – and I made it through my first day without portaging.
The following morning I woke up and after getting past a mental mind block, sit on a log outside our tent and eat a breakfast of the grains and nuts mix – which, I grudgingly admitted the day before, is surprisingly delicious.
“But how will they know if I rinse it in the lake,” I’d asked, more to piss off Mom than really wanting to break the rules and disturb nature.
“Just don’t,” she’d responded sternly. My siblings also looked at me appalled.
“I was joking!” I said. “Sheesh.”
Now we were off again in the canoes, gliding down the pristine waters. It’s so pretty and the air is fresh and crisp; I’m glad they have such stringent rules to keep this just as it was 200 years ago.
However, the idea of portaging was still gnawing at me. I knew there was no way I could escape it today. I wasn’t sure if I was more scared of being crushed by the canoe or dropping the canoe and breaking it and enduring the wrath of my whole family.
Probably the latter.
Then, it was time. “Ok, Gina you got this. The girls will help you,” Mom said after we’d all scrambled out the canoes and gotten all the packs out of them. She picked up the largest pack and followed Mitch, who was portaging the other canoe, into the woods.
I stared at the evil canoe. Somewhere, a bird was squawking loudly. Maybe it was trying to warn me.
“Hurry up, Gina,” Ang said, annoyed, as she and Coley were already in their positions on each end.
“It’s really not that hard,” Coley added.
I stepped up to the middle and put my left hand on the side closest to me and my right hand on the other side of the canoe. I gripped it as hard as I could.
“Ok,” I muttered. “Ready.”
I twisted my body and pulled the canoe up with all my might…and couldn’t get the thing past my shoulder. It fell back into the water with just a light splash as Coley and Ang were still holding onto it.
“This is impossible!” I exclaimed, rubbing my arm, which was already aching from the strain of trying to lift the thing.
“It’s so not,” Ang said.
“C’mon, try again,” Coley said. “Mom and Mitch are going to be wondering what’s taking us so long.”
“Why don’t one of you just do it then?” I asked hopefully.
“Gina! You have to learn how to do this!” Coley protested.
“Yeah, Gina,” Ang agreed fervently.
Some sisters. What happened to having each other’s backs?
I stepped up again, took the same stance and this time pulled at the canoe with every last ounce I could muster, being careful to keep my balance in the knee deep water. And I did it! It was above my head! I’m doing it! And…this thing is really, really heavy. And now I’m sinking. Oh, crap.
My knees buckled under the weight of the canoe and I shifted a bit trying to gain control of them, wondering if this is what the Wicked Witch of the West felt like when she was melting, and that’s when it happened. My right foot slipped on a rock, and I was down. Startled, Ang and Coley weren’t able to keep a grasp on the canoe and it came down with me. Right on top of me.
Lovely. I’m under a canoe. And getting all wet. I pushed at the top of it, but am not at an angle at which I can even remotely move the thing. I begin splasing around trying to figure out how to get out from under it.
“Are you ok?” I heard Coley ask, her voice muffled through the canoe.
“Yes,” I replied. “Get this off of me! I’m probably going to be attacked by leeches.”
A snort of laughter reverberated through the dim canoe and I can’t tell which one of them made the noise. Then I heard another peal of giggles.
“You guys!” I shrieked with indignation.
I saw a shimmer of light as the canoe started to come off me and then after about two inches it fell back down and I was once again in dusky darkness, getting wetter.
“Really?” I asked sarcastically. “You can portage the thing by yourself, but you can’t get it off me?”
More laughter. “Sorry (giggle), we’re trying (giggle),” Angela wheezed out. “But we’re laughing too hard.”
“You guys, this isn’t funny! I think I’m getting claustrophobic! What if I drown?”
“You look like a (giggle) turtle!” Ang laughed. “All we can see is your arms and legs under the big aluminum canoe.”
“It’s like your shell!” Jacole added.
That started off more laughing.
A minute later they’re finally able to get ahold of themselves enough to lift it off me and we tried the whole portage process again. Apparently, the fear of getting stuck under the canoe again instilled a super human strength in me because I was able to get the thing onto my head without falling down this time.
I took a step forward and it may have been the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever had to do. I took another couple of small shuffle-steps and am on the land. The canoe is easier to keep balanced than I thought it would be, but I felt as if I was being drilled into the ground. I was not quite sure how my legs were handling the weight because I’ve never felt so much pressure.
I entered the trees and started to panic a bit. “You guys…I can’t do this,” I said as loudly as I could. I was quite short of breath from the strain of the canoe.
“You got it, you’re doing well,” Ang said and Coley agreed. Oh, sure, now they’re being supportive sisters.
Focus…focus, I told myself. Mom will murder you if you drop this. Don’t, don’t, don’t drop it.
And then there she was. My mother, looking pleased as punch as I came through the trees into a small clearing next to another glistening lake. “You did it!” she exclaimed, proudly. She and Mitch came over and helped lift the canoe off me and back into the water.
“So, how do you feel?” Mom asked.
“That was awful. Please don’t make me do it ever again,” I said emphatically. And then suddenly remembering: “And Ang and Coley dropped the canoe on my head and I was stuck under it!”
Mitch and Mom burst out laughing and then Coley and Ang chimed in with the details of “how hilarious I was because I thought leeches were going to get me and I was going to drown” and they all had a good laugh.
And a few seconds later, after checking all of my limbs were indeed still connected to my body and hadn’t fallen off after the strain of the canoe, I joined in. Ok, maybe I had been slightly overdramatic.
I was also a teensy bit proud of myself that I had been able to portage the canoe.
Have you ever portaged a canoe before?