The Zen of Paddling
Whether you paddle as a team, a couple or solo, canoeing?s meditative quality connects you with nature?and yourself.
Surprise Lake lies perfectly still at six-thirty in the morning, reflecting its ring of conifers like a mirror. The dock projects our into the silvered surface, its weathered fray boards in harmony with the granite outcrops of Canadian Shield that form the lake?s islands. Snmall fish and large tadpoles dart out from under the dock, dodging driftwood, while mist streams gently up from the shaded waters of a nearby bay into a cloudless sky.
Moose, beavers, otters and loons are just some of the wildlife that call this lake and its shores home. Thanks to Voyageur Quest?s Algonquin Log Cabin, it?s my privilege to share it with them for a two-night, three-day retreat.
I?m here with six other guests and two of Voyageur?s highly qualified guides, but right now, it?s just the lake and me ? a reward for heeding the first rays of sun through the skylight in my room. Besides, I?m eager for the day?s activities. After years of paddling in the bow (or front) of a canoe, I?m finally learning how to solo.
It?s all in the technique, guide Jocelyn Latter tells me later, as she shows me the rhythm of the J-stroke. Paddle blade in, push back. Twist your wrist, and lever gently, blade against water, to correct the canoe?s naturally zig-zag course without breaking forward momentum. Paddle out, forward, repeat.
I follow Jocelyn?s canoe to the lee of a small island, where she shows me other stokes: the draw-to and pry for moving side ways, and the revers and forward sweep for turning. I gain enough confidence to settle firmly against one side, dipping the canoe towards the water, but improving my control.
With every stroke, my goal is silence: no bumping the paddle against the canoe, or creating splashes and gurgles. That means a smooth entry of the paddle into water, and a push back in harmony with the canoe?s speed, so I focus on the paddle as I swing the blade forward. The motion spreads an arc of sparkling droplets on inky blue water, each one rippling out in tiny, perfect circles, interweaving with its neighbours in a pattern that repeats itself with every stroke. I sense the exact instant that the canoe loses momentum in the slackening of the breeze against my face, and I time my next stroke a touch sooner, to make my paddling one long, fluid movement that maintains a steady speed.
As the wind begins to whip up small waves, I practise turning the canoe into them, to avoid the tipping motion when they catch the canoe side-on. When I venture too near the shore, caught in the stronger currents that the shallow create, I discover that fighting the current doesn?t work: I need to make it work for me, flow with it, until I?m in a position to break free. I start to look at the water differently, as if it, the canoe and I are part of a whole.
Jocelyn and I switch to one canoe, paddling as a team through choppy water to further explore the lake. As we glide into a small bay, Jocelyn spots a young moose feeding in a reed bed, its chocolate brown hide glistening; a precious glimpse of a world most of us rarely see.
Between hikes that explore the edible forest, sunrise paddles, wolf howling, loon calling and lazing about on the dock, Voyageur Quest?s log cabin provides exactly the respite I?m looking for: a connection with my surroundings lets me slow down enough to gain perspective on my buys world back home.
The cabin itself features rustic, comfy living and dining areas, plus six bedrooms that offer two single pine log beds each. There?s no electricity, but two bathrooms come equipped with a cold-water sink and low-flow toilet, while a nearby sauna/shower building provides hot water. While a handful of other cabins (some more extravagant than others), dot this side of Surprise Lake, the rest of the shoreline is pristine, yours to explore (and you can opt in or out of activities as you wish.)
Jocelyn and fellow guide Denis Houde also rustle up delicious meals for the group: our reward for paddling the 10-person voyageur-style canoe to the campfire point was a dinner of fire-roasted pork, rice and veggies, washed down with pink lemonade and hot chocolate. Before long, we were all flaked out companionably on the cushion of needles covering the rocky point, lifejackets as pillows, the setting sun in our faces and the scent of woodsmoke on the air?and the quiet contentment of living fully in the moment.