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Arm wrestling the wind

I've been wishing for the call for a couple of years. I wasn't waiting by the phone, but every summer I hoped to get a chance to go on a real canoe trip.
Danica and Bethany set out for adventure on the North Saskatchewan River.

I've been wishing for the call for a couple of years.

I wasn't waiting by the phone, but every summer I hoped to get a chance to go on a real canoe trip. Vinessa Currie of Paynton owns and operates Clearwater Canoeing and her passion for the sport has captivated me since I saw her display at a trade show a few years ago. We always talked about getting me out onto the water but the opportunity never arose.

The Friday before last as I finished off a week of storytelling in Saskatoon I got a call from my editor. There were cancellations on a trip on the North Saskatchewan. Would I be able to get into a canoe tomorrow? I had checked my messages and made the calls in the wonderful time between my last two shows, the euphoric time when the joy of the seven previous shows glowed in my heart and I looked forward to sharing my stories and songs one last time before heading home for a couple of days of well-deserved rest.

The relaxation at home was not to be. I couldn't join the trip right away, as I'd booked a birthday party for Saturday, but I took a drive out to Fort Pitt where the canoes would be starting out from the re-dedication of the historical site and made plans with Currie to meet the next day.

Sunday the canoes would meet us at the Deer Creek Bridge west of Paradise Hill. A young man named John had to get off the river to go to work and I was set to take his place in the boat for the next leg of the journey.

I packed up a tent and sleeping bag, a small bag with clothes and a toothbrush, a notebook and my waterproof pocket camera. I debated taking 15 pounds of camera equipment and lenses but I decided to leave it safely at home so I wouldn't have to add that worry and weight to the adventure.

We met the three canoes just before 4 p.m. Sunday. The sun was shining, people dotted the banks of the river near the bridge with rods and hooks and the canoeists were smiling and sunburnt as they stepped into the mud of the bank. The current was strong and the river was fast so they'd floated most of the way getting to the meeting point much earlier than they had anticipated.

The canoes were weighted down with food and supplies and I gracefully slid into my spot listening to a few pointers from our guide Rob Thiessen. My first job was to steer the canoe.

I'd ridden in canoes as a child. In those days I knelt low in the boat bruising my knees on the wooden ribs as I gazed skyward my neck held tight in the choking embrace of the keyhole lifejacket. Those were the memories of canoeing with my dad and it had nothing to do with actually using a paddle. I listened to the instructions, tried to keep us on track but for the first 40 minutes but felt only frustration as I kept turning us toward the bank even spinning us in embarrassing circles while we passed people on the river's edge.

My partner in the canoe was Bethany, a quiet first year university student and younger sister of our guide. She and I switched places in the canoe and I took over powering the boat from the front.

We paddled for a couple more hours before deciding to find a spot to set up our camp for the night. Our first stop would have been OK. The view wasn't great but it was sheltered and we decided to go further. Just around the corner a lovely bank appeared with a grassy flat, tree cover a little further back, a gorgeous view of the river behind us and of a large island just ahead. We pulled our canoes onto the bank and began to unload, tents, sleeping bags, packs, food, firewood, tables, cooking implements and other supplies.

We quickly set up our little camp and our guide started working on a well-earned gourmet meal. I always feel better about an adventure when the food is good and I attacked the chicken and pesto pasta, bruschetta and freshly fire baked sundried tomato focaccia bread. YUM!

We cleaned up, swatted a few mosquitoes and gathered around the fire to chat and, as the sun set, Thiessen read to us from Blood Red the Sun by William Bleasdell Cameron.

Cameron was a Hudson Bay Company employee who survived the Frog Lake Massacre and the book is his account of the events of 1885. The river is rich in history and the trip was planned to follow the retreat of the NWMP from Fort Pitt to Fort Battleford.

The original trip took 10 days by scow while last week's trip followed just a part of the journey at a quicker pace.

As we paddled and sat on the bank I imagined the busy river route before oil wells marked the view and those who travelled made their decisions and measured their progress without GPS technology. As we sat in our campsite I wondered how many others had found this site and pitched their tents on this very spot looking at the same view during other glorious sunsets.

Along the river there were occasional bits of garbage, even a pitched refrigerator, but the land is still lovely and Clearwater Canoeing follows a strict policy to leave no trace including a bag with a shovel, hand sanitizer and a roll of biodegradable tissue paper.

I made sure my tent was close to the others as I have a vivid imagination and although I know how to be as safe as I can in the wilderness I still imagine the sound of the wind bringing the footsteps of wild creatures closer and the coyote chorus at dusk didn't really help much. As I settled into my tent I used my flashlight to make few notes and relaxed into a lovely moment alone and wireless.

Maybe this was just the thing I needed to unwind and refresh. I fell asleep waking only to will my bladder to wait just a little longer so I wouldn't have to venture into the trees alone in the darkness. I knew my tent leaked but the slight shower at dawn didn't affect me and I rested until Thiessen called us for breakfast. He'd baked an apple crisp, cooked up some sausages and cut up a number of oranges and we ate and packed up ready for the day.

We checked to make sure the site was clean and headed out into the breeze.

I handed my camera to Thiessen so I would have some pictures of me paddling and as we rounded a bend there was a flock of pelicans. He was kind and quick enough to snap a few pictures for me and I got the camera back just in case we got close to something else interesting. In the distance I had seen a deer the afternoon before as well as a number of cows at the water's edge.

We saw eagles, hawks and ducks and a beaver scared me as he splashed into the water just in front of our canoe but even more exciting was a mother bear and two cubs. They were too far away for a picture but far enough away for my comfort as we slowly made our way around a sand bar just a bit too slow for my liking.

We'd had a juice and stretch break in the morning and after a pretty good workout we stopped for a lunch. The wind was getting stronger all morning and by afternoon we were fighting.

It wasn't really a battle but I felt locked into a three-hour long arm wrestle with the breeze. I paddled as hard as I could and as we hoped for the view of the bridge at Highway 21 we slowly made our way forward.

At one point I asked Thiessen how fast his GPS said we were going. The answer was 4.2 km per hour. My son runs three kilometre races in just over 14 minutes and I could picture him passing us and waving from the banks as I tried to remember the French lyrics from a voyageur song we had sung at the music festival when I was in junior high school.

My back, shoulders and arms were burning but I knew we had to keep going. Finally the bridge came into sight. It was just a slight red line in the distance but I knew we would get there.

The waves surrounded us and the wind fought hard but an hour and 10 minutes after first sighting the bridge we had reached it and the smiling faces of Currie and her father-in-law. They helped four of us take out our canoes and gear as Thiessen and his sister prepared to go a little further before setting up their camp for the night to paddle for another day or so.

Stepping into the black mud of the bank and sinking half way up to my knees I felt such a sense of relief and achievement, I wanted to pin a badge on my sleeve to show people I'd made it. We paddled 27 kilometres over the course of about six hours, mostly into the wind and we had done it.

The 10 kilometres the night before didn't prepare me for what was probably the hardest day of physical work I had ever done and my shoulders ached for the next day as I tried to gain my balance as the ground still felt like I was riding the waves.

Adventure called me on the phone and I was so glad I could make the time for such a great opportunity, I could easily have taken a few days off and missed out on the wonder of it all, but now I just want more and to share a canoe adventure with friends and family members.

To learn more .For More photos of Danica's adventure visit our photo albums gallery under the community tab.