Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guest Post - Grandma Goes Solo - A tripper's Story

Grandma Goes Solo: One canoe, 22 days, 100+ miles, Infinite Satisfaction

by Cindy Miller

Snowy, winter evenings in front of a crackling fire are prime time for daydreaming over maps. It was late January. Firelight flickered across my Chrismar Quetico Provincial Park map as it lay open on the coffee table – again. My husband and I already had our canoe trips for 2009 planned and there I was, already daydreaming about 2010. Somehow I just knew I wanted to – had to -- make a long, solo canoe trip in Quetico the summer of 2010. It would be my way of celebrating the summer I would turn sixty years old. I also knew that it would require a lot of planning and preparation for me to achieve my goal. Although I had made several canoe trips, I had never been without my husband or a guide.

I began by defining what I meant by a “long” trip. The longest canoe trip I had made was only two weeks, so for me, anything over two weeks was a longer trip. Because I needed to start somewhere, I chose numbers that had to do with sixty. Sixty days sounded like too much. Thirty days and thirty nights seemed better and they added up to sixty. Since that was almost a month, I added another night, making it a month. I call it “numerical poetic license.” While I expected I might stay in Quetico for all 31 nights, I also knew that I had probably chosen more days than necessary. I wanted the safety and luxury of having too many days, not too little. I was not trying to prove anything. I just wanted the freedom of not having to travel on windy or bad weather days or even on days of paralyzing, exquisite and indescribable beauty. If I arrived at my exit destination early, I wanted the choice of staying or leaving when I felt ready to do so.

August 6 to September 6, 2010 were my chosen dates. From past trips I knew I could encounter almost any kind of weather in that timeframe. I also knew it was one of the most favorable times of the year. I wanted to maximize my odds of comfort and safety, so timing was important. I would not push to make mileage or numbers of lakes or any other numerical goal. Although my trip began by choosing numbers, I was determined that it would not be about numbers. It would just be me, alone, experiencing Quetico with body, mind and spirit. It would be about whatever Quetico wanted to teach me -- about whatever I was open to and wanted to learn. It would be about learning to truly “live deliberately” in my years after sixty.

It was also about comfort and safety. I knew I needed more skills, gear and planning. On my previous trips in Quetico I had never portaged a canoe or camped alone. A few decades before, in my younger years, I made several solo backpacking trips. While backpacking and canoe camping trips have many similarities, they are different. Aging also makes a difference. Since age hadn’t made me stronger or more spry, I was hoping it had made me wiser.

Looking back at my planning and preparation stages, here are a few of the wiser moves that worked for me:

• I purchased a “SPOT” satellite signaling device. (check out and My use of this device in other wilderness settings convinced my husband and me that using a “SPOT” would make my risk level more reasonable. Notice I said I used it (and I used it often) before I went on the longer trip.

• I used and tested all my gear well before I made the longer trip. I made three short (2 night, 3-day) solo trips the summer before the long one. They were a way of testing everything – my gear, skills, food choices and fitness as well as my desire, intentions and “mind set” for making a longer trip.

• I sought out all the advice I could get. Because I spend my summers in Ely, I was able to find and talk to many people with many levels of skills, view points and knowledge about Quetico. I researched and read about Quetico history, plants, animals, geology and geography. I took outdoor wilderness classes and upgraded my Wilderness First Aid certification. I read a lot about solitude and wilderness. (Most interesting was Robert Kull’s Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A year Alone in the Patagonia Wilderness.) Every chance I had, I asked questions – and learned about other questions that needed asking. I listened to and read many personal stories about wilderness, Quetico and solitude. I went to the John B. Ridley Research Library at Quetico Park and received a lot of information from Shirley Peruniak (Author of Quetico Provincial Park: An Illustrated History) and Andrea Allison (Librarian). And, of course, I compared and poured over maps.

• For the next year and a half I assessed my skills and gear in solitary situations. It was important to consider how each bit of knowledge and gear would work for me alone – not just in the usual group situation. Weight, size, quality, cost, comfort, durability, maneuverability, multiple uses, maintenance, etc. were all considered. Many of my choices were influenced by the fact that I am not particularly strong in my upper body and have some arthritis in my hands.

• Perhaps I should have listed fitness first on this list of preparations. While we all like to tell ourselves that age is “only a number,” fitness can’t be faked. I am far from being Superwoman, but I am in the habit of exercising daily, eating reasonably well and I am not overweight. Because I have been very active throughout my life, I have a realistic understanding of my fitness level. I don’t ever want to be one of those people I’ve seen on portages who look like they haven’t exercised for 30 years but still think of themselves as young and fit. They may get away with it in a group situation (by sadly relying too heavily on others) but not on a solo trip. Once you are in the wilderness you can’t fool anyone – particularly yourself.

A big consideration was building skills for a solo trip. On my other trips someone else had always carried the canoe. There were several other skills I knew how to do and had watched being performed, but had not tried alone. This is why I planned the three short solo trips in the summer of 2009. The first two were without portages and I used my own kayak. Because I was on a budget, I did not want to spend money to rent a canoe until I decided I could and wanted to camp alone. After deciding I was capable and actually liked camping on my own I prepared for my next challenge: a trip with a canoe and portages. Before I went on the third trip, I practiced portaging techniques and endurance in an unpaved, circular driveway and in some of the rougher, rockier spots on the same property. When I realized my biggest question – “Could I easily portage a canoe?” – was answered, I remember going back into my cabin, raising my arms in victory and yelling to the walls as loud as I could, “GAME ON!”

I saw the third trip as my real test. The route I chose had four portages with a total of 375 rods (over a mile). As it turned out, the first day included an all-day rain and several logistic challenges. It was a better test for portaging and camping than I had planned. It also lead to a sweeter feeling of success. It was on that trip that I became fully confident that I was ready for more.

The next big question was: What specific canoe would I use on my long trip? I had to compare renting vs. buying a canoe and used vs. new. After a year of searching, my final choice was to purchase a new Wenonah, Solo Plus, Kevlar canoe (Thanks to the folks at Piragis Northwoods Company for their help.) It proved to be very stable and can also be used as a tandem (hence the “Plus” in the name). While it was not the most economical solution for just one solo trip, it was the best answer if I wanted to do future solo and group trips. Because I bought it in the spring, I was also able to paddle it often before my trip.

I already owned some good camping gear. I had a good tent and all the appropriate clothing. Many other equipment decisions fell into place in their own unique ways. Some from past experience and my own creativity and some from simple luck. Some answers came from friends and guides simply telling their stories – the kind of stories that included “This happened to me…,” or “Do you know how to start a fire when everything you have is wet?” or “Have you considered taking this item along?” I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having the most useful and best quality gear you can get (whether you own or rent). On a long trip, comfort, quality and ease of use are even more important.
If you have read this far, my guess is that you are considering a solo trip or have already made one or more yourself. You probably already know this equipment stuff and are just comparing notes. I have included a few (far from all) details here because I want it to be known that I did not go into this trip carelessly or without thought and preparation -- nor do I think anyone should.

After the attention to gear and skills came the real core of my solo trip: the deeper questions of “Why?” and “What could I and did I learn along the way?” Perhaps you are also wondering “What was the way?” or “Why was it only twenty-two days and not the originally planned thirty-two?” or “What did your friends and family say when you told them what you were going to do?”

I’ll continue with answering the easier questions first:

During my preparations I was often amazed at people’s reactions when I told them that I was going on a long solo trip. Some would look me in the eye and seriously ask, “So who is going with you? “ or “Who is your guide?” I would repeat the word “solo” and their disbelief was as heavy as Ely greenstone. One person actually told me I was, “ too old to do something so foolish.”

Other reactions ranged from an e-mail telling me that I may need psychological help (“people have committed suicide on solo trips”) to, “Cool! I’ve always wanted to do that too!” More than once I got this reaction: “Cool. Can I go with you?” Again I had to repeat the word solo. It became obvious to me that people’s reactions to my life is more often a statement about their lives and their fears.

My husband and family and dearest friends were very supportive and just wanted to know that I was safe each day. If you have ever been the one left behind on an adventure, you understand. My “SPOT” alleviated many of their fears. It also made me feel that I was not ignoring their concerns or being reckless.

The easiest question to answer is about the route I planned to take and the route I actually did take. I flew (Thanks Campbell’s Quetico Air Service & pilot Chris Darbel) from Crane Lake to Beaverhouse Lake Ranger Station (northwest Quetico) to begin my trip. Here I am at the Crane Lake dock:

My exit point would be at Prairie Portage (south-central Quetico). I purposely had no specific route planned in between so I could paddle each day where ever I felt compelled to go. (I often paddled the long way around islands and backtracked to look at places from other perspectives.) I did know that I would first go east and then chose a place to go south. I made my minimal plan known to a few friends and discussed my general decision-making thoughts with my husband. It was almost like having an itinerary. Since I had a “SPOT” I felt this open-ended plan was a very reasonable risk. The benefits of this route were (1) no repetition of routes were required so I would mostly be covering territory I had never paddled before, (2) I still had the freedom of making daily choices, (3) the daily fees for entering at Beaverhouse were $5 less per day, and (4) by ending at Prairie Portage I knew if I arrived early I could easily get back to my cabin in Ely without waiting for my scheduled pickup on September 6.

My final route resembled a very wiggly figure seven (see map below) from Beaverhouse to Pickerel Lake and then south through Dore, upper Sturgeon, Russell, the poet lakes, upper Kawnipi, Keewatin, Agnes Lake, the “S” chain (Silence, Sultry, Summer, Noon, Shade, and South Lake. Hmm… I guess in this case “Noon” begins with an “S.”), North Bay, Burke Lake, Bayley Bay to Prairie Portage. By my estimate, including some extra paddling I chose to do along the way, I paddled a touch over 100 miles. The portages I took equaled about 4.6 miles (7.5 Kilometers).

Multiply that times 7 since I was making 4 carries over each one (carry, back, carry, back, carry, back, carry). If you are imagining right now how much effort that was, don’t forget loading and unloading the canoe. And, while you are at it, imagine getting over 7 beaver dams. There were many challenges there too.

Because I wanted the freedom of going where ever I felt like going, I had everything I needed for 31 nights (I took food for 32 nights – just in case) hence the two packs and one barrel. Probably a big, tough young man would have been able to make fewer carries. I am a realistic, sixty year old grandmother. I needed to break everything down into smaller, manageable parts and steps. That was my philosophy for everything. Fewer miles and fewer portages per day with more carries and more time allowed on the portages were just fine with me. I remembered Eric Larsen ( telling about having to repeat to himself often, “One step at a time. One step at a time.” I often repeated to myself, “One careful, small step at a time.” I also remembered Dennis Weidemann’s (author of This Water Runs North) advice to, “Paddle like you’ve got nowhere to go.” These bits of advice worked well and added to the depth of my trip experience.

Now that you have imagined paddling and crossing all those portages alone, imagine how grateful I was when at some portages I ran into other people offering to help me across. Sometimes they were travelling in the opposite direction. (I reciprocated in their direction when I could.) Sometimes there were people just day-tripping from a base camp with an empty hand or back or just wanting to be helpful. On the longest portage of my trip (1120 meters) I ran into several canoes of teenage boys from the Voyageur Wilderness Programme. They told me to pick up the lightest load and they carried the rest. This struck me as being the Quetico version of “Helping a little old lady cross the street.” I know I could have done it myself, but I accepted the gift. I am happy to report that the helpful Quetico spirit is alive and well and being perpetuated.

Why did I end the trip at 22 days? First, remember, I had nothing to prove and the trip was not about numbers. Second, I had many fortunate events that made the trip go faster than I originally planned (such as help on portages as I just mentioned). Third, the weather forecast for after the 22 days was already changing toward windier, wetter and colder (Yes, I had a weather radio with me). Although I was fully prepared for it, being weather and wind-bound only a few miles from Prairie Portage just didn’t sound like fun for the end of my trip. I was also running out of blank pages in my journal. One of the pleasures of my trip was keeping a journal. I did not leave Quetico “early,” I just left when it felt right.

What did I learn along the way? Probably far more than I realize this soon after my trip. I am writing this only 6 weeks later. The trip is still swirling around in my head in wonderful and curious ways. My quick answer to what can be learned is for you to go on your own trip. Plan it and complete it in your own way – for your own dreams. Make it truly “yours” and you will have a glimpse into what I learned.

What I can tell you is that my trip created and defined itself by the way I prepared for it. I suspect that I learned as much from preparing for the trip as I did from taking the trip. My hundreds of hours of reading (thousands?) about wilderness in general and Quetico in particular enriched my trip immeasurably. My reading also intertwined with the “Why?” of my trip. Individual stories of canoe camping, historic exploration and wilderness solitude helped me develop the kind of knowledgeable curiosity I wanted for the trip.

I learned that open-ended time is not just a luxury, but an often neglected necessity in life. It seldom happens on its own, but you can choose to make it happen.

I learned that one of the most delightful things about a solo trip can be the people you meet along the way. I had some very happy and helpful encounters with several groups and pairs of people. One group even serenaded me with voyageur songs in French! Just as satisfying: I was able to help several groups in various ways as well. The conversations and information exchanged were an enjoyable break from the solitude and often very informative.

I learned that I had far more support than I realized. I am deeply grateful for my loving husband, who cheered me on and supported my adventure at every step. I was grateful to my sons and parents who seemed to accept and take the news of my trip in stride as, “No problem. Just another one of the kinds of things she does.” I am grateful for my wonderful friends who did everything from giving helpful advice to sending e-mails of support to mailing letters while I was gone to attending my “last supper” the night before I left - and to my dear friend who drove me to Crane Lake to meet the airplane (OK, Carol, no names here).

I also learned that if you feel compelled to take a solo trip, you must do it. However, if you do not feel a “calling,” don’t. As in all of life, things seem to work out better if you follow your passion.

As for the “Why?” of my trip: My own fortunate circumstances and passion lead me to it. I love the wilderness and the North Country. I wanted to experience my solitary self in this particular wilderness. I wanted to give thanks, in my own way, to the many people who have fought to preserve what we have left of wilderness in general and for this wilderness in particular. I wanted to understand more about the spiritual benefits and challenges of solitude. I wanted the physical challenges as well as the psychological and spiritual ones. I wanted a new, fresh sense of accomplishment at age sixty. I wanted to grow as a person. I wanted to do this in a place I loved.

Perhaps a few photographs will help explain a little more. Going on your own trip will explain a lot more.

Quetico Lake

Morning on Canal Lake
Every beaver dam had its own challenges

Trust me -- not all portages were this easy!

Early Morning on North Bay of Basswood Lake

The end of the trip and a deeply satisfied smile...


tom said...

I commend you!!!!!! I'll be 54 in a few days and doubt my ability to do that same trip!

barb said...

Great story, Cindy! Thank you so much for sharing it.

Steve Schon said...

Great story Cindy. Hopefully others will be inspired to set new goals and follow their dreams.