“Switch!” is yelled from behind by my partner steering. I swing the paddle from left to right, ignoring the drops of water running down my face, unsure at that point if it was raindrops or my own tears. I wail in frustration but it’s barely audible over the sound of rain and the waves of the river, one after another crashing into the front of the canoe. I didn’t have time to bail out the water. If I stopped paddling we would be swept backwards and turn sideways, putting us at risk of tipping. We were far from docking on land and there wasn’t any other option but to keep moving forward. I hadn’t brought wind pants, thinking this canoe trip was going to be sunny and warm. I realized how wrong that decision was as I sat at the front of the canoe with my pants and feet soaked. The only dry part of me was my torso, and even that began sticking to my clothes from sweat.
The trip consisted of a roughly 200-kilometre paddle on the Dehcho (Mackenzie River), from Deh Gáh Got’îê to Liidlii Kue. As part of the on-the-land program, Keepers of the Land, it’s a mandatory trip that takes place at the beginning of June, right after the ice breaks and the water is still freezing cold. I knew the river trip was going to be hard for me. As someone born with epidermolysis bullosa, which is basically really sensitive skin, my body would pay a toll after two weeks. On the first days my hands were already blistered, my skin itchy and a deep red from the sun. But I also knew this trip was going to be a fun and memorable experience, whether it was good or bad.
I don’t know how long my arms wobbled and I sat in cold water until we finally reached land, but it was long enough. I crawled out of the canoe, weakly pulling in to shore. The 12 of us on the trip were all soaked. A fire was made and tea was put on, warming us up. We had spicy tacos and some snacks while we waited for the water to calm. All of us, miserable and wet, were too tired and lazy to take out dry clothes when we all knew it’d be a waste of time. When we finally did get back on the water, it was less wavy and we paddled for Rabbitskin River. Supposedly, there was a campsite for us ahead to sleep for the night, but as we paddled up the narrow river we soon found ourselves overridden with bugs and small, turbulent rapids. We had missed the spot to rest, or there wasn’t a campsite to begin with. Even as the waters eased, I felt frustrated and tired. As we paddled on, however, a little friend paid us a visit. At the front of my canoe, a beaver popped its head out and looked at me, breaking the calm water. I was in awe. As soon as it was there, it was gone again.
The two-week canoe trip consisted of cooking for the whole group, learning how to use a GPS and a map, fire-making and card games. A lot of card games. I learned how to play crazy eights, blackjack and rummy, and we played bullshit and old grandma. My friend’s tent was the centre of it all—we called it the casino. We would all be squished in this four-person tent, gathered in a circle as the dealer dealt two decks of cards. Sometimes we played for munchies or coins, but we mostly played for fun, to see who would be the winner and who got bragging rights.
As we neared Liidlii Kue, the river grew narrower and we were able to raft up and sail for a few hours, with most taking a nap (including me). When we got close to where the Liard River meets the Mackenzie, it started to get a little bit rocky. It got so bad that I had to switch canoes in the middle of being rocked back and forth on a rocky shore. I jumped from one canoe to the next and immediately had to paddle and bail at the same time. The steerer yelled at me to bail while we took wave after wave. There was so much water coming in that I focused more on bailing than paddling, which made us turn and we almost tipped a few times. But we didn’t. We kept going.
I got to know the land and water well on this trip, but it was also important because it showed me the perseverance I had. It made me feel connected to my culture, and in that way, to myself. And more importantly, it showed me the strength of my people and the beauty of them. The muscle gained wasn’t so bad, either.
After we finally escaped the waves and made it to land, I was so happy that I vowed to myself that I would never do this canoe trip again. Of course I went back the following year.