There Are Many Portages on This Trip
During my younger years I spent most summers canoe tripping near Lake Mazinaw in Ontario, Canada. Some times I reflect on these trips as idyllic travels through the bucolic yet rugged landscape. Other times I have recollections such as: paddling down Long Lake, into a stiff breeze, fighting whitecaps, and occasionally bouncing my paddle off the noggin of one of the numpty-heads who weren’t pulling their weight (known as lily dipping to the uninitiated), watching the skies darken as we paddled toward a portage which had to be covered before we could set up our leaky tents, struggling to get a suitable fire lit, and putting some food in our bellies before finally collapsing into a waterlogged impression of sleep.
The portage featured the great thrill of lashing the paddles to the thwarts, hefting a 60-pound canvas pack on my back, securing the tump line around my forehead, and hiking the 120-pound, cedar strip canvas covered canoe onto my shoulders, welcoming the blackflies into this new-found cover, finding at least one deer fly which would torment me ’til it finally decided to remove a large chunk of my flesh only to announce to his pals that there was a splendid buffet on offer beneath this green shelter.
I confessed to one of my Mazinaw camping colleagues recently that the latter experience informs more of my impression of canoe tripping than the former. Hard slogging, muddy, sweaty, dirty, tiring, irritating forced marches and endless hours of paddling always against the wind and in return we enjoyed…well, what? The achievement? The occasional spectacular sunset? The infrequent discovery of wild raspberry fields to share with the Madawaska black bears? The rare retrieval of a lovely fish from the sparkling waters? The three a.m. wakening by bears and racoons battling for the suspended food packs and your tent mate shining a blazing flashlight into your eyes while waving around his pathetic little jack knife which I guess he thought would prevent us from a fatal bear attack?
When undergoing a character-building exercise it is often hard to see the long-term benefit while swatting away the annoying hum of the everyday mosquito and recently I thought that this is a bit analogous to the caresharing job.
Just when it seems as though we have reached safe harbour with the waters as still as glass and the loons serenading us with their melodic calls a sudden squall appears from no where. The waters immediately begin to churn as the sky once again darkens threatening yet another downpour of anxiety-creating worry.
It is interesting to me (if I could achieve clinical detachment) that these episodes can arise even in the absence of any particular crisis.
Katie is thriving. The kids, albeit maniacal at times, are so happy to be able to play outdoors again. The flowers are coming up. For the first time since moving in here we actually have a lawn that looks less like a dandelion nursery and more like a golf course.
That’s where the portage analogy began to work for me. This caresharing trip is never really one which ends. It can feature moments of great beauty, heart-warming events, and even the very occasional episode when one forgets what has transpired in the recent past. But then comes another followup appointment. Purely precautionary but nevertheless one which takes us back to the oncologist and one which brings us back into the surroundings that generated such dark feelings not too long ago.
In my therapy group yesterday, I heard the tale of someone whose story tore at my heart. Someone who has performed heroically as a caregiver since she was a young girl and who only now is beginning to realize that the job can be lonely, it can be one which causes us to sublimate our own needs, one which creates a very real hesitancy to ask for help.
She has traveled so many portages and ultimately she didn’t find the restful campsite at the conclusion nor did she seem to think that she deserved it.
So here is my plea to all who read this – it is important to feel felt. It is not weakness to ask for help. It is not failure to experience the genuine doubt that arises from time to time and it is not absence of strong character which can lead us to crumble when least expected.
We all need to find a resting point on the portage. Take a moment to smack the shit out of that deer fly. Relieve your thirst and hunger with a long drink of cold, fresh water and freshly-picked raspberries.
It is our privilege to carry the pack, to feel the tug of the tump line, to experience the slow burn of our legs as we mount another rocky slope. We have the privilege, the honour and the trust of those whom we most love. That is the purpose of our journey.