She Canoes in Canada

Destination… Grandmother Bay, Saskatchewan

by Kathi Diamant

The following article by Kathi Diamant first appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, June 9, 1996 under the title: Paddling to a Life Renewal – Women are Immersed in Canoeing’s Natural Rhythms. It has since reappeared in various publications, most recently in Homemaker’s Magazine, December 2000. The following version reprinted here with permission, is featured in the on-line travel magazine Journeywoman.

Kathi Diamant is an adventuring freelance journalist with a base in Seattle, Washington. Travel writing is only one of the many facets of reporting that this journey woman is involved in. We’re delighted to be publishing her story!

Canoes on a Churchill River tributary

Photo credit: Sandra Butel

Eighteen women, nine canoes…

“Never seen anything like it,” the grizzled, white-haired man said, scratching his chin. Eighteen women had just unloaded nine canoes into the Churchill River at Missinipe in northern Saskatchewan. He watched in amazement as we put on rain gear and life preservers.

“I don’t like canoes. Too unsteady,” he offered. “Never seen a bunch of women go out there alone. You’re gonna get rained on, you know.”

We knew. All morning as we drove north on the gravel road from Wadin Bay, we watched the big Saskatchewan sky grow darker and more ominous. As we got into our canoes at Missinipe, and paddled toward Grandmother Bay, thunder rumbled ahead. Bravely, we paddled on.

We were the first all-women canoe expedition organized by Canoe Ski Discovery Co. The fully licensed and insured eco-adventure tour company has been guiding, outfitting and instructing wilderness-oriented programs in the Churchill River area since 1989. Owner Cliff Speer, a former schoolteacher and certified instructor, did not expect the response to his first women-only canoe challenge.

“I thought we’d have four or five participants, maybe,” Speer admits. “But we filled up nine canoes quickly, and there were seven women standing by on the waiting list.”

Using map and compass on a Churchill River trip

Map and compass can confirm the right route

A Trip of Firsts

The first four-day “Women’s Challenge” canoe expedition promised a total immersion into the natural rhythms of Saskatchewan’s newest Canadian Heritage River, the Churchill.

We would learn to paddle, portage, navigate by map and compass. We would help with camp cooking and learn environmental ethics. We would retrace the historic (and mostly unchanged) routes of the legendary voyageurs of the 17th century and ancient indigenous travelers.

The all-women canoe expedition represented another major “first” for Speer. It would be the first trip he did not personally guide: “I had to give up control. It made me very nervous, but I knew Sarah Lee could do the job.”

An All Female Staff…

His faith was well-placed. Sarah Lee, 27 years old, our fearless leader with an unlikely name for a Canadian Outward Bound Wilderness School instructor, was enormously calm and capable. Lee did everything from pitching tents to baking apple crisp cake in the camp oven (which she constructed from birch logs) to teaching basic canoe techniques. Lee didn’t work alone. In addition to Deb, the helpful co-leader, Canoe Ski Discovery Co. staff included musician-chef Nissa, a 19-year -old Wunderkind who supervised Speer’s very tasty recipes and then entertained us around the campfire after dinner. A lovely addition to the trip was Catherine, a professional massage therapist, who put her magic to work on aching shoulders, tired arms and stiff necks at the end of each day.

Canoe instruction and wilderness safety briefings took place at Wadin Bay on the first day. We were to keep the plastic-encased maps of our route and the safety whistles with us at all times. Two short whistle blasts for attention, one long blast for “Help!” Dangers included, but were not limited to, black bear encounters, canoe capsizing and getting lost.

Massage accompanies the Women and Waves canoe trip

A massage is welcome after a day of paddling

No men to help and, we did get rained on…

Most of us were novices. Those who had canoed before had done so with husbands. Canoeing with men, I was informed, is different from canoeing with women.

“Men tend to overcompensate for the women,” our leader agreed. “Men generally sit in the stern and do the steering. They carry the canoe during portages. Men usually gather the firewood, pitch the tent, do the heavy work on a trip like this.”

The reality of traveling without men was daunting to many of the women, who ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. The paddling distance was more than 25 miles, with three portages. There were no telephones. Camping was primitive. We were on our own.

We did get rained on. It was the end of August, but the nights were cold. The wind howled and the loons cried eerily at night.

But the sun shone through the clouds every day. On the second day, after setting up camp on a tiny, mossy island, we saw a double rainbow amid a spectacular sunset.

Women's Canoe Trip - Churchill River

Photo credit: Sandra Butel

Tired but Triumphant!…

Our “J” stroke improved as all of us got a shot at steering. We got stronger and more sure of ourselves.

The old man wasn’t there waiting for us when we returned to Missinipe. Too bad. He would have seen 18 women, tired but triumphant, lift canoes back onto the trailer rack and talk about what the experience had meant to them.

We felt exhilaration at the pristine beauty of the river and the successful accomplishment of the physical challenge. One of the women, a physician and mother of five, was very proud of herself-especially since she’d been thinking of bowing out of the trip after the first night in Wadin Bay. Another participant, a nurse from Colorado, was surprised to discover that she was stronger than she thought.

“I was able to forget about work and home and responsibilities,” she said during the long drive back to Saskatoon. “Concentrating on survival, I got to live in the moment, close to the elements, responding to nature. It truly was a genuine physical and spiritual renewal.”

Amen to that!

Paddlers on the Women and Waves trip on the Churchill River

Photo credit: Sandra Butel