Kelly’s Story – Women’s Challenge

Women’s Challenge Churchill River Canoe Trips – August 2005

Another successful Women’s Challenge canoe trip explored the Churchill River in August 05. Kelly, who turned her journal into an intriguing personal odyssey, talks about the attraction of difficult water. “That’s what I wanted from this canoe trip. I wanted to push my limits; challenge my comfort zone, because that’s how personal growth occurs. But I wanted it to be fun, and we did have fun on this trip!” She also celebrated her 50th birthday on the trip in the company of her 3 daughters, and 2 other mother-daughter teams. Kelly remarks on the great group cohesiveness and the valuable lessons she learned about paddling and life from the trip.

A Mid-life Birthday Challenge on the Churchill River

by Kelly Warden

Kelly Warden

I am thinking in paddler’s language since returning from the Women and Waves canoe tour on the Churchill River in August. After this experience, I am eager to grow in my ability and confidence as a paddler. I have started reading books called The Thrill of the Paddle, Paddling My Own Canoe, and Kayaking On the Edge.

The Women & Waves group helping Kelly celebrate her birthday

The Women & Waves group helping Kelly celebrate her birthday (Photo: Lisa Unrau)

These books speak about the challenge and thrill of tough water when paddling. Although the canoe trip I took was on flat water and I am a beginner paddler, I turned 50 years of age on this trip and celebrating a birthday added another element of challenge to the trip.

For many personal reasons, I anticipate birthdays and other celebration days with dread. I knew that my upcoming 50th birthday could be “tough water” for me. However, after 50 years of living, I’ve had enough life experience and acquired the necessary wisdom and skills to use as tough water technique for handling the challenge of my birthday celebration. I was determined that this birthday would be different. I was going to make it live up to my expectations of a real celebration!

If turning 50 can be compared to running a rapid, I have found in my reading some advice on paddling that matches my approach to my birthday. Ben Solomon advises in his book Kayaking On the Edge…”Too often we tend to fixate on where we don’t want to go. When you scouted, you picked out a point where you wanted to finish. So during your actual run, look at that place. Chances for a good run are much better if you look toward a positive goal.”

Insert photo: kellystory3.jpg

Caption: Tammy and Wilma scouting for rainy day birds
Photo: Hilary Johnstone
Tag: Bird watching on the women’s Churchill River canoe trip

PADDLING (LIFE) RULE #1 Look where you want to go

On my 50th birthday, I wasn’t going to be that silly paddler that focused on the negative. I had done a lot of scouting in my first 50 years and I knew where I wanted to finish the “rapid run” I was facing. So I planned a women’s wilderness canoe trip with my three daughters on the actual date of my 50th birthday. This would be a celebration of my mastery of the art of living thus far. I am not a thrill-seeker or an adventure freak. I am not even an experienced paddler, but this was a 30-year-old dream with a strong draw like much of the scary stuff we do as paddlers in life. The canoeing and the wilderness were part of the dream, but so was my dream of having a lasting, healthy, loving relationship with my daughters as they grow into adulthood. This trip was important to me on many levels. I was nervous about the physical nature of the trip and the mother/daughter dynamics. Could we do it?

Ben Solomon has more advice for running challenging rapids. He says you need to relax and be loose but…”Feeling at ease comes from not trying to push yourself too hard. Know your limits.”

PADDLING (LIFE) RULE #2 Know your Limits

Kelly's daughters - Rachel, Rebecca and Sarah

Kelly's daughters - Rachel, Rebecca and Sarah (Photo: Lisa Unrau)

Good advice! So, for my 50th birthday adventure I chose an all-inclusive package with highly trained guides and instructors. Everything was provided for us except sleeping bags and rain gear. We even had music and massage! When I commented during the trip that I felt like a well-cared-for child with knowledgeable and loving parents overseeing everything, my youngest daughter Rachel said, “Yeah, like our family trips without the parents bickering!”  Ouch!

I am fearful of a lot of things (including bears), but on this trip I felt safe and trusting of our marvellous women guides (Hilary and Martina…you are magnificent!)  I am excited to grow as a paddler and become more independent, but this trip was right for my first attempt at being a “wilderness woman”.

On the mother/daughter dynamics, here is an excerpt from the journal I kept during the trip…”I am enjoying so much watching my girls in this new circle. It is challenging my notions about who they are. I still have much to learn about who they are outside our family circle. I love who they are! My heart is full!” I also remember Hilary paddling alongside my canoe at one point and commenting on the easy rapport she witnessed amongst my family. Thank you, Hilary! Mothers need to hear these things!

PADDLING (LIFE) RULE #3 Don’t do it if it’s not fun.

Insert photo: kellystory5.jpg
Caption: Supper time in a beautiful wilderness dining room
Photo: Hilary Johnstone
Tag: Supper time on Otter Lake, Churchill River

Ben Solomon asks “Why do we run the scary stuff? Difficult water has a strong draw, an almost frightening magnetism.” I believe we do the hard stuff in life and in paddling because it’s fun and it gives us focus. That’s what I wanted from this canoe trip. I wanted to push my limits; challenge my comfort zone, because that’s how personal growth occurs. But I wanted it to be fun, and we did have fun on this trip! I remember:

  • Ellen’s story about office muffins made with breast milk
  • our “cocaine pull” from the gas station garbage in P.A. (It was just Becca’s Splenda)
  • Megan and Lisa overturning their canoe at Wadin Bay (That wasn’t funny, Ellen!)
  • Martina’s loon call
  • Kristin’s amazing memory for all the words to “The Gambler” and “American Pie”
  • The “Iron Woman Pancake Event”
  • our “Lord of the Flies” and “Survivor” strategies when Martina and Hilary left us briefly at our island campsite to scout out the wind conditions. We were all alone! What if they never returned?!
  • Martina’s jokes
  • Hilary’s headstand and break dancing
  • Red wine happy hour
  • Wendy and Tammy’s spiked hot chocolate
  • Karen’s Wasabi nuts
  • Martina’s RELENTLESS force-feeding to avoid left-overs
  • Blueberry tea
  • Rachel gathering fresh cranberries for breakfast
  • Rebecca’s eagle breathing exercise
  • Sarah’s yoga stretch session
  • Arlee and Wilma’s contagious laughter around the campfire (Finish your plate, Arlee!)

Insert photo: kellystory6.jpg
Caption: Martina stirring the pot for another campfire feast
Credit: Hilary Johnstone
Tag: Cooking up a campfire meal on the Churchill River

Ben (we are on a first name basis now) says you have to be mentally ready when paddling something that frightens you. He says…”look at the drop, pick your line carefully, and style your way down the rapid.”  In other words, you have to concentrate and focus on what you are doing in the present moment.

PADDLER (LIFE) RULE #4 Concentrate. Live in the present moment.

When I was on this canoe trip my worries and fears disappeared. I was absorbed in the instant. We were concentrating on the present moment: the meal at hand to prepare; the stroke we were learning to use; the eagle flying above us; the words to the song “Hey Jude” (who knew it had so many words?); the gentle sunset over Lac La Ronge; the northern lights; the lily pads and still water; the silence. This sensation of awareness of only the moment felt like a meditation.

Further to the mental preparation, Ben says…”If you decide to go for it and drop the run you’ve been considering for years, first make sure your trusty pals are hanging out below the rapid in case your run doesn’t work out as well as planned.”

PADDLE (LIFE) RULE #5 When you do the hard stuff, don’t do it alone.

It was great being encircled with women on this trip. I (Kinetic Kelly) had my three daughters with me:  Ravishing Rebecca, Smooth Sarah, and Rambunctious Rachel as well as my friend, Energetic Ellen and her daughter, Magnificent Megan. And there was the other mother/daughter team of Kookie Karen and Kissing Kristin. Our sister team consisted of Wacky Wendy and Tenacious Tammy. And Awesome Arlee was our “adopted” daughter that we all fell in love with. Having already experienced the “big 50” event, Winsome Wilma was a mentor to me about how to not just survive, but truly celebrate the event. And she gave massages, too!! Loquacious Lisa was our leader in song and she does a mean Joni Mitchell imitation! I have already spoken of my admiration for our lead guides, Hilarious Hilary and Marvelous Martina…when I grow up I want to be just like them! I cannot think of a better circle to be surrounded with as I entered the “tough waters” of perimenopause.

Insert photo: kellystory7.jpg
Caption: Loquacious Lisa tuning up for a Joni Michell imitation!
Credit: Hilary Johnstone
Tag: Singer/songwriter Lisa Unrau tunes her guitar on Otter Lake

A couple more suggestions from Ben, my newfound kayak/life instructor: “Imagine yourself running the rapid perfectly, then run it. Don’t spend hours staring at the drop. It’s easy to look at the rapid way too long and get what kayak guru Tommy De Cuir calls ‘Paralysis through Analysis'” Boy! Is that ever true about life and paddling and turning 50!

PADDLING (LIFE) RULE #6 Visualize perfection.

PADDLING (LIFE) RULE #7 Don’t overanalyze.

PADDLING (LIFE) RULE #8 Do it. Do it scared. But do it.

Finally, Ben suggests a “pre scary rapid ritual” to help get mentally prepared for “tough water”. He sings a little song before each rapid that works as a trigger. “As soon as I sing it, my body knows that it’s time to shake off the jitters, get the job done, and have some fun in the meantime.” Here is Ben’s song:

The river, She is flowing,
Flowing and Growing,
The river, She is flowing,
Down to the sea.
Mother, carry me,
Your child I will always be,
Mother, carry me,
Down to the sea.

I believe this is a prayer, a surrender, a “letting go” to God(ess).


When I (finally) remembered the words to “The Warrior Song” and I sang it with my daughters around the campfire, it felt like a prayer and a blessing, and I am grateful that the women in the circle indulged my dream by listening and sharing the moment with me. I still get tears in my eyes and my throat hurts when I revisit that moment.

Launching on a cool, overcast Churchill River morning

Launching on a cool, overcast Churchill River morning (Photo: Lisa Unrau)

The Warrior Song
I was a sad and lonely girl
With the heavens in my eyes.
And as I walked along the lane
I heard the echoes of her cries:

“I cannot fight
I cannot a warrior be
It’s not my nature
Nor my teaching
It is the womanhood in me”

I was a lost and angry youth
There were no tears in my eyes.
I saw no future in this world
Only the echoes of her cries:

“I cannot fight
I cannot a warrior be
It’s not my nature
Nor my teaching
It is the womanhood in me”

I am an older woman now
And I will heed my own cries
And I will a fierce warrior be
Till not another woman dies
I can and will fight
I can and will a warrior be
It is my nature and my duty
It is the sisterhood in me

One month after the trip, Cliff called to ask if my experience on the canoe trip matched my dreams and expectations. This piece of writing has served as my reflection on that question. The truth is, I don’t think I had any clear expectations.  I think the canoe trip was a new challenge with a strong draw much like “tough water” in the paddler’s world.

My 50th birthday was also a challenge. With my PADDLING (LIFE) RULES, I took the challenge; I survived; I had fun and I feel “warrior strong” for the next part of life’s adventure. The trip was a perfect success for me!