Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Unexpected Obstacles

Several years ago, my brother and I went on a hiking and canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in Minnesota. It was six blissful days of paddling and hiking in pristine wild spaces. We paddled across 13 lakes, and down 4 streams and 1 river. I can't remember how many miles we hiked, but each time we did a hike we had to cover the same ground 3 times. We had 3 Duluth back packs (which are the large square backpacks) and the canoe to carry. When we would hike/portage, we each took a pack and a paddle and hiked 1/3 to 1/2 the total hike distance and dropped off those items along the trail. Then we hiked back to the canoe and took the canoe and the remaining pack and hiked the entire distance to the next water body. Finally, we returned to where we had dropped off the initial two packs and paddles, picked them up and returned to the boat. Then it was time to paddle again. It was an awesome workout and a transforming experience on a number of levels.

My brother had done some canoeing in college. I had never canoed before.

As we put our canoe in the water and attempted to paddle down a small stream, I wondered what had possessed me to think I could do such a thing!

My brother was ‘steering’ from the back of the canoe. My only job was to provide horsepower to propel the canoe although how I did this could greatly help or hinder my brother's attempts to guide the boat.

It would have been quite comical to watch us on our first day. We veered violently from one side of the stream to the other, careening into the reeds and occasionally the stream banks. We must have looked incredibly inept and we were more than a little embarrassed. It took us a while to get our technique down, but we eventually became a well oiled paddling machine. We paddled the streams and lakes with precision and efficiency. On our last day we were puffed up and proud as we 'powered by' all the other wilderness trekkers.

We had maps that helped us get from one trail’s end across a lake to the next trail head. We had some difficulty, in the beginning, reading the maps and locating the well concealed trail heads that we needed to find. We truly were in the wilderness, and it wasn't obvious where these trail heads were. Our first few attempts were pathetic, and we would have to paddle along the shoreline until we finally came upon the small trail opening we were searching for. That too became easier as our practice improved our navigation skills. We could pinpoint to within a few feet where we needed to end up as we paddled across each lake.

We had a certain amount of territory that we had to cover each day. My brother had planned out our route and we had a deadline for returning. Family members and friends had been told to alert the authorities if we weren’t back by a certain date. We gave ourselves two extra days of cushion beyond our target return date. We needed to make it back on time, so there was little leeway for us to get off schedule.

One day we were paddling down a creek on our way to the largest lake that we would paddle on our trip. I was a bit apprehensive because the larger the lake the more severe the wind seemed to be. We weren't tying our packs into the boat (my brother didn't want to take the time) and I was always worried about capsizing and having our food, sleeping gear, water purifier and all our other equipment sink to the bottom of a lake!! My mind was focused on what awaited us when we arrived at this large lake. As we paddled silently along, taking in the sights and sounds of the wildness I suddenly realized that the stream was coming to an unexpected ‘end.’

“What is that?” I asked my brother.

As we stared ahead, we realized that the stream was completely blocked by a very robust beaver dam! Our maps showed many things, including some known beaver dam sites, and all of that had gone into my brother’s routing plan. This beaver dam, however, was not on the map. It must have been a "new development."

We started to study our options. There was no way we could back track and take another route. We didn’t have time in our schedule to do that. We studied the banks on each side of the stream next to the beaver dam. The terrain was quite rugged, very hilly and densely covered with trees and brush. It didn’t look like we could unload the canoe and portage around the dam. We might get the packs through that brush, but certainly not the canoe.

My brother said, “I think if we take the packs out of the canoe, you could actually walk across the dam and pull the empty canoe across the dam. I think you are light enough to not fall through it.”

Oh goodie. Just what I wanted to hear. “I don’t THINK you’ll fall through.” I was not thrilled with this option. The mud of the beaver dam stank to high heaven! I wasn’t eager to test his theory that I was light enough to walk ‘across’ this thing.

As I considered our circumstances, I had to face the fact that we really had no other choice. It is important to understand, however, that my brother went through the entire trip without getting his feet wet! He had brought only hiking boots for the trip, whereas I had brought hiking boots for the hiking component of the journey and Teva water sandals for the canoeing piece. I switched back and forth each time we moved from one medium to the other. I had to do all of the loading and unloading of the canoe. He would stand on the shore and hand me the packs to load, or take the packs from me if we were unloading. It was a bit infuriating, but such is the abuse a brother will heap on a little sister!

We pulled the canoe to the side of the stream and he took the packs from me. As he carried the three packs one at a time around the beaver dam, I started working my way to what I thought looked like the most stable part of the dam. The entire time I was feeling put upon that I was the one having to drag the boat over this thing. I still think my brother just didn’t want to get into that repulsive mud! I was sinking up to my knees in this stinky, nasty mud and stick mixture as a pulled the canoe along with me. It was extremely unpleasant. Thankfully, I never sunk in deeper than my knees and I successfully drug the canoe over the dam to the other side.

I moved the boat back to the side of the stream and we reloaded and paddled toward the large lake.

We got to the clear water of the lake and I told my brother that we needed to pull over to the side, get some shielding from the wind and give me some time to wash out my pant legs, which were soaked with stinky beaver dam mud!

We moved into a little cove and my brother held the boat steady to keep it from crashing into the rocky shore. It took all his attention to keep the boat safe from the wind. I stood in knee deep water and swished my filthy pant legs around, trying to rinse them out.

Suddenly I felt a searing pain on my right calf. It felt like something was biting me. I pulled my pant leg up, and there, stuck to my leg, was a disgusting, bloated 5-inch long leach! I let out a blood curdling scream – I thought my poor brother might fall into the lake it scared him so badly! I grabbed the leach and did exactly what you are not supposed to do – I ripped it off my leg, taking a big piece of my skin with it. I flung the leach into the lake and ran onto the shore. I was mortified and extremely grossed out!

After my brother realized that my life was not in danger, he began laughing hysterically. Oh so funny! We had to do some first aid work on my flesh wound to make sure I didn't get some sort of infection. I was incredibly careful from then on when it came to being in any water for any length of time, but particularly murky waters of small streams. In case you have no personal experience... leaches are NASTY!

As horrifying as that experience was at the time, it is one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. I'm quite serious about that! It was a glorious feeling to have conquered the challenge of getting around that beaver dam. Especially for me, as I had to do the dirty work of dragging the boat over the dam and I paid the price by being attacked by a vicious beast in the process!

There were a lot of really cool experiences on that trip, but in overcoming that challenge I proved something to myself. Even when I don’t know what to do… I can find a solution. Even when I think I can’t do something, I often can! Although I may not want to do something, I know that I can do what needs to be done and get on with it. Even though there may be a cost associated with setting off on an adventure, the rewards far outweigh the cost… even the loss of a hunk of skin to a blood thirsty leach!

Unexpected obstacles give us the opportunity to prove what we are made of. They also keep life infinitely more interesting than constantly smooth sailing. :)

Next time you encounter an obstacle on your path consider what gifts you might receive once you have overcome it. Perhaps we can shift our attitude about unexpected challenges along our path

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