From Bow to Stern

Through challenges on two canoe trips — near hypothermia on the first, and a crashed canoe on the second — one young leader gained perspective about true strength on the Turtle River.

Four people paddle on a river in two canoes.

Listen to this story:

June 2016

It was raining. We had 33 kilometres to cover on our last full day of a week-long canoe trip on the Turtle River in Northwestern Ontario. I was paddling with a group of other canoe trip leader trainees. We were learning how to lead river trips for Manitoba Pioneer Camp, a Christian summer camp with an out-tripping program.

The sky was a mask of grey. The fog seemed to dampen the sounds of our paddle strokes, making the afternoon peaceful and quiet. We rounded a corner and saw a moose — it quickly darted away.

I was paddling with one of the leaders, Donna Dunsmore, a retired teacher who has come to camp every summer for more than 40 years to mentor younger staff. We were singing together:

Come Thou fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise

I had lost myself in the tunes and the rhythm of my paddle strokes. Although they ached from use, my arms felt strong after several days of exertion. 

All seemed well in the world.

Two women canoe on a river.
Elisabeth Kehler and Donna Dunsmore paddle together on the Turtle River on the second last day of their
canoe trip in 2016. (Peter Hawkins)

The rain kept coming and hours went by.

Donna and I were in the lead canoe. I was at the very front of the group in the bow (the front) with Donna in the stern (the back). I finally turned and looked back. I remember seeing the expression on my other leader, Liz Haacke’s, face.

Her eyes were wide, and she was shivering and wincing in the chilly air.

I hadn’t realized how cold the group was getting. Most of us were soaked through to the skin — rain jackets can only do so much.

I was wearing my black fleece and I had my personal flotation device (PFD) tightly buckled, so my core was bone dry, but I was still getting dangerously cold. All six of us were beginning to show signs of hypothermia.

We reached a rapid — the last one of the trip — and pulled off the river. We struggled to portage to the end of the trail, to bypass the rapid. Another trainee, Peter Hawkins, looked zombie-like as he managed to solo portage our three canoes across.

We raced to prepare some soup, struggling with our fine motor skills. Liz finally managed to pinch the valve to turn the gas to the stove on. 

As we were eating the soup and bagels — relieved to get some hot food in our stomachs — we laughed about how slowly our fingers were moving. We timed how many ‘scissor’ movements we could make with our middle and index fingers. I think the fastest any of us could go was seven ‘snips’ in a whole minute. 

Even bending down and standing up took immense effort. I remember I was crouched on the ground, spreading jam on a bagel, when another trainee, Abi Craton, gasped to me, teeth chattering, “While you’re down there, can you get the WOWBUTTER?” 

I thought this was hilarious. I obliged and handed them the spread. Our symptoms were worrying, but we knew the soup was doing its work and we would be okay.

Our next campsite was directly across the river. After we pulled our canoes and gear onto the shore, we rushed to set up our tents, then stripped off our wet clothes and dove inside, grateful for a safe haven. I was relieved to finally be dry.

It was around 7 p.m., yet we were ready for bed. We sang some songs and prayed. Pretty soon we didn’t hear anything from the men’s tent. They had already fallen asleep.

That is my most vivid memory from that trip. 

Two camping pots rest on a grill over a campfire.
Supplied by Peter Hawkins.

Remembering joy amidst the challenges sums up the paradox of canoe tripping for me. It has shown me how strong I am, yet how weak and at the mercy of the elements we all are. Before I began going on canoe trips, I had been unsure about my direction in life. But going on these trips stripped my life down to the essentials. It would be fair to say that canoeing has changed my life.

I first got interested in canoeing when my younger sister Olivia did Manitoba Pioneer Camp’s Leaders In Training program. The program included an 11-day canoe trip, and she came home changed. Watching her made me want to go on canoe trips too. I applied and started working at Manitoba Pioneer Camp in spring of 2015. I was there for four months that year and was enamoured with the culture, so I kept going back.

Since getting involved with camp, I’ve been on two defining canoe trips. Both were the same eight-day route on the Turtle River in Northwestern Ontario. After that first training trip in 2016 — the one where we were on the verge of hypothermia — I knew I wanted to lead a trip on that route some day.

In 2022, I did. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

July 8, 2022

My dream had come true. I was slated to lead a group of teenage girls on an eight-day canoe trip on the Turtle River. Seika Dyck was going to be my co-leader. We had only vaguely known each other before this. Our leading styles were different, and I hoped we would balance each other out.

On the day of our departure, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. and loaded our canoes and gear onto the boat that would take us to the mainland to start our three-hour drive east to the put-in.

I knew we were prepared. My sister Olivia was the out-trip coordinator who had helped us pack all our gear, but I felt scatterbrained and frantic as I tried to recall if we had placed all packs, food barrels, and other equipment in the boat. We needed maps, a satellite communicator for emergency contact, food, and a first aid kit. We needed enough paddles and helmets, a painter (rope), bailer, and whistle for each canoe, and a camp stove. There weren’t second chances if we forgot something.

As various camp staff congregated at the back dock to see us off, Olivia took me aside. She was holding a pink marker. She asked me to hold out my arm, and when I did, she wrote a few words. I read them and started to cry.

Relax and have fun.

I was embarrassed to cry in front of all these people, especially in front of my campers, but she was right to tell me what I needed to hear.

The simplest words ever — the most obvious advice to give. We were as prepared as we could be. And all we could do from then on was to keep a cool head and enjoy ourselves.

We had a challenging first half of the trip. The river water level was high that year — we were told it was a good three feet higher than average. This made spotting portage trails tricky, and it meant stronger current and higher volumes of water in rapids. The portages were a challenge with many ups and downs in the terrain and fallen trees blocking our way. Morale changed hour by hour.

On day five, we were about eight kilometres past Turtle Falls where we had spent the night. We had already successfully run a couple of rapids, and we were feeling confident in our abilities. 

Two women canoe in a rapid on a river.
Elisabeth Kehler and Abi Craton shoot a rapid on the Turtle River in 2016. (Peter Hawkins)

We heard rushing water. We paused to put our helmets on, and then we approached the rapid. 

Seika and I strategized how to run it. The water was so high we struggled to find an angle to get a close look, but it seemed similar in difficulty to the rapids we’d already run that day: high volume but just a straight shot down.

We decided to run it loaded on river left. One of our campers, Rachel, was not confident in rapids, so she was partnered with me, and we were first. We shot forward in a straight line, paddling hard to build enough speed to have control of the boat.


We hit a rock head-on almost immediately. We flipped around and shot the rest backwards.

Stunned, we waited in the eddy at the bottom of the rapid on river left. It was around a bend, so we couldn’t see the other three canoes.

Chloe and Jane, two capable and confident paddlers, appeared. Jane was in the stern, steering and giving commands from her vantage point.

They were headed further river right than Rachel and I had gone, but there was another rock. They hit it. The canoe went broadside, perpendicular to the flow of the water, and they started to tip. Chloe and Jane slapped their paddles flat against the water in a brace to right themselves, a manoeuvre Seika and I had taught them. But it was no match for the large rock. Their canoe tipped and filled with water. 

Jane shouted at Chloe to get out. They leapt from the canoe into the water, bending their legs and tucking their arms in just as they had been trained to do. They safely body-shot the rest of the rapid with the gear floating close behind. I looked back at the canoe.


It had bent around the rock. The campers were safe, but the canoe was not.

I felt paralyzed as I watched Chloe and Jane do all the right things. They grabbed the gear from the water, and then swam over to Rachel and me in the bay. All we lost was a spare paddle.

We stared, helpless, at the canoe, folded in half like paper around the rock. It had happened so fast. The remaining canoes, still at the top of the rapid, had no idea what had happened, and we were too stunned to tell them to wait. I was in shock. Somehow the other two groups ran the rapid with no problems.

Once we were all together in the bay, I used our satellite communicator to contact camp and tell them what happened. I shook as I punched at the buttons to type my message, panic seeping in.

We had lost a canoe. We had WRECKED a canoe. Had camp ever lost a canoe in a rapid before? I felt certain that this mistake was too big to recover from and we would have to end the trip. I felt like a failure. Would we need to be picked up? How, though? Where?

But it wasn’t the time to ask all those questions. We had limited characters we could send anyway.

We lost a canoe in a rapid. We are safe but not sure how to proceed.

It seemed like forever before camp responded, but it was only a few minutes. They said not to worry about the canoe, and all that mattered was we were safe. They asked if we were good to keep going.

We were too far from any nearby road or highway, so we had no other reasonable option but to proceed without the canoe.

Seika gave me the strength I needed in that moment. She was confident we could fit ourselves and all the gear in three canoes instead of four. This meant two campers at a time would be passengers.

So we rearranged and carried on. 

That night, Seika and I stepped away from the campsite to talk privately. We had done this many times on the trip, but this time, we looked at each other and said, whoa. This is hard. The buck stops at us out here.

I had been nervous to lead, but I hadn’t expected it to be as challenging as it was. It felt wildly different to lead the trip compared to being a trainee. I found myself marvelling at how eager I had been in the first place.

Later that night when the eight of us were settled into our tents, one of our campers, Arielle, gave her tent-mates a spur-of-the-moment motivational speech. From what I remember it went something like this:  “‘Normal’ life can be so mundane,” Arielle said. “Each day blends into the other. It’s hard to distinguish between days or remember things if you don’t ever have obstacles. To go on a week-long river canoe trip and shoot rapids with a fabulous group of people doesn’t come around often. Sure, it’s hard. But that’s what makes it so rewarding. The suffering brings out this gratitude and simple joy that’s harder to find in ‘normal’ life. These challenges wake you up.”

I was encouraged to hear these words — and a little humbled to hear them from a 15-year-old, but she was right.

A 2016 article in Psychology Today outlines how your perception of obstacles affects how you feel about the world. Obstacles are not inherently ‘bad.’ Just because there are obstacles doesn’t mean you failed, or that you will fail. In fact, they can make experiences richer.

On our trip, I was continually impressed by Seika’s portaging abilities. She is smaller than me, but she solo portaged more canoes than I did.

I told her a few times how strong she was, but she kept saying, no. It’s mental. You just have to force yourself to do it. She told me she would cry out when she was alone in the woods with a canoe on her head to amp herself up.

“It has taught me you can do so much more than what you thought your body can do,” Seika says. “You can just do it.”

A canoe and gear rest at the shore on a river.
Supplied by Peter Hawkins.

Dana Starkell, a world-famous canoeist from Winnipeg, also sees canoe trips as taking both physical and mental strength.

“You could have all the muscles in the world but they’re not gonna get you anywhere if your mind is saying no,” says Dana. Dana and his father Don Starkell are the Guinness World Record breakers for completing the longest canoe trip ever. They paddled almost 20,000 kilometres from Winnipeg to the Amazon in two years, from June 1980 to May 1982.

They had been planning the trip for ten years, and against the odds, Don and Dana made their dream canoe trip a reality. Like Arielle, Dana thinks there isn’t much to life without risk.

“The safest thing to do is just stay in your room and not go anywhere and then you can pretty much be sure that nobody’s gonna shoot you or anything,” says Dana, “but it’s not much of a life.”

A 2020 Forbes article discusses how not trying things out of fear is the greatest risk of all: “For a lot of people… their willingness to learn is limited by their fear of failure — perhaps the most powerful deterrent to risk-taking. But what they don’t appreciate is that failure often creates the best opportunities for continuous learning and success.”

At the time, I felt like a failure for leading a trip that lost a canoe, but we learned from it and pushed forward. Yes, we got picked up with three canoes instead of four, but we came back stronger and more confident. Some campers had shot rapids or portaged for the first time, Seika and I learned to rely on one another, and we all knew that when things got tough, we had stuck together and gotten through it.

I recently sat down with Garrett Fache, a Manitoba canoe trip guide who started his own adventure guide business, Wild Loon Adventure Company. We chatted about what it is that’s so magical about canoe trips.

In theory, says Garrett, a canoe trip is simple. You go from point A to point B. 

You have a route planned out, campsites pre-chosen, and food carefully packed for each day. It’s a slow, methodical process. You’re not travelling at breakneck speeds — on average, it’s about three to five kilometres per hour.

Garrett said, like me, he learned how resilient he can be when faced with hardship on canoe trips. He’s seen it in himself and in those he’s taught. If not for canoeing, he doesn’t think he would have as deep an understanding of how to persevere through challenges.

“You go through the shit to get to the good,” he says.

Before starting Wild Loon Adventure Company, Garrett was a long-time staff member at Camp Stephens, a Winnipeg-based summer camp located on Lake of the Woods, Ontario that offers wilderness trips.

“It sucked me in,” he says.

He reminisced about a particular trip he led with Camp Stephens. At one point the group bush-whacked for eight kilometres from Pokei Lake to McMaster Lake through thick bushes with tent packs and heavy food barrels, not to mention their bulky canoes.

Then they bush-crashed for another four kilometres to get to University Lake, the headwaters of the Dog River.

On that trip they also paddled down the Opasatika River and reached a point where it just dried up. Faced with 25 kilometres of non-existent river, they portaged until there was enough water to paddle another 15 kilometres to get to a town. They covered 40 kilometres in just two days.

As challenging as it was, Garrett said the group cohesion and positivity was unbelievable. They laughed and cried together. Even though this was years ago, he says the group is still close.

Similarly, I share a special bond with those from my 2016 and 2022 trips.

I recently caught up with Donna and it was lovely to reminisce about that trip so many years later.

Donna was encouraged by our trip together, because at the age of 60, she could still do it. She felt she could carry her weight. She appreciated how we didn’t step in and take things from her. We let her portage canoes just like anyone else.

“You get this physical chance to prove to yourself what your body can do, and to stretch it,” she says. “And you have the satisfaction that you did it together.”

I’m not close to 60, but when I recall being close to hypothermia on the 2016 trip and losing a canoe on the 2022 trip, I know exactly what she means.

July 14, 2022

We had come 150 kilometres in seven days. We had paddled stretches of slow-moving water and swifts and rapids. We had gone across lakes, both windy to calm, and through and around marshes. We had portaged across easily navigable terrain and stretches that were muddy and winding. We had successfully shot many rapids with four canoes, and then — after we lost a canoe — we successfully shot the rest of the rapids on our route with only three canoes.

On the afternoon of the second-last day, when we neared the end of our route on the river, an expanse of Turtle Lake lay ahead of us — but we were only five kilometres from our pick-up spot for the next morning. Our goal for the rest of the day was to cross the lake and find a campsite close to pick-up.

We laughed as Arielle took a paddle in each hand and tried to paddle with both arms on either side of her canoe. 

As I paddled, stroke by stroke, I felt strong. I reflected on the distance we’d come and on how much I had learned. I was proud of myself and the others, and I was so grateful for Seika and her strength and perseverance. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone our stories.

I was filled with relief. What a trip.

When it was all over, I felt like we had spent more than eight days together. Time simply feels different on a canoe trip.

At MPC, we encourage campers not to wear watches on canoe trips. This way, you more easily fall into a natural circadian rhythm. On a canoe trip, time seems arbitrary, like a social construct. You eat when you’re hungry. You rise with the light. You sleep when you’re tired.

Yet, it’s still a race against time — you need to get to your campsite before nightfall and to the designated pick up spot on the last day. As Garrett put it, the weather doesn’t care about your timeline. It could rain, it could storm, it could be extremely windy, it could be brutally cold, it could be scorching hot, and you still ultimately have to get to where you’re going for the night.

Donna loves canoe trips, she says, because you’re united in this overall purpose. You have a destination, and your time is marked by the rhythm of your day. The days fluctuate, but in a way, they’re all the same. You have to work in sync with nature and each other, because you can’t work against them. For me, canoe trips serve as a reminder that life, although challenging, is ultimately simple.

Like Donna says, “If it rains? What do you do? You just sing.”

Two teenagers and their leader pose with a broken canoe.
Another group that paddled the same river a couple weeks after us retrieved our crashed canoe, making for a photo op for Jane, me, and Chloe, from left to right.

Elisabeth Kehler

Elisabeth (she/her) is an extrovert who likes to discover what makes different people tick. She loves reading memoirs and has a passion for sketching friends’ and family’s faces from life. She thinks you look best when you smile with your teeth.
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