This story is the best way I can convey the experiences, inner and outer, of this summer. They didn't literally happen this summer, but kind of...   A little more explanation is at the end.


      The canoes first appeared as dots, emerging from behind the slim silhouette of an island across Devil’s Bay. At first I wasn’t sure. No one else had seen them yet. Children were jumping off the diving tower; parents were milling on the shore. All around me, there was a thread of adrenaline rippling through the waiting families. But when I shifted my stare just a little, I could see them in my peripheral vision: five canoes on the silver water.
      Of course, from where I was standing on the camp’s dock I couldn’t tell they were wood. But like my daughter, I too had traveled this raw landscape in these timeless boats at the rhythmic pace of a paddle stroke. I had portaged loads over the ancient pathways between lakes. I knew her anticipation of this moment, this victorious return.
      Her canoe trip was coming in after nearly forty days. These girls -- no longer girls but hard-tested young women -- had traveled far to the North. Some of them would be changed physically, from soft to muscular, round to lean, thin to strong. All of them would be changed emotionally. The exuberant whooping they would sing as they closed in on us would be a song of triumph – a band of women bound together through trial, mishap, deep beauty, and intimacy. The moment of return, to “civilization” we had called it, was both glory and despair: we had done it! -- it was over.
       Instinctively my heart tightened. Though I stood on the dock among the families as just another mother, in truth I was out there, on the water, under way.
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      “Air raid!” shouted Heather in the front canoe. In my boat, the two campers and I threw down our paddles, kicked off our boots and jumped over the gunwales into the cool depths of Florence Lake. As my body left the glittering sunlight and sank through the blue, I opened my mouth, drinking in the clean water. This was no boggy “piss pond” between portages. This was a big, deep, clear, rock-lined lake that captured the blue sky in fluid play. I burst through the surface and laughed out loud as the others leaped from their canoes around me. Air raids were the champagne of a canoe tripping day: a mischievous, chaotic, giddy reward. And we had earned it.
      In this glacially carved land, travel is easiest on water. Crossing between lakes is hard. I had lumbered across many miles of portages over the summers as a camper, bearing a canvas Duluth pack with leather shoulder straps and a broad tump band across my sweaty forehead.
      This summer I was a counselor, and I carried the wanigan, a rectangular plywood box as wide as my shoulders. It held difficult-to-pack items like the billy set and the knives, and for the first few days, a couple dozen eggs. Borne by only a tump, it was a certifiable torture device. My campers laughed at my “wanigan wiggle”, a trademark walk the wanigan bearer develops. My hips and legs would deftly zigzag around rocks in the trail while my neck and back remained rigid under the box. Particularly tricky was walking the crude log catwalks over a bog. They required balance and agility. I was good at carrying a wanigan, though a sore was developing in the small of my back where it rubbed.
      An hour before the Florence Lake air raid, we had arrived at a notoriously difficult portage. As usual it was a scramble. We dragged the packs out of the canoes and hoisted them onto the campers’ backs. It was like loading a mule train, except most of the girls looked more like long legged colts. They were anxious, but, tumps adjusted and paddles in hand, they staggered off together, one behind another.
      The portage was long, wet and buggy. Relief would come only at the end, when the trail climbed up over a dry ridge before it came down to the landing at Florence Lake. As I trudged along with the wanigan, lost in the Zen zone that allowed me to ignore the mosquitoes, I looked up to see one of the girls sitting slumped on a rock ahead. It was Heather. Her canvas pack and paddles were on the ground. Everyone knows that on portages you don’t sit down, because it’s even harder to get up – it's best to just keep going. Two-stepping in front of her was a still-loaded girl, urging her onward. Heather just shook her head. As I approached, the dancing girl said, “Well I’m going to get them over with”. She turned and walked on.
      Ahead were catwalks.
      Old pine and birch logs lay paired end-to-end, stretching away from us like a narrow raft over the marshy muskeg.  Catwalks inspired dread.  The girls had all heard stories about someone who fell off and was either stranded like a turtle on her back, or mired up to her hips unable to escape.  Crossing catwalks took self-assurance.  These were the first of this trip, and the sight of them had crumbled the will of the already faltering girl.
     The only way to get Heather across was to splint her weakened spirit to mine.  We got her pack on, and I told her to follow my steps.  Humor helped, and as I mounted the logs with her close behind, I told her to watch my wanigan-wiggle for the infamous marsh-wiggle variation.  Step-by-focused-step we walked log lengths, crossing from fat logs to narrow, some decaying, some partially submerging under our weight.  The mosquitoes clamored around our ears, but we didn't swat at them for fear of losing our balance.  A forward rhythm seemed to help, giving us the momentum to move lightly.  At long last, the mire underneath transitioned to mud, and then finally to dry land.
Heather unlocked her gaze from my feet and looked up: a whooping and hooting started. Three girls had waited for us. Fully loaded with packs and paddles, ignoring their instincts to get to the end, they wanted to cheer on their tripmate and walk the last section together. Heather surged toward them, victorious. The four of them high-fived and set off in unison up the trail, singing. I shifted the wanigan away from my sore spot and followed.
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      I found myself gently massaging the small of my back when a shout went up around me on the dock. The five canoes on Devil's Bay had been sighted. Younger children clambered out of the water to stand dripping, watching. The approaching dots on the water became canoes with flashes on both sides, sunlight reflecting off the blade of each wet paddle dipping in time. We waited.
In numbered minutes, the trip would be over. Each girl-woman would be welcomed back into the throng of parents to resume her role as daughter, and tomorrow she would be driven away in a car. But none of them were the same: the wood, the water, the sweat and their shared stories were in these young women now, and they were beautiful and strong.
Their song rose suddenly across the water. It was a glorious moment. As the crowd on the dock roared, the girls raised their paddles high in the air, in salute, in unison.

      I wrote this story years ago. When Bob and I were checking out canoe tripping camps on Lake Temagami for Meg, my own memories of tripping (with a different camp) emerged, and I couldn't believe I might one day be the parent on the dock when I really still felt like the teenager in the canoe.  Catwalks has come true, and I stood on Wabun's dock this summer and watched Andrew and Anna paddle in with their own sections to a glorious reception.  And Meg paddled in too... as a counselor, leading her campers over the lakes and across the portages of their first canoe trip.
     The details of this story -- place names and locations, tripping style -- are real but not perfectly accurate.  For example, the portage I describe goes into a different lake than Florence, but I love those clear blue waters and there is no better place for an air raid.