THE EARLY LEAD: The intensity of an overnight canoe trip tests the deepest depths of one’s core
By Brandon Hurley
I’ve been camping my entire life. Adapting to the way of the wilderness is nothing new to me.
But, my recent two-day, 25-mile overnight canoe trip, I can confidently say, was one of the craziest and intense adventures I’ve ever experienced.
I embarked on an expedition of the Wisconsin River last weekend with a group of seven other guys – five of whom I’d never previously met – navigating the wide and windy nooks and crannies of the upper Midwest, camping on sandbars and enduring all of Mother Nature’s elements. It was quite the ordeal – exhilarating, frightening, annoying and eye-opening.
I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’m not sure I’ll be ready for another anytime soon. Sure, I’ve roughed it plenty. I’m well-versed in marathon-like bike rides with overnight stops in hammocks and single-person tents, I’ve shacked up in the mountains with no service and temperatures hovering in the upper 40s, but I’ve never been completely self-contained, far away from civilization.
For one, a long, overnight canoe trip is a heck of a way to test the strength of relationships. Also, it really puts our normal day-to-day routines into perspective. You realize what you really do and don’t require to live. Of course, luxuries are nice, that goes without saying. But when it comes down to it, I know I’m likely to survive.
A lot of things can go wrong on a trip like this, and many of them did.
Nothing ever goes perfectly planned when camping, but when you add a large body of water into the mix along with canoes in the middle of summer, things can go south without a moment’s notice.
In all honesty, even with my years of camping experience, I was a tad nervous going in. Immediately, I was concerned with how we’d fit all our gear in the canoes. I also hadn’t paddled in a canoe in at least 10 years – and that adjustment did take a bit of time. The entire first day I felt like I was struggling to maintain my balance on the water, afraid of tipping and losing most of our gear.
I’d never camped on a sandbar, either. How simple or difficult was that going to be? There wasn’t any access to bathrooms, no running water and certainly no trash cans or showers. Electricity was obviously non-existent. We were out there, living among the water creatures and the land animals.
Despite those initial quals, I really enjoyed the adrenaline rush from a multitude of things. It was a unique experience learning how to navigate 25-miles of a meandering Midwest River by canoe. By the end of it, I was in a complete rhythm, paddling to near perfection and able to pick out the proper lines. I enjoy having a multitude of new stories, of how fun it was to stare up at the night stars on a sand bar, warmed by a campfire. Even the challenging parts, which I’ll touch on shortly, are worth re-telling. I’m a memories kind of guy, and this trip certainly helped replenish the bank.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend embarking with a crew of people you barely know, but my friend who invited me trusted them, so I did as well. Perhaps it made things a little easier not knowing, though it also could have led to complete disaster. As it turns out, our crew was rather self-sufficient and tough. We weren’t scared away by the elements. We embraced the challenge.
A long adventure such as this does indeed test everyone’s patience as well as your ability to trust others. Surprisingly, I kept it together rather well, trying to maintain an even keel as much as possible. Of course, there was plenty of bickering, especially when we never could quite come to a consensus as to where we were on the map. Were we at this point or were we further downstream than we thought? Nor, could we ever officially decide what to do about the weather – which, as I not-so-gently mentioned a few times, we just had to roll with it. Mother Nature doesn’t wait for anyone. You can attempt to race her, but rarely does it work out. Always stop short if you can.
Naturally, we had our fair share of battles with the elements. Day one was impacted by heavy winds most of the way, producing choppy waters while also blowing us off course on occasion. A tricky current nearly sent my canoe into the depths of the river, which certainly sent a shock through my core, especially since we weren’t even a full hour into the excursion. But we powered through, deciding to make a quick pit stop to empty out some water weight.
The weather on night two was by far the most treacherous. Though we had managed to find land and set up camp before any of the impending storms could hit, sleeping was a bit rough. An intense storm lit us up around 2 a.m., unleashing powerful winds and buckets of rain. It was quite something, all of eight of us buckled down in four tents, holding on for dear life in the pitch black of a river valley. I’m not going to lie to you, it was somewhat scary. I thought our rain fly was toast, but somehow it stayed. It didn’t help that my tent companion was losing his mind, expecting us to blow away and all but screaming Bloody Mary. After a few hours of pure thunderous torture and a few inches of water within our own tents, we managed to get back to sleep. We later found out we may have experienced winds near 70 MPH. It sure felt like it, as the walls of our tents looked like a giant’s lungs breathing in and out.
Though, I’d like to think that the storm brought us closer. We all survived with all of our tents and gear still intact. That’s something. It’ll be enlightening remembering how we stared death in the face on a Wisconsin sand bar.
The biggest annoyance of the whole canoe trip was how sand got EVERYWHERE, and naturally so. But, it still surprises ya. Sand coated the interior of the canoe, it found its way into our gear, in our shorts and hair, in the tent, on the drinks and food. We essentially ate and drank sand like a bunch of freaking sea turtles. It was absolutely unavoidable. I even found sand Monday morning in my bed at home. It’s a nightmare, truly.
I greatly underestimated the power of the sun as well. I was cooked. My arms, face and legs were roasted like an over-baked ham. And now the peeling comes, how wonderful. I look like a massive snake shedding for the summer.
The intensity of an overnight canoe trip tests courage and strength. It can either build or ruin camaraderie, and it really makes you appreciate our forefathers and explorers. How did they do this? How much strength did it take to discover all the land and rivers we now know so well? They are the heroes.
This particular trip was tough. I liked it. I loathed it. I admired the beauty of the river, and despised the sun and wind. I cherished cloud cover and calm nights. The canoe excursion was everything I could have asked for and nothing like I had imagined.
Mostly, I’m happy to be back on land. The sea ain’t for me, that’s for sure. I’ll stick to my bike and camping in a hammock.