Dipping The Paddle    

Canadian cities, like most cities, are noisy with cognitive distractions like advertisements, cacaphonies of competing sound, smells that make many of us dislike breathing. But these cities are also permutated with the awkward social silence among bustling yet physically disengaged people.

Even today, after years of therapeutic life-transformation through canoeing, my head is so crowded I am rarely consciously aware of actually being alive. It is normal in Canada to leave your body’s vital functions to your brain, while your mind thinks abstractly and rationally. Canoe-tripping, on the other hand, emphasizes life as the main activity in environments of inspiration rather than distraction. It is being alive within bio-dense and bio-diverse places, within the entire life-process and its constitutive beings. It is one of continual, participatory genesis.

I am often criticized for being romantic. But romance is the sensual evocation of the ineffable, of quality, so I admit I am romantic. I share with you, as honestly as I can, stories lived and meanings found. Is this not the essence of anthropology itself?

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While I continue my training in anthropology, I also continue to unabashedly conduct ethnography while leading canoe-trips with teenagers and expedition-guides at Air Eau Bois, a not-for-profit youth camp in Québec, Canada in a 4 week co-ed, teenage canoe-expedition program. In 2012, when I conducted this research most extensively, we paddled, drifted and portaged over 500 km of creeks, rivers, rapids, lakes, swamps, forests, mountains, highways, and bike-paths on our way from the boreal to the tempered forest ecotones of the Canadian Shield to an urban nexus of the St-Laurence Lowlands. Participants and I explored the significance of our journey by conducting participant observation, focus groups, interviews, sweat-lodge ceremonies and “circles of listening” as well as maintaining personal and group journals. We shared very meaningful, transformative experiences. We were all subjects, and we all found insight into how we learn, communicate, and behave as humans awake to our existence and to our our mutually binding relations with each other and with other species.

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(Photo credit: Nicolas Rasiulis)

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 (Photo:Nic Rasiulis)


Many, if not most of you, are not Canadian, and the idea, let alone the definition of canoe-tripping may be alien to you.

But for a guide and for an anthropologist, canoe-tripping can be understood as journeying from place to place by paddle and portage and can be a way of learning how to participate in symbiotic relationships with humans and beings of other species. There is an undeniable gap between human activity and the state of our planet—we do not view symbiosis, or a state of mutual-sustenance between species, as a fundamental quality of life.

Canoe-tripping can be a first step in solving this problem because it helps develop the personal and group aptitudes necessary to heal and nourish our planet through resilient symbiosis—to be able to successfully anticipate and adapt to dynamic environmental transformations. Trippers develop these aptitudes through mutual, participatory learning in a nomadic, low-tech community. Canoe-tripping helps people find who they are and decide how they want to live as individuals and as communities. This liberation contrasts how trippers often feel in their usual urban habitats.

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To Err is the Errand of Our Quest

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Our trip—and my research—featured “performative pedagogy,” learning through high-performance activities. High-performance activity implies skilled exertion of energy, be it physical and/or cognitive. Our pedagogy was one of canoe-tripping, of being alive in the wilderness, whether in the bush or in the city, and it helped us develop empathy, physical skills, creativity, and problem-solving aptitudes. Our learning was indistinguishable from our trip, as both pedagogy and trip are the same performance.

A “trip” can be understood as a stumble or mistake, but also as a light tread and as a journey. To make a mistake is to err, and to err is to wander, stray and idle. To err is the errand of our quest. Along our way we seek to find ourselves off the course of mainstream society, within a world densely inhabited by other species. Along our path we work hard here and idle there, tripping along our paths’ living entanglements. A mistake is something that did not go as planned. We learn as we err, because the very existential novelty that emerges out of unplanned happenings affords the improvisational essence of creativity. The possibility to err without the restraining cultural allegiance to mainstream society is the essence of our creative and pedagogical freedom.

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Aage Jensen’s notion of tumbling and fumbling can help explain the pedagogical value of tripping freely. To tumble and fumble is to test thresholds of corporeal safety through skilled movement, to be immersed in an environment and to subsequently calibrate one’s body to remain on the safe crest of said thresholds. Jensen claims that an outcome of tumbling and fumbling is becoming “[…] able to solve questions, particularly those without obvious answers” (p.101). When, as in the case of canoe-trips, being alive is the very core of a performative pedagogy, tumbling and fumbling develops elements of our being most pertinent to participating actively in ecosystemic symbiosis.

Canoe-tripping participants are aware of their dependence on their environment for survival and well-being and must learn communication, coordination of sense and movement, extra-corporeal spatial awareness, corporeal balance, muscular responsiveness, strength and endurance, and in attention to water-flow, obstacles and wind. We can successfully tumble and fumble through whitewater when using safety gear like personal flotation devices and helmets, reading the river’s movements amidst the rocks, adjusting our movements accordingly, learning about riverine flow and our own bodies.

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On our 2012 trip, we felt Earth’s raw building-blocks. Immersed in the river or creek, finding balance among the current and slippery floor, we moved rocks to form v-shapes that swelled with water and so eased the passage of our canoes. Twenty days into the expedition, some of us started landscaping stone v-shapes in a shallow cascade near the end of a creek-side portage. Soon the rest of the group joined the landscaping. Together, applying the knowledge of rapids we’d developed throughout the expedition, we concentrated the flow of water into a calculated course of whitewater, a cascade we rode down on salvaged inflatable aquatic mattress. Through this joyful play, we developed strength, tactile skills, and knowledge of riverine dynamics. We solidified friendships.

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But we also had to learn how to survive as humans in the wild: to collect water, to find and cut wood, to start and manage fires. Performing these activities well develops strength, coordination, and skill in handling Earth’s resources sustainably and efficiently. We also had to learn how to use leaves for toilet paper without damaging spring buds, to find spots away from water, to cover up when done. Such learning can help us understand how we do and can participate responsibly in natural processes. We developed skills and knowledge that we can apply to our personal and community wellbeing through the most radical form of activism: action, behaviour, and deciding how to be alive by being alive that way.

Fire, Stars, Sweat, Purpose  

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The breathing embers, flaming wood, and flying smoke of a camp-fire are visually, aurally, and olfactorily meditative. Many nights I stayed up by the fire and watched it breathe. These moments alone were very important for me to reflect upon the day’s events, my behaviour in relation with others, the expedition, and life as a whole. The therapeutic value of fire extended to the group. As we conversed by the fire one night, two participants told me that every year the fire helps them “remember the value of things and the beauty of life”. One of them also said that “Discussions around the fire are special, everyone looks at the fire, not in other people’s eyes,” that around the fire, “we can be together in silence and be comfortable.”

Fire, in other words, was a remedy to the tense phenomenon of deciding whether or not to look in another person’s eyes—the fire became the subject of a mutual gaze in which our eyes met. Occasionally, we looked directly into each other’s eyes, then back at the fire, cycling easily through mutual gaze and mutual eye-contact without the stress of sustaining continuous eye-contact. This mutual-gaze-effect also takes place canoeing when partners paddle looking at the same living scenery, the astrally abundant sky, and, occasionally, when it really matters, into each other’s eyes.

In our home-made sweat lodges, we performed ceremonies that developed social cohesion and facilitated meaningful conversations. Nestled under our tarpaulin, we poured water over hot rocks, basked in the vapour, talked, chanted primal songs. Then we bathed in the lake, reborn healthier and happier. These ceremonies were of utmost importance to both our hygiene, as well as personal and social well-being. One morning, after waking up to multiple boats arriving at our resort-like beach camping spot, we did such a sweat-ceremony amidst the day-tripping families who felt distinctly other to us. Such a cross-cultural, public performance demonstrates the salience of canoe-tripping as form and spawn of activism.

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I believe that canoe-tripper cultures are favourable catalysts for popular valorization of human participation in Earth’s symbiotic processes of life generation, renewal, and transformation. Canoe-tripping transforms participants, helping them know and find confidence in themselves. Through intimacy with Earth and care about environmental issues, canoe-trippers exert confident passion, knowledge, and skills that can be shared with others through friendly interactions. Canoe-tripping itself can also be an effective means of activism. For example, in 2012, my group and I portaged along an urban highway, displaying a sign we found that denounced the unhealthy treatment of the Gatineau River. Members of our group also went through a Mcdonald’s drive-thru carrying their canoes in order to demonstrate the existence of non-mechanized modes of transport. Unfortunately, the Mcdonalds staff refused to offer them service. At a larger scale of activism, friends of mine have canoed across Canada along the Transcaneauda journey, raising public awareness of the importance of freshwater along the way.

Canoe Mystics

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The Latin etymology of religion is religare, meaning to repeatedly bind together tightly. Canoe-tripping is truly a religious experience, binding humans with their personalities, other humans and other species, materials and phenomena of the living world. And through tripping, I have had the fortune of practicing anthropology among genuine mystics, people who, like myself, journey far into the experience and meaning of canoe-tripping, transforming our lives along the way. For canoe-mystics, the trip extends beyond a particular expedition’s temporal and spatial contexts, carrying personal transformations over to “normal” urban life. For example, I have been advocating pedagogical, therapeutic, and ecological benefits of canoe-tripping at academic conferences since 2012.

On our trip, we mystics discovered and asserted our identities as we became a community. As we lived together, we naturally shared meanings we found with one another, creating culture. When tripping along lakes, rivers and forest trails far from urban standardization, we were free to improvise a novel culture of our choice. We felt at home in bio-diverse places, developed empathy towards non-humans, resolved to behave more symbiotically in relation to them, and learned the resilience skills needed to do that. We embodied new social identities in gestures so attuned to the living world that we acknowledged ourselves as integral to, rather than distinct from, nature.

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(Photo credit: Tatyana Bouffard-Martel)

What would happen if tripping was popularized? What would happen if such an acknowledgement improved humanity’s performance as participants in symbiotic ecosystems?

Photos: Kathryn Hansen

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Further Reading and Viewing

Jensen, Aage. 2007. “The Value and Necessity of Tumbling and Fumbling.” Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way ed. Henderson, B. and N. Vikander, Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, pp.168-178.

About The Author

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University of Ottawa, MA Candidate, Anthropology

I have been breathing, eating, sensing, and enacting many other basic but endearing physiological processes since I was born in the Spring of 1991. In the Summer of 2003 I was introduced to canoe-camping by my brother in the Goutte d’Eau region of the Outaouais Valley in Québec, Canada. Years of teenage adventures in this diversely forested, lake-filled, rocky land afforded me with a direct engagement with nature through which I developed passion for nomadic life deeply enmeshed within local ecosystems. At the age of 18, I became a camp counsellor specialized in canoe expeditions. During the last two of my five years guiding canoe adventures, I began teaching and practicing anthropology to and with teenage clients. These experiences helped me dip my paddle in the stream of anthropology, preparing myself for the challenging rapids and falls of a master’s thesis fieldwork expedition among Dukha reindeer herders in their Taiga homeland of northernmost Mongolia. Participating in the life of endearing, resilient Dukha people I was drawn into the roots of what it is and means to be alive. I now live the wild and character-forming experience of writing a thesis about a people who changed my life for the better. Every day I thank the World for Everything, and smile.