It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had — although fresh tracks, a sweet mountain bike descent in which I manage to stay off the brakes, a crash-tackle hug from a dear friend, and a baby falling asleep on my chest are nice, too. My last year at University, my three best mates and I formed a rowing crew. We had no business doing it, we knew nothing about rowing, my boyfriend was our “coach”, and we smashed the old 4-person scull our college owned when we tried to dock one day. We came in so hot and heavy and panicky off the fast-flowing river that we actually broke the boat in two, forcing the college to buy a newer, much nicer one, which, surprisingly, they let us use. Even more surprisingly, we managed to win a couple of regattas that season. We would pull so hard we could taste metal in our mouths and we’d cross the finish line shaking, sucking hard at the air.
Victory rush isn’t the feeling I’m talking about, though.
A river is a beautiful place to be in the uncomfortably early hours of the morning. Falling into a silent rhythm with your best friends is such a peaceful sort of exertion (once you’re safely clear of the launch, which, after that first boat-carnage moment, always made us nervous.) We were a mismatched crew – I was almost two feet taller than our stroke, whose job was to set the pace, so I was never pulling my oar with the full length of my arms or legs. I would cut my own stroke short, to match her timing. The point was not to be the strongest I could be, but to lend my strength to the team – to be as strong as I could while being in perfect synchronicity with my crew.
The boat was narrow and tippy – if you came uncentred, leaned too far, your oar would drag under the water, or “crab”, instead of releasing cleanly, and tilt the boat, wildly. One of your team-mates with her oar on the other side, would usually overcompensate, the whole show would start rocking wildly, as, adrenalized and frustrated, we’d battle each other, the boat would slow and we’d begin to worry that we might end up in the drink, swimming in the cold murk of the river as the boat sank beneath us. And none of us wanted to have two destroyed boats on our consciences.
Every now and then, though, we would manage to match each other’s strokes so perfectly that the boat would grow wings. We’d dip the oars in, pull and feather them back, and after several catches, the boat would actually lift up. You could feel it. We would surge forward on a layer of air bubbles beneath the hull of the craft and every stroke that came after, until the magic was undone by a shift in balance, had the power of 10. You didn’t feel as if you were battling the resistance of the water, your fatigue, your burning lungs, wrestling against each other. You were just flying.
It’s a big call to make, but I’ll make it anyway – that fleeting sensation after the boat lifts up, feels even better than powder skiing. Not only do you have the sensation of weightlessness and one-ness with the primal powerful elements, but, you also are experiencing a moment of total alignment with your people, with your crew – and the rareness of that only compounds the rush.
This is paddling country I now live in, and there’s a since-long-ago canoe culture coming together to host an historic Pulling Together Canoe Journey this summer.
On July 2, 200 paddlers will leave Mount Currie, and step into 20 Voyager canoes, to pull through the waters of Lillooet Lake, Harrison Lake, the Fraser River, along the original Harrison-Lillooet Gold Rush trail, to Mission. They’ll travel through the traditional territories of the “5 Host Nations”, the Lil’wat, Samahquam, Skatin, Xa’xsta and Sts’ailes, ending their 10 day journey at the site of the former St Mary’s Indian Residential School.
The 16 year old event, initiated by an RCMP officer, Staff Sargeant Ed Hill, puts cops, fisheries and conservation officers in the same boats as First Nations members, in an effort to forge honest rapport and mutual respect between people who might more typically experience one another as adversaries.
This will be the first time the Pulling Together Canoe Journey has taken place in our local waters, the first time the five communities have hosted something of this scale, and the first time many of the participants will have explored their traditional territory by a traditional method.
The logistics are mind-blowing – getting volunteer cooks and portapotties to the no-impact camp sites along the paddle journey, feeding the 200 participants, moving through remote hard-to-access territory, making sure that lack of financial resources doesn’t preclude anyone from taking part. Volunteers and donors are welcome to lend their support to the journey, so the pullers can keep their focus where it’s needed.
Working together. Moving forward. Finding the harmony that lets you all fly.
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