Or, "If life is a bowl of cherries, why am I getting bitten by a poisonous spider while taking a pee in the woods?"
"This is my EpiPen," my paddling partner Diane shows me by way of introduction. "I'm deathly allergic to bees. Do you want me to explain how it works?"
"No thanks," I answer as I busily hone my J-stroke, a far more pressing concern seeing as I'm about to steer our Prospector canoe down Manitoba's challenging Bloodvein River, even though Diane is double my size, twice as strong, has sailed the world, and is a competitive Dragon Boat racer.
And me? Well, I watch a lot of reality TV.
But soon after launching from Namay Falls I sense our pairing is a good one. Neither of us is in any hurry so we paddle at a languid pace; minutes on the freshwater river dotted with towering rock faces and the handiwork of energetic beavers, seamlessly turning into hours; hours into more hours. It proves to be such a carefree time, that singing rounds of "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore", suddenly seems strangely appropriate. (Sadly, Diane does not agree, even though I have a beautiful singing voice.) And while I am, admittedly, sterning our canoe like a drunken sailor, I am also getting us to where we are headed. More or less. Eventually.
Until our second day on the river when we hit the Lagoon Rapids, which Cam, our guide with the Winnipeg-based Red River Outfitters, describes as a "technical Class II".
Suckholes really suck
We're called into group formation. We strap on our helmets, we tighten our lifejackets, and, looking out over what appears to be a 70-foot drop, I say a little prayer. Cam, meanwhile, instructs: "You don't want to go that way," he says while pointing to the right, "or you'll hit those jagged rocks!" "And you don't want to go that way," he says, now casually wagging his finger to the left, "or you'll end up in that suckhole. Trust me, you definitely don't want to wind up in there." He tells us to "read the water, aim for that glassy black V," and that we should all be fine.
Don't get me wrong. Cam is an excellent instructor, a safety nut and a fine leader. But "WHAT F&#%ING "BLACK V" IS HE TALKING ABOUT?" I shout to Diane over the roar of the rapids, as I'm violently propelled from my cozy stern position into the sky before plummeting into the river and being pulled under the frothy water—thrice—during which time all I can think is, "This is exactly why petite Jewish women from Toronto should not go white water canoeing in Manitoba."
In other words, welcome to my summer vacation.
So the good news is we're alive. (Yay!) More good news: My soaked notepad and camera only took six days to dry out (the six photos you see here are the exact six I took before my Near Death Experience.) But here's the bad news: While I'm in no hurry to go over those rapids again, Cam insists we try it for a second time the very next day. He's clearly setting us up for a shot at redemption. Unfortunately, life is not a series of perfect Hallmark moments.
And so Diane and I whine. And we plead. I summon my big guns, my fighting words, my best bon mot: "Fool me once, shame on you," I say with hand on hip for dramatic effect. "Fool me twice, shame on me."
Oddly, my words have no effect on Cam. Our fate is sealed. I pray sweet death comes quickly. But this time around I spot the magical black V almost immediately—in fact, it's so obvious I don't know how I had missed it yesterday.
We go on to successfully navigate what Cam describes as "a textbook execution," his usual drill-sergeant demeanor giving way to a whiff of pride.
Is that a swollen lip, or are you just happy to see me?
"Wake up Amy: I think I need my EpiPen."
"Oh shit," says my mind as it wills me awake. It's 4 a.m. and a few hours earlier one of my paddle mates had slipped me an over-counter sleeping pill so that I may finally get a good night's rest (Cam's snoring echoes across the Canadian Shield). Now, try as I might, I cannot pry my eyes open. They feel like lead manhole covers.
"Up and at 'em!" shouts my brain to my body. "Let's get out there and save some lives!"
I kick off my sleeping bag, locate my flashlight in the far corner of our tent, prop myself up on my elbows and point the AA beam in Diane's direction.
"Okay, Diane," I say, still a nickel short of being half-awake, "Everyding's going to be fine. Now whad seebs to be da siduation? Waid a minude, whad's wrong wid my moud?"
"Oh. Actually, never mind," she says, seeing that my lip has swollen to triple its normal size, versus hers, which has only doubled. Diane then quickly and accurately deduces that we have both burned our lower lips on the sunny Bloodvein River. It seems she is not in need of emergency medical attention after all. Just lip balm.
So we fall back asleep under the stars and the moon of that perfect Manitoba night, me stroking my Muppet-esque lip as I slowly drift away.
A couple of hours later when I'm awakened by the happy chatter surrounding campfire coffee, Diane explains with a worried smile that all of my mosquito and spider bites must have gotten the best of me, as my face is badly swollen. She hands me an antihistamine. I prod my face like Helen Keller, feeling nothing too unusual, but nevertheless pop the pill with a swig of artificially peach-flavored river water, which dribbles down my chin on account of the swollen lip.
And although I end up accepting antihistamines from Diane every day for the rest of the trip, it is totally unnecessary. I just didn't have the heart to tell her that that's what I always look like in the morning.
We pray for ourselves, and we pray for our relatives
"Are any of you on your moontime?" asks Martina Young.
We have just arrived at the Bloodvein Indian Reserve, having completed our four-day paddle. Moontime means period, which is a pretty personal introductory question, if you ask me. Then again, this is no ordinary introduction.
Martina is Louis Young's sister. Louis is an elder within Canada's First Nation's peoples—the ancient ochre rock paintings we had spotted along the riverbank are from the region's Aboriginal peoples. These people. Louis will be leading a community sweat lodge experience, which is all about purification and healing. It's a great honor to be invited.
The sweat lodge is comprised of thick lengths of canvas that have been shaped around a dome. "Somebody may be suffering spiritually, emotionally or physically," explains Martina. "If someone's having a hard time, you may feel pain in your body. But it goes away." We're sitting around a kitchen table in Martina's sister Yvonne's house. As the sisters fill us in on the sweat lodge process and protocols, multi-generations of uncles, mothers, cousins and stepfathers watch TV, tickle a baby, draw pictures, snack on Old Dutch potato chips, and come and go through the swinging screen door.
The women who will be participating in the sweat (sadly, one of my fellow paddlers got her moontime that morning so is not allowed) have changed into bathing suits modestly wrapped in sarongs. We are brought into a bedroom for our smudging, whereby Martina takes an eagle feather and fans us with curls of smoke from a small wooden bowl filled with burning sage leaves. She says a little prayer and we're good to go.
There are four cycles within the sweat, which will last a couple of hours, each cycle carrying a different spiritual theme, each one intensifying in heat.
Once inside the pitch-black dome it's hotter than every sauna and steam room I've ever been in, combined. The heat is unbelievable. To say that I'm shvitzing like a chazer is putting it mildly. It's at once debilitating and comforting; the air is fragrant with cedar smoke, the rocks in the central fire pit glowing red and cracking apart when we pour ladles of water onto them. There is chanting and drumming, singing and moaning.
I know we're meant to look inwards here, but I want out. It's either the salt from my sweat or the smoke from the fire or the sad stories people are generously sharing, but my eyes are stinging like crazy and I'm starting to feel sick. So when the door flap opens at the end of the second cycle, several of us slink out. We're handed icy Cokes by the helpers and are told to go down to the river to cool off.
We come across a gaggle of kids from the Reserve splashing about in the afternoon sun. Some are doing the dogpaddle fully clothed while others wear pretty two-piece bathing suits and polish up on their shallow dives.
"What's your name?" they ask as they gather round me and my fellow sweat lodge rejects.
"What's her name?"
"Where are you from?"
"Where's she from?"
"Why is your leg purple?"
"Poisonous spider bite, I think."
And so on.
Pieces of driftwood become makeshift floatation noodles, and smooth glacial rocks, de facto diving boards. Laughter fills the riverbank while drumming and chanting fuels the darkness and heat of the nearby sweat lodge. I like it better here. I like jumping into the river and playing with the kids, I like drinking my Coke and feeling the sun on my face. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.
It is my summer vacation, after all.
Amy Rosen is a Toronto-based food and travel writer who has authored two cookbooks and a spa book. She pens and illustrates the weekly "Dish" column in the National Post, and is a contributing editor for enRoute magazine, for which she ate her away across Canada twice. A James Beard nominee, and regular contributor to Maclean's, Chatelaine, Food & Wine and Conde Nast Traveler, among others. Visit her at www.amyrosen.com.
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