I knew this day would come, just like the many other “firsts” as my daughter grew from infant to young woman, but this latest struck me as particularly bittersweet. For the first time in 14 years, in August she headed north on a canoe trip without me.
She was 9 the first time I took her on a back-country trip to Algonquin Provincial Park three hours north of Toronto. Until this year, we’d been back every summer since. At first it was just the two of us, but we soon introduced friends and cousins to the unexpected bliss of mac-and-cheese spiced by fresh air and a long hard day on the water.
The three young women plus one brother accompanying my daughter this summer were dedicated regulars. Like her, they had progressed from hoisting day packs on the portage trail to shouldering canoes.
Helping them strap the boats to the car, I was proud the bug that bit me as a kid had passed to the next generation. It wasn’t a sure thing. On that first trip, rain tapped the windshield the moment we arrived at our put-in. I wanted to make sure my daughter knew what she was getting into, so I painted a bleak picture of paddling in the rain, setting up camp in the rain, cooking in the rain and, quite possibly, waking up the next day in the rain.
“It’s OK to change your mind.”
She looked at the gray curtain over the lake. We had plans to roast potatoes straight in the fire. We might see a moose. “No,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Rain is one thing, lightning another. Thirty minutes onto the lake, a bolt sent us sprinting to shore, chased by a sudden gale. The tarp we wrestled into place flapped uselessly in the wind. Rain slicing from all sides, we hunkered under the straining pines and, son of a gun, if I didn’t look over and see my little girl beaming.
“You OK there, kiddo?”
“This is great!” she exclaimed. And it was. It was great to see her embrace the moment for what it was, and great that the storm passed, leaving in its wake three days of pure sunshine and two star-speckled nights with only loons for company.
This summer, as she drove off with her fellow paddlers, I was grateful to know she is blessed with such true friends. That made it easier to stand in the driveway and wave. Of course the best thing about watching the young folks head out was knowing I was still wanted. Honest. They told me. In fact, the trip was planned with me leading as usual, and it was my own decision not to go.
We’re not done. I’m confident of more back-country trips ahead for my daughter and me, but I have such enduring memories of camping at her age with my buddies, it only seems fair that she have the same experience without me.
There was some concern, quickly dismissed, about being able to handle a trip on their own, and she lamented briefly that “the talk around the fire won’t be as interesting.” I’m honored, but with a poet, two aspiring medical doctors and a dozen countries visited between them, I knew they’d manage.
Of course I was with them in spirit, not to mention through the frozen quart of sauce I contributed to the first night’s meal. Upon their safe return, I was happy to hear the meal counted among the highlights, somewhere behind seeing a wolf puppy and the glorious sunset on the last evening, following 24 straight hours of rain.