Words by Hatie Parmeter
“Do you need some help with that?” a well-meaning middle age dad asked me as I walked into the lake at the end of a portage. I had a 36-pound borrowed kevlar canoe balanced on my shoulders and a gaggle of boy scout onlookers wondering how I was going to get the boat in the water three feet below me. “No thanks!” I chirped. I can do this myself. Later, on the water well past the scouts, I am struck with a horrifying thought. “Do they think we wait at every portage for a random man to help us?”
You wouldn’t be able to tell that the skinny, tall person carrying a canoe is me until I set it down in the water and my long hair and feminine upper body are revealed. It’s always fun to see people react when they come across all-girl groups like mine on trail. They are in often in awe or want to act chivalrous and offer assistance.
Women traveling with male partners are impressed with our strength and planning abilities. They ask how long we’re out for. “Four days!” we reply. They look on in amazement as their young kids play in the dirt. They’re out on a family day trip complete with a cooler with wheels. “Wow, I could never do that!” they exclaim as we load our boat, sharing reassurances that they absolutely could—we did!
Each of my all-female canoe groups has planned our trips from route to gear and food with no outside help. We’ve been taught to tread softly and Leave No Trace. Our boats never touch the ground. “Air, water, bread dough” is our philosophy, a sacred chant we’ve followed for over a decade. It’s a mantra I pass on every time I lead a new group to the water. A respect for our gear, the wild, ourselves and each other. I’ve been on many trips where scraping the keel on a rock means no dessert for the whole group—a hefty responsibility given to the women in the bow of each vessel.
In canoe country there’s a connection with your body unlike that in civilization. Your mind, too, as you’re left alone with your thoughts and the dip-and-pull motion of your paddle. In the bow you stare downward at the small puddle of lake water evaporating underneath your boots. In the stern you start at the horizon, adjusting your strokes from J’s to C’s to keep pointed in the right direction. Sometimes you watch backward, waiting for the rest of your group to catch up. You eyeball a map covered in water droplets situated in your lap, glancing toward shore and back every few seconds trying to find recognizable bays and peninsulas to prevent a low-grade-but-rising panic.
Being women on trail feels important. You’re learning what your body is capable of. It’s an opportunity to travel as many miles as you want via 100 percent human-power. You push your limits in ways you couldn’t in civilization. The connection between what you eat and drink and how your attitude affects your day could not be more evident.
Women make it a habit to check in with our trail mates. Every few hours I ask, “How are you doing? How are you feeling?” No one says a simple, “Fine.” Out there you share that you’re hungry, your foot is blistering, you’re concerned about the amount of daylight left. You mention the joy of counting turtles sunning on logs along the shoreline or how you no longer notice the taste and smell of the iodine in your water.
The moment the canoe is loaded at the put-in point and I set foot in the boat I am more me than I have been in months, sometimes years. Out there you eat that peanut butter cracker that fell face-down in the dirt and ants. You spend 5 minutes putting clothing layers, rain gear and bug spray on to take a miserable poop at the biffy 150 yards out. You know how to get warm by smurfing and eating candy by the handfuls and can chug a Nalgene of lakewater at every portage. Out there you carry your own canoe - and everything else you need to survive and thrive in the wild.
A note about Hatie:
Hatie Parmeter is a canoer, writer and outdoor educator based out of Chicago. She is the founder of Whoa Mag (Women of Heart and Outdoor Adventure Magazine) and WOW Midwest (an upcoming outdoor weekend for ladies based out of La Crosse, WI). She enjoys paddling, reading and mini golf.