Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Escape from civilization

Wilderness canoe trip let me paddle my worries away

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At 6 a.m., mist floated above a perfectly still pool on the Bloodvein River a few kilometres southeast of its terminus at Lake Winnipeg.

A single wispy cloud hung over the eastern Manitoba sky, backlit in hues of pink and orange by the pre-dawn glow. Its reflection graced the glassy river surface, interrupted only by intermittent ripples emanating from the tail-slaps of a beaver that swam in seemingly perpetual motion around the campsite all night.

The only other sound was the buzz of mosquitoes, at least at first. Then came the clinking of tent poles, the whooshing of deflating Therm-a-Rests and the rummaging of rucksacks, among other tell-tale sounds of backcountry campers gently waking and packing up.

This was my Thursday morning, both idyllic and bittersweet, as it marked the beginning of the end of an 11-day canoe trip that served as the very definition of a vacation.

There are some human beings who are so well-balanced, psychologically, they can forget about the stresses and annoyances of day-to-day life the moment they leave their offices or shop floors or factories or wherever else they spend their working lives.

These enviable people go on vacation the second they literally vacate their place of employment. But many of us, and very likely most of us, do not possess this magical ability.

For this unenviable majority, being on vacation has much less to do with actually going somewhere than achieving a state of mind.

This is hardly an original thought, as almost every working person has at one point or another experienced the disappointment of going on a vacation but never actually being on a vacation, thanks to family, household and work commitments that do not respect some arbitrary circles on a calendar or blocked-out days on Microsoft Outlook.

But what's new is the degree to which our day-to-day lives intrude into our vacations, thanks to the ever-extending reach of wireless networks and the addictive powers of the iPhones and BlackBerrys that rely upon them.

In this overprivileged but increasingly stressed-out society, leaving your worries behind is becoming increasingly difficult. So in order to get away, you really have to get away -- to places where electronic communication devices either aren't allowed or simply do not work.

A longtime friend of mine, a writer who now lives in Toronto, used to go on silent meditative retreats to reacquaint herself with her own mind. She found it an extremely effective means of taking a break from the psychological noise that prevents many of us from being as kind or as effective or as even-tempered as we would like to be in out day-to-day lives.

Personally, I lack the self-discipline required to shut my yap for minutes, let alone hours or days. But I am capable of physically removing myself from so-called civilization.

Hence the appeal of wilderness travel, to remote places worth visiting not just because they are beautiful and awe-inspiring but because they provide the form of inaccessibility that is now such a rare commodity.

I spent the first 11 days of August with seven other people on the Bloodvein River, paddling 230 kilometres from Artery Lake on the Ontario border through Atikaki Provincial Park to Bloodvein First Nation, on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg.

To my amazement, I did not use this time and space to reflect upon my life. I did not think about my job. I did not think about my relationship. I did not think about the repairs that must be done to the front steps at home and the back steps at the family cottage.

I also did not think about the tanks in Syria, the famine in the Horn of Africa or the economic chaos in the United States and elsewhere.

All I did each day was think about the rapids we were shooting and the portages we had to make and all the paddling that caused my hands to dry out and crack and bleed in the wind and sun. I thought about our meals and our campsites and the skills we were developing, individually and as a group. I thought about avoiding mosquitoes and desiring coffee.

For the most part, I completely forgot who I was when I was not on the river and this did not bother a single neuron in my cerebellum.

There are some people who would denigrate such an experience as mere escapism. I have no defence for such a charge, as wilderness travel is escapist by definition. Generally speaking, only the privileged few prefer to travel under their own power, as people in developing countries probably consider the practice silly.

But at the same time, I have never been more certain of the therapeutic powers of getting the hell away, even with a satellite phone as a backup link with the outside world.

After we got off the water, one of my tripmates bought a copy of the Free Press at a gas station outside Riverton, and I flipped on CBC Radio in the car. We read and heard about the riots in the United Kingdom, the arson in Winnipeg and the ongoing horrors elsewhere.

"Looks like everything went to hell when we were away," she said.

It pretty much started that way. But for 11 days, I did not think about it or anything of consequence -- and I am not at all ashamed to admit that.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2011 A1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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