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Paddling toward a deeper faith

Very Rev. Lois Wilson has always been a canoeist. In this excerpt from her recent book Streams of Faith -- which examines the spiritual lives of a group of women with whom she paddled years ago -- the former United Church moderator (1980-82) and retired senator describes the summers of her childhood in which water, Scripture and paddling made a powerful spiritual mix.

By Lois Wilson

My father was a United Church minister, and enjoyed a month of holidays every summer. Our family holidays featured our parents and we five children paddling a 20-foot freight canoe from one undeveloped campsite to another, usually on Lake of the Woods or Lake Superior, and camping periodically on whatever island looked interesting. The canoe had a five-foot beam, could carry one ton of goods, and still allow "12 inches to the weather," as my father used to intone.

The load was so high that my mother, who was in the bow, couldn't see Dad in the stern. To change places, they rolled on their stomachs over the high load while the canoe lurched dangerously. When the sun beat down mercilessly, we dipped our old felt fedoras in the lake and let the cool water splash down our noses and drip down our backs. When it rained, we depended on the old felt hats for protection.

There were three tents: one for my parents, one for my two brothers, and one for my two sisters and me. The dog, Peter, slept outside. We packed enough food for a month and for that time were completely out of touch with "civilization." No phones. No paved roads. No motors, at least not for us. Periodically, launches or speedboats came close enough for their owners to take pictures. Once a fishing guide, lost in the labyrinth of small islands, called out, "Where in the hell am I?" My father responded, "You're not in hell at all. You're just in purgatory."

The most wonderful thing about the summers of my childhood was the new pair of running shoes I always received. They would be ankle-hugging lace-ups, with firm soles to prevent my sliding off slippery rocks into the open water. There were lots of other wonderful things: water dipped freshly from the lake, fresh-caught fish, porcupine quills to gather, and birch bark soaked so it was pliable enough for us to make decorated napkin rings. We revelled in endless days to tan, swim and do nothing. My mother canned blueberries over an open fire for winter consumption. "Eighty-five quarts," she used to boast.

We cut balsam branches for a soft aromatic bed and sank our burned, flattened, empty tin cans in the lake. We assumed that the whole glorious world of nature was there for our enjoyment and that it would be there forever. We were expected by Dad to leave our campsites cleaner than we found them. Before we got into the canoe, we fanned out all over the island and picked up every piece of garbage, every wrapper or bit of litter.

As I grew older, it was fun to help my dad hoist the same blanket that covered us at night as a sail. Etched in my memory is the night we sailed 30 miles up Lake of the Woods from Whitefish Bay to Kenora, Ont., by moonlight. Sailing afforded us the leisure to do other things: race my particular "yellow-belly" caterpillar against those of my two brothers on the wide thwart of the big freight canoe, or help my sister Marge as she attempted to take a pin cherry tree into the canoe for snacking.

Dad fit the canoe with two sets of oars. Everyone took 20-minute stretches on them. If we took a break, Dad's paddle, dripping with water, would land softly on our backs or necks to remind us to keep the stroke.

Once we set out from the mainland, no turning back was allowed. On one occasion, we spent a night on the Thunder Bay breakwater because poor weather prohibited us from venturing into Lake Superior and Mother refused to return home in case Dad would have to respond to a pastoral emergency. Even portages were fun because I was small and had to carry only a pillow or two. My dad, who was short, once accepted an offer from two tall men to carry the canoe across a portage near Lac Des Mille Lacs in Ontario. With legs swinging, Dad grabbed the middle thwart of the canoe and had a free ride.

My parents established family worship services every Sunday. We sat on the ground under the magnificent pines just before sunset, listening to Scripture and the frogs' serenade, singing hymns and hearing visionary stories out of our biblical tradition. We girls knew that the boys were all monotones, so one evening, when we were singing "The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is Ended," we three girls quit singing and the silence was punctuated with only the drone of the boys. Everybody burst out laughing, and that was the end of that Sunday worship. Nevertheless, I learned to worship God outdoors, without benefit of gowned choir or organ.

Mother also had us memorize choice bits of Scripture such as Psalm 23 and the Beatitudes, which lodged in my mind forever. She told us Bible stories. I was nurtured on Miriam and Moses, on Saul and Jonathan, on Samson and Delilah, on Rebecca and Rachel, on the Queen of Sheba and Esther, on David and Bathsheba, on Salome and John the Baptist, on Elizabeth and Mary, and all those nameless women in the Greek scriptures whose stories I reinterpreted 50 years later when I was reading the scriptures through a feminist lens.

At an early age, I was taught by my parents simply to enjoy the stories of all those famous and infamous characters. They thought it was important for me to know something of my spiritual ancestors and community in preparation for the later time when I would hopefully make a profession of faith as a Christian. And if I didn't become a Christian -- well, the stories were still very good stories!

To this day I have found that the Bible and its visionary stories are the most vital element in my own self-understanding and in my concept of community.

Every year for the rest of my life I have spent some of the summer in a canoe on the lakes. I have come to love the water, the wind, the trees, the rocks, the flowers, the animals, and to look upon the silences, the solitude and the spaciousness as essential to my maturing spirituality.


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