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Photo by Alison Brooks-Starks

A river of one’s own

The writer attempts a month-long solo paddle on the North Saskatchewan River and discovers the gift of intuition and the power of nature

By Alison Brooks-Starks

On a warm September morning in 2014, I set out in my canoe along the North Saskatchewan River, to connect my two homes — paddling from Edmonton to Prince Albert, Sask., where I was born. For weeks, I marvelled at idyllic spruce forest and rolling prairie. I ate my bannock with the sunrise and read and wrote in my tent in the cool evenings.

I had thought of inviting friends, but with much soul work in tow — grief from a recent breakup, processing to do from the daily grind of work, and life transitions to sort out — I knew that to get back to myself I needed to go solo. But I never once felt alone. While paddling, eagles watched me from treetops and traced the path of my canoe as I slid by. I swam with sturgeon surely twice my age. I slipped into my sleeping bag for rest as hundreds of geese honked.

I had prepared for this journey in reasoned and practical ways, planning each meal right down to the chewy lemon cookies. What I hadn’t prepared for was the lessons the river would teach me: to let go of logic, to embrace intuition and to value success and failure in equal measure.

On the first day, the perfectionist in me was vocal: worrying about gear, suggesting I was hauling too much water. I paddled through this mental chatter and diligently followed the map for 30 kilometres, sticking adamantly to my daily distance goal. That accomplished, I promptly pulled to shore for the evening. I looked up the steep bank, feeling uneasy. Nevertheless, I unloaded my gear and dragged it up the hill. Panting from effort, I scanned for a campsite. Society had conditioned me to trust my head, yet I knew in my heart I shouldn’t have stopped here — nothing felt right. I ate supper with a nervous, empty feeling. Sleeping fitfully, I had a nightmare that a tractor smashed into my camp over and over. In the morning, it felt like a sign when I found a bumper washed ashore. My head was filled with noise and doubt, even though there was very little to worry about. I knew there was no way I could be alone for a whole month if I kept allowing my mind to dominate.

I decided I had to release my attachment to making decisions based on thought and logic. I chose my next campsite based on feeling. When it was time to pull over next, I tuned into my gut. I forced myself to paddle past a logically ideal camping spot, even as my intellect screamed in protest: “You’ll regret this! It has a great place to tie up the canoe and driftwood for your fire!” It was difficult to resist, but my knowing body pushed my prattling head onward.

Alison Brooks-Starks
Alison Brooks-Starks

Turning a big bend in the river, my eyes lit up. Like nowhere else on my whole route, big rocks jutted into the river from the boreal side. I felt this was it. Once out of the water and in the temporary home I’d made for myself on the rocks, I admired the red veins of strawberry runners creeping across my kitchen and the bright dogwood shrubs framing my tent. I had left behind the chaotic mind the city had bred in me and found myself in the simple peace of the wilderness.

This was the first of many times on this trip where I practised living from the flip side of every coin culture has taught us is legitimate. I’ve come to know these undervalued ways of knowing as “the feminine.” To my surprise, I learned most about the feminine while buck naked. I hadn’t packed a swimsuit, but it was so hot on the second day I couldn’t wait to dive into the river’s brown tannin-stained waters. I jumped in and splashed around, playing in the current. Naked, I felt powerful — not vulnerable or exposed, but a part of nature. My skin put me back in the moment, enveloping me in a sense of calm and joy.

When I was “myself,” I overthought issues of packing and distance covered. Feeling anxious, I would stop relying on intuition. Yet when I hit shore, tossed my life-jacket into the boat and stripped my tank top off, I became someone else. I wrote in my journal: “I do not feel like myself, yet I feel ‘exactly’ like me. I feel like I am the woman I am becoming.” This woman, so unfamiliar to me, taught me about the ancient feminine — a way of being that is largely disregarded in today’s Western world.

As a feminist, I hesitate to use the word feminine, as this was not about gender — “yin qualities” is perhaps a better designation. There is a yin quality, or feminine characteristic, hidden and devalued in the shadow of each yang or masculine characteristic. We can all access the “masculine” quality of being active, for example, but what of its inflection? Paired with “active” could well be the verb “being receptive.” Do we allow ourselves to express both the yin and the yang with equal passion? The woman I became on the river embodied these concepts. I was at once a free child and a powerful woman.

I moved with worth and ease. I laughed with delight at the sight of a mallard or the feeling of mud between my toes. I lived in the moment.

Near the Saskatchewan border, however, I was reminded that I really was on my own. On Day 19, the warm autumn weather ended abruptly. There were strong winds that morning, but I launched anyway. An hour in, the river narrowed unexpectedly, and I lost control. I paddled hard for shore, but suddenly, my canoe, filled with all my gear, maps and ukulele, came to a jarring stop. I was mid-river, marooned on a sandbar. I started to cry as I braced myself for the task of pulling my canoe into deeper water. With many waves, I couldn’t see if there were more sandbars ahead or if I might step up to my neck in deep water. I was scared and frustrated. I screamed and swore into the wind.

Layered in fleece, raincoat, toque, neck-warmer and mitts, I was no longer the sensual woman on the river. I became rage. Dragging across sandbars and paddling when I could, I finally hit the muddy bank. On the river’s edge, I looked at my map and, with dread, realized I was hours behind. If the weather and sandbars kept up, I wouldn’t make it to my hometown. Even though I had accomplished most of the emotional reflecting I’d needed, the perfectionist in me was angry I would not achieve what I had set out to do on the map. It started to snow, and I gave up. I knew I would have to call my dad to come pick me up the next morning. I failed, but gave myself freely to it. As I pitched my tent on a sandbar for the night, with bitter sadness, I surrendered.

But the next day, the sky cleared.

And one moon from the day I launched, I leaned on my paddle, which by then felt as familiar as my own body, and with a final deep stroke punched up onto the shore in Prince Albert.

This adventure, I learned, was not an uphill battle to be won, but a descent — a breaking down that ushered in transformation. I saw the reflection of the usual story we tell about a life-changing journey, and embraced every bit of success and failure wholeheartedly.

Alison Brooks-Starks is a writer in Edmonton.

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