My friends, Ingrid and Rhonda (of Stride and Stretch fame), recently completed an Ontario Recreational Canoe and Kayak Association (ORCKA) Canoeing Basic Level 1 and 2 certification course. Ingrid had a compelling reason to take the course, so I asked her and Rhonda to write a guest blog about their experience.
A big splash and we were in the water – my two young children and I – years ago, in the middle of choppy 60 degree George Lake at Killarney. The wind tends to change on George Lake, and I wasn’t prepared.
We all survived, but going by the 1-10-1 rule, (1 minute to stop the panic; 10 minutes of useful arms and legs; 1 hour before unconsciousness) not by very much. My wee daughter was absolutely blue by the time we pulled the water-logged canoe to shore, swimming against the frigid waves. But we were all wearing PFDs. Fastened tightly. I can’t even think how bad that could have been if we weren’t.
Fast forward to 2018. Physical memories tend to have a way of weighing on one long after an incident. I avoided canoeing for about a decade, save for one short petrified paddle in the Bonnechere River. Petrified is never a good way to paddle.
One day over lunch at work, I told Gayle of Sometimes Eventful my story of capsizing and how it has affected me all these years later. I admitted I wanted to get past my fear of being on the water. I was ‘encouraged’ by Gayle to take Levels 1 & 2 of ORCKA’s Tandem Basic Canoeing Course at Pinehurst Conservation Area. She thought learning to paddle in a safe environment with a qualified instructor may help me.
I don’t know what I was thinking. But I registered soon after my good friend and fearless canoeing partner Rhonda McMahon of Stride and Stretch fame did the same. She was enthusiastic. I was… well, not overjoyed. But determined.
And then, the rain came. A hearty, much-needed rain on our paddle date. Facing eight hours in a downpour in a canoe, I was less than enthusiastic. But our instructor, Greg Derbyshire of It All Comes Naturally, doesn’t cancel. And Rhonda, well did I say she is fearless?
We did pivots, squares, wide circles, bow cuts, cross cuts and landings. All without pitching. I was feeling pretty good. Not a very strong paddler, but I was out there just the same, in my donated rain-proof jacket, rain pants and water shoes. Oh, and very tight-fitting PFD.
Then it was end of day, and time for Canoe-Over-Canoe Rescue. There were three canoe tandems. A would rescue B, B would rescue C, C would rescue A. We were C. Greg, knowing my story, asked me if I could do it. I answered honestly, “I really don’t know. I feel like crying.” PTSD and me. We successfully rescued boat A.
It was our turn to pitch. 1….2….3. In we went. The force of my reaction caught me by surprise. Warm water. I can swim. Help is at hand. Well, PTSD won. It took me nearly two minutes to stop hyperventilating, with everyone telling me to just breathe deep, slow breaths. I actually laid on my back, one hand on the canoe, and floated. Breathing. Until I could get a grip on myself. We swam with the canoe, and just in our PFDs. Then the rescue. It took me three tries, but I hoisted a leg up over the gunnel and grabbed onto the seat and pulled. Somehow I landed with a thud in the canoe to much reinforcement from my fellow paddling crew. I did it.
I have the badge, and the bruises, to prove it. Am I going to paddle again soon? I’m not sure. But I definitely know how to rescue someone else. And, I hope the next time, it will only take me one minute to breathe deeply.
I’m not an adventurous paddler, more of a leisurely paddler. I enjoy the serenity of being on the water, the feeling of the paddle breaking water and gliding me along. I remember paddling along the Grand River, while growing up, to tripping in Algonquin, Killarney and northern Ontario for more years than I can remember. I have been both a bow and stern paddler and for the most part, thought I was pretty good at it, well, because I never tipped out or when faced with challenging winds or currents, I just kept to the shoreline. It might have been 10 to 15 years ago that I had an opportunity to paddle with my brother-in-law, Butch in Algonquin. The control that this man has with the paddle is a beautiful thing to watch, his paddle breaks through water with barely a splash and what appears to be very little effort as his canoe glides exactly where he wants it to go – no matter the wind direction or current. Still, I never really thought about taking a course on ‘how to paddle’ after all, aren’t Canadians born with the ability to paddle a canoe?
While chatting with my friend Ingrid, about how she would love to get back into a canoe after a long absence due to a horrible canoeing experience, I agreed to take the ORCKA course with her. At the time thinking, I was doing this as a friend, not that I really needed it. Then the memories came back, the Killarney trip paddling more than 50 km on the weekend, it was so challenging for me to keep the canoe going in the necessary direction. I also remembered another trip in Algonquin over three portages and lakes, my fear that we would tip in the winds and the other time I was tripping with my two daughters and we kept spinning and spinning in the middle of Rock Lake. Well, I guess I need to “learn how to paddle” smarter and maybe I can even learn how to paddle like Butch.
I was so concerned for my paddling partner that day on Pinehurst Lake, yes, I am fearless, but I agreed to do this to support her. I did my best to help reduce her fears, by letting her make the decisions whether she in the bow or stern. I learned something else that day in the rain that wasn’t taught in the course: PTSD is a real thing and you can’t just get over it. Patience, support and understanding are necessary when dealing with someone with PTSD. I should also mention that Greg was an amazing and let me tell you, a very patient instructor. From where I sat, whether bow or stern, Ingrid did amazing and I’m so proud of her determination. I hope to have a leisurely paddle with her again one day.
As for me, I learned that I had been doing it wrong for more than 50 years and my J-stroke, pivot and cross-over need a lot more practice. This fall, I will take Level 3 and 4 ORCKA training. I am determined more than ever, to learn to paddle like Butch.
A final note from Gayle:
I am so proud of Ingrid and her determination to complete the ORCKA course, and I truly admire Rhonda’s constant enthusiasm to support her friends and expand her knowledge. These two women are inspirational! A huge thanks to both of them for sharing their stories with us.