I’ve always been a bit isolated from the community of wilderness travelers—particularly canoeists. Despite thousands of kilometres and days spent wandering in a canoe I haven’t had much interaction with other passionate long-distance paddlers.
My home base is North Vancouver, British Columbia—a land of mountain bikers, trail runners and whitewater kayakers. It’s a fabulous outdoor playground, but contains few people dedicated to the great expedition canoeing tradition that pervades our country in the vast matrix of lakes and rivers carved out of the Canadian Shield that lies north and east of BC.
My hermit-like solitude ended last week at the 33rd annual Wilderness and Canoeing Symposium (WCS) in Toronto. More than 500 enthusiasts from all over North America came together to hear stories, share ideas and hatch future plans with each other. I was invited to speak along with dozens of other wilderness emissaries (and I brought my mom along as my date).
Originally started by the late, venerable canoe legend George Luste, the WCS continues on under the equally inspirational leadership of Aleks Gusev. Presenting on a screen that sits above a display of Gordon Lightfoot’s canary yellow canoe (he’s an accomplished paddler), speakers this year included, among many others, Eric McNair-Landry and Katherine Breen- who recently completed a 65-day walking and kayaking journey of southern Baffin Island; Robert Perkins, who’s paddled the challenging Back River in Nunavut 15 times; and wildman Frank Metcalf—whose stories of hedonistic Yellowknife in the 1970’s had me rolling in the aisle.
There were a lot of gray-haired and grizzled veterans in the audience, but also a healthy dose of the new generation of wilderness travellers whose presentations blended in drone footage of their adventures to complement the scanned Kodachrome slides of the vets. It’s this refreshing combination of young and old, bonded together by the common denominator of adventure that makes the WCS so special. Everyone is inspired by each other regardless of age, with a love of the wild being the baseline bonding factor.
I did a presentation on opening night about my Maskwa Nanook Expedition—an 1,800 kilometre, 44-day canoe expedition I did in 2016. I thought the talk went pretty well—but it merely blended in with the brilliance and talent attending there. I’ve spent well over a thousand days canoe tripping in my life so far, but after seeing the other presenters at the WCS, I’m going to need to get a whole hell of a lot more days in before I consider myself a true peer.
After the conclusion of the event on the second night, a group of us packed into a corner of a nearby Danforth bar for one last toast. Sipping micro-brewed beer with new friends and accomplices, I felt I’d been introduced to a world of kindred spirits I didn’t know existed. Beside me was Conor Mihell, a great outdoor writer I’d only met by email and phone previously. Across from me was expedition paddler Ariel Charbonneau and his compatriot, the ultra-talented outdoor filmmaker Francois Leger-Savard. On the other side of the bar were McNair-Landry and Breen.
It’s humbling and inspirational to see and hear what all these amazing people have done- and reason to go back to revel in the stories at next year’s WCS. Mark the weekend on your 2019 calendar—it’s an experience that will energize your expedition soul.
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