Bring your teen on a Manitoba canoe trip for a challenge

A family slows down and melds with the wilds


It didn’t start well. Two kilometres into a six day, 70-kilometre-long canoe trip, Quinn stops. He won’t pick up his paddle. At age 15, my son has been in a canoe dozens of times, but usually as a duffer (the guy in the middle whose sole purpose is to entertain and ply paddlers with snacks). He enjoys his job as resident wise guy and snack-eater.

The paddling stuff? Not so much.

“It’s come back to me, Mom,” he says, thumping his paddle defiantly across both gunwales. “Camping is sort of like being at home.” Then he dips his paddle and shoots me a withering look. “Except it’s 10 times the hassle.”

We knew taking a teenager on a Manitoba canoe trip would require my husband, Scott, and I, to seriously adjust our get-there-or-else attitude, but our biggest worry was the impact this might have on the other five adult paddlers we were joining on this packaged tour with Northern Soul. Our hope had been that Quinn would buckle under pressure and paddle forth, or at least fake some enthusiasm.

But to complain now? So soon? Not even one rousing campfire round of “The Ants Go Marching.” Instead—a full-on mutiny.

What you need to know about Quinn is he is a typical teen in many ways, but he is not usually an eye-roller. OK, maybe he’s not so typical—he doesn’t play video games, he doesn’t wear pants down to his knees or baseball caps backwards or many of the other sulky, annoying things boys do.

He can, however, make the cold stare of your average house cat look warm and friendly: “Why do we always have to choose a holiday, once a year, that tests us—why?,” he whines from the bow of our boat.

“Because it makes us appreciate the comforts of home,” I say, soothingly, lovingly, with motherly patience that’s beginning to fray.

I get the eye roll. More kvetching. The frigid cat stare.

Why does this child test me so, I wonder, slightly panicked as I realize I likely can’t just haul out a bag of Jujubes (my go-to method of bribery that worked so well when he was a tot) and woo Quinn with sweets for the next five days.

Manipulating teens into subscribing to your travel plans is a totally different challenge. For starters, teenagers don’t know how to pace themselves. They’re either full-steam or no steam, like now. (I look beyond our bow and the other four boats in our fleet have become far-off specks—a sight that would become all too familiar). And, when teens talk, they stop (as in paddling, or hiking, or biking, or whatever else you might want them to do), full-on stop. Like now.

“Do you really think it’s true—that maybe no other place else in the world has as many blood-sucking insects as here?” Quinn asks, incredulously. He’s referring to the breakfast chat we’d just had with our all-knowing guide, David Perrett, while trying to scarf down apple pancakes by shovelling food under our screened-in bug hats.

685 Photo by Matt Gibson.

Our route on the Manigotagan River, from Quesnel Lake to the town of Manigotagan, would see the group portage 14 times, run 14 sets of rapids, devour some 150 lb. of food and learn to covet anything with DEET. About 150 km northeast of Winnipeg, this river, along with the Bloodvein, Hayes and Seal, are just some of Manitoba’s classic, heritage waterways. Archaeological surveys have revealed thousands of artifacts, suggesting this vital corridor was used by the Blackduck and Laurel cultures as far back as 2,000 years ago. Since then, the Manigotagan has been used by trappers, loggers and gold miners as a route to the natural resources of the region. What you’ll find today is a big swath of lonely wilderness (less than one per cent of Nopiming Provincial Park’s land is considered recreational development). The rest is a protected area laced with towering rock faces, craggy jack pine, crispy rock-hugging lichen, moose, black bear, woodland caribou and mosquitoes.

Not that Quinn is remotely interested in any of this. Our intention had not been to provide him with a history lesson, but to reintroduce our son to the wonders of the wilds after he’d spent a month at a summer dance program in Winnipeg. Well, that was the plan.

I toss Quinn a Jujube, for old times’ sake. He grins, winks and picks up his paddle. Aha, a breakthrough, of sorts.

This is what we came for, I think at siesta time on Day 2—after completing three portages and a lunch of hot tuna melts. Our group of eight is sprawled out on long fingers of rock, draped next to Pillow Falls, reading and snoozing to the thud of water pounding on rocks. Scott is finishing his last word puzzle ripped out of the Winnipeg Free Press. Quinn is reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Lynne Shuttleworth of Toronto snoozes.

Meanwhile, RoseAnna Schick of Winnipeg writes in her journal and tells me stories of her Quest for the Bay boat trip that she did in 2001 (an “historically accurate” adventure, meaning a two-month paddle with no tents, no bug dope and no sleeping bags).

This trip may not be as extreme, but still the shedding of our frenetic urban lives has begun. Soon—no more puzzles, just time to bake in the sun, read under a tree, chop wood, make bannock and paddle until our backs ache.

“It’s the simplicity I love,” says my husband later that night as the three of us lay in our tent, listening to the drone of mosquitoes. “You paddle, you portage, you eat and sleep. All the urban clutter is gone … you get to put it in a box until you go home.”

I look to Quinn for a response. He’s fast asleep, breathing softly. For a moment, he looks like he did on those family camping trips when he was a five.

It takes three or four days to achieve river time, to really arrive. By then, campsites and events have begun to blur together. The loons on Turtle Lake, a trapper’s cabin that allows us to change out of soggy gear, the smell of campfire smoke in our hair, relentless mosquitoes, homemade cinnie buns on a pizza oven, the way Perrett spins a pot of cowboy coffee until the grains sink, the early morning sounds of wood being chopped, the joys of boxed wine—I realize, time is flowing the way the water flows. Neither dawdling, nor hurrying. It’s an attitude threshold I’ve been waiting to cross.

By then, new, efficient systems have taken over. Our lives fit neatly into barrels, stowed away in canoe hulls, until the next portage or meal. The Manigotagan is pocked with rapids, waterfalls and stunning campsites on rocky lips.

The river is the colour of iced tea, perfect for an end-of-day swim, every day. Like hiking or road biking, canoeing is a portal into a near trance-like state. You break camp, paddle, schlep gear over a portage, eat, paddle some more, schlep some more, run a set of rapids, paddle more. Set up camp, eat, dive for your tent (to escape the bugs), sleep. Do it all again. And again.

When, too suddenly, we reach our final night, poised on a bugless island, coddled by rapids, Quinn does the unthinkable. He chooses to run Burntwood Rapids —twice.

“I am not saying I love shooting them,” he says, begrudgingly. “But I can see why others would like them. Let’s just say, this one’s for you, Mom.”

It’s a small gift, but I take it. Sometimes, that’s as good as it gets with a teen. With his paddle, on our trips over the past decade, he has glided past being a little boy. Even so, as we strike into a glorious sunset, awestruck, I watch the years unwrap, revealing the child within each of us.