Muskeg can teach you a great deal about yourself. The moss, trees and other debris in the water make it extraordinarily difficult to paddle a canoe in muskeg. You can’t walk on it either. While muskeg may look stable, as soon as you step out of the canoe, your foot will sink through and into the swamp water below.
It was day 21 on trail in the remote Canadian wilderness. The five of us awoke, packed up camp, and our two canoes were on the water not more than an hour after sunrise. I had met my companions, three other teenage girls and one camp counselor, just before the trip began. Today, we were meant to paddle a river, but we saw no river, only muskeg and a small winding path, barely two feet wide through the weeds. Is this the way? Nobody knew, but there was no other way. We pushed forward.
The muskeg only got thicker and the water levels fell. It was very hot and it smelled like rotten eggs. Mosquitos swarmed around us. Logs lined the bottom of our narrow waterway and our canoes kept getting stuck. With paddling useless, we had three ways through the muskeg. The first was a coordinated effort of pushing our paddles against the reeds and using our feet to push against the logs. The second was me repeatedly getting out of the canoe, chest deep in the muck, and pulling my partner in the canoe through the mud. The third was the both of us getting out of the boat and lifting our heavy canoe over the many beaver dams. The hours dragged on. Our group was getting tired and everyone was frustrated.
We finally reached the portage. Looking up the trail, we saw a steep hill. The previous day’s rain turned the dirt to mud and made the many rocks slippery. We were all exhausted and nobody wanted to carry our wooden canoe up this climb. Nobody wanted to, but somebody had to, so I did. It was exhausting and my arms were shaking the whole time, but somebody had to do it. Every step I recited the words from my favorite children’s book, “The Little Engine That Could.” A book I have read more than 100 times to kids in the nursery at church. “I think I can. I think I can,” over and over in my head. Eventually, I reached the other side and instead of seeing a lake or real river like we had all hoped, there was only more muskeg.
We pushed on. The hours felt like days. We had been on the water for more than 14 hours. The sun went down and the light was fading. In a valley with dense trees, there was no good place to camp.
My counselor sent me out to find a spot for the tent. The only spot I could find large enough to fit our tent was over a quarter mile away, up the hill. I made over six trips up that hill, hauling our gear, every time in the dark climbing over trees the beaver had felled.
We set up the tent in the dark with our headlamps as the bugs swarmed. It was too late to start the camp stove to make dinner. I got into our tent with the day’s mud and grass from the muskeg still on my legs even though I did my best to wipe it off. We ate trail mix and fell asleep still hungry.
Physically and emotionally, this was the hardest day of my life. It was also one of the best. I learned that when hard things need to be done, I can do them. I don’t give up. I’m a leader. I can’t say that I like muskeg, but I am thankful for what it taught me about myself.