Thursday, June 9, 2011

Taking Out Early - Lessons Learned.

It was a bright and cool morning, the grey sky from the night before had cleared. The wind was calm and we had no portages, only paddling to do that day. We were half way across Algonquin and our resupply was scheduled for noon at the bottom of Opeongo Lake. It was a big milestone and I felt ecstatic. Despite this, breakfast tasted wooden. Something was missing- the enthusiasm of the group had evaporated and was replaced by a limp and trembling exhaustion. We ate in silence... except one of us wasn't eating at all. He kept his face down and when I finally caught his eye, I saw that his glasses had a rainbow hue from the tears that were splashing down his cheeks. I knew what those tears meant - especially since they were sprung on the morning of an easy day with clear weather: we would not be resupplying at noon. We would be ending the trip early.

Of course there was disappointment. But that wasn't what I felt first or even the most- I felt concern and worry. I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by a situation: the combination of my personality and being in the profession of medicine makes me feel that way more often than I'd like to admit. And I felt guilty for not catching onto those emotions earlier and trying to help alleviate them. I knew my team mates were tired- our days had been slightly longer than expected and I knew that we had been pushing hard. Each evening, we arrived in camp worn out, with just enough energy to make dinner and fall into bed. But, every morning when I got up, I felt fresh again. Every paddle and portage we passed, strengthened my resolve to get there and my certainty that we could do it. The harder it got, the harder I pushed. The sorer my muscles felt, the more I relished it. The very challenge gave me confidence and I would smile with wolfish determination whenever we would struggle. I dared the wind to blow harder, the portages to be longer, the mud to be deeper. I felt myself getting stronger every day- even as each day got longer and harder themselves. I was never more certain that I could do this trip and arrive at the end triumphant. The self-doubt, sense of weakness and vulnerability that sometimes chases me in my every day life was gone. I had never felt more confident and competent. It was everything I had hoped for.

So, when my team mates told me they were tired, I agreed. I was, too. But I didn't realize that they weren't waking up feeling refreshed like I was. They weren't pumped to see a longer portage or add another bug bite to the tally of challenges we faced in conquering Algonquin. By the morning of the resupply, it was too late. We'd crossed the step in the portage that caused one of the team member's belief in himself to crumble. I knew during breakfast that there wasn't anything we could do to restore that belief but get him out of the situation and give him some time. He knew it, too... and in a way that made it harder because he also knew how much I wanted to reach our final goal. He knew that crossing the park had been a dream of mine for years and that I'd given up my holiday to plan and organize the trip. His tears were as much from exhaustion as they were from guilt and disappointment.

There was no defeat, though. This trip was as much a test of my physical endurance as it was of my ability to plan, organize, and guide an expedition. And in both respects, I feel like I excelled. Physically,  I was as strong if not stronger than my team mates despite being the only girl and weighing in about 70lbs lighter than anyone else. Our pack weights were all the same: with the pack and the canoe on, I carried more than my own body weight and still had energy to spare. As a guide, I had planned doable days and managed to keep up all on schedule despite a thunder storm and the odd first aid repair. But, it was in making the decision to cut the trip short that I felt made me ultimately successful.

This decision wasn't as hard to make as I thought it might be. Once the state of the team was brought to my attention, it was clear that taking out was the only choice. The fact that we had all the gear needed to do the second half, that the weather was going to be perfect, the water was high, and we all had the vacation time didn't matter. What mattered were the people. The landscape would always be there- the Park will continue hold this challenge until we return to pick up where we left off. Crossing the Park was more about undertaking a journey together than it was about getting from Rain Lake to Squirrel Rapids. So, as we lifted the canoes out of the water and strapped them down onto the car, I couldn't be sad that we were leaving. It wasn't a failure to take out. It was truly a learning opportunity. Before we'd left on the trip, I had thought that it was all about getting from Rain Lake to Squirrel Rapids. I was certain that nothing: not bad weather, not a slowly sinking rental canoe, not a twisted ankle- nothing would stop me from getting there. But, in the end, I'm glad something did: I'm glad I could unequivocally choose to protect and champion my team over the mission. It revealed a strength within me that I hadn't know was there: the strength to prioritize what's important when it counts, to accept defeat with a glad and loving heart, and to know that just because it doesn't happen on the first go, doesn't mean that it will never be accomplished.

So, with that in mind, I'm now recruiting a team for Across Algonquin Part 2, 2012. Please leave your application in the comments section. :)

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