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I just got back from three weeks canoeing the Rideau Canal in Canada with my brother. We paddled from Kingston – on Lake Ontario – to Ottawa. (The image at left shows the last eight locks on the system – in downtown Ottawa – which we didn’t make, for reasons explained in the notes.)
One thing I learned: This canoe trip was “more of a Camino than the Camino.” (To see what I mean, check out “Hola! Buen Camino!” – Revisited or “Buen Camino!” – The Good Parts in my companion blog. About the same brother and I hiking – and biking – 450 miles of the Camino de Santiago.)
That is, the Camino de Santiago is often so crowded that it’s hard to get a thought in “edgewise.” But there on the Rideau water system, there were plenty of times when all I had to do was paddle, and think. Think a lot about my aches and pains – and how mind-numbingly boring it is to paddle a canoe hour after hour. But also, just to think – period – without all the distractions of modern life. For more on that idea see St. James, Steinbeck, and sluts.
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And now an overview: The guide books say it should take six to ten days to paddle the 125 miles to Ottawa. They also say prevailing winds are “generally” from the southwest, but “be ready for anything.” We took 11-and-a-half days – 11 nights – but two of those nights we spent in relative luxury in a rustic cabin in Portland, Ontario. (For nine days “actual canoeing.*”)
That came after taking a wrong turn padding north from Colonel By Island the morning of Wednesday, August 22. That overnight campsite included a violent rainstorm and raccoons breaking into our food containers and taking our supplies of breakfast bars, crackers and trail mix. That in turn was preceded by paddling through a veritable monsoon the afternoon of Tuesday, August 21. That morning we made 10 miles, but in the afternoon – after leaving the Narrows (Lock 35) – we made four miles before stopping at ” Colonel By.”
But such is “the stuff of legends.” And we digress…
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Getting back to James, Steinbeck, and sluts, that post noted about “pilgrims:”
A pilgrim … is a traveler (literally one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place. Typically, this is a physical journeying (often on foot) to some place of special significance to the adherent of a particular religious belief system. In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage may refer to the experience of life in the world (…as a period of exile) or to the inner path of the spiritual aspirant from a state of wretchedness to a state of beatitude.
In other words, a pilgrim is someone on a quest to “find himself.” (See also Self-discovery – Wikipedia.) And one way of finding yourself is through a healthy sense of ritual, as noted in Passages of the Soul: Ritual Today. (James Roose-Evans.) The book noted that a healthy sense of ritual “should pervade a healthy society, and that a big problem now is that we’ve abandoned many rituals that used to help us deal with big change and major trauma.”
The book added that all true ritual “calls for discipline, patience, perseverance, leading to the discovery of the self within.” More to the point, the book said a pilgrimage – like an 11-and-a-half-day canoe trip on Rideau – “may be described as a ritual on the move.” Further, the book said through “the raw experience of hunger, cold, lack of sleep,” we can quite often find a sense of our fragility as “mere human beings.” Finally, the book said such a pilgrimage can be “one of the most chastening, but also one of the most liberating” of personal experiences.
All of which seems to have applied more to our “Rideau adventure” than the more popular and better-known method of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.
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For one thing, to avoid the often-contrary prevailing winds, we started getting up at 4:00 a.m. (Which would be – to most people anyway – a “raw experience” in the form of a lack of the usual number of hours of sleep. Not to mention having to stumble around in the dark while breaking camp.) On the other hand, getting up that early led to the picture at left, of one of the benefits of getting up at 4:00 a.m. Aside from the fact that the water is usually much smoother at that hour – especially important on those “big-ass lakes” in the first half of the trip – it also led to us seeing some beautiful sunrises. (As seen above left.)
So all in all we spent 11-and-a-half days on the trip, but that included two nights in a nice cabin in Portland Ontario. And aside from primitive camping the first two nights – “dig a hole and squat” – most of the rest of the nights we camped at the lock stations themselves. They featured nice level lawns, hot and cold running water in the nearby “washrooms,” and every once in a while a nearby pub or restaurant with hot food and cold beer.
Which helped persuade me that this Rideau trip was “more of a Camino than the Camino.” That is, last September and October – on Spain’s 450 miles of the Camino de Santiago* – my brother and I kept meeting up with flocks of fellow pilgrims, most greeting us with a too-cheerful “Buen Camino!” In other words, the Rideau trip was more of a pilgrimage, in the truest sense. That is, a “journey or search of moral or spiritual significance.” Or consider the words of John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. Speaking of long-distance driving – at least in 1962 – he wrote:
If one has driven a car over many years [one] does not have to think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in the machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking… [T]here is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for day-dreaming or even, God help us, for thought.
Unfortunately, there was precious little of that on the Camino. (Or for that matter, on any modern long-distance driving trip, what with Sirius, GPS, iPod Shuffles or the new “Sandisks,” not to mention “books on CD,” none of which were available in 1962.) On the other hand, there was plenty of time – paddling up the Rideau river system – for “God help us, thought.”
In my case, on the Rideau I spent plenty of time – along with Steinbeck – thinking about the past: “And how about the areas of regrets? If only I had done so-and-so, or had not said such-and-such – my God, the damn thing might not have happened.”
Which is one way of saying there weren’t that many other canoeists or kayakers on the Rideau. (A necessity for “finding yourself?”) In fact I can only remember one, the lady kayaker shown below, portaging – carrying her kayak – at the Burritt’s Rapids lock station. Whereas my brother and I paid extra to take our canoes through the locks, this younger lady chose to do it the “hard way.” She’d carry her kayak on one trip – from one end of the lock station to the other – then go back and get all her gear, stacked what seemed a mile high on her backpack.
The point being – in case I’m being too subtle – that the dearth of fellow paddlers meant there was plenty of time “for day-dreaming or even, God help us, for thought.” Or self-discovery.
Which seems to be what makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage. (Though it helped to find the Lock 17 Bistro, a short walk from Burritt’s Rapids, where we camped the night of Sunday, August 26. That is, a hot meal and a cold beer can go a long way in “neutralizing or preventing anxiety…”)
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The image below the upper image – of the “last eight locks” near downtown Ottawa – is courtesy of Rideau Canal – Rideau Canal World Heritage Site, Ontario.
Portions of the text and/or images were gleaned from my companion blog. The most recent blog post was The “Rideau Adventure” – An Overview. I also previewed this latest pilgrimage in Next adventure: Paddling the Rideau “Canal,” and “Naked Lady” – on the Rideau Canal?
Re: Portland, Ontario: “The Landing on Big Rideau Lake, which is now the community of Portland, lies at the heart of the Rideau Canal System and is central to the history of the canal and to the early development of Canada. Portland is on Highway 15, midway between Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario.” See also Portland, Ontario – Wikipedia.
The term “journey of self-discovery” refers to a travel, pilgrimage, or series of events whereby a person attempts to determine how they feel, personally, about spiritual issues or priorities rather than following the opinions of family, friends, neighborhood or peer[s]. The topic of self-discovery has been associated with Zen. A related term is “finding oneself.”
The quotes from Travels with Charley are from the 1962 Penguin Books edition, at pages 94-95.
Re: “Neutralizing or preventing anxiety.” See Ritual – Wikipedia: “In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety…” While I take issue with the article’s assertion that all true ritual is marked by strict “invariance,” I would agree with its sense of a pilgrimage as a “rite of passage,” that is, a “ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another.” Which transition generally involves “three stages: separation, transition and incorporation.”
The lower image: My photo of a lady kayaker, portaging at the Burritt’s Rapids lock station.