As a recent graduate of Queen’s University, and part time professional canoe guide, I have spent the last four years subdividing my life. Semesters being spent studying creative writing with summer’s guiding white water and flat-water canoe trips to adventure seeking adolescents. However, the more I find myself isolated in the middle of a river looking outward at the landscape awaiting me, the more I find myself turning inward. With a pen in hand, attempting to jot down the ripples happening within my inner emotional landscape. The two realms of writing and guiding blurring together like ink on a page left out in the rain. To me, the natural world will always be a place of inspiration and insight – and journaling the tool to interpret it.
Ignore the saying “hindsight is 20/20”. The very nature of perspective, and its ability to rebirth itself within a single interaction, makes real time documentation the only way to capture its existence. Like a map guiding you to your sub conscience, journaling enables you to document and discover this perspective real time. Requiring no more than a notebook and pen. Since the goal is to create permanence within authentic perspective I consciously steer away from pencils. The ability to erase, edit and change that comes with them is all too tempting. Now, while any old notepad and pen will suffice in urban-based journaling, the reality of being on river means that at any given moment you, and your gear, are battling the wind, water and rain of Mother Nature – three of the biggest threats to paper and ink. There is nothing worse than spending the day pouring your heart and soul onto a page only to find it submerged in a pool of water at the bottom of your dry sack after a sweet set of rapids. Left completely illegible. But don’t worry; there are tons of companies out there recognizing the necessity of journaling within the outdoor pursuits and creating products to match. Two brands that I find myself returning too are; Pigma, specifically their Micron Fine Line waterproof and smudge proof Pens, and the Rite in the Rain brand journals. With varying sizes and styles these journals not only repel water but also sweat, grease and dirt without adding noticeable weight to your pack. Win win!
Regardless of the river my journaling follows the same structure. First, it all starts with a pre journal. The days leading up to the trip I write “a letter to myself” where I detail all of my thoughts and feelings toward the upcoming journey. Then comes the on-river reflection. If we’ve gotten to site early, and seemingly have all the time in the world, I do a detailed breakdown – both an analytic summary of the day’s schedule and my momentary emotional standing. On longer days I immediately throw the “objective” out the window and go purely to my thoughts.
You can always go back and remind yourself of the “whats” of a trip – what you ate that day, what you paddled, etc. But the longer you wait to write down the “hows”, i.e. how that paddling made you feel, the more inauthentic the perspective becomes.
Lastly, leading up to the end of a trip I always make the point to write a new letter to myself. This time breaking down everything I have learned through the journey and everything I want my future self to remember. This works as not only a guide to the experience but forces me to be conscious of my takeaways. This is also the time at which I’ll read my pre trip letter to myself and laugh at how innocently unaware my earlier self was.
To me, journaling is as crucial within canoe tripping as the boat itself. It is the act of consciously opening oneself up to the messages living within the natural landscape and freezing these teachings in time – in order for this learning, this journey, to continue to exist back within the confines of “real life”.
Author: Outdoor Educator and Professional Canoe Trip Guide, Madelaine Shales.