The sun has gone down, and the world is black in front of me. If I could see my hands, they’d be shaking.
There is no moonlight, no encouraging twinkle of stars – just the canopy of trees that I know must be somewhere above, and the canoe rocking gently beneath me.
We are so close to catching up to our group, who started out a day before we did – but in spite of our best efforts, we can’t outpace the sunset. Now, in the dead of night, we shine our lights along the river’s edge. Through the faint outlines of trees, we find a spot to set up camp. We wade carefully over slippery rocks with a limited field of vision, one uncertain step at a time.
Once we are safely on land, I sink down and wrap my arms around my folded legs. All the fear, panic, and apprehension that I felt throughout the day and suppressed comes out in a sudden wave of anxiety. I let it out. I breathe against my knees until it passes. I stand up and I say, “Okay.” And then I move on.
This is the part where I’m supposed to feel some sort of regret – but I don’t. I’m exactly where I need to be.
I found myself here because I needed something to change. This is how I remember that summer: pushing myself to get out of bed, falling asleep in front of the TV, and de-prioritizing my personal life while working my way around an irregular schedule filled with shifts of nine, ten, and twelve hours.
Twelve hours is a long time. It feels even longer when you’re not in the right place. When my partner mentioned that his co-worker was planning a three-day portage trip – an adventure that far exceeded the physical requirements of anything I had done before – I was so ready for an escape that I said yes. I was booked to work on every day of the trip, and the only way to make it happen was to give away a full weekend of shifts and leave a day later than the rest of the group. So, I did.
We set out, my partner and I, in a little red canoe, on a river so calm and reflective that the conical trees along its sides were doubled into diamonds. The earth along the riverbed was scored with imprints of roots that were reflected, too, like clusters of arrows pointing the way. When it rained, it was a warm summer rain that only just barely rippled around us, evaporating as quickly as it came.
As overwhelmingly beautiful as it was, I can’t pretend that it was easy. I was so inexperienced with paddling that I had to learn on the fly. My limbs had spent a lifetime being far more accustomed to sedentary forms of passing time, and they burned in protest whenever the route had us dragging the canoe uphill. (“Can’t we just push it down the waterfall?”) But never, not even at the worst of it, did I wish I were anywhere else. The path was difficult, but the struggle added up to something that I could feel proud of. Instead of it tiring me out, I felt invigorated. I felt alive.
Just like that, twelve hours went by. Twelve hours of effort. Twelve hours of strain. Twelve hours of marvel at the world around me. Twelve hours that I should have spent at work. Twelve hours that I’ll never regret making time for.
The next morning, I wake up to sunshine and birdsong. Yesterday’s rain is a damp coating underfoot. We catch up to the group, and we eat chocolate-chip pancakes around a smoky campfire, with the roar of a nearby waterfall in the background. The water below us is choppy and dark, swirling through the rapids like tiny galaxies.
Once we pack up the campsite, we’ll do our last portage, circumnavigating all of this. Time is yours to harness. You can let it flow by, doing the things you’re obligated to do as you follow the stream – or you can take an unnatural path through the woods and come out on the other side. When you spend time challenging yourself and taking risks, it takes you to new places in your understanding of yourself.
It gives you opportunities to grow.
If I hadn’t decided to come on this trip, those memorable twelve hours would have faded away into the collective blur of hours spent at work, as unremarkable as any other day. Instead, here I am, packing up my gear for the next day of paddling, ready to do it all again.