Through July - August of 2016 we paddled the length of Canada’s largest and longest river, the mighty Mackenzie. Named "Deh Cho", or “Big River,” by the Dene people, the free-flowing Mackenzie stretches 1750 kilometres from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean and is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. A paddle journey down the Mackenzie is a challenge for any explorer but for a young family with two kids in tow was an adventure of a lifetime.
"Well, my daddy left home when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me Sue"
I’ve had the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue in my head all expedition. I’ve sung it out loud so many times on the journey that my girls now know the words off by heart. It’s odd how certain songs percolate to the surface but this Cash classic won’t leave me for some reason. Fred Penner’s children’s classic Sandwiches is also bopping around my head but that’s my wife’s fault. She has been singing it non-stop for weeks. It’s the musical cross she’s had to bear this journey.
We quickly discovered that travelling in the north is not like travelling anywhere else. The sense of community up here is tremendously strong, there’s an understanding among its people that you look out for one another - if you have something, you share it, if someone needs your time, you give it. None of this is seen as a chore or an obligation but rather something that you simply do. People look out for one another. My daughters have seen this now. They’ve experienced it firsthand. They’ve been at the receiving end of this generosity. It’s had an effect on them.
Heading into this expedition we needed to put trust in our kids because not everything would be under our control. They knew this and understood this. We put faith in them and in so doing empowered them. They knew the expedition was going to be hard and that they’d need to work through some very tough times. We warned them before hand and when it happened they were ready for it. Caitlin and Arianna’s composure under duress, under real duress, amazes me. They experienced big waves, stormy winds, aggressive mosquitos, lightning storms, forest fires, curious bears, long hours, late nights, rainy days, boring food and grumpy parents. I even had to discharge my shotgun to scare off an angry wolf. Through it all the girls held up. They did more than hold up, they thrived.
"He said, 'Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn't blame you if you do
But ya ought to thank me, before I die
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
'Cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue'"
Our kids are capable of far more than we realize. We wanted to unplug our kids this summer and take them into the wilderness. We did that and in so doing opened them up to a new world of experience. I know this trip will stay with them the rest of their lives and will shape the character of the women they become.
The humour in Johnny Cash's song hid its meaning from me. The reason it was swimming around my head, the poignancy of its message, is obvious to me now. We need to challenge our kids to make them strong.
We slide into Inuvik under a setting sun, exhausted and elated. We pull our boats up on the beach, have a group hug and take a photo.
“We did it!!, I say, exhaustion and emotion in my voice.
“Now for the next adventure Dad,” says Arianna, “We don’t have a car to get home.”
Read more at: www.PaddletotheArctic.com