It’s the early evening, dark already, and we’re in a lock. We’re sharing it with one other boat, a sailboat, and other than the wind the only sound is the clanging of its mast. Combined with the orange glow of the lampposts, it sets a foreboding atmosphere. Something’s coming. We watch in silence as the dark water sinks lower and lower, the concrete walls growing taller around us. The lockmaster comes to check on our ropes – “you guys have any lights at all? Are ya camping soon?”
We’ve set up about four metres from a railroad track – which turns out to be the most popular railroad track in America. I give up counting at fourteen trains throughout the night, blowing their whistles and rattling and shaking as though they’re coming through the tent. We’re restless throughout the night – the heat and the jarring noise of the trains keeps me up most of the night.
We awake to more wind, and as soon as we pack up, the downpour begins. Big round drops splatter us, face on. We don our ponchos and launch. It seems as though the rain will stop – how can it rain this much for a sustained amount of time? The wind makes it feel as though we’re paddling into a wall.
As the rain soaks through the life jacket, through the poncho, through the rain coat, through the sweater, a memory of tomorrow’s forecast flags in my mind. High of 32 (that’s freezing). We can’t be this wet in freezing temperatures.
So, it might be at this point that one would ask themselves… why??
We stop in a tiny town, landing on the rocky levee and stumble through town, me with water logged boots. We find a saloon, and settle in for a few hours. The only other customers stare as we remove layer after layer, stepping outside to wring out bootliners, socks, hoods, and sleeves. I walk barefoot into the bar.
Following breakfast, lunch, and a chat with the bartender, we decide on a plan – head to her hotel in a nearby town – Ferryville. She describes it as “10 minutes south” – 7 miles driving.
We watch the raindrops splatter on the pavement out the window and finally decide to bite the bullet.
We leave at 1:30, and the wind has miraculously changed directions, 180 degrees, though the temperature is now dropping. Five miles go by fast, then seven. It’s getting noticeable colder. Hours go by. As we round eight miles, the rain changes to ice (temperatures have dropped to right around the freezing mark) and the river widens – to become Lake Winneshiek – and is three miles wide.
After a few navigational disagreements, we finally cut east. Ferryville was supposed to be on the main navigation channel, but a bad feeling tells me its not. I’m right. It’s across the lake, out of our way, and we’re now in the middle of a lake that, other than Ferryville, has only rocky levees and railway lines on either side, cut into the side of steep bluffs. The lake goes on for miles and miles.
We can see the other side; tiny cars drive along the road to what must be Ferryville. The waves are getting bigger now, and the wind is coming from our side. The water is dark grey, and big surges bob us up and down. My hips roll back and forth with the boat, as I try to keep paddling. Forwards and upright. Forwards and upright. Forwards and upright. I repeat it to myself over and over. Focus on what’s right in front of you. Don’t think about anything else. Fear sets in, taking over from my frozen extremities as my main concern.
The surges turn to whitecaps, and they crest as they hit us broadside, either splashing over the side of the boat, or underneath us, bursting us sideways.
We paddle across the lake, my fingers clasping the paddle so hard I don’t know if they will ever take another shape again. I try not to think about tipping.
The hotel finally comes into focus, and we land on a rocky levee, our fingers and toes freezing. We unload the canoe with great difficulty and run for warmth. It’s waiting for us.
A tiny cheap hotel room with old curtains and one small crooked picture of geese on the wall has never felt so sweet.
Ok – seriously, why?
Why would someone sign up for a trip where instant mashed potatoes are the sweet reward dreamt of during the day, when cold weather is a real concern, and resulting in fingers so stiff they function more like robotic claws?
I genuinely do enjoy this. So many days of normalcy pass by without notice. I will never remember them. They slip into blurry obscurity, as life passes by in a whir of daily grinds. But when I yank myself out of my comfort zone, time slows. Each second is stretched out and etched into memory. I learn something as I push the limits of what I’m used to or comfortable in.
I realized a few years ago that when I did things that were hard, or uncomfortable, or downright miserable, I actually enjoyed the reward at the end more. I was happier overall. We live in a hedonistic society – we do what feels good now. We seek certainty, comfort. But when I already know what the outcome is, it lacks the appeal. I live for adventure, for new experiences, for being open to whatever life throws my way.
This is, of course, when a reasonable person may raise an objection about the distinction between pushing outside your comfort zone, and barging right through into a danger zone. But we put ourselves into socially acceptable danger every day – hurdling down the highway in metal boxes at 100km/hour, for example. I try to be reasonable.
But we can all benefit from looking our fears straight in the eye, no matter how big or small; from testing our limits just a little. We’re often surprised to find they’re not where we thought they would be.