It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in early June, and the beach is crowded with paddlers returning from skills sessions and tours among the sheltered passages of Parry Island’s South Channel.

In the clear, calm water just offshore, a beginner clinic is wrapping up reentries practice, half a dozen women scrambling across kayak decks and into cockpits while their classmates offer enthusiastic encouragement. Nearby, a crescent-shaped fin breaks the surface with a spray of water. The swimmer’s shimmering purple tail kicks at the sky as her fellow mermaids cheer loudly from the dock.

Wait, mermaids? At a paddling festival. On Ontario’s Georgian Bay.

Women On Water May Be The First All-Female Gathering In North America To Offer Instruction In Kayaking, Canoeing And Standup Paddleboarding—But Paddling Is Only Part Of WOW’s Unique Formula.

The event’s spirit of inclusivity extends to celebrating and promoting the diverse talents of the water-loving women it brings together—from professional musicians to professional mermaids.

Now in its fifth year, WOW attracts participants from around the Great Lakes and beyond. In 2018, festival-goers traveled from as far  as Nova Scotia, Alberta and Texas to join more than 100 other women at the sold-out event.

The weekend is presented cooperatively by Wild Women Expeditions (WWE) and Ontario Sea Kayak Centre (OSKC), drawing on WWE’s expertise with women-specific programming and OSKC’s network of talented female coaches.

Making kayaking more accessible to women who it may not have been otherwise has been a dream come true,” says OSKC co-founder Dympna Hayes. At the event’s welcoming address, Hayes shared her goal for coaches and participants, “The feedback I hope to hear most is: ‘She was so patient, so kind and so helpful—I learned a lot.’

Women on Water is hosted at Camp Tapawingo

Camp Tapawingo historic YWCA girls’ camp nestled along a protected channel in Georgian Bay’s Parry Sound, a short drive from the town of the same name. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate venue. Tapawingo’s all-female staff has been creating opportunities for adventurous girls and women in the outdoors for 88 years. Black-and-white photos and aging mementos adorn the walls of the original log dining hall. WOW participants share the rustic camper cabins dotted along the shore, and just like those earlier campers, these women will gather around a flickering campfire their first night together.

“It allows participants to feel as though they’ve gone to kids’ camp,” says WOW event coordinator and canoe guide, Kate Ming-Sun. “They don’t have to worry about organizing anything other than themselves.”

When the aspirational mermaids shed their tails, the evening is just getting started. Most of the women tour over to the marketplace, where entrepreneurial instructors and local business owners display handmade jewelry and clothing, original glass and paddle art, waterproof cosmetics and much else. Many contribute items to a silent auction supporting the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve.

Another memorable WOW tradition begins after a hearty buffet dinner: lip sync performances followed by hula hooping and dancing. Each year, the coaches break the ice with a couple hastily rehearsed acts. But it’s usually the participants who steal the show with outrageous costumes, hilarious song choices and surprising choreography.

The magic of Women On Water

Despite The Late night, Sunday Morning’s Pre-Breakfast Yoga Class And Sunrise Paddle Draw Sizeable Crowds. Organizers and coaches keep classes flexible on day two, knowing participants may opt to join a new friend, sample a different boat or board, or reinforce a skill discovered the day before. For some, Tapawingo’s grassy lawns and breezy docks will prove more enticing than fine-tuning their forward stroke. After all, WOW is as much about nourishing community as it is developing paddling skills.

“If someone doesn’t want to participate in a skill or a workshop, there’s no pressure,” says Ming-Sun. “Our instructors bring their expertise, empathy and patience to teaching new skills and building confidence. Women sink into the weekend, enjoy themselves and meet new people, even if any or all of that causes a twinge of anxiety.”

There’s Empowerment In Shedding Inhibitions, Embracing Silliness, Trying New Things And Confronting Challenges—That’s The Magic Of Women On Water.

woman with an upside down sea kayak
Kris Shaw. |Photo: Virginia Marshall

Kris Shaw

Age: 60

Location: Methuen Lake, Ontario

Occupation: Adventure Guide
and Instructor

WOW Factor: After her sons left home, Shaw went back to school, completing an Outdoor Adventure Leadership program and turning her lifelong passion for wild places into her vocation. She may have come to guiding later than some, but Shaw has taken this challenging profession further than many: leading outdoor activities in Alaska, Yukon and Belize, as well as her native Ontario.

My mother was my inspiration. She would have the car packed for the last day of school and take us to the cottage for the summer. Spending those endless days on the water, in nature, laid the foundation for my love of the outdoors. As kids, she encouraged us to “come home only when you’re hungry or bleeding.”

I responded to the name “Scouter Mom” for 10 years while volunteering as a troop leader with Scouts Canada.

Being self-employed most of my life, I’ve been fortunate to combine my business background with my guiding and paddling skills.

There have been many wild moments—a collection of beads on a necklace that isn’t yet finished. I think of ocean surfing with my son in New Zealand; seeing polar bears and muskox while guiding dogsledding expeditions in the Arctic; and sunrise skinny-dipping on Georgian Bay before the world wakes up.

This fall, I am looking forward to a WWE trip to Everest Base Camp.

All-female trips, courses and retreats provide a unique environment where women can truly flourish and push the envelope just a little bit further.

I Enjoy Teaching Other Women Paddling Maneuvers That Are Based On Technique And Finesse, Rather Than Brawn. My motto is “life should fit into your kayak.” Simplify, get rid of the excess baggage, carry only what you need, lighten the load and make room for new memories—live without regrets.

woman on a stand up paddle board
Holly Bishop. |Photo: Virginia Marshall

Holly Bishop

Age: 32

Location: Haliburton, Ontario and El Pescadero, Mexico

Occupation: SUP Instructor, Professional Mermaid and Boutique Owner

WOW Factor: Bishop has shaped her family’s lifestyle around the waters she loves—migrating between the highland lakes of her native Ontario and the magical surf beaches of Baja. Pursuing an endless summer requires creativity. With her husband, Pablo, she runs SUPnorth Paddle Board Adventures and Baja Surf SUP; her daughters, ages 12, 10 and six, help out with mermaid parties and the handmade creations in her traveling boutique, Gypsea’s Lifestyle.

Living on a beach in Mexico for five years and surfing everyday, I didn’t think SUP was that cool.

When I moved back to Haliburton, I missed the ocean so I started paddleboarding.

I was a stay-at-home mom and loved being out on the water with my girls. But I also needed some me time. I figured if I could get paid to hang out with other women while playing on the water, it would be the perfect job.

As a kid, I spent summers in the lake pretending to be a mermaid. A few years ago, my girls asked for mermaid tails they could swim in.

At first, It Was A Marketing Thing: Come Paddle Board With Mermaids. Then people started asking about just doing the mermaiding.

I’m not strict about schoolwork. Where we live, every day brings alternative learning: we’re swimming with whale sharks, watching sea turtles laying eggs, or seeing cephalopods that wash up on the beach.

This summer, I’ll have a 16-foot pop-up tent as an extension to my home. I live in a 33-foot motorhome with a husband, three kids, two dogs and a gecko, so I’m really excited to have a space for myself.

WOW is a safe space for women from all walks of life to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.

I feel most wild and free in the ocean, waiting for a wave and enjoying the sun on my skin and the water around me.

one woman holding a paddle one woman holding stone art
Dot Bonnenfant and Lynette Chubb. |Photo: Virginia Marshall

Dot Bonnenfant

Age: 68

Location: Chelsea, Quebec

Occupation: Canoe Instructor and Artist

WOW Factor: A lifelong paddler and instructor of all things canoeing, Dot is also a gifted artisan who creates incomparable heritage canoe paddles. Inspired by the flowing lines of the natural world, each unique design reflects its recipient and is etched into the paddle with a wood-burning tool. Like her love of canoeing, Dot’s paddles last a lifetime.

I can’t remember not knowing how to paddle. I was my dad’s bow paddler from my childhood until he passed away at age 90.

I thank my dad for my love of nature and canoeing, and Mat Bernard of Golden Lake First Nations for artistic inspiration. In 1935, Mat gifted my father a paddle with beautiful woodburned designs, which he used until his 89th birthday. It was and is my inspiration.

I started with simple designs for family members. Now I am working on paddle #550.

Cherry wood is my favorite. It has even grain and a beautiful color—the dark brown and black of pyrography shows dramatically.

Dot Bonnenfant taught whitewater canoeing for 25 years

I’m retiring this year to open a space for the young ‘uns.

Teaching is a great challenge. How do we find the right words, images, kinesthetic drills to really get the maneuvers…and the intangible magic coming with being in a canoe and learning what it, and you, can do?

Women who are just beginning to paddle or for the first time—being in the stern and determined to learn—inspire me the most.

WOW gives a centering time and place: we can converge, share, learn, laugh, encourage, inspire and be inspired… then take that back to our own communities.

When I am on a solo trip, when I am starting the day with the stretch of kilometers in front of me, in the moment when I push off from shore, when the scent of pines comes on the wind—those are wild times for me. The sense of being one with the world.

Lynette Chubb

Age: 59

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Occupation: Canoe Instructor and Artist

WOW Factor: Known affectionately to expedition canoeing aficionados as the “Queen of Ungava” for her familiarity with the remote rivers of arctic Quebec, Chubb’s generosity and expertise enable her students to enjoy their own wild journeys. Off the water, she is a talented artist who uses her paintbrushes to translate inspiration from her travels into decorative window art.

What draws me to the North? The open landscape. It’s the ultimate feeling of freedom—you can look around 360 degrees, there are endless possibilities of where you can go. And freedom from human beings, our impacts on the landscape.

They’re called the Barren Lands, but they are the opposite of that. There’s an extraordinary diversity of life forms you can see just by sitting still and looking closely.

When people see my acrylate, they assume it is stained glass, but I use museum-grade clear sheet acrylic, lead, glass embellishments, and glass paints. The versatility of painting on acrylic means I’m unrestricted by traditional glass cutting and assembling. It’s so much fun to design.

Dot is a mentor to me. It’s Really Incredible To Have Strong Women Friends. She’s someone I admire, someone who’s been through a lot of shit, so I know I can go through a lot of shit, too.

We did an all-women trip together on the Churchill River in Labrador. It was so relaxing and ended up being a way more personal trip. Evenings in the bug shelter, we could just talk or cry or laugh our guts out about anything—there was no limitation on what we could express.

Women-only events, trips or courses can seem a little exclusionary, but I think they are important enough that we need to banish that perception.

Learning From Female Instructors Was Crucial To My Development As A Paddler. Our bodies and brains work in the same way. I could believe everything they said.

woman one a white open kayak
Janice Nicholls. |Photo: Virginia Marshall

Janice Nicholls

Age: 54

Location: Owen Sound, Ontario

Occupation: Educator

WOW Factor: Nicholls got her first taste of paddling in bumpy seas on an open water canoe trip with Wild Women Expeditions. Despite spending much of the journey terrified of capsizing the canoe, she now seeks out wind and waves—having made the switch to kayaking.

When I went back to Lake Huron’s North Channel, we had a couple of days paddling in big, challenging waves and I loved it.

I’d been looking for the right kayak to just surf waves, but couldn’t really find what I wanted. A friend who paddles a surfski said I should get one, so I did.

When I’m On The Water Paddling With The Wind And Waves, I Actually Laugh Out Loud. I’m told Greenland paddles and surfskis don’t really go together, but I’m committed. I love that my paddle is handmade and light.

This summer I want to take an overnight trip and camp in my car somewhere on Lake Huron. It will help me prep for my long-term goal: to drive across Canada with my surfski and ride waves in Tofino.

There’s A Special Energy When A Group Of Women Who Love Being Outdoors Get Together. You can’t beat it. When I’m in that environment, I feel like I fit in. I don’t need to prove myself.

woman holding a paddle in from of a lake
Patricia Jones. |Photo: Virginia Marshall

Patricia Jones

Age: 52

Location: Tillsonburg, Ontario

Occupation: Elementary Schoolteacher

WOW Factor: Credit Jones’ years at the head of a classroom for her patient and purposeful teaching style. Alongside her husband, Rob, and 16-year-old son, Lucas, Jones has worked hard at growing her paddling skills and knowledge. Together, the family founded Otter Valley Paddle Sports and now offers kayaking instruction, guided tours,
rentals and sales.

When Lucas was 10, we tried kayaking with him. Right away, I felt peace, freedom and comfort. We knew that day this would be a match for our family in so many ways.

Now, Movie Night Often Means Watching Kayaking, Camping And Rolling Videos. I grew up in France. After my studies, I left to travel and ended up in St. Martin, a French and Dutch Island in the Caribbean. After 10 years working there, I was missing the four seasons and the landscapes of a big country.

I arrived in Canada in 2001. My husband is from Long Point on Lake Erie. The huge lake amazed me.

The more I learn through Paddle Canada, the more comfortable and confident I am in myself, and the more I’m planning new adventures.

My dream paddling trip is following the path of my ancestors through the Caribbean islands.

Being a Sea Scout leader as well, I know it is important to have a female in the team.

WOW is a great way to make friends. I met ladies who didn’t have anybody to paddle with, and by the end of the weekend, I could hear, “Eh, I live close by, I’ll paddle with you.”

If you are just discovering kayaking, hang on—it is a great sport for body and soul.

woman smiling with a guitar
Jennifer Holub. |Photo: Virginia Marshall

Jennifer Holub

Age: 34

Location: Sudbury, Ontario

Occupation: Singer-Songwriter and Canoe Guide

WOW Factor: Those who share their campsites and portage trails with Holub are rewarded with the Wild Women Expeditions guide’s soulful singing and strumming, as well as her expertise in a canoe. Holub’s rousing sing-a-longs and witty campfire badinage have become the highlight of evenings at Women on Water.

I started playing guitar and songwriting when I was 14, shortly after listening to Joni Mitchell for the first time.

My second full-length album, The Reckoning, will be released in early October. It is a hawkish condemnation of society’s place for women and an urgent call to rouse from it.

Sarah McLachlan and Ani Difranco are inspirations—they both laughed in the faces of critics who said that an all-female festival, record label, band, etcetera would never work.

My advice for first-time canoe trippers is: start with an overnighter, acquire gear as you go, borrow stuff to get by for now, and remember in camping there’s often more than one way to do it right. Above all else, respect the earth and leave no trace.

WOW is such a good idea. Having the chance to hone your craft at the start of the season can make the whole paddling experience a lot more enjoyable.

I feel most wild when I’m skinny-dipping in Temagami.

Paddling Is My Meditation, A Time To Reflect On My Life and Examine Fears

This lends well to my art; an uncluttered mind allows the creativity to flow more freely.

two women wearing paddling gear on boats
Emma and Pat Cummings-Winter. |Photo: Virginia Marshall

Emma & Pat Cummings-Winter

Age: 22 & 60

Location: Lockport, New York

Occupation: Optical Diagnostics Technician Library Clerk

WOW Factor: Pat started canoe camping with her husband and daughter, Emma, in the Adirondacks some 15 years ago. At Women on Water, mother and daughter sampled standup paddling and mermaiding, then took to the stage for lip sync night, channeling Shania Twain in dazzling sequined dresses.

I’ve had surgery on my knee and hand, and have had to work hard to regain strength and flexibility. Kayaking, Canoeing And SUP Allow Me To Still Get Out There And Do Stuff —PCW.

My 81-year-old friend, Margie Torrell, has infinite curiosity and is willing to try just about anything. Two years ago we took a trip to Alaska together—we hiked, biked, float-planed, rafted on a river in Denali and had a great adventure. I want to follow in her footsteps. —PCW

Who inspires me? My mom. She’s led and continues to lead this amazing and adventurous life, and for that I look up to her and strive to live my life as she does in as many ways as I can. —ECW

My Ultimate Paddling Companion Is My Daughter, For The Songs We Sing Together —PCW

I feel most wild when I am camping in the Adirondacks. I get up early and go directly to my kayak in search of wildlife and awe-inspiring views. —PCW

WOW brings together likeminded ladies who want nothing more than to experience the joys of paddling together and learning new things about others and themselves. —ECW

An all-female paddling event is important because it helps us to understand that women can do anything. When we support each other, it is empowering to us all—as well as a helluva lot of fun. —PCW

Virginia Marshall is the former editor of Adventure Kayak magazine. 


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