It was going to take us a good hour to make the big water crossing. The wind was blowing straight into our bow and every third or fourth wave capped before rolling. My daughter, Kyla, helped prepare for the rough paddle by shifting the packs and the dog to better trim the canoe. She tightened her chin strap on her rain hat, braced her knees to the sides of the boat, and begged me to tell her one of my silly stories to make the time go by more quickly—and ease our anxiety.
“Once upon a time, in a place far, far away there lived an evil toad and a princess with very hairy armpits,” I began.
It was a proud moment for me. Even though my daughter recently mutated into a pre-teen, she still thinks it’s cool to listen to one of my farfetched yarns—for now, anyways.
A lot has changed over the first 10 years of tripping together. Now Kyla carries her own pack, paddles even when no one tells her, sleeps with only one stuffy, does at least half her camp chores and whittles her own marshmallow sticks.
There are some downfalls, of course. She leaves her bras hanging from the clothesline, gets dramatic over the slightest things, continues to tell me I don’t understand, shaves her legs in my cooking pots and wants to sleep in every morning.
I’ll take a few negatives, however. Kyla is great company. We tripped more days together this past summer than her friends spent at the beach—and she’s proud of it.
I know I’m a lucky single dad.
Enjoying wilderness canoe trips together means juggling the roles of protective father, knowledgeable wilderness guide and goofy camp counsellor. We sing songs, play games, and bake birthday cakes for no reason. We get down on our hands and knees to look at tiny seedlings and insects on the forest floor, sometimes referencing our field guide if we don’t recognize them. And I try to swallow my parental instincts and let her make her own mistakes.
I do all this because Kyla has grown up loving the wilderness and canoe tripping, and I want to keep it that way. The joys and miseries of backbreaking portages and 50-kilometer days can wait until she’s older. I want canoe tripping to be fun so she keeps wanting more. And, so far, it’s working.
Most importantly, Kyla is part of each trip we go on from planning to completion. She’s not just tagging along. She’s invested in the adventure. I think it’s this small bit of ownership in her world, which is otherwise largely dictated by adult-enforced rules, that keeps her so in love with it.
On that big open water crossing my tale grew until our anxieties were forgotten. I told her of a stone castle guarded by a giant, venomous toad and a clever princess who braided her hairy armpits into lengths of rope to escape the tower. When we reached the far shore I paused the story until we had carried over to the next lake. Then I continued the tale, adding a caramel lake surrounded by a wild forest populated with emus and a wizard with a candy cane wand.
“And the princess and the wizard went on to have many more adventures together. And they all lived happily ever after,” I finished as we arrived at the take-out. “Except for the toad—he died.”
Stepping on land, I was rewarded with a big hug.
“I love you, Dad,” Kyla whispered to me. “I can’t wait for our next trip.”
Kevin Callan is a wilderness guide and author, and considers himself the luckiest dad in the world. Butt End is a regular column in Canoeroots. Watch THE CANOE an award-winning film that tells the story of Canada’s connection to water and how paddling in Ontario is enriching the lives of those who paddle there. #PaddleON.