Imagine this scene: It’s sunset. A striped Hudson Bay Company point blanket is spread out near the fire. A matching hand-painted wood-canvas canoe sits on shore center-left, with a mossy green canvas pack resting against its bow. A fire crackles, curls of smoke rising, and a bottle of Irish whisky rests next to an enamel mug stamped with a John Muir quote—maybe it reads, “The mountains are calling.” Sounds perfect, right? The answer is a question of Instagram vs. reality.

Instagram peddles perfection

A shot like the one described above has 45,000 likes on Instagram. Bonus points if you can work in a ukulele, antique hurricane lantern and string of fairy lights. I’ve seen so many variations inspired by the original, each one trying to one-up the rest with the next best fabricated presentation of perfection.

Instagram users are pressing the like button 3.1 billion times a day.

Followers don’t see the hours of tediousness invested into capturing this one outrageously perfect moment. We don’t see the work it takes to align the gear, sunlight, smoke signals and hang those twee tinkle lights just so.

If we had only social media to inform us of what canoe tripping looks like, we’d have completely unrealistic expectations about the backcountry.

In reality it’s not that easy

What Instagram so rarely shows is the side of canoe tripping not so splendidly picture perfect. There are bugs. Sometimes, long and steep portages. And when real people get sweaty it’s rarely in an attractive and dewy morning-glow sort of way. Instead, think wet, red, swollen, haggard faces.

When things are hard—someone is cold and tired or battling a ferocious headwind—it usually doesn’t feel like a cool Kodak moment. And without the crack-of-dawn lighting, oversaturated filter presets and Adobe Photoshop, our campsites, landmarks and routes look a little different. They look real. See a celebrities-without-makeup spread in People magazine, it’s kind of the same thing.

Instagram users are pressing the like button 3.1 billion times a day. From our own Paddling Magazine feed we know the most popular paddling shots are typically the ones featuring moody lighting, beautiful vistas and unidentifiable paddlers. Many theories abound why this is, but we believe it’s because viewers imagine themselves in the landscape and live vicariously through the photo. Who doesn’t want to insert themselves along a gorgeous shoreline, in a handcrafted canoe under a blue bird sky?

[ See also: Top 7 Photography Tips For Paddlers ]

Yet those picture-perfect, serene moments we love to double-tap don’t match what we actually share of memorable canoe tripping moments.

Instagram is valued at upwards of $50 billion and boasts 800 million active monthly users sharing 95 million photos and videos a day.

Canoe tripping isn’t always picture perfect

Memories aren’t made of perfectly lit campsites and staged fireside whisky ads. My best memories are of gritty, hard moments—fighting exhaustion during the second sleepless night of the 715-kilometer Yukon River Quest—and the joyous ones—carving into an eddy after a whitewater run I was sure we would swim.

According to the Australian University of Queensland’s Brain Institute, I’m not alone. Strong emotions build robust memories. You probably remember your first kiss, or where you were when you found out planes flew into the Twin Towers. This happens because the amygdala, which is activated by emotional events, boosts memory encoding by enhancing attention and perception.

Social media is a big business. Instagram is valued at upwards of $50 billion and boasts 800 million active monthly users sharing 95 million photos and videos a day. In deciding the question of Instagram vs. reality, authentic emotion might be the only thing Instagram is lacking. Close to 70 percent of top performing posts feature a product. You can be sure the majority of the most popular posts are curated. It’s one big smoke show.

Reality beats Instagram every time

The beautiful moments we cherish—success through a trick stretch of rapids, belly laughing to tears with friends or racing for shelter under a threatening sky—are imperfect.

At those times, we’re caught up in the moment. Reaching for a camera doesn’t occur to us, and the question of Instagram vs. reality is decided. Despite not being photographed, the moment still happened. We liked it. And we shared it with friends. Sound familiar?

This article was first published in Issue 54 of Paddling Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

Kaydi Pyette is the managing editor of Paddling Magazine. Most of her Instagram posts are about her new puppy. Who doesn’t like puppies? 


  1. I can’t like this enough! You never tell stories about that trip that went perfectly, you tell the stories of the worst ones and look back and laugh… Misadventure is the name of the game when it comes to camping!

  2. Lots of assumptions and presumptions about why people post what they do and what the motivation is for liking a photo….and a bit of snobbery, too. So what if you had a harrowing experience, a rough portage or lost a round in the rapids…spare me your angst, You’re not the only one who’s had those experiences, so I still prefer to see what you found exciting and visually stimulating on your journey…A beautiful sunset as opposed to your broken paddle or your rain-soaked tent – YES, absolutely!

  3. No serious canoe tripper would be carrying that heavy bulky gear for starters. One remembers the unexpected—the storm appearing from nowhere while you are crossing a huge lake, ten beaver dams in half a day, bears on the portage, you know—fun! As a professional musician, the ansolute best music I have ever experienced was never recorded—it just happened spintaneously when someone started playing and others joined in. You can imitate this, but never capture it.
    Thanks for your articles Kadyi, I have been enjoying them.

  4. your writing is wonderful. enjoyable to read. in the year + we have been in Florida the number of kayak & canoe clubs on Facebook has exploded. we are members of the On Top of the World Kayak & Canoe Club and go on 2 or more trips a month. retirees make up a large portion of the paddling community and have the money to spend. keep doing what you love…..


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