Wild waves crash across my kayak as I try to paddle forward, to stay on course. Wind whips up the waves as water drips from behind my head down my back, seeping under my life jacket. I feel the wet sensation against my skin. In no time, I am drenched to the bone as I continue slogging, paddling toward the bay ahead which will be more sheltered from the wind. It still looks far away.
We are eight boats against the elements, including two very experienced young guides. One of them brings up the rear, tossing me encouraging messages across the waves. His cries “Great going,” and “You’ve got this,” help me to persist. It’s a bit of a marathon performance to cross this channel on our very first day out. The sky is dark now, having shifted quickly from the warm haze that shone when we left shore. We have five days to explore the North Channel together, a part of Lake Huron north of Manitoulin Island in Ontario.
I am making some progress against the blustery wind, should be able to reach the bay in about 20 minutes. I just have to keep moving. Always keep the paddle in the water in waves, in order to steady the kayak. My muscles are flagging, but I keep going. Trying to keep my hands from sliding down the shaft of the paddle, I dip and swing to the other side. It is a constant, rhythmic motion that slowly propels me against the wind and waves toward the opposite shore where the stronger paddlers are already beginning to gather.
I read somewhere that a wave you face is not an obstacle but an opportunity. An opportunity to learn about yourself and prove your strength. An opportunity to develop new skills and come out wiser. Fine words that seem rather high and mighty right now. In the trenches of this journey, I am too focussed on moving forward inch by inch to contemplate their deeper meaning.
I am sweaty but I cannot smell my fear. Rather I rise to the challenge, feel exhilarated and persist. With the guide’s encouragement I give a final push and we move out of the wind and into the bay. What a relief! I am soaked and full of wonder at the waves and wind that challenged us right off the bat. A robust feeling of accomplishment accompanies me as I munch on a power bar, hoping to glean more energy for the paddling still ahead.
In years gone by this setting was interpreted gloriously by members of the Group of Seven, landscape painters in the 1920’s. They captured in their paintings the undulating pink granite rock that characterizes the land surrounding North Channel. I sense their presence as we prepare again to set out. This time our plan is to hug the shore, avoiding the worst of the wind, and to search for a campsite for the night. Our hope is to paddle only for another hour before setting up camp. I feel weary but determined to complete this day’s challenging journey. I have business to attend to.
Swim strong little man
Looking up, I notice the sunset has begun. Multiple shades of orange and pink brush the western sky. I clamber down the warm, pink granite rocks to a scraggy point at the shoreline. The rock was a little bit slippery and I’m glad to have made it down to the water safely. It is relatively calm in the early evening’s light when we slip away to complete our task, the main reason for this trip to the North Channel.
Thirty-one years ago, almost to the day, my son Jake was conceived on the Benjamin Islands which I can see far across the bay. Today I will lay him to rest, scattering his ashes in this extraordinarily beautiful setting. He died fifteen years ago and only now am I ready to let him go.
Jake was a beautiful boy with soulful blue eyes that erupted into smiles at the flicker of light in his face. He was unable to sit, stand or speak and received nourishment through a feeding tube to bypass his raspy breathing. And yet, with a voice that sounded like the cooing of a pigeon, he communicated his pleasure and discomfort. Sadly, he was destined to die young.
His short life bestowed untold richness upon mine. While he was alive and for some time after, I wrote and advocated on behalf of children like him. My life was full as his younger sister joined me in pickets and panels to advance the needs of kids with disabilities and all children. Jake’s passing was not unexpected, but it was still jarring, leaving an indescribable emptiness.
This evening, in this spectacular place, I am carrying a medium size yogurt container filled with his remains. The ashes sparkle in the light as I take a small handful and toss them over the still water. Some ash clings to the rock below while the rest creates a translucent, milky soup just below me. Gradually I scatter the contents of the container and watch the water as it flows. A good rain, such as we expect that night, will fully disperse the ash into the Channel.
I am wrenched by sadness -- it is the ultimate letting go. And yet, I also experience a certain feeling of peace. “Swim strong little man,” I think to myself. “You’re free now.” When Jake died, a First Nations friend told me that Jake was now ‘free to run, the wind in his hair’. This evening I remember those words and they again bring me some solace.
And yet, in the tent at night I am restless. In that ethereal state between dreamscape and wakefulness, I envisage that milky water again. As I watch, a young spirit boy miraculously emerges and swims away. I can see his strawberry blond hair and lanky frame. It is my Jakey. Again, I am filled with that strange combination of sadness and peace as he strokes away into the near distance. Quietly, I again say goodbye to my sweet firstborn.