Animikii means thunderbird in Ojibwe. In their mythology they are eagles with supernatural power and strength who fight the underwater spirits. So it seemed a sign of good fortune that thunder shook the sky four of the seven days it took to paddle this 100km section. Most of those days were spent on the shore waiting for calm water, it actually only took 18 hours of paddling. My friend Karen lives in Thunder Bay and has been helping out with logistics since early July. She had been biting at the bit to experience  some of this journey with me so we paddled the Animikii together. We met in Whistler in the early 1990’s. I was working as a photojournalist for the Whistler Question and she was pursuing her passion for ballet skiing.  Here is her blog post about the journey.

The Animikii  by Karen Arnold 

Gwimuu rose and fell as volumes of water swelled and subsided beneath us. Dee guessed that these waves were residual movement from the storms and wind of the previous few days. I was thankful for the lack of motion sickness, something that had followed me for years after a head injury. I was able to enjoy the colourful sunset, the rising near-full moon, the light streaming through columns of Renaissance clouds, and the rock-n-tree coastal views. But once twilight had passed, I could feel the extra energy it took to navigate in moon light, and the ebb and flow of the swell was a constant reminder of just how much water was in this great lake. We had to stay attentive to her.

            Hours later, my mood change was the first real sign of my diminishing energy. I really needed to stop paddling, even for 10 minutes, but we needed to be closer to the shoreline first. We made a plan to stop for a break, and once we rounded McKellar Point, we began to search for an appropriate landing spot. (According to the map, there was a campsite here, but high water had washed out all previous campsites along this route so we weren’t holding our breath on this one.) The crashing surf we’d just steered clear of along Caldwell and Sucker islands and the rock cliffs south of Crystal Bay now gave way to a more quiet shore. Breaking surf leaves white water, easily seen in moonlight, and the shoreline we now gazed upon had none of it. And yet, there was still something that unnerved me about it. The swell that heaved and ho’d continued to lift and lower us.

“Perhaps the far side of this bay will be more sheltered from the effects of the swell,” I offered.

“Too far – we need a break now.” Dee was confident that this was the place, and with 1000 kilometers of paddling this lake behind her, I deferred to her judgement, even as I questioned my own perceptions of this landing.

We moved towards a shore of large, flat, rounded stones that rose steeply but seemed to level out near the tree-line some 10 meters up. But it was the water that perplexed me. Several days later, I was able to reason that the steepness of the shore meant that the water deepened quickly, thus its ability to hold the large swelling mass. It was this sheer volume of water that was freaking me out! Although I have paddled throughout my entire life, the scene that was unfolding – that we were both a part of – was completely new to my perception. Memory of how to accommodate these conditions did not serve me here. Moonlight, though beautiful, allowed limited contrast. We floated on a swollen, black, shiny mass which, to my mind, seemed to be pouring us downhill onto that rocky shore. It messed with my head.

I’ve had a week now to process this and it has given me much chance for reflection. It made me think about how we, as adult human beings, prefer familiarity to the unknown. In familiar settings, we know how to act. The neuroscientist in me understands that this means that neural connections are established among a multitude of brain areas: emotion, motor activity, visual modalities… The philosopher in me sees areas for study and contemplation. But the cancer survivor in me finds a metaphor that takes me to a pretty dark place – to dark memories I’d prefer to avoid. Moving through breast cancer from diagnostics to treatment to recovery from the treatment was so much like this; a new situation for which I had no previous experience to rely on. There were no memories to guide my decisions. I had to rely on the insight of others. I had to trust. And sitting here, inspired by reflecting on a moonlit beach landing, I realized that throughout my cancer experience, trust was a limited resource. Mostly, I was flying blind. I trusted the woman in the Introduction to Chemo class, when she told me that I’d have a team of people working together on my behalf. I trusted her when she showed me the three options for getting the chemo into my body, and that I could make my own decision as to which method I wanted to use. Very quickly, though maybe not quick enough, I learned that this frontline person was not actually in sync with the chemo department.

“Where’s your pic line??” the chemo nurse cried in horror when I showed up for the first treatment.

“Oh, I decided to go with an IV for the first three treatments so I can continue to swim. When the weather changes, I’ll get a pic line.” I was secure in my decision. I had trusted the nice lady who told me that it was my decision to make, so I knew that I had the right to do so. The bugged eyes of the chemo nurse, however, should have raised my suspicion but I wouldn’t learn until the second treatment that the Red Devil could, and would, kill the small arm vein into which it was injected. When my vein began to tighten, causing pain through my entire forearm from elbow to wrist, no one would tell me what was happening. Each professional person I asked  would cringe and say “Chemo is hard on the veins”. But what did that actually mean?? Finally, after my sixth inquiry, one chemo nurse looked me square in the eye and told me that, basically, I had a chemical burn in my vein. That the vein was trying to shrink, and that I had to keep stretching it, never stop. This is why they kept telling me that I should have a pic line. The chemo would be deposited into a much larger artery and this type of thing wouldn’t happen.

Wow. Shock. Numbing shock. Why was this side effect not mentioned in the Intro to Chemo class? How could they leave out such an important piece of information and still trust people to make informed decisions? Extremely important informed decisions. I’d been duped. I was so grateful to this honest and upright nurse who gave me the information I sought, information that had been kept from me, even when I asked again and again and again. My trust for administrators went downhill from there. Suspicion grew. Trust ebbed and flowed throughout my treatment, just like the swell on gitchigumi. I trusted my chemo nurses, I suspected the doctors; I trusted my friends, I suspected anyone in an administrative position who tried to give me advice. There was never a calm sea throughout my treatment. I realized now that so much had to do with trust. I had very little of it.

Now, here I was, approaching the unknown or so it seemed. Dee’s voice was sure and calm. I told myself that the downhill slope of water I saw was an optical illusion. Interestingly, although no mental memory existed, when we hit the shore, muscle memory kicked in. I hopped out and grabbed the line as I’d done many times throughout my life, and held the canoe securely on shore. We quickly unloaded the heavy items so we could drag it further up the beach. Enroute to tie the rope to a tree, I caught a lasting image of Dee. Dragging the kitchen bag in her left hand, I saw her bend down on one knee to light a hollowed birch bark log that lay across her path. Instantaneously, flames erupted. “Ha ha, we’re gonna have a fire” she laughed as she added driftwood twigs to the flame, also within reach. In all of three minutes, we’d landed, secured the boat, and were warming ourselves by a fire. Amazing. Amazing! I was still stunned, partly delirious with fatigue, partly wanting to understand what had just happened with my perception. I just stared at this incredibly efficient, strong woman, busying herself with the tasks at hand. The coffee was already on and she rummaged through the lunch bag, so in tune with the needs of the moment. Trust and love and gratitude is what I felt at that moment. What a trustworthy partner in this paddling adventure.