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The Canoe trip and The Hero's Journey

I had met a middle aged woman, Lois, who was interested in participating on one of the wilderness canoe trips that I had organized.  It was a seven day trip to Killarney Provincial Park which is in and around the North East edge of Georgian Bay ~ stunning white quartzite mountains and lakes that were so clear, it was more like being in one massive natural swimming pool, probably one of my favourite places I have swam.  There were areas where the cliff would come straight up from the water ~ we'd rock climb without ropes starting from the edge of the water ~ if we'd fall, we'd just land in the water.

Lois was concerned about holding up the group as everyone else would be at least 20 years or more younger than her.  I suggested that she come to a preliminary meeting at my place.  She came and feeling more confident after the meeting, she decided to come along; It was the first time she'd be embarking on a canoe trip.

Some years later, I wrote the following story about her using the stages of the Hero's Journey as outlined by the writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell...

       Leaving the familiarity of our everyday lives and entering into places we have never been before, is the common link between the canoe trip and the hero’s journey.  As with all journeys a person embarks on - especially those through unfamiliar terrain - there are deep-seated fears, challenges, and rewards.

       Having led people on canoe trips for ten years, I met many people who ventured - often for the first time in their lives - into the mysterious and unknown world of the wilderness.  They were all courageous as they joined a group of strangers with whom they’d work, share fears, overcome adversity, and celebrate accomplishments.  These participants put great trust in the hands of leaders who instructed them on wilderness canoe and camping skills and made every effort to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all participants.

       To illustrate the hero’s journey, I will recount a story of a middle-aged woman who joined a group on an eight-day wilderness canoe trip to Killarney Provincial Park (in Ontario).


The hero’s journey always begins in ‘the ordinary world’...

       Lois, a mother whose children have been independent for a few years, is now working at an insurance company.  Her husband is a teacher and is planning to retire in a few years.  They both work five days a week, visit with friends and family on weekends, and spend as much time as possible at their country cottage during the summer months.


Call to adventure…

       One day in April, on a lunch break, Lois is reading the travel section of the newspaper.  She notices a write-up about a company offering an eight-day wilderness canoe trip to Killarney Provincial Park in August. The article re-kindled a desire she’s had for a few years but which she would always find reasons to brush aside as silly and unrealistic.  This time, Lois cuts out the article and puts it in her pocket.


Refusal of the call…

       Lois, upon arriving back home that evening, mentions the canoe trip to her husband.  He is not interested in going.  Over the next few days, she discovers that none of her friends are interested in joining her on this trip.  Lois, once again, questions her motives for wanting to try something so new and challenging.  Many of her fears and self-doubts arise: the fear of being away from her family and friends, being in the wilderness with a group of strangers, her age and physical ability.  Feeling overwhelmed with self-doubt and very little outward emotional support, Lois puts the article in the bottom drawer of her desk. On a conscious level, she forgets about the whole idea.


Meeting with the mentor…

       In the middle of May, while Lois is cleaning out her drawer, she sees the article.  She says to herself, “I’ll be turning fifty this summer, if I don’t do it now, I never will.”  Lois immediately dials the phone number of the company offering the trip.  The person who answers introduces himself as the trip leader.  He has a soft voice and confidently responds to her many questions: the ages of the other participants, how physically challenging the route is, how many portages (carrying equipment on trails between lakes) there are, the food, what happens in bad weather, bears, emergencies, etc.  Lois’s enthusiasm begins to increase as she listens to the leader’s responses, which are obviously based on years of experience.  Near the end of the conversation, Lois asks for an application package.

       Lois sends in her registration form and deposit.  In July, a few weeks before the trip, Lois attends a pre-trip meeting at the trip leader’s house.  Even on her way to the meeting, she has second thoughts about the whole idea.  When she meets the group and discovers that everyone is at least twenty years younger, many of her fears return, especially the concern that she’ll slow the trip down and be a burden.  During the meeting, the route is discussed which Lois discovers includes two very challenging portages - one being the steepest in the park and the other being the longest (three thousand meters).  When Lois raises her concern about holding the trip up, the trip leader re-assures her that the trip is not about speed or physical strength but rather about teamwork and personal accomplishments.

       The meeting was a turning point for Lois.  The leader’s detailed planning, organization, and stories from years of leading trips, re-assured her that she was in very capable hands - physically as well as emotionally.


Crossing the first threshold…

       It is the night before the trip.  Lois is finishing her packing.  She goes over the list a few times to check that she is prepared.  Lois has difficulty getting to sleep that night and after she does, it is a fitful sleep. In the morning, she says “good-bye” to her husband and after loading up her car, picks up two of the other participants.  They drive north from Toronto to where the trip begins - on the shores of George Lake in Killarney.  There, they meet the rest of the group and share a lunch as they sit at a picnic table on the sandy beach.  Lois looks out across the calm, blue water to the far shore where white quartzite rocks rise out of the lake.  The warm sun shining through the deep blue sky comforts her and she begins to feel relaxed.  Before loading the canoes, the group has an introductory lesson.  Finally, getting into the canoes, they push off from shore and paddle down the long, narrow lake.


Tests, allies, and enemies…

       The first two portages are very short and Lois carries a heavy pack each time.  The group is very encouraging and supportive.  By mid-afternoon, Lois takes the stern position and within a few hours begins to feel comfortable steering the canoe.  After arriving at the campsite on the first day, Lois swims in the warm, clear waters.  The first night, Lois finds it difficult to get comfortable on her foam mattress in the tent.  It takes her a while to get to sleep.  Late at night, she is woken up by noises outside the tent.  Her heart begins to pound as she imagines the worst case scenario: a bear.  She grabs her flashlight and unzips the tent.  Shining her light around the campsite, she sees a raccoon near the fire pit.  Knowing that the food has been hung in the tree, she lies back down and falls into a deep sleep.  She awakes to the sounds of bird calls and is happy that morning has arrived.

       It is during the first twenty-four hours of the trip when Lois’s confidence increases dramatically as she learns new skills such as: paddling, portaging, building fires, cooking meals, and setting up camp.  Over the next few days, she tackles greater challenges: longer portages, building a fire in the rain, learning how to paddle a canoe by herself.  As she becomes more comfortable with her ability and her role in the group, she begins to see more of the beauty of the area that she is passing through.


Approaching the inmost cave…

       On day five, after dinner, the group paddles into the open waters of Georgian Bay.  They float in the canoes and watch the sunset.  The trip leader reminds the group of the steep portage the next day.  When they return to their campsite they go to sleep before it is dark.  Lois has difficulty sleeping that night as her fears mount regarding the imminent challenging task of the next day. 

       The next morning, Lois awakes with anxiety and anticipation as she knows that most of the day will be spent tackling the steepest portage in the park.  After a full breakfast, the group loads up the canoes and paddles to the beginning of the portage.


Supreme ordeal…

       The group splits up into pairs and they’re encouraged to take frequent rest stops and drink a lot of water. Lois finds the uphill climb with her pack extremely difficult - her legs ache, her breathing is shallow.  On a few occasions she simply doesn’t know how she’s going to make it.  Her partner is very supportive and encouraging and their frequent stops allow her to regain strength.  Finally, after hours of hard walking, they arrive at the top of the ascent.  Some group members have already returned to the beginning of the portage to get a second load of gear.  Once all the gear has been brought to the top, the group takes a long break at a lake just off the trail.  It is a warm day and they all swim in the clear waters.  They eat lunch and rest in the shade of the trees along the shore.  Lois is very proud of herself knowing that the hardest part of the portage is over.  By mid-afternoon, they finally reach the end of the portage.  They paddle off to find their campsite.

       Two days later, they wake up to the sound of rain on their tents.  Lois knows that the trail on the three thousand meter portage that awaits will be even more challenging because of the weather.  After breakfast and a short paddle they begin to walk.  Lois sets a steady pace for herself and her partner.  At one spot, they come across a boggy area filled with mud.  A few logs lay across it.  Lois, afraid of falling off a slippery log, sets off with short, carefully placed steps.  She is wet and begins to perspire as she makes her way across this potentially dangerous crossing.  Her partner congratulates her as she steps off the log and back onto solid ground.  At the end of the portage, everyone is tired, wet, and hungry.  They have a snack and paddle off to find a campsite.



       After arriving at the campsite, tents are set up and people change into dry clothing.  By mid-afternoon, the clouds have cleared away and the warm sunshine dries their clothing that has been hung up to dry.  Lois, seeing a ten-foot high rock ledge along the shore near the campsite, decides to paddle over on her own.  When she arrives there, she ties the canoe to the shore and climbs the rock ledge.  Jumping off the ledge, she yells, ‘yahoo’ on her way down into the water.  After dinner that evening, the group paddles out into the calm lake and they float and listen to the beautiful sounds of nature and notice the pink clouds in the darkening sky.  Later that evening, the group sits around the campfire drinking tea, watching the stars, and laughing as they recount some of the highlights of the trip.  Lois, when she lies down to go to sleep, realizes how comfortable she has come to feel in the wilderness and wishes she could stay there longer.  She feels proud of herself for having the courage to embark on this wilderness canoe experience in Killarney.


The road back…

       On the last morning, there is a strong wind blowing and high waves on the lake.  The group is instructed to kneel in their canoes.  Lois is steering her canoe and does a remarkable job keeping it at an angle to the waves so the canoe does not get swamped.



       At the last portage before the final lake, the group gathers together in a circle.  The leader guides them through an exercise in which they focus on each of their senses.  As Lois stands there in the circle, she realizes that she has come to know the wilderness in a way she never had before.  As they paddle back along the last lake, Lois is quiet as she allows herself to fully experience the beauty of the wind, water, mountains, forests, and freshness of the land.


Return with the elixir…

       Upon Lois’s return to the city, she shares - through her stories and photos - the beauty of the wilderness that she passed through and the challenges that she overcame.  This sharing enables her family and circle of friends to glimpse into the world of the wilderness that Lois discovered.  Perhaps her courage and determination will inspire those that know her to pursue one of their own dreams.


       For Lois, the following through on her initial impulse after reading the article, led her through all the stages of the hero’s journey.  Since she had the courage to see this through to completion, she gained a greater sense of self-confidence.  When she is confronted with other challenges in her life, she’ll be able to call on that greater strength that became a part of her during the summer of 1995.

       The life of the hero is a life of growth. The hero does not watch the world pass by but instead he/she sees challenges as opportunities for living a full and meaningful life. The ‘return’ of the hero is vitally important so that the ‘special’ knowledge, skill, etc. that has been learned, can be infused into and nourish the society to which the hero returns.  Others, hearing stories of successfully completed heroic journeys, may be inspired to take on a challenge that they have always wanted to but never thought possible.

       Like the canoe trip, there must be a definite ending to any heroic journey: a diploma, a marriage, the discovery of one’s vocation, completing a building project, writing an article, overcoming an addiction or a long-buried psychological trauma, learning a new skill, a new language.  Each heroic journey - no matter how small - is like a building block which enables one to undertake challenges that they may have previously thought were too difficult or impossible to achieve.

       The theme of the hero’s journey can be seen in much of the world’s great literature and through the lives of many people throughout the ages.  But often, the most inspiring examples are people in our everyday lives.  Although most people associate ‘journeys’ with the physical world, some of the most challenging and important heroic journeys are essentially inner ones - from sadness to joy, fear to courage, insecurity to confidence, anger to compassion, failure to success.


The following is a summary of the stages of the hero’s journey…


The Ordinary World - The hero is seen in the ordinary, mundane world before being called to enter a ‘new’ and alien world.

Call to Adventure - Some challenge is presented to the hero after which he/she can no longer remain in the familiarity of the ordinary world.

Refusal of the Call - The hero is usually confronted with an inner fear - terror of the unknown.  At this stage, the hero retreats from the ‘call to adventure’.

Meeting with the Mentor - The mentor or guide helps the person on the heroic journey overcome their fears and self-doubts.  The mentor is someone who has already passed through the ‘terrain’ that the hero is being presented with and therefore can help guide (wilderness guide, therapist, parent, teacher, etc.). Ultimately, the hero must face the unknown alone.

Crossing the First Threshold - The hero becomes fully committed to the ‘call to adventure’ and to entering the ‘special world’ that he/she has been called to.

Tests, Allies, Enemies - Once the hero has entered this ‘special world’ the hero is confronted with tests and enemies.  The hero makes allies to help him/her overcome the challenges that try to thwart them from their goal.  At this stage, the hero begins to learn the rules of the special world they’ve entered. 

Approaching the Inmost Cave - This stage occurs just before the hero has to confront the supreme ordeal.  It is common for the hero to pause at this stage and hesitate in proceeding forward.

Supreme Ordeal - The hero has to face and overcome his/her greatest fear/challenge.

Reward - The hero acknowledges his/her courage for overcoming the Supreme Ordeal.

The Road Back - Some challenges can still occur as the hero returns to the ordinary world but the hero now has the inner resources to cope with whatever surprises may still arise.

Resurrection - The hero is transformed in some way and is able to return to the ‘ordinary’ world with new knowledge and insight.

Return with Elixir - The hero returns to the ordinary world.  This is a crucial stage as upon the hero’s return, he/she must share what has been discovered - some lesson, knowledge, wisdom or treasure that was discovered by the hero during his/her journey.


For further reading on the hero’s journey, the books by Joseph Campbell trace this theme through history and the world’s cultures (The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a good one to start with). There is also a video series by PBS in which Bill Moyers interviews Mr. Campbell.

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