I've been going on canoe trips since I was ten years old. Each year, the trips seem to get longer and harder. Our canoe trip in the summer of 2002 was one I will never forget. (Actually, you never forget a canoe trip, even the "bad" ones, if there is such a thing.)
For starters, we would be canoeing the historic Hood River located in Nunavut in the Arctic, the river made famous by Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Our starting point would be a small lake with no name, marked only by its elevation of 414 meters (1,240 feet) above sea level. We would be picked up by floatplane in Bathurst Inlet, a tiny place with a population of about twenty located in the Arctic Ocean.
Another thing that made the trip memorable for me was our minyan. We recruit 15 to 20 friends each year. We usually end up with six or eight people (an even number is needed for running rapids), but this year we had ten, meaning five boats, five tents, and lots of food.
It also meant I could say Kaddish.
You see, my mother passed away the previous fall at the age of 54 so I was still in my year of mourning. I had been going to synagogue twice daily, whether I was at home or on vacation. Knowing what our usual turnout was like, I didn't know what I was going to do about saying Kaddish. But it happened all on its own -- without making a request for ten paddlers, that's exactly what we got.
The feeling and knowledge that she was with me was always there. It was very reassuring.
The trip would last 15 days on the river. We would paddle past huge ice fields that had not yet retreated from the previous winter. We saw musk ox, caught fish at will, and shot countless sets of raging rapids, were in awe at the indescribable sight of Wilberforce Falls.
Before I shoot any set of rapids, I get very nervous. But throughout this entire trip I had an overwhelming feeling of assurance that the canoe would not overturn. I truly felt that my mother was watching over me and guiding my canoe. I was still nervous before every set. I still had to scout the set to see what lay ahead and to plan the best route. I still had to respect the fact that I was above the Arctic Circle and that overturning in the frigid waters (38 degrees Fahrenheit) could be disastrous. But I knew I was not going to tip. Even when a friend and I decided to lower our canoe into the canyon below Wilberforce Falls and paddle our way out, the feeling and knowledge that she was with me, that we would paddle it through without incident, was always there. It was very reassuring.
The memory I have taken away from this expedition, one that will never leave me, is of the last night on the river. We had woken up that day to a strong headwind funneling down to the river from the ocean. This meant that for every forward stroke we made, the wind would push us back two strokes. During the Arctic summer, it never gets any darker than a normal dusk. We decided to relax at the campsite and wait until the winds calmed down before we made our final push to the ocean. We got in our canoes at 8 p.m., but with the amount of light out, you would have thought it was one in the afternoon.
We arrived at our final destination, where our planes would be meeting us the next morning, the place where the tundra ends and the Arctic Ocean begins. This was to be our final campsite. By this time it was after midnight. We set up camp and made our second fire of the trip (since we were above the tree line, there were no trees to burn), and I found a comfortable place to daven. When it was time for Kaddish, it was well after 1 a.m. and the period of dusk had begun. There were no trees or mountains to obstruct the view, and the sun was setting to my left.
The sunset was magical, crimson and gold, and it seemed to stretch for thousands of miles. The entire northwestern sky was on fire, and I found myself surrounded by the sunset as I prayed. This was a place where I could feel that my mother was truly with me, a place where I could feel God's Presence -- a place of indescribable beauty, harmony, and true balance, and somehow I was fortunate enough to be invited inside. I'll never forget that night.