In her new memoir “Tumblehome” (named after the part of a canoe which gives it stability in the water), Madawaska Valley writer Brenda Missen reinvents the solo wilderness canoe trip as part spiritual search, part steamy true romance love story, part wilderness trip journal and part ‘dear diary’ personal revelation.
Lying awake in mortal terror of bears in a flimsy tent on a rocky campsite in Algonquin Park, portaging a heavy canoe and packs, sleeping on a sliver of inflated pad spread on a tent floor in a rainstorm and eating instant oatmeal directly from the pot, inspire contemplative thought in her story.
Ms. Missen, who reads on the final evening of the Bonnechere Union Public Library’s Author Festival on July 25, turned to memoir at the urging of a friend who suggested she write a combination “‘how to guide’ and memoir” about her solo canoe trips. The idea intrigued Ms. Missen, an avid journal keeper since the age of 12, who has filled over 200 notebooks over the years and always takes a notebook on her trips to record the events of the day.
“Nothing much happens on my canoe trips -- thankfully”, she says, the presence of bears notwithstanding, but the idea of interspersing trip chronicles with flashbacks to her interior personal journey was intriguing.
For Ms. Missen much of that interior journey is built on the intersection of spirituality and nature. She says, “As a teenager in the 1970s, I attended Pioneer Camp, a Christian summer camp with evangelical leanings. We paddled canoes to an outdoor chapel across the lake on Sundays, and sang and prayed under tall pine trees, and shared our spiritual experiences around a campfire. Camping in the woods and faith had become unconsciously intertwined in my psyche.”
The second more conscious strand came after a particularly painful relationship break-up with the man who introduced her to the Madawaska Valley. She recalled, “I realized I didn’t feel worthy of being loved, not just by my beau but by anyone.”
Ms. Missen recognized a connection between her Anglican upbringing and her feelings of unworthiness partly rooted in the self-negating prayers to a God which labeled her “a miserable offender—not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table.”
Grieving the loss of her boyfriend, she would go for slow walks in the woods near her Madawaska River home.
“I became aware of a Presence in the rocks and trees and the river and in all the little creatures going about their business. It was a loving Presence, the Divine – Love. I knew I was not alone.”
That awareness gave her the courage to embark on her first solo loop in 2000.
“My experience of the Divine deepened on each trip, and my solo canoe trips really became like spiritual retreats. I’m immersed in the Earth and her gifts. I’m aware, attentive.”
Unlike the pleasurable camaraderie of canoeing with companions, her solitary experiences show her how to listen to the small voice inside.
“I realized I go on these solo trips to remember how I want to be – how to walk in alignment with the ‘All Who is in Everything’. I try to take that sense of alignment – and listening – back to my ‘real’ life, so I can be a more compassionate, giving person.”
That “alignment” and intuitive listening has put her in the path of fellow trippers in need of assistance, including a life-saving episode with a pair of inexperienced paddlers who misjudged the power of the wind and waves on one of Algonquin’s large lakes.
Ms. Missen also knows the vulnerability of being a woman alone in the back country.
“I’ve had men ask where I’m camping and maybe they’re just making conversation, but I evade the question. I think men often genuinely don’t realize the effect their words or actions have on women because they don’t have the same sense of vulnerability.
“Of course, most people camping in the park are there because they love the outdoors as much as you do and are just being friendly. But the reality is as a woman travelling alone, I have to be extra cautious”, she says.
Her first encounters with the Madawaska Valley and with the vast wilderness of Algonquin came from a meeting and an instant connection with the park warden who she hoped would become her “One True Paddling Partner”.
“He introduced me to the Madawaska Highlands and, even though our relationship didn’t last, I knew I wanted to move here – I had found my Shield country.”
The tale of that romance and a subsequent one with another avid but married outdoorsman are intertwined with the challenges of paddling, portaging and camping alonein bear country.
Ms. Missen’s “One True Paddling Partner” turned out to be a canine companion named Maddy (part Australian Shepherd, part Akita) who came into her life in late 2008 as a puppy.
“We were together nearly 13 years until her death last summer and we did 22 canoe trips in all, of which a dozen were just the two of us. Because it was just the two of us (I mean in our life together not just on trips), Maddy and I had a very close and special bond. She took to canoeing and camping as if she were born to them – or as if she knew how important they were to me.”
On one nine-day trip in a remote part of Algonquin, Ms. Missen had a major realization that, “I was not an interloper in the wilderness, that there was just as much a place for me there as for the animals, and I knew no bears were going to bother me. That really was an epiphany moment, when I realized that we humans are not ‘separate’ from the natural world but just as much a part of it as the birds and animals, that we all have a place in it.”
She has found her niche in writing personal essays and memoirs. Solo paddling remains a huge part of her life.
“I live on my own, on the Madawaska River, and whenever the river isn’t frozen, I’m out in my cedar-canvas canoe. I especially love to explore the channels in Conroy’s Marsh to catch glimpses of the beavers, ducks, herons, turtles and deer, as well as the occasional otter and bittern. And I still go on solo canoe trips into Algonquin every year – I’ve been solo tripping for nearly 25 years now.”
‘Tumblehome: One Woman’s Canoeing Adventures in the Divine Near Wilderness’ with its evocative cover painting by Wilno’s Linda Sorensen is available through Indigo, at bookstores in the Ottawa Valley, including Pilgrim Books in Combermere and the Madawaska Kanu Centre and directly from the publisher Inanna.ca or from the author at her website at www.brendamissen.com.
Johanna Zomers, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader