3 Men, 3 Days, and 90 Miles in a Canoe


We were novices in the paddling world; dangerously inexperienced. Our two short practices in the month before the race both ended in disaster. One with a capsized canoe and one with a “we’re lost” call to the forest rangers.


On the first morning of the race, as the other boats eagerly bobbed near the starting line, we steadied ourselves at the edge of the dock. Perhaps it was fear of the unknown obstacles ahead; the mystery beyond the mist of the morning. Or maybe it was a lack of trust for the others in the boat.

We had started as a team of four, but those two practice experiences led one to jump ship. The empty seat could have been the final motivation to withdraw from the race, but instead, it became our rally cry: “There’s no quit left in this boat.” For although we lacked experience and although we did not yet know what the journey would require of us…we were curious enough to try.

Each man in the boat has a unique story. Each walked their own path to this point. I arrived in the stern of boat by way of my role as an addiction counselor. My task was to keep the boat pointed in the right direction, to avoid obstacles, and encourage forward movement. Two seats ahead of me, in the second seat, was our power. The speed of our boat rested in the hands of a disabled determined veteran with fused wrists. At the bow of the boat sat yet another veteran, accustomed to merely hiding in the crowd, now given the mission to lead our pace. In the third seat, the empty seat, should have been an additional power paddler. But instead we filled the seat with the names of the “missing” in our life. Remembrance is its own strength.

The gun sounded and carefully we pushed off the dock. 8 hours the first day, 6 the second, and 4 hours on the final day. Each day we were faster. 90 miles in 18 hours. Three inexperienced paddlers finished a race they shouldn’t have entered.

We certainly weren’t the fastest. Our routes weren’t always straight. But there was something unique about our crew. We knew our weaknesses and we admitted them. We learned our strengths and we used them. We recognized when the other wanted to quit and we encouraged them.

I suppose it was more than a canoe race for us. It was a three-day submersion into the surrendered life. In addiction counseling and in AA/NA there’s a lot of talk about admitting powerlessness. Some struggle to find that place of surrender. Some jump ship at the moment it’s required. But the surrender to powerlessness is required for any real life-journey to begin.

Perhaps our powerlessness moment happens when we finally admit our own success is dependent upon the success of the other. Living with an awareness of the other helps us see that everyone is paddling through the same currents. For me, the past couple of years have required a surrender of an identity I once held too close. For the two men I sat behind for 90 miles, they too are in process of letting go of their false-self. Their warrior narrative is fading. Their addict label is beginning to peel.

As we crossed the finish line the final lesson became obvious: our highest joys come in moments of shared experience. Our lives are best lived in recognition that we are all in the same boat.


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