I wrote this for a CBC contest about belonging. It didn’t win. Still pretty good though.
This evening, I am an explorer on another planet. A planet where I paddle a canoe on mercury, and the thick, heavy atmosphere burns liquid nitrogen. Where the wings of startled birds make a hovercraft whoopwhoopwhoop as they pass, and that’s the only sound until they land again. Gaetan and I are way out ahead of the group, but the bow position and his gift of amicable silence lets me pretend I’m alone here, and I’m not afraid. Dip my paddle in and pull.
We are so close to the end. The end of the day—as the sun touches down on Northwest Territory hills—and the end of our trip. Twelve of us have paddled the Peel River Watershed from the Ogilvie River in the Yukon, and soon we’ll be in Fort McPherson. A twenty day trip, for a documentary about Canadian identity. So for the last eighteen days, we’ve been looking for ourselves. Our faces in the canyon walls. I am a Métis woman, French and Cree First Nation. Gaetan is from Quebec, that’s all I know about his identity. That, and today he is at the bottom of our social hierarchy. The outcast. These things always happen in groups, somebody pisses somebody else off, and everybody gets in on it.
Yesterday Gaetan had had enough of group dynamics: waking when we’re told, eating when we’re told, keeping within earshot in case there’s a Grizzly. So he separated himself. We didn’t see him all day. He missed the pancake breakfast, though we kept them warm for him as long as we could. He missed the evening fire, when we all talk about one thing we’re thankful for. He was probably thankful for some time to himself. But people don’t like it when you deviate from the pattern, disturb the groupthink.
Yesterday, I ran laps up and down the beach by myself, but I stayed within earshot. When the pancakes were ready, I ran a few more laps. I don’t like being told what to do, either. But I’ve come to count on the group, since it’s comfortable. At the evening fire, I said I was thankful for a day to myself. I’d spent it writing in my journal, a hundred paces down the beach. Sang a little to the canyon walls, but I didn’t see my face in the rock.
This morning, when Gaetan asked me to paddle with him, I gladly agreed. Although we’re paddling the biggest canoe today, the one with all the heavy gear, we’re both strong. It wasn’t long before we were way out in front. He talked about feeling like he didn’t fit in, and I told him I understood.
Early in the trip the Peel was narrow and frothy, now it’s wide and sluggish. Soon we’ll slow down, rejoin the group to find camp for the night. But in the meantime, Gaetan and I dip and pull through mercury. We’re not afraid of anything.