LESSONS from the WILDERNESS: Paddling and portaging, youth ponder life’s big questions

By Willi Whiston
Published in the Anglican Messenger
October 2023

The afterglow sweeps across the horizon in shades of orange, saskatoon, and ripe wild raspberry. We are on the eastern shore of Jackson Lake deep in the boreal beauty of Alberta’s only backcountry canoe circuit, Lakeland Provincial Park, with a motley crew of young people gathered from across the Diocese of Athabasca. Our muscles ache and our bodies feel tired after heaving heavy canoes over the almost four-kilometre portage into the park, but our souls and our spirits are just waking up.

We have traveled this way to learn how to listen, to pray for eyes to see, and to connect again with creation, and moreover, the Creator who holds it all with tender care.

Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Berry said, “We are between stories. The old story is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned ‘the new story.’ We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers; we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation.”

I have worked with youth navigating the big questions of life and faith for over five years now. They, too, are in between stories in their own lives as they start to unravel the stories of their upbringing and find their own place in the world and take on their faith as their own. We are not unlike our young people either, as we all work our whole lives to find new meaning in the face of change, to understand what it means to be truly human, and to reconnect again and again and again with the things of heaven, throwing aside the patterns of a noisy world.

As the vivid colours fade into a blue and the stars appear, I see God in the waves crashing against the shore. There is untold power in that water, and yet it also sustains the life of the trees and the creatures that surround us on our little campsite. This week it will sustain us, too, as we learn a new story together and slow down enough to allow our hearts to listen for the Spirit of God.

This is the second annual youth wilderness canoe trip in our diocese, made possible in part by new challenges and opportunities post-pandemic, and a Say Yes! to Kids grant from the Anglican Foundation of Canada. Among our company, are three leaders and seven youth from Fort McMurray, Beaverlodge and Grande Prairie. We’ve been sent with prayers and plenty of support from home, and a trailer of canoes from our friends in the Diocese of Edmonton.

The next five days will take us through four different lakes, some separated by winding channels flanked by stunted spruce, birch, aspen and muskeg, and others by portages cut through the forest where our canoe carts get stuck on roots and ruts.

On a particularly challenging portage, one young person remarked afterwards that he first wanted to curse the tree roots as he tripped on them, but then paused and considered that those roots delivered life to the tree. Perhaps, God’s spirit can be found in twisted roots on long uphill climbs. Others saw God in the song of the loons, a pelican sweeping way overhead, or even the deep expanse of the forest all around us. 

We considered together that it was God’s spirit that knit this all together — the logos, the great conversation.

In the wilderness it becomes easy to listen. We are surrounded by the great beauty of creation, all while being slowly stripped of our creature comforts. The challenge is to carry the discipline of listening back into the real world. John Muir said, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” 

But I wonder if the same can be said about high school lockers? Can we learn to listen to God’s spirit in our classrooms, on our couches, or even in our church halls? Seek, and you will find!

I hope there will be many more canoe trips to come, and remain thankful for the generosity of others who make these trips possible. I’m already dreaming, again, of fresh coffee and cinnamon buns on a misty morning, bookended by the comforting words of Night Prayer spoken in earnest around crackling campfire.

Interested in keeping up-to-date on news, opinion, events and resources from the Anglican Church of Canada? Sign up for our email alerts .