adventure, Adventure Tourism, Cancer, Cancer treatments, canoeing, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, God, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Perseverence, Prayer, Religion, River, Serving Others, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling

When God Floats Your Boat

Two years ago, the Walton brothers paddled in Ontario’s Spanish River Provincial Park. SRPP info   They chose a route that threaded through multiple lakes connected by short, shallow outlets. In low water, these outlets turn into tricky portages that leave the canoeist knee deep in boggy, rocky muck. It can quickly become a slog hauling canoes and supplies over challenging barriers that were supposed to be paddled but instead have to be portaged without any trails to follow. The brothers were dismayed to find when they arrived in September that the water levels were at their lowest in a long time, clogging their planned paddling route with clots of muck and rock where lakes should have been.

After Hugh underwent his second round of chemotherapy and subsequent bone marrow transplant, he developed blood clots called DVT, or deep vein thrombosis in one leg.  It is actually quite common for leukemia patients to acquire DVT.  DVT info  These clots are life-threatening because they can move through the blood and lodge in the lungs. Once in the lungs, the clots become barriers to oxygen exchange, and the patient can quickly die of suffocation. As a result, Hugh is now on blood thinners. While this is a terrific remedy for blood clots, it does raise the risk of a dangerous bleed-out from cuts or accidents. As a matter of fact, on one trip, Hugh was pulling a canoe up onto a sandy beach in his bare feet when he stepped on a buried and severed tree root that stabbed deep into his instep. It took some time for the bleeding to stop, and the brothers were too far into the wilderness for immediate help. They now have a rule that you can’t ever be barefoot on trips unless in your sleeping bag.

There are barriers in life that quickly and easily clot our thinking. I often find that they are spiritual in nature, and usually begin innocuously when we let our focus become too heavily inward. Our inner dialogue evolves into a diatribe. We’ve been wronged, treated unfairly or with disrespect, and the “I” language in our head bubbles over in frustration and anger. These are times to take great care, because the lifeblood of the Holy Spirit is clogged, and our sour thinking then deprives us of the spiritual oxygen to act and live rightly toward God and others. Days become a slog of carrying heavy burdens that weigh us down in the muck of our darkened thoughts.

There is a spiritual blood thinner though, and it is incongruously connected with the blood of Christ.

If you can intentionally move your thoughts from yourself to God, if you are willing to unyoke yourself from life’s burdens, to think of and serve others first, God will float you up out of the muck. It’s a wonderful experience to feel the waters of the Spirit float you up, out, and on your way. Next time your language is laced with “I’s”, get in the boat with God and get moving again.

~J.A.P. Walton



adventure, Campfires, Camping, Cancer, canoeing, Creation, Darkness, death, Faithful Living, God, Henry David Thoreau, Hope, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Starry Skies, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

The Brothers Gemini

The two Walton brothers have spent over thirty years paddling the rivers and lakes of the far north each autumn because of their shared love of wilderness, canoeing, and one another. They paddled as young men in the vibrant prime of their lives, and still do today as seasoned and much older men. Not even Hugh’s cancer could stop these adventuring brothers, who know more than most that both the wilderness and brotherly affection have healing hands. Hugh stayed positive throughout the ten long years of treatments, too busy living to entertain thoughts of dying. And in his deliberate living and adventuring, he taught his brother Mark about peace and hope.

It often happens that the sicker man is the nurse to the sounder.”[1]

A favorite time of day in the northern latitudes is the autumnal twilight when the sun has gone down early and it’s too cool for bugs. An earlier sunset means the brothers can sit around the campfire for a few hours before turning in. The washing up is done, the canoes are put to bed, and the bear bag has been secured high in a tree. Such evenings are steeped in the reflections of the lowering sun as it briefly teases the landscape and water into a blush, while the spruces’ silhouettes go from stark outline to murky drab until darkness cradles them into its bosom entirely. Eventually, the young fire that started up with spits and mutters matures into a sedate, radiating murmur of glowing and hypnotizing embers. The waters warble a sultry lullaby. A loon mournfully trills across the water. The night in the wilderness is never completely silent, rather orchestrated with a subtle harmony, and it becomes clear, with careful listening, that the small voice of God is out here in this deep indigo twilight. Slow evenings are a necessary part of the adventure, for it is at night that the body is restored. The same can be said for one’s soul.

It is easy, when far away from the nonstop noises and lights of our lifestyles, to look intently at every natural thing out in the wilds and feel thankful that the planet still has these unadulterated oases of space, timelessness, stillness, color, and open skies. This is flair. Art. It is creation, imagination, beauty and adornment. This is how God made the world, speaking it out word by word, adding extravagant flashes of color, texture, and music in the everyday life of the wilds. We miss seeing it and hearing it, and we misunderstand its importance in our daily lives. Fire, water, and the waking creatures of the night all make for a mesmerizing symphony, a bewitching tonic for what ails us.

The brothers aren’t big talkers at night; still they enjoy each other’s company in a curiously uncommunicative way, on a shared adventure among best friends at the end of a physically challenging day. And though the fire and melody draw them in, they stay up late-on clear nights at least-because of the stars. This is especially true when camped beside a remote lake, where trees and rocky ledges can’t obscure the sky. The starry lights emerge one by one as the darkness encroaches. And, aside from the fire, the darkness in the wilderness is complete, no rival light pollution out here. Venus, Jupiter, and the Big Dipper materialize. And though Orion won’t show up until November, they know he’s on his way, the able guardian of the night and comforting friend to those who pray through the night watches in winter. The dancers of the Pleiades begin their warm up. Somewhere out there in the low autumnal sky the sleepy moon pokes its head out from under the covers. Like Orion, felt but not yet visible in the northern hemisphere, the brothers Gemini stand tall, side by side, arms raised in triumph and praise. I like to imagine that the Walton fellows are the Gemini twins, arms around each other’s waists, holding their paddles aloft in victorious self-congratulation and a joy that cancer could not squelch.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1] Henry David Thoreau. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Viking Press, 1985. p. 31 (The author originally published this book in 1849, detailing an 1839 river trip with his beloved brother John, who died in 1842.) Read it here: A Week…Thoreau

adventure, Camping, canoeing, Faithful Living, God, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

I Wish I May, I Wish I Might…

At the canoe shows, I like to watch people who stop to admire my husband’s and his brother Hugh’s Sea Wind canoes. These hardy vessels were both built by the famous Michigan paddling pioneer Verlen Kruger. The boats have handsome lines and a certain robust utility about them, and have rightly earned their reputation as having “cavernous storage and bombproof construction.”[1] They can even be joined with a cross arm for catamaran sailing on windy days. Some of the folks-usually men- are seasoned and avid paddlers, and the conversation wags excitedly back and forth around paddle characteristics, dry bags, portage-ability, steering, and stowage. But, by far, most of the people who stop by simply stare at the canoes with their bright yellow sail with what always transmits as a deep longing.

I resonate with that feeling of “I wish I may, I wish I might…” For one, the Sea Wind is a one-man canoe, so I cannot trip along with the men unless I get my own boat. For another, the boats weight 70 pounds, and the gear upwards of 200-300 pounds. I cannot physically carry that much on portage, and the first rule of wilderness adventure is that the group is as weak as its weakest member. More importantly though, the brothers’ yearly adventure trips are wilderness getaways that they’ve shared for 30 years or more, a time so sacred to their deep relationship that I really have no right to intrude. It’s okay, though. We all still paddle together plenty of other times each year.

No, the longing I observe is of the person who wants to be more than a casual weekend paddler who haunts the canoe shows. Who yearns to seek out true wilderness and pit him/herself against the fickle elements of nature, to share the nighttime stars with the moose and the bear. This person wants to do exactly what the brothers do, but can never get past the dreaming.

In all my years as a college professor and academic advisor, I had certain students with the same problem-they thought they wanted something quite badly, but simply could not summon the wherewithal to do what it took to make it happen. The biggest impediment was almost always their lack of confidence that they could, in fact, do this thing. As a result, they took few risks, settled too early, failed to do the hard work required, and missed out on a lot of life’s adventures. Of course, this same lack of confidence holds any of us back in myriad situations. We won’t risk the adventure of a job change, a move out of state, or going back to school to finally study the one thing we always loved. We long for a change we haven’t the grit to embrace and see through to its rewarding end.

I have to say that I think God himself is a risk taker.

He risked becoming a man in order to put the world back to rights. He certainly takes risks on us every day. The Bible is FULL of fragile people God bet on when they thought they couldn’t; just take a look at the weak-kneed lives of Moses, Jonah, and Peter. But, God equips us in every endeavor to which he calls us. And this is the secret: the strength is never our own, but God’s! What have you always wanted to do, felt called to do, but were afraid to try? Maybe it’s time to get in the boat, stop wishing and start paddling!

I wish I may, I wish I might, have the strength to start tonight.

~J.A.P. Walton

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Verlen Kruger

Quiet Water Symposium

[1] Phil Peterson. All Things are Possible: the Verlin Kruger Story: 100,000 miles by Paddle. Adventure Pulbications. Cambridge, MN. 2006. p.257.

canoeing, Creation, death, Faithful Living, God, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Uncategorized, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, wisdom

The Tired Barn

“When God established the force of the wind
and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain
and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it;
he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to the human race,
“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.” Job 28: 25-28

Wilderness paddlers never underestimate how much time and effort it takes to get afloat on a wild river untouched by man. That is because everywhere people go, there is ample evidence of repeated assaults on the natural environment. It is part of our conquering DNA I suppose, of a deep, inner impulse to remake, refashion, and call it “mine”. Although this drive to create is God-given, we often do so with egotistical abandon, unwisely usurping the title and glory of the Creator. Just visit ruins though-the great pyramids, the Acropolis, Petra, Stonehenge-all manmade things built in a race to command and control, intimidate and dominate. Even these are only temporary. The re-engineered rivers, the cement kingdoms we call home, and the miles of coastline we’ve tamed will, all too soon, crack, decay and return to the earth as surely as we do, victims of fire, flood, neglect, and time.

Not far from the Mississippi River there is a barn on a hill in western Illinois that has, at least in our lifetime, stood proud, defiant in the face of stinging northwest winds, its bones leached by decades of relentless summer sun. Sixty years ago it was a robust symbol of the agricultural subjugation of the vast prairies. We drove by it last week, and found instead a tired, sagging structure with sun streaming through multiple holes in the roof-only one generation left until it returns to dust.

Take a good, long look across the River of this life. We too are simply time-warped dust while God stands outside of time, unchanging, and all wise. We paddlers are apt to seek out the remotest rivers to escape into unsullied nature, and the beauty of what we encounter always hushes our hearts and makes our spirits soar. But, we are mistaken if we worship nature instead of the Creator who made it all. Everything but God is a tired, old barn. Wisdom alone knows what counts.

~J.A.P. Walton

Please leave your comments and suggestions.  I am happy to dialogue and debate with you!  Thank you for reading.


canoeing, Lessons from the Wilderness, Outdoor Adventures, Wilderness Paddling, Winter, Winter Paddling, Winter Water Sports

The Ice Shelf

The question always at the back of my mind: is the reward worth the risk?

I really like to canoe. My husband Mark and his brother Hugh rabidly LOVE it, so much so that a winter paddle is never far from their minds. I guess it isn’t fair to expect a real waterman to stay grounded for long. One year, the three of us decided to paddle the lower end of a local river that winds lazily out to Lake Michigan through the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. In the summer, the canoes and tubes are five across as tipsy tourists float or flail their paddles with an astounding lack of expertise. No matter if they tip over, the water is warm, shallow, and not too swift.

Winter is another matter altogether. Winter paddling takes planning, the right clothes, and a spare set of dry clothes in a dry bag (a hefty water proof sack made for water sports). The winter we went down this particular river had been exceptionally cold, and the ice mantle butted ten feet out to create a narrow middle channel where the water was corralled into a swift current. We walked up and down the bank looking for a good place to “put in,” a canoeman’s “ism” for getting an awkward, land-lubbed craft gracefully (and dryly) afloat. But, with so much unstable ice, there were no good choices.

The fellows determined that if we started on a high point, we could “sled” the canoes down the hill, over the ice, and into the downstream swifts. I wasn’t so sure-it seemed risky to me. What’s more, with Hugh’s cancer always in the back of my mind, I didn’t think an icy dunking would be good for his already vulnerable health. In the end, Hugh went downstream with the lifesaving throw bag to toss us if we capsized, and my husband and I geared up our “sled.” I am always in the bow, so I got in on my knees to stay low, while my husband grabbed the gunnels and did two practice push-pulls like a bobsledder. On the third push he ran alongside the canoe, then jumped in for the ride, and we were launched. No turning back now!

We hit that ice, slid straight across it, and nosed broadside into the current with an exhilarated whoop. Before I could worry about being perpendicular to the current with the opposite ice shelf looming ahead, Mark had expertly turned the canoe downstream.   Hugh soon followed.

The landscape along a river is as robustly alive in winter as other seasons, but it takes a vigilant and patient eye to parse out the subtle differences in the tinted palette of grays, blacks, and browns. The trees stand dormant, a stark relief against their snowy backdrop. The mountain ash berries pixilate the landscape with wild red abandon, and the snow is clumped in the wild river grasses like so many wads of cotton.

It is exceptionally rare to encounter other people. But the deer, mice, squirrels, snowy owl, muskrats, minks, bald eagles, hawks, titmice, and the drably draped goldfinches are all out paying no mind to the cold. Energy along the singing river lifts life up and out in a muted chorus of vigorous yet hushed harmony. People miss it entirely when they hibernate inside all winter. Being outdoors in the winter helps us become so alive, so attuned to the natural environment, so energized by spending all our energy, that the answer is, always yes, the reward is worth the risk.

Get up! Get moving! Don’t duck the winter, dive into it!

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~J.A.P. Walton