Apprehension building, I adjust my grip on the fraying ash-wood shafts of the two canoe paddles I’m balancing. The broad blades dig deeper into my 14-year-old shoulders as the weight shifts overhead.
The paddles are tied to the wooden thwarts of a 17-foot canoe that is resting upside-down on my crown and spine like a giant, red, 100-pound hat. A hat that it is my job to carry from one end of this rocky portage to the other. It’s a generous three-quarters of my body weight, and it will require all of my willpower to even consider ascending the hill—no, the rock face—before me.
Best-case scenario: I climb the ledge and walk the remaining one-third mile to my destination. Worst-case scenario: I get up this ledge somehow and stagger the remaining one-third mile to my destination. There isn’t really another option. Yes, I desperately want out from under this torturous trap, but setting the canoe down will only prolong my suffering. I’ll still have to carry it up the trail sooner or later.
Spending time in the backcountry, surrounded by trees and water and sky and not much else, is an intensely transformative experience. Ten irreplaceable summers at camp in northern Ontario taught me this firsthand. There, I faced not only the beauty of the outdoors and a natural coexistence with the land, but also the rawness of its elements. If someone had come to my rescue and carried the canoe for me, I wouldn’t have gone through that process of self-doubt, self-recognition, and ultimately, self-confidence.
Factor in being a young teen in a highly formative stage of development, and the evolution is even more dramatic. When going to school becomes a complicated social experiment, when who your friends are and who you text the most become the key markers of your social strata, not to mention how you measure your personal worth, going to the woods and lakes and rivers of the Northeast provides more than simply a pause, a breath of fresh air.
Coming to terms with nature offers teens an incredibly valuable opportunity to define themselves—not in relation to others but in relation to the real world, where they can overcome challenges with the strength of their own minds and bodies.
Fast-forward six years, and on my summer breaks from Amherst College, in Massachusetts, I’m a counselor at the same camp. Same canoe trips, same trails littered with slippery rock climbs. At 20, I can easily flip a canoe up onto my head and swing my legs over just about any log. I know I’m capable, but I had to come to that knowledge on my own. No matter how many times a counselor told me, “You can do it! I know you can!” I couldn’t surmount an obstacle until I believed it to be true for myself.
Now I’m the one who teaches kids how to paddle and the one who, somehow, has to step back when it’s time to let them struggle with heavy loads. I’ve heard myself saying the very same encouraging words over and over to my own campers, but they, too, have to overcome their own obstacles.
Once a camper has lit a campfire in the dark after a long day or has paddled 20 miles in a rainstorm, she knows she can handle anything life back in school—a different sort of obstacle course—throws at her. She has proven to herself how strong she is.
For her next adventure, Mainer Jo Moore is leading a 40-day, 1,100-mile canoe trip for Camp Wabun’s oldest girls.