Row, Row, Row Your York Boat

(Story previously published in Urban NDN)

Have you ever had a life-changing experience when it comes to your health and wellness? A moment you now look back upon and realize it was a major turning point?

Mine couldn’t have come at a better time. At 33, I found myself overweight and under stress. My smoking habit had approached a pack a day, fast food was fast becoming my best friend, and exercise was nearly non-existent. I was feeling increasingly unhealthy, unhappy, and desperately seeking something to jolt me out of the slump.

Then one day I heard about an epic adventure in the form of a ‘living history’ television series called Quest for the Bay. Local company Frantic Films announced they were looking for eight ‘intrepid individuals’ to row a 19th Century York boat from Winnipeg to York Factory on the Hudson Bay.

It would involve equipment, supplies, clothing and provisions as they had in 1840. It meant no sleeping bags, no raingear, no sunglasses, no insect repellent. Not even toilet paper! It would require strength and guts, teamwork and tolerance, patience and persistence. It would be extremely laborious, tremendously difficult, and probably mostly horrible.

It was something I absolutely wanted to do.

So I set out as one of 500 people hoping to be selected. And after a lengthy and challenging submission process, the call finally came. I was IN! They had chosen ME! I was thrilled! Until I realized that now, I actually had to DO it. Ummm… what was I thinking??

When the eight “Yorkmen” met for the first time and were introduced to our vessel, it suddenly seemed a massive undertaking. Handcrafted in Norway House, the boat was beautiful. And big. It weighed close to 3,000 lbs, spanning 40 feet long and 8 feet wide. The oars were carved right from tree trunks, and looked enormous. It left me wondering how in the world we (especially me!) were going to be able to do this.

With help from Larry Duncan, our York boat coach, we learned how to row together, pulling the oars in synch and listening for the sound of the oarlocks knocking. It was exhilarating, and a skill that took extreme focus. If you didn’t pay attention, the force of the oar could knock you right off your seat – and that’s if you were lucky. The other option was for the oar to pin you in place and potentially crush your ribs.

After only a few hours both my mind and body ached. I discovered muscles in my hands I didn’t know existed. The thought of rowing this boat for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, all the way to the Hudson Bay seemed ludicrous, and an insurmountable task. Once again… what was I thinking??

A few days before leaving, we had lunch at a Chinese restaurant – one of the last good meals I would enjoy for a long time. When I got to the fortune cookie, the message was eerily prophetic: Your path is arduous but will be amply rewarding. It was like the cookie knew exactly what I was about to do.

I would think about that message whenever life as a 19th Century Yorkman got horrendously difficult. And it often did. Over the course of 61 days, we traveled 1200 km, crossed ten lakes, confronted four rivers, fought five portages, and battled 50 sets of rapids. We suffered blistered hands, aching backs, swarms of insects, blazing heat, freezing cold, pelting rainstorms, rotten pemmican, and moldy oats.

Many times we wondered if we would ever reach York Factory. We doubted ourselves, struggled with our surroundings, and questioned our sanity. We were challenged individually and collectively, and forced to get by solely with what we knew and only with what we had. It was an exercise in depravation and determination. It was arduous to the extreme.

It was also the most amply rewarding time of my life.

Although I didn’t know it then, Quest for the Bay would ultimately be my saving grace. By accepting its challenges and difficulties, it became an exercise in empowerment. Nine weeks of living like an 1840’s Yorkman put modern life into perspective, and I began to see things differently.

I came to realize that in the 21st Century, we live in a world of abundance. We have the ability to make better choices, to live healthier and happier, to enjoy our happenings. So when I returned home, I vowed to make changes. I would eat better, exercise my body more, and worry less. I would appreciate life and embrace all it has to offer.

Even though Quest for the Bay happened nine years ago, my quest continues today. I’m still learning to make better choices for myself, and will admit that it’s not always easy. So the path to healthier living is still arduous.

But, like the fortune cookie also says, it will be – and already is – amply rewarding.