There are some experiences in life that change you forever. And whether or not you see them coming ends up being small potatoes once the transformative effect a single moment has on your future is put into perspective. I knew a weeklong canoeing trip with my scout troop was a good opportunity to have one of these experiences, but in what form that moment would take remained to be seen.
Every summer at the end of August, my old scout troop would embark on a seven-day canoeing trip traversing a river somewhere in the northeast. The most memorable of these trips for me would be on the beautiful St. Croix river in Maine, surrounded by lush forests and home to the second largest Atlantic salmon run in the state. Its powerful rapids in parts are responsible for producing electrical power to some of the nearby towns.
The rapids effect on us, however, was quite the opposite; even though the current wasn’t too strong and we enjoyed a nice breeze after our launch from one of the lakes that feeds into the river, the first few hours of paddling had started to take its toll. Trying to set the tone for the trip, my troop members and I were steadily wiping our brows and fixing our gaze forward, setting our sights on the week to come and the possibilities that lay ahead.
An interesting thing about undergoing a physically draining task in nature is it quiets the mind and allows you to be still for a moment and take in all that you might otherwise miss in the chaos of everyday life. The dancing of pine tree needles along the water’s edge, a Blue Heron taking flight from a shoreline rock at the sight of our approaching canoes, the sound of the shimmering water trickling and rolling, interrupted only by the crashing of our paddles breaking the surface. It’s scenes like these that entrance you and precede real change when the trip is finally over.
Making our camp by the water’s edge was a welcomed scene after a hard day’s work. But of course the trip had just begun, and it was important to get a good night’s rest in order to face whatever challenges we might encounter the next day. My weariness from day one just made the stargazing that much more mesmerizing, backed by a soundtrack of crackling firewood and a symphony of crickets. I found it hard to leave such a peaceful scene and decided to make due with the ground beneath my body instead of returning to my tent, and I drifted off to the tune as old as time.
The serenity of the day before didn’t carry over for long when I awoke in the morning. I felt a warm swelling on the side of my face and my left eye wouldn’t open. On the excursion without the aid of front-facing cell phone cameras or mirrors, I asked one of my fellow scout members if I looked alright.
“You’ve got some pretty nasty looking bug bites all across that side of your face,” he said. “You should probably go see the troop leaders.”
The consensus among my troop leaders was immediate: spider bites. They asked if I felt okay. I told them aside from not being able to open my eye and half of my face feeling like a balloon filled with baked beans and pain, I was alright.
For a moment I considered radioing for help. Afterall, only a day into our journey, we weren’t too far yet from civilization. But then again, only a day into our journey, I didn’t care to see the look on the faces of our troop leaders as I told them I needed to get the hell out of here because I decided to sleep beneath the stars. And I wasn’t going to let a few spider bites cut the longest trip of the year short for me.
But my racing mind had me quickly second guessing whether my determination to stick this one out was wise. I started to feel the sensation that I wasn’t able to see out of my other eye either, and the prospect of blindness became a real possibility. What kind of spider bite was this after all? What good does sticking this one out do me if doing so leaves me unable to go on any sort of trip again and witness the reflection of the sunlight on the ripples of the water, and the moonlight showering the forest around me in a pale glow?
Spiraling down in hypothetical thoughts as if I’d been thrown off my canoe without a paddle, without a life preserving in a rushing current navigating razor sharp rocks, my fear quickly became sadness.
The St. Croix canoe trip I had been looking forward to all year, ruined just like that. And not just for myself, but for whomever the poor soul would be that had to escort me back to safety. If I chose to push through, I’d for sure be miserable braving the elements and trying to keep the pace paddling, setting up camp and cooking meals, while constantly testing out my vision, squinting in the distance, until it would surely deteriorate and all there was was blackness.
No, I told myself. That wasn’t what was happening. What mattered right then was that moment, nothing else. At that moment, I wasn’t blind. And regardless of if I chose to stay or go, I would need to pack up my gear, help the troop break down the campsite, and make myself some breakfast. That was all that mattered, the rest could wait.
In focusing my attention on what was right in front of me, the weight of my feet on the rocky floor, the scent of sausage sizzling on the fireplace, the sound of the birds chirping at the rising sun, I realized that I was starting to feel more confident about this predicament. Everything fell into perspective when I brought my attention to the present moment, and only to what I had control over at that very second. My fear of blindness quickly seemed irrational. I had made my choice: I would press on, and I would be okay.
As the trip rolled onward, I found I felt most assured that I had made the right choice in staying while we were paddling and active. But at night time when we would make camp, the fear returned. As we took time to collect firewood and explore our new camping area for the evening, I would usually excuse myself to rest because I felt the emotional and physical taxing from the spider ordeal were draining me. I found myself alone the first two nights while others were setting up camp and I couldn’t help but cry. Every day we had traveled further and further away from any place that could offer me proper medical care, and if my situation took a turn for the worse, then it would have been my pride that let me down and destined me for a fate that could affect me the rest of my life.
In these moments of despair, where all I could feel was the hot inflammation on my face, all I could see was the impending blurriness and inevitable darkness that must surely follow, I reminded myself of how I got here. I reminded myself to focus on the moment at hand, not theoretical situations that might arise. I felt the cool evening air breeze in through my nose and fill my lungs like drinking from an oxygen mask on a turbulent airplane. I had made my choice and I was here. Here is where I was. Here is where I am.
I used the paddling as a form of moving meditation and chose to be more engaged with my friends. During our landlocked activities such as building camp and making bonfires, I had a much more enjoyable time during the back half of the trip. It wasn't easy at first, but I soon realized choosing to be involved and concentrated on what was in front of me was far better than the dwelling, the feeling like I was only a slave to my emotions.
About three days after the spider incident, my pain and swelling finally began to subside and I started to feel like myself again. I was once again able to open my eyes and thoughts of pure relief overshadowed the dark clouds that had been fogging my brain. I knew that the worst of the spider venom had taken its course; the fact I could still see made me feel like a new appreciation of being alive. I saw the verdant green of the trees, the whole spectrum of blues and greens and whites of the water as if for the first time. The sky became alive with a baby blue spaciousness I had never before recognized. Sunsets of orange and yellow, pink and magenta left me speechless.
Aside from regaining vision in my eye and the relief that followed, a sense of pride grew in my core in recognizing the experience that I had pushed myself through. Knowing first hand I possessed the strength to push through uncertainty and the prospect of a life altering injury had left me with a newfound confidence, a new sense of self. It gave me the chance to overcome feelings of sadness and fear and to find a way to be happy regardless of whatever circumstances the moment presented.
On our final night on the water, it was tradition to make a large bonfire and spend the evening together singing campfire songs and performing skits to pass the time. Some of the skits were an assortment of random humorous stories, others were based on inside jokes. Some recapped experiences that we went through together on the trip. To no surprise, an extemporaneous skit recapping my experience of being attacked by those spiders came up by my troop members. It made me laugh to know that it was behind me and was now a laughing matter. And while the scouts were poking fun at the whole ordeal, I could tell beneath the jokes they were just as relieved to see I was once again happy, healthy, and recovering..
And so the St. Croix canoeing trip had lived up to my expectations. It was an experience that changed my life, but not at all by any means that I had expected. From the joy of navigating the river with the straining efforts of myself and my fellow scouts, to the hopelessness I felt laying in my tent, petrified by the prospect of impending blindness and worse.
It’s easy to see now that when my mind was focusing on the labor and activities at-hand, I was feeling happy and fulfilled. But when I was alone with my thoughts and physical discomfort and pain, a cold feeling of doom consumed my body and thoughts about what had already occurred and what felt sure to lie ahead. This is the mind set I have been able to carry with me through the rest of my life. To not give into my emotions, to focus on what is in front of me and address this reality according. It has helped me to push through adversity and uncertainty and has led me to be successful in all other aspects of my life.