livingfamilytravelmediahome decor

Great Bear River Canoe Trip: The First Day was Hard. Real Hard.

This post will be one a several that will share my experiences on a recent trip to the Northwest Territories. In this post, I answer readers who asked questions such as: “I want to know the low-lights, in addition to the highlights”; “Could I do this trip?”; “How hard was it?” Contrary to many trip reports that I read, there is no such thing as a trip that is all rainbows and unicorns. Usually, I don’t get too personal in my blog posts. I’m going to risk it here so that I can respond to these kinds of questions. 

I knew that a 6-day canoe trek would be both a physical and mental challenge for me. Physical, because my body is not used to paddling for hours each day. And mental, because I’d need to push myself through the physical challenges and keep myself positive.

The first day of our trek was the most difficult for me.

While our two Canoe North Adventures guides, Cedar and Courtney, packed up the float plane with our gear, I was trying to ward off my anxiety about leaving cell phone access. While out on a trip, the lead guide uses a satellite phone to check-in each evening, so we could be reached if my kids needed me. But even knowing that we would not be completely inaccessible did not help much. It just goes to show how reliant we have become on instantaneous access within the relative short time that cell phones have become standard personal gadgets.

Getting ready to go on the float plane.

North-Wright Air is located right beside the Canoe North Lodge in Norman Wells, NWT.

Leaving the land of easy accessibility was only one element contributing to my trepidation that morning. In recent years, I’ve developed a dislike for small spaces. Well, not necessarily small per se but rather spaces that I can’t easily walk out of — like a tunnel, cave, or a even a large crowded auditorium that has only one exit but on the very far side from where I am. As you can imagine, sitting in a plane after the doors have been closed is included in this list.

I first learned the extent of my new dislike for these kinds of spaces when I suffered a full-blown panic attack on a runway and had to be de-boarded from a plane. It was both a humiliating and hugely disappointing experience (I was leaving for a trip to visit my sister in South Korea). If you’ve never had a panic attack, which I hadn’t until that point, I can tell you it feels like you are going to die. Honestly, it really does. Naturally, I’ve since consulted with my doctor and learned that although it feels like you can’t get enough air into your body and that your heart is going into some kind of seizure, you can’t actually die from a panic attack. This information has helped me a great deal. That, and carrying a small supply of quick-acting anti-anxiety medication for emergency use.

North-Wright float plane, Normal Wells, NWT

Room was tight in the float plane. Three adults in the back. Two in the front.

I simply cannot stop flying. We have family overseas. We want to show our kids the world. It’s just not an option for me to let this fear take over. Since that first panic attack, I’ve taken several plane rides. I’ve been to Halifax, Seattle, Chicago, and even Jamaica. Some are easier than others. Usually, if I can distract myself away from looking at the plane’s walls or doors by reading, I can suspend belief. This was my plan for the float plane: suspend belief by keeping my face towards the window and distracting myself with the gorgeous scenery.

Aerial view of Great Bear River from the float plane. (Photo credit: Courtney Terriah)

Aerial view of Great Bear River from the float plane. (Photo credit: Courtney Terriah)

It worked for about 15 minutes of the 40-minute flight. Then the tingling feeling began in my fingers, and my chest began to tighten. I kept my face towards the window and pushed my backpack into my husband’s lap. He knew what that meant. He found my medication and gave me one of the itty bitty pills while I kept focusing on my breathing. The rest of the trip was about as pleasant as the experience of labour contractions.

When we finally landed on the water and I could get out, my legs were so wobbly. But I had survived it. I scrambled up onto the shore and sat down in the tundra to catch my breath and try to regain some composure. The pilot and our two guides were all quite young, and I could only imagine what they thought of me, this chubby middle-aged lady with a tear-stained face.

Tundra on shore of Great Bear River

So happy to be on solid ground, touching the tundra.

If they doubted my ability to do the trek, they didn’t show it. Cedar sat with me for a bit. He spoke kindly but without condescension and let me know that I could take as much time as I needed. I told him that I wasn’t sure I could do that plane ride on the way back. He explained that we were canoeing all the way back to the lodge; no more planes. Relief washed over me.

After about 10 minutes, I got up and went back to the shore. “Okay, I’m ready.”

Ready to Canoe.

Ready to canoe from one shore of Great Bear Lake to the other to set up camp.

At this point, it was already about 5 or 6 pm. But time is hard to tell out in the North at this time of year. The sun is out all day, and all night. We didn’t have far to go. We were simply going to canoe across to the opposite shore, where we’d set up camp and then have some dinner.

Awaiting us on the opposite shore were a ridiculous amount of mosquitoes. I knew that it wasn’t just me being “soft,” because I could see that even the guides were a bit surprised by how many of them were feasting upon our flesh.

Cedar, one of our Canoe North Adventures guides, sits under our dinner with many uninvited guests.  (Photo credit: Courtney Terriah)

Cedar, one of our Canoe North Adventures guides, sits under our dinner tarp with many uninvited guests. (Photo credit: Courtney Terriah)

Unlike the guides, who I never saw apply bug spray or sunscreen throughout the entire trip, I immediately set about dousing myself in strong chemicals. I also put on a bug hat that I’d brought. It was extremely fashionable, as you can see. In fact, all supermodels might want to take to wearing one since it acts as an effective weight-loss tool because you don’t want to risk lifting away the net to eat!

Bug hats are the new black.

Bug hats are the new black.

As soon as dinner was finished, I excused myself to the privacy of our tent. I may have cried a little.

Laying in the tent after a challenging day. What had I gotten myself into?

Laying in the tent after a challenging day. What had I gotten myself into?

I was exhausted from a long day that had started off in Yellowknife. I was exhausted from the panic on the float plane. I was exhausted from trying to put on my “happy face.” But thankfully I was too exhausted to worry about how I would survive 5 more days of this. Instead, I fell into a sleep so deep that not even a bear in the tent could have woken me.

And with that, I closed-out one of the most challenging days of my life. Meanwhile, my traveling companion had experienced one the best days of his life.

Fly fishing at the mouth of Great Bear River, NWT

Fly fishing in the mouth of Great Bear River. Note how clear the water is. (Photo credit: Julie Harrison)

P.S. Want to know why I shared these tough moments? I answer that question here


  1. Thanks for sharing all the details… the good & the bad! I also hate flying but do it because I want to travel and don’t want my fears to stop me. Those small planes are the worst and add to my anxiety. As for the mosquitoes, that is another thing I would hate! You are rocking the bug hat, and I would so be wearing it day and night if I was there!

    I can’t wait to read about the rest of your adventure as I ‘m sure this experience has really impacted you in so many ways!!

  2. Awww, you actually brought tears to my eyes with this post. You are so brave to face your fears and then blog honestly about them, too. I think the weight of not knowing what lay ahead, and that devastating sense of “what have I done?” really add to the sense of panic you must have been feeling. At least, that’s what I’ve always found in hindsight during the times when I let the anxiety out of the box and it almost ate me up.

    • Thank you for these kind words, Dani. Yes, you’re right … the build-up to the trip was more anxiety-inducing that any other time. Once we kicked off the next day, I didn’t feel any anxiety at all. Everything slipped away and I was able to really experience the place.

  3. p.s. seeing as we are the same age, can you please refrain from referring to yourself as “middle aged”. many thanks.

  4. My dad and I have talked about doing a canoe trip where you need to fly in – but I think he would have a hard time getting me on such a small plane!
    The first day of our trips I always think “what was I thinking” and “how am I going to make it to the end” But I always did, and had a great time too.

  5. Wow, Julie! Amazing adventure. My sister-in-law is a guide for tours like that. She has some pretty interesting stories too, especially about the things she has to do to keep people calm along the way. 😉

  6. What beautiful pictures. The places you show are places I’ve only imagined. So beautiful. I hope one day to see the tundra. Anyway, yay for fighting your fear. I find it hard to breathe when I get on a plane too but, I take deep breaths and close my eyes.

  7. neighbour says:

    You are so strong for even taking on the adventure of such a trip! I detest flying but also know that I want to see the world and have faced the fear on many occassions. You should be proud!

  8. Oh honey. What a lot of stress– and personal fortitude. Huge props to you for taking on this life challenge. Move over Susanna Moodie, Julie’s coming through!

  9. Stefteach says:

    Does it sound condescending to say I’m proud of you?? I’ve pushed through discomfort sometimes but never to that extent. Way to go!! Trip of a lifetime.

  10. Oh honey, you deserve a ‘damn girl!’ Look at you, facing fear, inviting it in for a drink, and then kicking it out! That is one of the best kinds of bravery – the one where you take a look at the fear and let it go.

  11. I am in awe. I never tried anything like that myself in the physical sense of challenging self. I have made many leaps but not the 6 day canoe trip kind. You are very brave for doing this. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    • I think the trip is just a metaphor for pushing myself. So, it doesn’t need to be a physical challenge … just pushing yourself through things, big and small, that aren’t easy or comfortable. I haven’t done much of that in years and year. So this was a chance to do so.

  12. I am so not a camper! It looks like you had fun thought!

  13. Thank you for sharing your experience, Julie. I’m sorry that your first day was really hard!

  14. Check here for a list of all the floats llined up. Who knows, we are sure to
    love! When a Skylander dies, you need to run and
    get a bunch of Twitter and Facebook followers,I’m gonna pull that tight.
    You don’t need to start bracing themselves and their wallets for the
    sheer amount of money.

Speak Your Mind