Ebba Safverblad-Nelson

51 Days of Open Water

Ebba Safverblad-Nelson
Ebba Safverblad-Nelson (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Four people stand on a rock in the tundra. They are singing. They stand on an island that is a hill. The landscape stretches to the bumps and contours of the horizon. The moon, ripped in half, is rising red in the east. Below is an expanse of water, dark in the twilight and whipped white by heavy winds that carry their song out over the waves. Harmonies overlap and fall apart as they sing it again and again and again.

This is how I remember it.

I don’t know how much I can tell you truly, or which details I’ve embellished, or what I have left out of my journal. I don’t know how much I want to tell you — there is a part of me that wishes to give each moment a cautious reverence. Yet I do not want to lock my experiences away in the deep vaults of my memory. I want to share what I can, so I will try.

Femmes du Nord is a 51-day trip offered as the culmination of the female canoe camper progression at YMCA Camp Menogyn in Northern Minnesota. I began attending this camp as a 12 year old who had a penchant for reading adventure books and earned a purple belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Over the next five years, this camp grew to eclipse almost everything else in my life. I fell in love with canoeing, with open water, and with open sky. I grew up into confidence between the trunks of pine trees and canvas tent walls. Before long, I was waterproofing maps of the arctic and packing food for 40 days into plastic bags.

Five of us were dropped by a bush plane onto a gravel strip on the shore of a lake called Ennadai in Nunavut, Canada. We would travel nearly 600 kilometers — down rivers, up streams, across lakes, and over tundra.

Everything was different from the earth I had come to know, from the plants to the scale of the sky. That first day we stopped for a pee break on the shore of Ennadai and ran into the tundra. Tufts of arctic cotton, pearlwort, and cloudberry blossoms dotted the tan landscape with white. It smelled good, like hay and earth and something sweet that I could never put a word to in any language.

We lagged in the first days, heavy with the weight of adjustment. Moving every day requires physical and mental work, and each routine must be built and begun before it becomes habit.

Our surroundings begged adjustment too. My sanity loosened as my wrists swelled with mosquito bites and blackflies bit a belt of scars around my waist.

We had respite from the bugs only when it was windy enough to blow them out of the air. Winds often trapped us, as any stretch of open water threw up waves big enough to engulf the bows of our canoes. We’d wait out the weather on the shore, napping, cooking lunches, and reading to one another. The evening that we were singing on the rock, we had been wind-bound on that island for several days, and we would be stuck there for several more.

We had grown up on trips that led up to this one. The tundra did not notice our presence, much less our gender or lack thereof. No one was there to offer us backhanded help, or suspect us unfit to carry such heavy loads.

On a warm and windless day, we paused on a lake whose clear water stretched to the horizon. We raised our paddles and let our canoes glide to a stop. We shut our mouths and ceased our movements.

The silence rang in my ears. It was the absolute stillness of a lake as calm as glass and a landscape without trees. It was the silence of isolation — of the knowledge that we had put hundreds of kilometers between us and the last place where we had seen other people.

The silence was a reminder of our own insignificance. That silence is still there now, after we have gone.

Our routines became our bodies. We ate between the mesh walls of the bug tent or under a windy sky. We stripped our clothes on and off in the same order every day, layering bras under long underwear under bug shirts and life jackets. We packed our bags in the same way every morning, perfecting routines for getting all of our gear to fit within the gunwales of our boats. We had a set order for doing dishes, and for who duffed (rested in the middle of the boat instead of paddling).

My arms became my canoe paddle — routine pull and swing. We careened around the river rocks until our hair was tundra grass and our hearts pumped river water.

A Best Place in the World

Let me tell you about my favorite river on this earth. Even though I’m not sure I want to — as though my silence could protect it. I want it to remain untouched, so that it will always feel like a different earth to be there.

The Kunwak winds its way through a country of rolling hills. Its headwaters are the lake called Tulemalu, an expanse of water that stretches to the horizon and is as clear as the sky. From these cold waters, the Kunwak carves shallow canyon walls out of grey tundra rock and splashes through boulders and stones. It is like one long and low class rapid — fast, splashing, and shallow — that lasts for kilometers. They are swifts that do not end before the next one has begun. We scout from the boat and improvise our way down.

In the front of the canoe I call out rocks, pillows, and openings to the person in my stern. My eyes always angle ahead to the next feature. It is an exercise in teamwork, in balance, in movement and gravity and keeping your feet. Those in the same boat begin to align in mind and motion until they are less than two people and more than one.

Anywhere we set foot we could find traces of the Harvaqtuurmuit — the Inuit who lived and traveled on the Kazan river. We found dugout circles that once served as bases for tents. Once we blew ashore to find the tundra covered in bones — caribou we think, splintered and strewn across the ground as far as we cared to walk. Around us were reminders that this was not untouched land, but a place that had been lived in for more years than I could ever imagine, yet in a way that did not destroy or seek to alter the anatomy of the land.

It was a long journey. We came when the spring ice had just retreated, and left as the puddles began to ice over at night. There were more days, more moments, than I can truly recall. Letting go of some of those memories is something I have had to accept.

With the moon round and large in the sky behind us, we slid past the last rocks of the Kazan delta and out onto Baker Lake. The water was pale pink, ice blue, and endless. We howled up at the moon in celebration and in thanks to the waters that carried us and supported our souls all the way.

When she’s not outside, Ebba Safverblad-Nelson can be found with a hot drink reading a book. She grew up in Minneapolis but currently lives in Finland, where she is studying to be a wilderness guide. (photo by Sarah Whiting)