By Michael Simmelink, Resident Director of Hospers Hall
A portion of the 2013 Wilderness Leadership Expedition (WLE) trip was spent paddling canoes through the wilderness of Canada. To this day, I have no idea where we were. We had driven a van an hour and a half past Thunder Bay into the middle of God-knows-where-Ontario and dipped our canoes into blue lakes that had ice on them only a week before. There was more than one joke about the water temperature on this Coldwater Foundation trip.
We put in our canoes that evening, and paddled a measly five minutes before we shored on a peninsula to set up camp for the night. Tomorrow would be the first full day of paddling.
The start of my career as a paddler was the antithesis of ideal. My friend Zack entered the canoe and then stabilized it for me to join him. Carefully, he positioned himself away from the rocky shore so our canoe didn’t get beat up, but still tried to keep it reasonably close for me to throw a leg in. I do not recall what led to me being in the water up to my armpits, but I remember it being stupid cold. I was in two feet of water and couldn’t move my limbs to doggy-paddle. My breath left me; my lungs felt like they had shrunk to the size of two earbuds. Apparently I had slipped on the rock, and after an excoriating seven (eight? nine? eleven?) seconds I was shaking water out of my boots in 40 degree weather on shore. Thirty-five minutes after waking up I had successfully made myself ridiculously uncomfortable and cold. I succeeded on my second attempt entering the canoe, and we paddled to catch up to the group. We still had a full day’s travel ahead of us.
The sun moved behind clouds and across the sky, and we came to a portage near the end of our day, and I acknowledged that I was numb from my abdomen down. I was a little nervous about that, but I knew if I worked my legs hard, I could raise my body temperature. I loaded up two Duluth packs on my back, snatched the team’s equipment bag, and ran the 300 yard trail with close to 120 extra pounds.
I rumbled to the end and dropped the gear. Panting and hopeful, I slapped my thighs to see if the mission was accomplished. Hardly. My anxiety level rose. When the rest of the group caught up, I told our leader what I was feeling (or lack thereof). He reassured me that we’d camp on the next lake, and the best thing I could do is go to the bathroom so my body doesn’t waste energy maintaining temperature of waste.
I trounced through the bush and found a birch tree with a smaller fallen jack pine leaning against it, recently dead. As I stood at this urinal, tears began to form and fall. A lot hit me at that moment.
I was only alive because God wanted me to be. The wilderness could not care less if I live or die; it was completely agnostic towards my fears and feelings. I was alive because the Creator of the universe felt that wasn’t such a bad idea, and He was sustaining me as He always had. It wasn’t just God’s sufficiency in that moment of near-hypothermia; it was His sustenance for me day after day after day after day after day. Ongoing and never-ceasing.
I received the challenge I sought from this trip, but I always expected to come out of it feeling stronger, individualized, empowered. That was true to an extent, but it was overshadowed by feelings of affirmation, claimed, cared for, protected. Christ had always been guiding me to the warmness of a campfire and change of clothes, metaphorically speaking. On that day, it just happened to be literal. I peed on some trees while soaking wet and freezing cold, and I garnered a deeper sense of God’s providence.