The first night we set up camp in the dark. We walked to her, some of us preparing to conquer her, others of us imagining what it would be like to unite with her. Her image was more daunting than I expected. She was a dark abyss that could pull us in and send us hundreds of miles away. I imagined being consumed by her void, not able to see anything but the moonlight above. It wasn’t until morning that I dared to touch her.
Once we started canoeing, we didn’t stop canoeing. Didn’t know how many hours it had been. Didn’t know how many more miles to go. The sun was beating against our faces and at times I navigated my paddle to splash some of her water on my face. Our stomachs were full with peanut butter and jelly tortillas and her water. The line of thick trees surrounding us on both sides were covered with evidence of autumn. Our shoulders ached but we would not stop.
The first fifteen or twenty miles were the hardest. Our expectations of silky streams were shattered by her wide currents. We were desperately trying to find our rhythm, but the uneven rush of her waves against us wouldn’t let us. We wanted to stop, but how long was it since our last break? Fifteen minutes, or two hours? It felt like swimming through thick mud, sticky and unforgiving. Our backs told us that we were making progress, but the repetitive pattern of trees told us that we had barely moved. But we would not stop.
We were all women. Six of us, portaging 80 pound canoes on our shoulders. Digging holes for our waste. Eating food off the ground with our dirty hands. Unconcerned about the long-legged spiders crawling over our toes. Proving strength beyond a masculine identity. Proving womanhood beyond lace and lipstick.
When you canoe all day, there is a lot of time to think. I don’t know how it is for most people, but my thoughts are never characterized by clarity. Instead they are like a spider’s web, connected and tangled, easily broken and spawned from instinct, built to be home.
I thought about this land and what it must have been at the beginning. A world where the term “outdoors” didn’t exist because it was infinite. I thought about what Ms. Mississippi had witnessed. I wondered how many people had touched her water that I glided across. I thought about myself, and how tired I was but how empowered I felt. How I wanted it to end but wished it to continue all at once. I wondered if I came here to conquer Ms. Mississippi, or if I came to unite with her.
After our first portage it was as if we were entering a new river. Her water became liquid velvet, my paddle surrendering to her softness rather than fighting it. A dark but vivid layer soon filtered the air. She became silent, as if she knew that her visitors were settling down for the night. The sun began to lower until her water was drowning in shades of pink. The trees covered with red leaves slowly transformed into indistinguishable silhouettes.
The second night was chilly but the soup we had for dinner kept us warm enough. We sat around the wooden picnic table, exchanging our passions and bucket lists. We talked about the moments in our lives that scared us and the moments that defined us.
When our stomachs were full and bodies recovering, we lied on the grass and looked up. The stars did something to us. Perspective, maybe. Reminded us of our insignificance. Superficialities and materialism became incredibly inferior. The trees, her water, the moon, and the stars became the only authentic things left.
We awoke to sore muscles and did it all again. Paddling, sweating, thinking. Relying on the position of the sun for the time. Not knowing how many miles were left.
I am not one to easily cry. Maybe it was the heat of the sun or the aching of my head or the way my upper body was begging for rest. Maybe it was the layers of trees capped with red, orange, and yellow and the bald eagles that hovered over our heads. Maybe it was all the thinking. I cried, silently enough for no one to notice, explicitly enough for me to recognize that something was different. But crying did not disprove my strength. And it did not validate my femininity. It validated my humanness. It validated the influence of the wilderness.
I think it was then that I figured out that Ms. Mississippi was not an entity to be conquered. They call her “mighty” and her strength was not something that could be dominated, just as she was not here to dominate us. I also realized that she was not something to unite with. Ms. Mississippi was constant and secure, tough and tenacious, and she was not formed to build a relationship with us any more than she was formed simply to exist.
The third night we packed into a van, canoes trailing behind us, driving out of the place that defined us for the weekend. Our bodies were layered with sweat and dirt. The sweet smiles on our faces were replaced with tight muscles and tired eyes. Our hair was not silky and our breath was not minty. The third night we looked more like women than we ever had.