Ode to Norm
I hope you are lucky enough to have a buddy or two who will adventure with you through thick and thin. My buddy was Norm.
Back in the beginning we were pretty green and needed to learn a lot of skills in order to be safe in the outdoors. Like most, we jumped right in feet first, survived, than started to take the odd course here and there. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Norm got his name because he was a regular at the outdoor store. So much of a regular that myself and the staff would yell out “Norm” when he entered, inspired by Norm from the TV show Cheers of course. Norm had good taste in gear, and was eager to use it.
Our adventuring started around the water: canoeing, sea kayaking, white-water, and tripping.Living in Saskatchewan, the warm deep waters of the Churchill River became our backyard. Each trip seemed to be remembered for a near miss, or a steeply learned lesson. Paddling a 17’ white-water outfitted canoe into a hole at Far Side rapids seemed like a great idea, made for a heck of an ender. We sure honed our rescue skills. That same trip we swam and slid down some rapids on our butts and Norm learned that the trusted Speedo was no match for a sharp rock and had a butt cheek hang out for the remainder of that trip.
Our first course was an amazing sea kayaking course that we took near Regina. West Coast famed paddler Mercia Sixta flew out to teach this course. Norm and I were hooked. We spent 4-5 nights per week kayaking, teaching kayaking, and paddling every river or creek around Regina. We then took our sea kayaks up to the Churchill, how hard could it be to paddle long boats in the white-water?? We didn’t quite know how to canoe yet remember. We paddled hard, swam lots, drank a lot of water, and the biggest lesson we learned was to buy some proper white water kayaks.
We continued to paddle the Churchill in WW canoes & kayaks, and lucky for us, we were convinced to take a white water canoe course from a fellow by the name of Kevin Shultz. I think the only reason he offered was because he figured we were going to kill ourselves with our ignorance. 3 days with Kevin and we were hooked again, armed with some skill.
Now with some skill we were ready for the MTN Rivers, and why not head to the Kan, Canoe Meadows in Kananaskis. Most would wait for a nice summer day, but we decided to go Remembrance Day Weekend, how cold could it be?? I still remember getting to the river and wondering where all the water was, (turns out the dam was closed and it was not running.) The next morning it was in a full flow and we jumped in and gave it a go. I had a nasty swim after a bad surf in a hole and Norm got to chase my boat down for me. Norm had a few swims too. All in all it was a great day, which was a good thing because we woke up the next morning to frozen neoprene suits and there was no way we were putting those things on our bodies. Hike and scramble anyone?
Another crazy trip started off innocent enough, paddling Speedy Creek north of Swift Current into the South SK River. It was Good Friday, early in March and a huge run off that year. The river was angry that day my friends! The sharp turns, fast water, lots of debris, and caving steep canyon walls caused one member of our group to tip, and during that rescue attempt I lost my own kayak. Norm went after it and I had a swim with Deer in the river. Regardless of all the crazy scary details, I got my first experience with Hypothermia, Norm got the kayak, and the local farmers got us grouped back together again. We even landed a delicious Easter Dinner when we went back Sunday to get our boats.
The craziest trip was a kayak journey down the Upper Red Deer River near Sundre, Alberta. We had been down the river many times before, even guided down once by a professional guide. But we didn’t realize the impact of a late mountain snow melt, and massive run off. We all had our quirks, and Norm hated maple bagels. He hated them so much we would always try to smuggle them in, but they are pretty easy to smell. We had a group of 4 on the river, and it was July long weekend. Our first clue should have been that there were no other paddlers on a normally busy river. We started out and were making pretty good time. The first rapid is marked by a huge rock, and we go left of the rock, over the waves and through the rapid. Well the rock was not there, underwater from the flood, and the waves were similar to the ones from the Perfect Storm. 3 out of the 4 of us swam. As we made our way down the river, every rapid was so different and tough to navigate. We bumped and bruised our way down to Staircase rapids after my near death swim in Goose Berry Falls. The staircase did us in, with one of the paddlers getting caught in a hole, and losing their kayak downstream. We got the paddler out (on the wrong side of the river) and needed a plan. 4 paddlers, 3 kayaks, 2 paddles. (It was like a S.A.T. question, except this was real life.) After a couple front ferries to the road side, we sent 2 off to find the road and thumb-it to find a ride to our vehicles, and Norm and I set off looking for the missing kayak. Lucky for us (finally some luck) we found the kayak at S-Bend, and our paddling buddies were there after finding a ride. Our final clue about the danger of the river came in the form of a couple other paddlers camped at S-bend who came to us drunk & stoned saying “Dudes, knarly, you paddled today”. We finally made it downstream to where our vehicle was parked, crawled out of our kayaks for the last time that day, and sat by the river reflecting. At that point I reached between my paddling jacket and PFD, pulled out a maple bagel that was double wrapped in Ziploc bags, marveling that it stayed in place after my Goose Berry Falls swim, handed it to Norm and said, “Hey, we got this for you!” Norm promptly threw it in the river, not a word was said.
In my experienced life I have become an outdoor leader, canoe instructor, sea kayak instructor, ski instructor, and wilderness guide. I am skilled, I travel safe, I am a good instructor, but I can’t help but reflect on the stupid things I did. Not in a bad way, but more in an “I miss the ignorance I had” sort of way. I think it’s important to jump in with both feet, have some fun, have some adventure, and survive. I also think it’s great to take a course, learn some skills so you can avoid some of the scariest of adventures.
Adventuring outdoors, no matter what the activity, I hope you have a Norm in your life to have fun with, learn with, challenge you, and rescue you, like I had. There were so many paddling trips, hiking trips, road trips, and ski trips. Norm, if you are reading this, we are paddling the Seal River in northern Manitoba next summer, polar bears, remoteness, danger… are you in?