“After a vicious school rumour destroyed my confidence, canoe tripping helped me get it back”
A long-running rumour at her Toronto private school convinced Hannah Griffin that she was a bad kid, so she started acting like one. Then a 10-day wilderness portage trip—and an unexpected encounter along the way—changed that
When I was 13, I learned that I was a bad kid. I had switched from a public elementary school to an all-girls private school in the fifth grade, and from day one, I didn’t fit in. I had short hair, and I loved skateboarding and playing The Legend of Zelda on Nintendo 64. It took a while, but by middle school, I finally made friends.
One day after class, I was hanging out outside the school with one of these friends and a boy who attended a nearby school.
“Hey,” said my school friend, “should we try to sneak into the grad lounge?”
The grad lounge was a hallowed room on the top floor of the school that was reserved for the twelfth graders. I’d never been inside—even thinking about it felt forbidden. We entered the school, the halls quiet except for a few students attending after-school activities. The three of us climbed the echoing stairway into unknown territory. I slowly opened the lounge door, the late-afternoon sunlight spilling over the wooden floorboards. The room was filled with mismatched couches and chairs, the odd discarded blazer or tie draped overtop.
We sat on one of the couches, giggling with the nervous excitement of being somewhere we shouldn’t be. After a few minutes, the door opened and a twelfth grader walked in, startled to see us. She grabbed one of the blazers on a nearby chair and told us to get lost. We scurried out, hoping she wouldn’t tell on us.
A few weeks later, as I walked to class, I noticed some older girls I didn’t really know staring at me, a few laughing. Later that day, I heard the rumour for the first time: my friend and I had apparently been found in the grad lounge engaged in a sexual act with a boy. The rumour reached my ears as a courtesy before it continued its spread through the school.
The rumour grew and evolved, exaggerated more and more in each retelling, and I was powerless to control it. My friend’s older sisters started asking them about it. I was terrified that my own siblings would catch wind of it. Even people I knew from other schools heard it. An older friend from my neighborhood pulled me aside one day and said, “Some of my friends are saying you’re a slut. I told them it wasn’t true, but I just wanted you to know what people are saying.”
I’d never even kissed anyone. How could people be saying these things about me? I started to hear other rumours about me too, like that I was bulimic. I cried most days after school, and sometimes at school. My peers had decided who I was, and I felt helpless to escape it, so I leaned in to it. If everyone thought I was a bad kid, that’s what I’d be. I stopped participating in extracurriculars and started smoking cigarettes and pot behind a coffee shop near school. I snuck out at night to smoke pot with friends, shoplifted whenever I felt like it, and stole whiskey and money from my exasperated parents.
By my last year of high school, I was snorting Ritalin in my bedroom and floating through my days with near-debilitating anxiety. I felt so bad about myself and acted cruelly toward others to try to make them feel as bad as I did. I bullied other girls at school and repeated any vicious rumour I heard, so relieved to not be the subject of it.
The winter before high school ended, a childhood friend told me that I should apply for a summer job at her camp. The camp was heavily focused on canoe-tripping, with even the youngest campers heading into the backcountry and some of the older kids going on six-week Arctic river trips. I applied, went for an interview and, a few days after graduation, headed north. I couldn’t wait to be around people who didn’t know anything about me.
A few days after my cabin of 12-year-olds arrived, we left on a five-day canoe trip. As I pulled a J-stroke into the water that first morning, I couldn’t take my eyes off the kids—I was so afraid of something happening to one of them. It seemed inconceivable to me that all of these kids were under my care in the wilderness.
It rained for almost the entire trip—the relentless kind of rain that permeates all of your clothes and eventually your sleeping bag, wearing away at your sanity drop by drop. When we reached the camp van at the take-out, the end of our route, I was stunned that I’d returned each child intact.
I took more trips that summer. I learned how to route plan, honed my navigation skills and got really good at perfectly browning pita pizzas over campfire embers. I made friends and spent days off with them, swimming in lakes, having forest parties and lying in the sun on lakeside docks, my shins covered in scratches and bruises from traversing seldom-used portages. I revelled in these new, strong, adventurous friends who viewed me as one of them—until, eventually, I was. I returned the next summer, passing more days in the stern of a canoe. At the end of that second summer, a senior staff member encouraged me to apply to lead a longer trip the following summer. I left camp liking myself more than I had since I was 13 years old.
Two summers later, I stood beside five faded green tandem canoes and plastic food barrels secured with harnesses and oversized packs, listening to the camp van spray up rocks as it pulled away from me down the dirt road. I was leading a group of 15-year-old girls on a ten-day canoe trip in Temagami, a gem in the northeastern Ontario wilderness, along with my co-leader, Erin.
The tents had been checked, the first aid kit stocked, and the firestarter and water purifier accounted for. All the food was packed; the measuring, weighing and bagging of oats, trail mix, macaroni noodles, dehydrated hummus and tomato sauce done; the route and contingency planning complete. All that was left to do was go.
Our paddling route would take us through deep lakes, old-growth white and red pine, and root-riddled portages from one body of water to the next. The trip would be leadership-focused, with one of the girls taking ownership over each day, deciding when we’d wake and how far we’d go. Erin and I were there to keep things on the rails. I pulled my life jacket over a fleece I’d borrowed from my dad and swung my legs into the stern of my canoe. I was 21 and exactly where I wanted to be.
In just a few days, we were in the rhythm of the trip. We woke just after sunrise, packed up camp and slid our canoes into the lake alongside rhythmic, skittering water bugs. We occasionally passed small cabins with smoke snaking out of their chimneys. The girls became adept at portaging, learning how to make as few trips as possible between bodies of water. They carrier their canoes farther each time, getting used to the weight of the boats’ wooden yokes on their shoulders.
We rafted up whenever we got hungry. Gunwales gently collided and tanned, bruised legs dangled over into adjacent canoes to hold us together. We ate sandwiches of lemony homemade hummus, summer sausage and bright-orange cheese with an acidic tang from the vinegar cloth we’d wrapped it in. Erin and I soon knew everything about the girls: their siblings’ names, the things that had sucked about grade nine last year, their insecurities and camp crushes. We knew a lot of it from them opening up to us on long paddling days and the rest from 15-year-olds’ blissful ignorance of the fact that voices carry remarkably well across water and through tents.
Each night, the girl deemed the leader for the next day would spread out our map and review the route with the group, tracing the pale-blue bodies of water that would soon pass underneath us. They explained how far we’d be travelling, what the portages might be like and what time we needed to wake up. The leader took a small digital alarm clock to bed and was responsible for getting everyone up. In the mornings, I’d burrow into my sleeping bag in the tent I shared with Erin and listen to the leader’s groggy voice encouraging everyone to get moving.
Sometimes the girls would talk about how strong they felt, how much more confident they were out in the woods than in the hallways of high school. But they didn’t need to say it—Erin and I could see it in their calm decision-making, the way they took up more space and spoke with conviction about their choices for the day.
There was one part of the trip that Erin and I were nervous about. On day eight, there was going to be a short portage—a few hundred metres long—with a small cabin at the end. Two summers earlier, another trip from our camp had done the same route. At the end of the portage, they had been held up by a thunderstorm and forced to stop and set up their tents near the cabin. There had been men in the cabin drinking heavily, and they’d come over and harassed the girls all night, even urinating on their tents. Eventually, the men had left them alone, but the group had been terrified. One of the leaders from that trip had circled the portage for us on a map before we left. She’d advised us to get an extra early start that day and do the portage in the morning, making sure we planned our day so that, no matter what, we didn’t have to camp there. Day eight was flagged in our minds.
On day five, we stood with mud halfway up our shins on a portage trail deep in a dense forest, and one of the girls was crying. We were in the middle of the infamous Diamond Lake Death March, a four-kilometre portage. We needed to do two trips each to get all of the gear and canoes across, which meant 16 kilometres of walking. Erin and I had packed Mars Bars as a surprise for halfway through, and one of the girls was so overjoyed that she burst into tears. You could hear every squirrel, every creaking pine, every whirring mosquito as we devoured our chocolate bars, the sun intermittently streaming in through the thick canopy.
A few nights later, we had a fire and passed around a pot of marshmallows melted in butter and topped with crushed graham crackers and chocolate chips. The girls were still talking about the now-mythical Death March. “I can’t believe I did that,” I heard one of them say.
Erin and I went over the next day—day eight—on the map with the leader. “We need to get an early start so we can be done with this portage before mid-morning,” Erin explained, a tan finger pointing to the innocuous-looking speck of land between two lakes. We didn’t tell the leader why, but she seemed to understand that it was important.
The next day, things began to go sideways at first light: the oatmeal was burned. We had a headwind the whole morning, and our arms ached as we looked toward shore to see if we’d made any progress or merely moved backward. “Harder,” I yelled into the wind. “We gotta go quick today.”
It was mid-day when we finally reached the portage. As we unloaded packs from the canoes, I heard one of the girls cry out, followed by a splash. She’d fallen on the slick rocks and twisted her ankle. Precious time ticked by as Erin and I checked out the ankle, comforted her and convinced her that she could slowly walk the portage without carrying any gear.
As we headed into the thick forest, I calmed myself by picturing us climbing into our canoes on the other side. With the canoe on my shoulders, I began to hear the plunk, plunk, plunk of raindrops echoing as they landed on the hull. When we broke out of the woods at the end of the portage, the sky was dark grey, and violent raindrops obscured the lake’s surface. I could see the hunting cabin about 200 metres away, across a decrepit bridge over a creek. We put on our raincoats and loaded the canoes while the large volume of water falling from the sky and the increasingly hostile wind made it difficult to hear one another.
Erin put her hand on my shoulder and leaned in close. “Did you see that flash?” she yelled. I looked up and saw more flashes, followed by a huge bang as the air around us grew warm. We couldn’t get on the water if there was lightning—it was too dangerous. Our rule of thumb was to wait at least 15 minutes from the last lightning flash before pushing off. Overhead, the clouds spun in rapid circles. It was mid-afternoon but nearly dark. “What are we going to do?” asked one of the girls. “Just let us think for a sec,” Erin said. “Everything is going to be fine.”
Just then, thunder cracked above us so loudly that I felt it vibrate in my chest. It was as if a 200-year-old tree had split in half right beside us. Most of the girls screamed—one so loudly that even now Erin says she’ll never forget the noise. A few admitted later that they had peed themselves. The rain was torrential at this point, and we could see lightning touching down on the other side of the lake. We were in an open clearing and soaking wet. “We have to go to the hunting cabin, Hannah,” Erin yelled. “We have no choice.”
We grabbed our satellite phone and map bag and pulled the canoes high up on shore. I put the girl with the sprained ankle in a piggyback, and we headed for the cabin as a group. Through the rain, we could see a light in one window.
Erin and I walked up the slanted steps, the girls waiting below us. I couldn’t believe we were here—exactly where our friends had warned us to stay away from. I placed one hand on the river knife on my lifejacket and reached out to knock on the door. My hand was so cold and shook so badly that I had trouble making it into a fist. I braced myself for whoever would be on the other side.
The door opened, and a bald man with a trim goatee and smart eyeglasses looked at me with surprise. I imagined what he saw—a dozen young women in pastel-coloured raincoats, soaking wet, some crying. There was no road access to the hunting cabin and our canoes were out of view.
“Can we stay on the porch for a bit?” I asked. “We got caught in the storm, and it’s really bad out here.
“Who’s there?” asked a second man, appearing at the door. He looked me up and down. “Oh my gosh.”
“You girls were out in the storm for this long?” asked the first man. “You’re brave!” Erin explained that we were doing the portage but couldn’t continue because of the storm. The second man nodded.
“Well, this is a real surprise, all the way out here, but of course you can stay. You don’t need to stay on the porch—we have lots of extra room.” I paused and looked at Erin, and then down the steps at the girls.
“Who are you guys?” I asked. “Is this your cabin?”
The men listened as Erin and I explained what happened to the other group a few years earlier. They told us they were really sorry that had happened, but the cabin was rented out by different groups all summer. The men were long-time friends who worked for the military, and this was their first time there. One even showed me his military ID to ease our fears. They were there to fish and get some time away from their teenagers.
Erin and I glanced at each other with the mutual understanding that this would have to be our camp for the night. We spilled into the tiny cabin and took over the back room, covering every hook, corner and notch with wet clothes. We cooked our dehydrated camp dinner on their stove. The girls passed out early, but Erin and I stayed up a little later with the men and told them stories from our trip. They asked lots of questions and shared chocolate and pop with us. Just before I went to bed, I looked around the cabin, feeling grateful that it was here for us.
We woke at sunrise to a calm day. We packed up and thanked the men profusely. I sat on a rock by the water, my loaded canoe in front of me. As I waited for the girls to load their packs, I watched one of them carefully print out one of the men’s mailing addresses in her journal so we could send them a thank-you card.
In the morning light, the hunting cabin looked cozy and inviting. It had ended up being a refuge even though it was the last place we’d expected to find safety. In that moment, I finally started allowing myself to let go of the idea that things are black and white, that people are good or bad. That view of the world—and of myself—no longer served me.