Tips for Embracing Adversity – Lessons From a Canoe Trip

Wilma Schroeder

I and nine other women, ages 23 to 63, stand huddled together under a big tarp, soaking wet despite our rain gear. We have just canoed across a lake in the pouring rain, and we’re struggling to get a fire lit. There’s no point changing our clothes because it continues to pour. And it’s early September, not cold out yet but not exactly warm. Are we having fun yet?

While reflecting on that wet and chilly experience, our guide said something that really struck me: “It’s always better to have some adversity on a canoe trip. That’s when you learn the character of the group. Adversity is good.”

Adversity is good? How interesting, and it’s just one of several lessons that canoeing has taught me:

Embrace Adversity

Adversity is a difficult or unpleasant situation. Let’s be clear here, I’m not talking about trauma. It would not have been good if any of us had been injured or suffered hypothermia on the trip. Trauma is not good. Prolonged crises like the pandemic are not good. Adversity, however, is part of life.

Wisely living in the moment can include anticipating future needs – but not worrying about them.

Up until now, I have thought of adversity as something to tolerate or cope with. But now I’m looking at adversity as something to embrace. Without adversity, the canoe trip (or life journey) is shallow and superficial. With it, our character is tested, and our best qualities can come out. We learn, we grow, we bond. We learn what we are made of, what we are capable of, and who we can lean on.

Despite the adverse weather, no one in our group complained. Everyone looked after each other, and the trip overall is memorable for the sense of joy and laughter we shared every day. We paddled hard in the wind and were proud of ourselves for our accomplishments, especially surviving being soaked.

Adversity is good!

Live in the Now, Wisely

Mindfulness and living in the moment are popular in counselling these days, and for good reason. When you are fully in the moment, you are neither oppressed by past events or worried about the future. In the canoe and at the campsite, we had to live in the “now” – no social media, no email, not even a single watch to check the time. There’s something incredibly freeing about that.

At the same time, a certain amount of forethought is necessary. One of the best things we did after the rainy day and night was collect a bag of birch bark for starting fires. That came in very handy on the rest of the trip. Wisely living in the moment can include anticipating future needs – but not worrying about them.

We often remove ourselves from experiencing the moment, by watching it through our phone cameras, tweeting and sharing, and being overly busy. Stop, breathe, pay attention – it really is the antidote to stress.

We don’t have to all be the same or do the same things in order to contribute to the whole.

Pull Your Weight, Know Your Limits

At each campsite, we had to move five 80-pound canoes, several food barrels, heavy tents, and personal bags. There was a lot to do for setting up and striking camp, and everyone needed to work together. At first I felt a bit guilty not doing the heavy lifting due to arthritis in my back, but I could still do other things. I needed to acknowledge my limits while also appreciating the ways in which I was able to contribute.

Sometimes we look at what other people are doing and think we have to be just like them. Maybe I have less education than others, or never had children, or in some other way am not meeting an arbitrary standard that I have set for myself. Perhaps we give up and stop trying because we think we can’t do it. But we don’t have to all be the same or do the same things in order to contribute to the whole.

Accept Help

Different people needed help at points during the trip – a loan of a warmer hoodie, assistance to get into the lake for a swim, or help getting out of the canoe at a slippery landing site. I would have face-planted on a rock without the helping hands of my friends! There was no stigma or judgement for anyone needing help. Helping was just part of the cooperation needed to make the trip a success.

I was a stubbornly independent child, according to my mother. Apparently my favourite saying was “I can do it myself!” Overall, Western society highly values independence, and there is often resistance to accepting help. Instead of seeing acceptance of help as a position of weakness, what if we saw it as one half of a cooperative equation, necessary for preventing or overcoming greater problems?

Life is like a lake, where the sudden squall and the breathtaking sunset coexist. There are calm waters and whitecaps, times of testing, times of resting, both struggle and delight. Embrace adversity, experience the moment, do your part within your capabilities, and accept help when needed.


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Author: Wilma Schroeder (BN, MMFT)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute
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