God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.—Psalm 46
It’s an odd choice, agreeing to join this small group of colleagues and acquaintances for a five-day wilderness canoe journey. I think about this as I hand my cell phone to the canoe outfitter for safekeeping as we board the boat that will transport us into the Canadian wilderness. Forfeiting this icon of security prompts a jarring moment of panic. Yet, my little cell phone—my lifeline—is useless in this place, miles from any cell tower. My fellow adventurers will now serve as my lifeline.
A couple of hours later, we watch the transport boat leave the island where we have been dropped with our canoes, dry bags, day bags, supplies and food. The parting words of the handler, “See you in five days at the Black Robe portage!” launches a second wave of panic.
I cannot remember a time when I have felt more abandoned.
The random group of people standing on the rocks with me is all that stands between me and disaster. I know I need them more than they need me. Friendship and trust come quickly when one’s survival depends on it.
Our guide calls us over to the rocks where maps are spread to review our course through the maze of tan land masses and blue lakes that will be our journey. Black lines connect through lakes and land, marking our journey. Red lines depict the portages—the places where we hoist our canoes onto our shoulders and transom our supplies across strips of land to reach the next body of water. I have never “portaged” anything before. More panic ensues, yet there is no going back now. On the rocky shores of Crooked Lake on the south side of the Canadian Quetico Boundary Waters, the only option is to do the next thing. And so, lowering packed yellow canoes into the still waters of Crooked Lake, we do.
Later that day, after a quick jump into the water, I sit my sunburnt, bone-weary body on the rocks near our first campsite and observe.
Fierce rocks jut into the water; solid gray-black jettisons stand guard against the furious waters of Rebecca Falls. Stalwart, the rocks contain the swirling waters as if to say, “You may go here, but not there.” Yet their solid defiance cannot stop the slow wear of the constant barrage. In the presence of crazy waters, rough edges are slowly being smoothed and changed by the very force they resist.
Mesmerized by the sounds of rushing water and the feel of the warm breeze, I think about my family, hundreds of miles away. Lost in thought while my clothes dry on my body, I wonder how they are faring without me. I have no control. Panic. It is in this moment that I begin to sense the holy presence of a Whitewater God. As the space around me fills with warmth like the sun that warms my back, I realize that like the rocks upon which I rest, I too am being shaped.
The sounds of voices from our campsite play at the edge of this white noise. Pulling me back into the moment, I hear my fellow paddlers laugh while they prepare our first wilderness dinner. The sound warms me, grateful for their collaboration. I rise to return and pause to look across the roiling water to the tall hemlocks that line the far side of the river. Green turns to black as I search the darkness of the forest. I wonder what stares back at me. Danger? Delight? The answers to my wonderings remain as elusive as the control I have over my family in that moment. I turn toward our camp, hiking shorts and shirt now dry and my unruly hair claiming a path of its own in the afternoon humidity. I can still feel the warmth from the rocks.
I often think back on that day, when God met me on the rock of refuge at Rebecca Falls. Much would happen in the coming months that would make me resist the wild waters that swirled out of control as I attempted to stand guard. Yet, like rocks, I managed only to appear to contain the chaos. I became keenly aware of the unrelenting presence of God as jagged edges were worn away in preparation for what would come. It was not gentle work and often felt like wilderness territory. Yet even in the middle of the wilderness, Whitewater God was present, tenderly lifting this bone-weary one onto a sun-warmed rock for refuge.
We need not fear when the earth gives way, or when cell service or loved ones fail. God is present, both in the raging waters, on the rock of refuge, and through the care of fellow paddlers, lifelines who know how to prepare the table in the wilderness. There is goodness in the wilderness. Do not fear.
Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.