Leading a women’s wilderness canoe trip as circle

Get comfortable as Sharon Wichman tells a beautiful story of embedding The Circle Way into the wilderness canoe trip she organized for seven women.

Leading a Women’s Wilderness Canoe Trip as Circle

Eight women paddling across a wilderness lake, stashing canoes upside-down on the shore and hiking to a wilderness waterfall, stripping down to swimsuits and boots to soak in the frigid pool.

Seven women, sitting in circle on logs, stones, and a compact camp chair, sharing stories of birth and death.

Add random bursts of song, gathering to watch the sun set or moon rise over the far shore, carrying canoes and supplies for three days in packs over rocky portages, scurrying to tents as the light fades and mosquitoes emerge, morning meditation on the shore, camping under towering pines in scorching heat, raging thunderstorms, and calm, cool nights. These are images from women’s canoe trips to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the past two summers.

The First Spark—following my intuition

It started with an email. It started with an email that refused to be sent without a note inquiring if this woman I barely knew was interested in leading a wilderness canoe trip with me. That night I lay awake for hours expanding on the possibilities: who might be interested, the training I needed, and realizing I could gather women to join me in the wilderness. In following that intuition to add the query to the email, reaching out just a little, the spark of a dream found dry tinder and burst into flame.

The Invitation—ask everyone

That first email provided the format for the invitation: reach out to every woman I could think of who might be interested in a wilderness adventure and assume that those who showed up would be the ones that were meant to be there. I made a list of all the women who might possibly be interested and started emailing everyone I could think of. This is part of the email I sent: 

"I've been dreaming about a women's trip for years; in the past 3 decades I've had female company on only one overnight canoe trip. As much as I love traveling with my guys, I've been yearning for a different kind of adventure. 

"Here are some things I'm looking forward to:

-- a RELAXING trip without agenda or travel goals

-- hanging out with wonderful wilderness-loving women (yes, I'm talking about YOU)

-- sitting and enjoying the quiet

-- exploring the local lakes, pond, waterfalls, and maybe finding an old mine site

-- pausing often to notice beauty

-- talking around the campfire, sharing stories”

I reached out to friends with wilderness experience, friends who are nurses (the fear of handling a medical emergency held me back from considering leading for many years), women I’d known for 30 years, and women I just met but wanted to get to know better. While many were not interested, every once in a while I saw that spark light in a woman’s eyes and knew I’d found a fellow wilderness-hearted woman who’d been offered an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. These women made up our circle, women as eager as I to experience the wilderness in circle.

Planning in Circle—Ask for what you need, offer what you can

Circle provided a structure for me to host these trips without carrying the full burden of responsibility. I had no interest in being the all-knowing wilderness guide who did all the preparation and all the cooking. I knew my strengths and weaknesses and sought a group who could share responsibilities, who would work together to co-create our wilderness experience. “Offer what you can, ask for what you need” became the organizational mantra.

Everyone brought food: I circulated a list of meals with open-ended suggestions and everyone contributed at their ability level. One woman, an experienced backpacker, offered homemade dehydrated dinners, another bought wine boxes after getting off the plane (no glass allowed in the wilderness), another brought ingredients for a soup dinner the first night at the cabin, I filled in the gaps in the menu, and everyone brought an extra jar of dry roasted peanuts. Too many peanuts was our biggest issue… not bad for a four-day potluck!

I asked the nurse for suggestions for first aid kit and gathering medical information, the music teacher to bring some songs to share, and everyone else to bring what gifts they could. I supplied much of the canoeing equipment, others brought what camping gear they had, and we cobbled together a motley assortment of packs, paddles, canoes, and tents. The equipment, planning, and my experience were my gift… I did not charge for the trip, as the participants were doing me a favor by making my dream of a women’s canoe trip into a reality.

In this process I realized the counter-cultural nature of this simple guideline. It’s not about everyone contributing equally, it’s about everyone contributing what they can. The more experienced wilderness women had an opportunity to share their gifts and the less experienced had a chance to learn. Everybody had a chance to learn from each other and support each other and listen to each other. Asking for what we needed proved much more difficult for us, as we’ve been taught to be self-sufficient and not bother each other with our needs. This provides a foundation community which we crave yet rarely find.

Exploring the Wilderness In Circle—letting things flow inside a loose structure

Photo credit Sharon Wichman

Photo credit Sharon Wichman

Finally, after many email exchanges, conversations with each of the women about their experience and ability, and months of building excitement, the six women who were interested AND available found their way to my cabin on the edge of the Boundary Waters with all their gear, food, and excitement. We shared a meal around the campfire and sat in circle for introductions, setting expectations for our interactions and decisions about how many boats and tents we needed. After packing we gathered in circle again to voice our fears and excitement about the trip.

Every morning we sat in circle to share how we were starting the day and our preferences for the day. We placed found items on an upright log which became our center. Each day our center grew and transformed as we added treasures. Our activities arose from a combination of our energy level and the weather. Throughout the days we would separate into smaller conversations or individual activities (several of us are introverts with need for personal space and quiet) and then would organically reconvene for song, group conversation, meals, and impromptu circles led by other participants. Morning check-in circles were a wonderful way for everyone to be seen and heard; each woman was able to voice concerns and/or excitement, show up “as is” and no one felt pressured to do anything.

We spent our four days paddling, sitting in the water (it was HOT!!!!), stranded in camp one day by heavy winds, reading, resting, talking, holding up the big tent during a furious thunderstorm, skinny dipping, paddling and hiking to a waterfall, talking, listening, singing, enjoying our surroundings and each other.

Our circle was held by not only the seven women, but by the trees, the wind and thunderstorm, the water that supported the canoes and which we filtered for drinking, the chipmunks and squirrels searching for every dropped morsel, the full moon, and even the mosquitoes who descended with the sun and reminded us that darkness is a time for rest.

Round Two—lessons

Two of the women from the first trip returned for a second year, plus several others. This group had more circle experience and we incorporated circle into our evenings and days as well as our mornings, enjoying many deep, rich conversations. The group also had less wilderness experience than the previous group, and I learned the importance of host as teacher. A leader in every chair (or in this case log, rock, or canoe seat) only works when the participants have the skills expected of them. When they lack those skills, the host needs to either step in to teach the needed skills or perform them herself, with constant discernment of what’s best for the group at any given moment. We also learned that, while circle is a wonderful tool for making decisions, it must be used judiciously lest we spend all our time talking about what we’re going to do rather than doing it.

Leaving the clock at home

Beyond the setting and the wonderful group of women, the most satisfying and unique aspect of these trips was stepping away from the clock. Our days were defined by sunrise and sunset, our circles had no set beginning and ending times, our mealtimes were defined by whoever dug into the bear barrel and prepared the morsels. To convene a circle, I would set out the center and wait for people to arrive. If circle is our natural way of being together, so is the cycle of light and dark, the ebb and flow of energies.

Sharon Wichman is a teacher and geologist by training and has spent much of the past 25 years raising three sons and searching for a way to combine the integrity of circle with teaching. She is most content in the presence of water and rock, preferring to spend at least as much time with trees as with people. These days she can often be found photographing the wonders of nature that surround her or conversing with people online as a mentor for Heather Plett’s Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. She sees circles and faces wherever she looks, and her newest passion is turning her photos into kaleidoscopic mandalas.