“Do you want to farm or do you want to paddle?”
It was the early ‘70s when Ric Driediger faced this question. Would he stay home and succeed the family farm or would he step into the unknown to pursue his love for discovery and the song of his paddle. It was a pivotal decision in a young man’s life, a salient splitting of pathways which lead in very different directions. He decided to take a canoe trip to make up his mind.
“Well, you know what I decided!” he laughed.
Ric is the owner of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. He and his wife Theresa (who Ric describes as the backbone of CRCO) purchased the business in 1987 after more than a decade of wilderness tripping and guiding experience. Over the past thirty years his name and that of Churchill River Canoe Outfitters have become synonymous to paddlers from all over Canada and even into the US and Europe who come through to explore Saskatchewan’s northern lakes and rivers.
Not far from where we sat rests a small fleet of canoes of various sizes, west of us, a paddler’s hostel. Our interview took place on the deck of one of the rustic cabins the business offers for rental. CRCO is a cluster of modest brown buildings, warmly decorated inside to give travellers a comfortable, dry place to start or end their journeys on the Churchill River system.
CRCO can be found in Missinipi, Saskatchewan on the shore of Otter Lake, a main gateway to the northern waterways. From their small office they supply maps for the area (which they produce) and many last minute camping essentials one may need. If it’s not Ric or Theresa greeting you inside then it will be one of their children, Dan or Sarah, or one of their select guides.
Ric is careful to hire staff which align with the guiding principles that have governed him throughout his career. “Somebody can have all of the hard skills for the job [such as certifications and proficiencies] but they may not make a good guide. Hard skills are only a part of it. They need the soft skills to make a good guide,” Ric told me. “If [an applicant] wants to paddle, I tell them to go paddle. The urge to explore is not enough. They also need to have that urge to share with people what they’ve found.”
It has always come down to those two principles for Ric: an insatiable urge to explore and the urge to share what he’s found. So it was that 45 years ago, in response to his father’s question, he said to himself: “well, I guess I will not farm.” That was his decision. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I will not farm, because I want to go paddling. I want to share this and I want to explore.” But what that meant, he had no idea.
Ric grew up on a farm in south-central Saskatchewan. They had chickens and pigs and cattle. He enjoyed working with the animals, especially the pigs “they were interesting animals and very fun to work with,” he said. One of his daily responsibilities was to go and get the cattle from pasture so they could be milked. “Sometimes it would take me way too long to get the cows,” he smiled.
There are many long eskers which cross through the region of the family farm, ridges of rock and sediment left by the glaciers as they melted away. An esker is not a land feature which can be cultivated; at best it can be used as pasture land to feed livestock, so they are generally left untouched by machinery. It was in those hills Ric would lose track of time exploring and discovering the natural beauty of the prairie landscape. He was thankful for the fact that it wasn’t really usable for anything except wilderness.
Those early years afield helped to cultivate his love for the outdoors and fuel his urge to explore and discover. But how was it that this prairie farm boy came to first dip his feet in the cold waters of the north? How did he meet the canoe?
He almost didn’t.
In town there was a man who took people out on canoe trips. Ric had long heard of these trips and knew he’d love to go, but always thought “well I wouldn’t be able to do that.” But eventually he got passed that. He changed his mind from “I can’t” to “let’s try.” He and his cousin decided that they ought to go chat with this man, Lavern, to see if they could come along. And so he found himself in Missinipi for the first time.
“I just absolutely fell in love with this land,” he said. “What an amazing place, the rock and the water and the moss.” It was those three things which captivated him. He was enthused by how much water was in every direction and how the rock was just rock, there was no soil on it! “And there isn’t grass in the trees, there’s moss!” he said “and you can lay down in it and it’s soft and beautiful! Can’t we have lawns at home that are made out of moss?”
That was all it took.
When he returned he began to tell his friends about the trip, what he’d experienced. As the next summer approached there was a group of them who wanted to go and give it a try. “I thought: well, I guess I can take them. I’ve been on a canoe trip once, I know how to do it.” He felt that indefinable something inside of him which makes him yearn to share. “I absolutely enjoyed taking these people and sharing with them what I’d discovered.” And it was on this trip that he was asked: “so how much do you want to get paid for this?” Rick laughed, “You can get paid for this!?” he had never even conceived of the idea that he may be able to get paid to go paddling. That question has always stuck with him
His urge to explore increased with his introduction to the canoe. “I don’t understand fisherman who can stay in one spot all day,” he said. “As I’m sitting there fishing, I’m thinking: ‘I wonder what’s around that corner over there. We’ve got to go look!’ or ‘there’s that little narrows between the islands, let’s go through that!” He has a need to keep looking, to find what lies around the next bend.
Exploring and sharing and saying “let’s try:” those principals have pushed him down the path to where he is today. But none of it happened quickly.
Lavern, who took him on his first canoe trip, who introduced Rick to the water, rock, and moss, would give him many more gifts in the coming years. He became a mentor for Rick and the two of them traveled western Canada and the northern states in search of backcountry leaders to ask: why wilderness? What can we learn? Why be a wilderness leader, other than a want for adventure? What is it about wilderness that is so important for our society?
During this time the two of them travelled in many remote regions of this landscape and learned the answers to the questions. This experience was fundamental in sculpting Ric to be the leader he has become today and in-turn the sculpting of many others through his work.
He learned that being a wilderness leader, being involved in taking groups out on canoe trips or backpacking trips, it was more than just adventure: “It was helping to develop people.” He discovered that the wilderness can be incredible for helping people grow and help them to become more than they are. It became clear that a wilderness trip can take a bunch of individuals and transform them into a group, a team.
Taking people into the wilderness, you strip away all the external stimulus of the daily life, the distractions like cellphones, TV, work, negative relationships; you just have that bunch of people and a set of tasks and challenges. “It teaches us how to be as a family, as a group of people who care about each other. They learn to need every part of that group, and [realize] if one person is hurting, in trouble, or sick, it impacts everybody.” Through working together to overcome challenges they may begin to see how their group reflects society itself. By working together and building community, helping each other, there is a chance for it to become better, “to become more.” “We tend to forget that if there is a part of society that is really hurting, it drags everybody down, and so together we have to hold everybody up. That’s the way it is with a group in the wilderness and that’s the way it has to be in modern society, but we tend to forget that.”
There is no pause button in the wilderness. There are no easy-outs if something goes wrong. There is only you and your group and the energy everyone is putting in. A group can begin to understand interconnectedness because they can see it, they can feel it.
When a school or camp group finishes a canoe trip at CRCO, Ric will often debrief them. He says “at the start of this trip you were all a bunch of individuals and now it is obvious that you are a group. When did that happen? Can you think of an event? When did you start caring for each other?”
“It’s amazing how they can always come up with an event ” he said, “they get it.” He’s never had a group which couldn’t pinpoint that moment. “There’s something contemplative about wilderness that has an impact on people.”
Wilderness also offers gifts to those who travel outside of groups, those who choose to travel alone. “There is something powerful about just being. There is almost a mystical side to it. Just being in a wild place, it soaks into a person.” Over the decades Ric has been able to recognize “reflections of the creator,” a spiritual aspect, of being alone in a wild place; a side which modern society often overlooks. “Whether you recognize it or not, whether you see it or not, or believe it or not, I believe it’s there,” he said, as goosebumps rose on my arms. “Just going out and being in that environment does something to a person. And this can have a very profound impact on them.”
This “something” is hard to put words to. I believe it is different through everybody’s own perspectives, but nevertheless, if you slow down and just sit and exist within that complex system of processes and interconnectivity, you will feel “it,” whatever it is: a creator, spirituality, humbleness, vulnerability, contentedness, simplicity. When you are alone you have even fewer distractions: your mind is free to explore itself.
With that context we can recognize solitude as a gift from wilderness. Ric appreciates “just going and learning about what [he’s] like as a person. There are no other people around to perform to, or that control [him]” There was certainly a reason he chose to do a solo canoe trip when he needed to ponder his father’s question.
“There are so many things about being out (…) that can make a person more than he or she is, and one doesn’t need to be an expert, or need to have skills, you just need to go sit to get some of that.” And by this Ric means sitting without a phone, without headphones in, without something to fidget with; just sitting with your thoughts. “As you sit you start wanting to learn more and wanting to be more. But you have to just start by sitting and being. Anybody can do that. It doesn’t cost anything; you just have to find a place to do it.” Spending time with oneself is a crucial part of becoming ones best self.
And though not everybody can find their way out onto a deserted island, miles away from another human, there are opportunities all around us to just sit and be. I’ve found many places even within city limits where I can feel alone in nature, where I have a place to think, to reflect. Though spending prolonged periods of time alone in the wild may have a more drastic affect in some ways, you can begin to forge a connection with nature in your own backyards. There is so much going on all around us which can teach, inspire, and intrigue. It’s up to you to look.
I wanted to know about Ric’s connection with nature. We soon began to discuss something deeper than that. He shared with me details of a relationship with nature. “It goes both ways” he said. “We become a part of it and it becomes a part of us (…) anything that happens to that land, to the animals, the plants, it affects me as well.”
Nature offers us many gifts, most of which we take without thanks, without thought. I’ve been motivated to consider ways in which I can give back. But I often wonder: how we can possibly give back for all that is given to us? “It is difficult to have a relationship that is a balanced two-way street,” Ric said in response. “Relationships don’t work that way most of the time, one is always giving more than the other. I don’t know how we can give back as much to the land as the land can give to us. I don’t think it is possible.”
“But showing respect, showing that we care, and doing what we can to protect Nature are ways that we can give back. Respect and appreciation: if one has those two things then how one camps on the land and how they [operate] on the land can be a form of giving back. Spending time on the land is giving back.”
My conversation with Ric was very uplifting. We chatted for over an hour weaving in and out of topics as naturally as if I’d known him for years. “Twenty years ago we would have had a very different conversation, even ten years ago. We’d have still had a good conversation thirty years ago, even forty, but it would have been different,” he said, “and it’s certainly taken me 45 years to get to be able to sit down here and talk with you today.” When he went out on that canoe trip to decide what he would do, the next 45 years were not laid out for him, all he decided on was the fact that he would not farm, that he would take that step into the unknown to try and make paddling a pillar in his life.
He may not get out as much as he used to, physically, but he gets out vicariously every day through the people he chats with. Many decades of experiences guided by the urges to explore and share brings you the man you may find behind the desk of Churchill River Outfitters today. Wilderness has sculpted the Ric Driediger which I’ve had the privilege to sit and chat with, and it has been under his guidance that CRCO is what it is now. It’s much more than a guide or rental service, more than a cluster of cozy brown cabins: it is a community.
He and his staff attempt to make anybody who walks through that door feel welcome in their CRCO community. There are even chairs set out and a bench for folks to sit. I’ve only visited a few times but I’ve been offered food on at least two of those occasions. Ric and his staff have made me, a stranger by almost all respects, feel comfortable in their place, and this is a service they extend to all who visit. It has been my pleasure.
There used to be a man named Harry Trafford who worked at a La Ronge information booth in the ‘70s. He knew nearly everything about the area. He had experienced so much of that wilderness that he could picture the settings of the stories people shared, and relate to them. Everybody would stop to chat with Harry, sharing and receiving bits of information about routes or portages or special places they’d encountered. Ric remembers wanting to be just like Harry Trafford someday:
“And darn it, I became Harry Trafford!”
That concludes my interview with Ric Driedeger. All told, I’ve only scratched the surface. I haven’t mentioned the lifetime of dedication Ric and Theresea have made to their faith by bringing church groups into the wilderness as a means of exploring their spirituality; I haven’t mentioned their interests in craft, how Ric makes outdoor equipment in the winter months and how Theresea is a well-established wood worker, having crafted many canoes to standards approved by the canoe legend Bill Mason; I haven’t mentioned how they go out of their way to offer work to members of the indigenous community nearby and make an effort to accommodate their transportation to and from work when needed. I’ve only just met Ric and his family and the community they have built, but he has made a deep impression on me that has left me eager to return. And this is an impression they have left with many who’ve had the privilege of spending time in Missinipi and on the Churchill River system.