At around 6am the busses pulled off to the side of an empty stretch of highway deep in the woods. They hustled us off the bus and into the early morning drizzle. Groggy and squinting in the morning light, I lugged my suitcase over a ditch and up onto a grassy hill above a clearing.

A fellow with a gray beard met us all out there. He introduced himself as the program director.

And then he started preaching.

“Hold on,” he said. “Hold on to Jesus. Don’t hold on to your accomplishments in high school. Don’t hold on to the money in your wallet. Don’t hold on to the picture of your girlfriend. When life gets difficult, hold on to Jesus!”

There was more to it than that, but those were the salient points.

I was standing on a hill in the middle of the woods on the side of a country highway at 6am in the drizzling rain, holding my suitcase and listening to a sermon.

What had I gotten myself into?

After the sermon, the man broke us into groups of eight, reading out names. I met the other guys in my group and our leaders, Boone and Chris. Boone was short and scruffy with glasses. Chris was tall with movie star blonde hair.

After some time getting to know each other, they gave us duffle packs and had us rifling through our luggage, picking out the few things we’d be taking on our journey. We would leave the rest behind.

No watches. We’d tell the time by the position of the sun.

No deodorant. It attracted mosquitoes.

No sleeping bags. They’d provide us each with one.

A change of clothes, a toothbrush, and a Bible made the cut.

They provided the rest. Sleeping bags, lightweight plastic tarps, mosquito nets, and cord for shelter. Waterproof (mostly) bags for our clothes. A water bottle and mess kit. We divided the food and kitchen among us.

We canoed for the first week, following a chain of lakes north. Each of us took turns leading. After a basic orienteering lesson, Boone would hand someone a compass and a map, show him where we were, and show him where we needed to be by nightfall.

The day’s leader was responsible for the rest. Boone and Chris provided advice if asked, but they would only step in when there was a safety concern.

Most nights, we made it to our destination before dark.

I’d canoed on a lake before, but never traveled by one. I shared a canoe with Ben, and we swapped stories as we paddled up rivers and across lakes.

Then, on the last day of the first week, a man met us at our destination with a green van and a trailer. We traded our canoes for frame packs and got a ride to… somewhere.

The man drove with the window rolled down.

Hiking was harder than canoeing.