From the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico, adventures told from the perspective of an expedition canoe

We’re thrilled to feature our first ever guest blog writer: Sammi Armacost. Sammi is an avid and experienced canoe tripper who was featured here previously in our 6Northof60 profile. She was also cast in Nova Craft Canoe’s EDC video profile in 2019. Sammi currently lives in Minnesota and is working on her first book.   

The first time I stepped foot in a canoe and put a paddle to the water, I was fifteen years old; my dad sent me away to a wilderness-tripping canoe camp in Northern Minnesota. I grew up a city girl, in Oakland, California where I may have gained an appreciation for the VIEW of the water, but certainly did not feel the same way about my access to it. The canoe country that I was introduced to and the culture I was immersed in was a completely foreign one. It had never crossed my mind that you COULD, let alone WANT to travel, self-propelled, for hundreds and thousands of miles, across states and provinces, over mountains and through valleys, in an arguably cramped and narrow vessel – for months at a time.

And yet, discovering the canoe changed my life. Since that summer in 2010, it has been the main accessory to my most treasured life experiences. I have so many stories now – stories that I plan to string together in a book someday: stories about passing barges on a moon-lit night, about paddling through sunsets that never go dark, about portaging 16 kilometers on my 23rd birthday. But here, I wanted to give a voice to the Nova Craft canoe that has been with me for so many of those stories. After all, we wouldn’t have any stories at all without the canoes that took us there. Considering everything that they’ve seen and heard, we don’t get to hear from them nearly enough.

May 2017

I can feel my fresh red gel coat swell in the warm sunshine. I’m on my first trailer ride, to where exactly – I’m not sure. I couldn’t catch the details in all the commotion of getting loaded and strapped down. I’m cocooned in a suffocating amount of saran wrap. There are two more canoes on the racks next to me but we haven’t been introduced to each other yet. I have a lot of questions. I think it was a few womxn who came to pick us up; I wonder what they have in store.

Twenty hours of driving later, my hull and my gunwales ache from the pressure of these ratchet straps. Did they think that I wanted to go flying off the trailer at 65 miles per hour? I wasn’t going to go anywhere. They could have spared me the extra slipknot at the very least. Come to think of it, I thought I was supposed to spend most of my time on the water, not suspended between two metal bars over concrete all day. I don’t have a good feeling about this.

Update: I met the others on the trailer, so that’s a plus.  One’s a canary-yellow, 18-foot Prospector and there’s another 17-foot (like me), hunter-green Prospector. I might be biased, but I stand by my red coat looking the best in the Northwoods. Green-17 seems agreeable enough, kind of quiet. Yellow-18 seems…uh, mature? Like they don’t need answers to any questions; they seem ready to get to work. I noticed a ‘Welcome to Minnesota’ sign, so I’m guessing that’s where we are. Lots of tall skinny trees with white trunks around here. I can finally see the water. What a relief.

June 2017

There are six womxn that we seem to belong to. They give me a headache, buzzing about in a million directions: packing food and gear into Duluth packs, wannigans, and dry bags at all hours of the day; making lots of phone calls and discussing tedious details that bore me to no end. Don’t they know that if they just took me out for a paddle, we’d all feel so much better???!?!??! Instead, they have the audacity to strap the three of us down again for another FOUR-DAY road trip, an experience I can only describe as a personal kind of hell, punctuated by the horrors of suffocating amounts of dust, paint-chipping gravel, and gag-inducing roadkill. I will never forgive them for putting me through this.

…They might not be as diabolical as I have made them out to be. Actually, not diabolical at all. I think they were just stressed – they had big plans after all. We drove all that way, only to load onto another questionable mode of transportation: a floatplane. From Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories, we took a turbulent plane ride into the depths of the Mackenzie Mountains. In spite of the terror I felt in the air, I will never forget the look of sheer wonder and anxiety on the six of their faces (I’m still trying to get their names straight) as we made our final descent to the Keele River where I’d make my maiden voyage.

Float plane landing in Northwest Territories

Landing on the Keele River

August 2017

For all that miserable build-up, it was well worth the trouble. I’ve been so busy! I’ve been on an adventure of a lifetime and we’re all just having so much FUN.No drama. No stress. Just the water, the mountains, the jackpines, the moose, the midnight sky, the tundra, and us. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen! Granted, I haven’t seen much in my short life, but still, this has got to be as good as it gets. Pristine waters, pastel skies, respectful owners. Life is good! I am living my purpose!
The paddlers’ names are Lindsay, Maddie, Marissa, Meredith, Sammi, and Spang; they decided that Yellow-18 would be called Midnight Sun, though more fondly called Tina, then Green-17 was given the name Fireweed, or TJ (Tina Junior), for short. And me? My name is Water Heart, inspired by the Dene legend they learned from one of the community leaders in Deline – Morris. He told them about the legend of a beating heart that his people believe rests at the bottom of the lake, pumping water out to the rest of the planet. The story prophecies that when the world comes to an end and all the world’s natural resources start to diminish, all peoples will return to Great Bear Lake where the original water source continues to pump. A big name to live up to, I know, but they picked the right canoe for the task. Sammi likes to call me “Lil Mama.” She senses my spicy and sassy personality, fierce and fiery like a red hot chili pepper. She’s not wrong.

It’s ending though, I can feel it. The six have a different spirit about them than usual. A tinge of bittersweet in everything we do together these days. I can smell salt in the air; the Arctic Ocean awaits.

6Northof60 and their canoes

Water Heart (me), Fireweed, Midnight Sun, and the Six.

June 2018

I’ve been in limbo for the last year, in transit or in hibernation since the trip to the Arctic ended. It was pretty heart-breaking being torn away from the six and loaded onto a nondescript truck after being together for so many weeks. Tina, TJ, and I basically had to find our own way home, waiting to get picked up ever since. They promised they’d come back for us. I sure do miss the six of them. We learned what teamwork and communication and adventure and confidence and wonder could really mean, together. They taught me everything I know, those lessons immortalized in the cracks and the scratches of my not-as-shiny red gel coat now.

Meredith came! She took the three of us back where we started: the Northwoods of Minnesota. We’ve been donated to the summer camp where our six met. I guess that won’t be so bad. As long as it means we’ll be back on the water! I’m itching for the next adventure.

July 2021

I celebrated my third summer at camp and my fourth birthday this year! It’s been a fun run, traversing all over Canada with young womxn between the ages of 8 to 18. Some trips are easy-going: ones where the girls like to use me more as a diving board than a means for transportation. On others they rely on my deft white water maneuverability and we careen down rapids for two weeks at a time. I love it all. I don’t know what it is about these trips, but I’ve seen that same look I saw in the six’s in so many young womxn since. The unknown. The possibility. The beauty. I’m so glad I get to witness that so often.
I’ve been hearing murmurings of a long-distance trip that Sammi wants to recruit me for. I don’t want to get my hopes up. I have a lot of miles under my belt now and I want to be realistic about my chances. There’s got to be a lot of other boats with shinier red paint than me these days.

I’ve been eavesdropping on Sammi’s Zoom calls in the Trip Center and you will never believe what she is trying to pull off: she wants to paddle the length of the Mississippi River – from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. But that’s not even the craziest part – she plans to do it with her FATHER. I’m pretty sure I heard him say that he hasn’t been in a canoe since 1976. Good Lord.

August 2021

We drove up to the headwaters of the Mississippi and it’s unbelievable, there’s barely any water in it! I know Minnesota is in a drought but I didn’t realize that it was THIS dry. Sammi and her dad, Scott, seem to be deliberating their next moves. Off to a great start.
It’s funny, meeting her dad. He’s someone I’ve heard so many stories about over the years but never met. In person, I can see where Sammi gets her belly laughter from, but they couldn’t be more different when it comes to politics, personality, background, appearance, personal interests. Scott seems to like asking the “how” questions while Sammi asks the “why” ones: he’s been tackling logistics and gear purchases while she’s been building the platforms and media to share why they’re doing it at all. They want to dedicate the trip to the victims of Covid-19. Scott is going to play the song “Taps” on his trumpet every night at sunset. I don’t think they’ve figured this out yet but I have a feeling that their differences will actually make them a good team.

Father and daughter paddling the Mississippi by canoe

Father daughter paddling team Sammi & Scott Armacost on the Mississippi River

September 2021

We’re three weeks into the Mississippi River trip and we haven’t even reached Minneapolis. At this rate, we won’t get to the Gulf of Mexico until next year! Scott and Sammi don’t seem to be in much of a rush. We keep visiting with “river angels”: staying the night, chatting all morning, lingering over breakfast and coffee, going grocery shopping with strangers. No, no, take your time, people! It’s not like we have another 2,000 miles to cover or anything! At unprecedented low water levels, no less. I’m anxious to keep moving. There have been several times already where folks who live along the river have offered us a place to stay, knowing they won’t even be there when we get in, and still say, “Go right on in and make yourself at home!” Unbelievable. You’d think they’d want to meet these two weirdos first before extending such a generous invitation…These river people must share a weird affinity for ravenous and smelly paddlers. To each their own, I guess.

October 2021

Kindness and generosity have remained as constant and consistent as the sunrise each morning. The river, on the other hand, has evolved many times over in the last two months. We started in marshlands – where the river was only a few feet across and graduated to paddling alongside barges and grain elevators and locks and dams. We’ve seen the vestiges of her wilderness and the impact of industrialization and development on her shoreline and in her waters. A sacrifice made to build the nation’s flow of commerce. But there’s a different kind of beauty to be found here. One that isn’t so obvious and unadulterated like the kind we experienced in the Arctic Circle, but the kind that comes from living a long life in close partnership with human kind. Beauty in calloused hands and deep wrinkles, beauty in possibility and failure, beauty in tall tales and sunken ships, beauty in destruction and growth, beauty in a river with secrets.

After reaching Minneapolis (finally), I became the smallest vessel on the river. By A LOT. My 17-feet to a barge’s one-thousand. A bit intimidating. We’ve navigated heavy winds and big waves, and maneuvered around new obstacles like ship wakes and wing-dams and buoys and anchorages. We learned about new water features and phenomena caused by man-made disruptions in the water. I like these new challenges; this expedition may not be remote but it demands a heightened awareness that I think is taking me to the next level of canoe-dom.

Approaching a barge on the Mississippi River by canoe

Feeling small on the Mississippi

November 2021

I wasn’t sure if I would ever smell the ocean again, especially at the pace we were going for a while there, but Scott and Sammi pulled through, or maybe it was me who pulled THEM through. What a different dynamic to observe than with the original six, or the eight-year-olds and their staff…there’s something inexplicably tender and intimate about holding a father and daughter together on the water. More silence than with the others; there is peace and tension, trust and frustration. A desire to understand each other and not always know how. But the canoe unites. In silence and in conversation. Whether you want to or not, the essence of the canoe is to share a journey, share a purpose, share an experience – indiscriminate of who you are or what you believe. How many fathers and daughters get to do that. For 100 days, at that.

In the end, I think they figured it out.