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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Making Room for Autism in Your Canoe

This year was our son's first wilderness trip by canoe. Taking a child on a canoe trip can be a bit trying at times under any circumstances, but when you throw autism into the mix... you have to be that much more prepared. And so does the child.  Thus, like many good autism stories... this one begins with visual aids.

I am a bit of an artist and Photoshop gal (a popular computer program for graphic designers), so I was able to make a home-made picture story. I used my drawings and the internet, to help explain what canoeing and portaging is to Makobe and what it means to sleep in the forest (or the "jungle" as Makobe likes to refer to it). The series of pictures included images of us portaging, what the launching/access zone would look like, the camp & portage signs on trees and other information we thought Makobe should be aware of.1

After spending a few years slowly introducing Makobe (who just turned eight) to canoeing, we were able to make plans for a real wilderness trip into Algonquin Park’s interior.2

A trip into the interior is a serious affair. We will be hours away from help if something should go wrong. There is bear safety to consider and weather conditions to prepare for. But we felt Makobe was ready. And, after going thru the visual aids multiple times in the days and weeks before the actual trip, we packed the gear, the car, the food, our bellies, and headed for the Rock Lake access point in Algonquin Park.

Day One
At the put in.
We left the iPod in the car purposely. Makobe loves his iPod videos and so we thought that would be a great motivator for the paddle home at the end of the trip. We loaded up the canoe at the fairly busy access point at Rock Lake Campground.

The day was beautiful and after a short paddle up a small creek, we were headed out across the bay. But before we had gone far, Mike noticed the new little Pack Canoe by Swift being paddled by someone near Rock Lake Campground. “There’s the new Pack Canoe,” Mike called out to us. Then a minute later he proclaimed, “I think that is Brian!” And sure enough it was! Brain Duplante is a fellow employee of Swift Canoe & Kayak, working the tradeshows with Mike, and at the Swift Oxtongue location.

We shouted out to him and Brian quickly paddled over to us to say hello and have a chat. While Makobe was a little taken aback by Brian's sudden apprearance, he did say hello with some prompting. (But only after he said “Bye bye Brian!” first!)
I couldn’t really blame Makobe for his wariness… we have never met with anyone in the middle of a lake for an unscheduled social visit before. With a warning of some strong winds ahead, Brian was off with this lovely wife, Brenda (who was in her own kayak) to paddle another of Algonquin's many lakes.

Makobe’s First Ever Portage.
After battling some strong winds, we were finally able to make it into the sheltered bay and entrance to the Madawaska River.  Makobe was happy to play with his water toys and dragging his fingers thru the water as we paddled along. After a quick snack and stop for a drink, we paddled our way through the rocky waters of the Madawaska to the Galeairy Lake portage and dam.
Makobe transitioned like a pro! He helped carry his share across the portage, thru the forest, and even posed proudly at the end with his paddles under the bright yellow sign that marks the way for travelers. (see our album on Facebook for more photos here: Algonquin Park Canoe Trip)
We had the portage to ourselves and so were able to take our time. By the end of it we were all hot and Makobe asked for a swim. We decided to find a camp site for the night first (we were awfully close to the dam) and so put Makobe off with a “First – Then” scenario.5

Camp, Sweet Camp
Within 10 minutes of the portage we found the perfect site to camp. It was an island so our dog Sadie could go without a leash, and it had a great rocky shore for swimming. It also had “all day sun” so that was an even bigger bonus. After some swimming we spent our time setting up the tent, the rest of camp, and lighting a fire.

Makobe was excited to sleep in the tent. But because Makobe doesn’t know enough not to wipe his marshmallowie hands on his clothes, at this point, we couldn’t take the chance of keeping Makobe’s worn day clothes in the tent for the night. So we brought clothes that we wear ONLY for sleeping and put the dirty clothes in a dry bag (air tight) under the tarp for the night - away from camp.

We also wrap our all our food, cooking utensils (as well as other scented objects like sunscreen, soap, etc.) in a tarp away from camp every night to help ensure bear safety as well. Mike sometimes refers to it as a "bear burrito". We even carry bear spray and noise makers for emergency situations. We had explained to Makobe we needed to put the food away (far from camp) so the growling bears wouldn’t get us. From then on he wanted us to “talk like a growling bear” where we would growl deeply and he would crack up with laughter.

Day Two
At the Camp
Today we decided to take it easy. The weather was nice and we thought Makobe would like to spend the day getting to know his camp site and routine. Bacon on the fire4 to start the day and swimming was next. Mostly Makobe spent the day in the water swimming, getting warmed by the fire in between. He also spent time hanging around with his stuffed horse toy on the rock by the water.
Mike and I enjoyed our day as well just attending to the details of camp life. There is always firewood to collect or a fire to tend to, a tent peg to adjust, or a tarp to hang. We also had to boil water for drinking as our water purifier’s cartridge was cracked and we had no spare.
Makobe participated for short intervals with chores he could be successful with (i.e. picking up kindling to start the fire, etc.) But as the afternoon pressed on – we got restless and so decided to explore the lake for a bit. We packed up some food and headed out. We paddled across another bay and came to a small island that was perfect for swimming - and jumping into the water (one of Makobe’s favourite water activities to be sure!). It was a very deep drop off but Makobe is a strong swimmer. After much water play, we paddled the shoreline back to camp while Mike trolled his fishing line and we looked for firewood. Makobe wanted to paddle for a little bit but got bored pretty quickly, as most kids do. By the end of the day Makobe was exhausted.  He couldn’t wait to get to the tent after our roasted marshmallows that night.

Day Three
Rain Rain Go Away
Twice we tried to venture out for a day trip and twice we were shut down by heavy rain. It continued to rain on and off throughout the day with short breaks.3 Thankfully Makobe was dry in his rain gear, found the rain visually interesting, and what boy doesn’t like a puddle or two?! There was no thunder to speak of so Makobe did swim a bit but it wasn’t as much fun without the sun.

Makobe did ask for the iPod today but was easily distracted with camp life and let it go when we informed him he had 2 more sleeps before he would see his gadget. Knowing that roasted marshmallows and Smores were coming later that evening didn’t hurt either! But living in the forest was proving to be more reinforcing to Makobe then technology at this point, and for that we were grateful. We also brought a few toys for him to play with as well for such rainy camp days.

Day Four
Galeairy Lake Adventure
Today we woke to clear and sunny skies with very little breeze. A paddlers’ dream! We quickly made plans to set out for a day on the lake. We paddled to an island across the bay that had a camp site shown on the map. As we got closer we could see a number of trees had been blown over by a powerful storm not too long ago. There were over a dozen large trees down and all of their root systems were exposed in a wall of dirt. The camp site was a mess. There was a large tree down over the fire pit area and it was hard to see where a tent could go with all the damage. There were at least 3 large trees blown down around the actual site. We took some pictures and moved on.

Because Makobe wanted to swim again we headed over to the small island we had visited the day before. But we weren’t there long before our dog Sadie had uncovered a wasp’s nest close to where we were sitting. We moved away from the buzzing angry insects and gave Makobe a verbal warning that swimming was going to be “all done” in 5 minutes.
After working thru the transition, we packed ourselves back into the canoe and off we went in search of the Night Lake portage. Makobe stayed quiet for the paddle with a snack of gluten free pretzels and juice. We found the portage and walked across to investigate Night Lake. It was a small swampy lake that Mike was keen to come back to fish another day. We walked back across the portage and headed back out on Galeairy to look for another spot for Makobe to swim as the day was getting hot.

Across another bay we found a wonderful swimming rock that Makobe didn’t want to leave. It was a great place to jump from. Makobe was extremely happy with the landscape and swimming conditions there. We had a bit of a hard time getting him out but he eventually was calm enough to get back into the canoe for a small lunch as we paddled back across the lake to our camp again.
Seeing it was the last night we brought out the “Mystical Fire Packets” that create colourful flames within your camp fire including blue, green and purple. While I think that Mike and I found the concept a bit more fascinating then Makobe did, he did comment on the colours by labeling them spontaneously. Then off to the tent to sleep for the big day tomorrow…. We have to pack everything up and head home.

Day 5
The Old Man is Snoring!
On our last day we woke to heavy rain and rolling thunder. We decided to still pack up camp with the hopes that the system would blow over. Within a half an hour of taking our tent down and putting our sleeping bags back in their dry bags – the area where our tent had been was a total swamp. Our tent would have been sitting in inches of water if we had left it up. However, the rain didn’t let up and was coming down in sheets. And there was no wind to move the storm away. There were no boats or paddlers on the lake either.
Unsure of the how the day’s weather would turn out – Mike and I began a “Plan B” in case we had to stay another night. That meant we would have to set the tent back up – but in a different location due to the "pond" where our tent had once been. The rainfall was heavy and then the lightning started.
There were times that we needed Makobe to take shelter under the tarp for safety and he wasn’t happy about it. It was a bit stressful for a few moments but, using the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis, we were able to work thru it. But just when we thought the storm had passed, the rolling thunder started again and we were hit with a second swirl. We waited it out until it subsided and watched the skies and listeneded carefully for more thunder. After a while, there was still some rain, but it seemed the worse had passed. Sure enough we started to see the paddlers out on the water again and on the move.
With a little trepidation, I agreed to get ourselves packed up quickly an on our way. I don’t like storms. They make me very nervous and so I was eager to get moving while it was possible.
We made it across the portage quickly and before long had even caught up to the paddlers we had seen earlier. As our canoe was a Swift Keewaydin, it was a bit faster then the rentals the people we passed were using, and seeing as I was nervous for the storm – I was glad to see we were making good speed.
By the time we were out of the Madawaska and halfway across Rock lake, the skies were clearing, and while still overcast, the storm had ended. Makobe and our dog Sadie were troopers throughout the entire paddle home: calm, quiet and content. Mike, however complained later that both Makobe and Sadie had decided to lean on the same side for the entire last leg of the trip. I didn’t even notice as my only goal was to get to the “take-out” as quickly as possible in case the storm came back!

It was nice when we made our way into the creek and I was able to completely relax. As soon as we arrived at the dock, I jumped out and held the canoe so Mike could go get our vehicle. That is where the iPod was after all! Makobe stripped off his rain suit before jumping into the car seat and relaxed with his iPod in hand while Mike and I unloaded the canoe and loaded it all back in the car.

Mike quickly had the canoe tied down and away we went, back up to Hwy 60 and on to the Two Rivers Store. There we filled our bellies with some hot food (french-fries for Makobe to be sure!), coffee and even some fudge. We also picked up a souvenir Algonquin t-shirt for Makobe and a little black bear stuffie. After growling "like a bear", we were back at home within the hour, as we live not far from the park.

Back to Life
At this point every good canoe tripper knows the expedition doesn’t end until the gear is hung to dry and/or put away. And, in the case with autism, our work doesn’t end until all our trip pictures are put into an album/picture story so we can help to build Makobe’s episodic memories and build on his language skills. Then we can call it a wrap.

By the end of the trip, I believe Makobe learned a few things on our adventure into Algonquin’s wilderness. He learned he still got to cuddle with us in the tent! (Something we are now correcting in the middle of the night, now that we are home, and 'tis a small sacrifice to pay for the memories created).
But most importantly, he learned that he doesn’t need his objects or videos to get thru a day and that people can be reinforcing too. He was quite the talker on our trip – even telling us to call him “Singer-Boy” while he sang and played air guitar by the fire. He was quite the little entertainer, actually. And the time we spent as a family, without the distractions of life, work, stims*, and the mixed media that surrounds us everyday, was most precious. We became closer as a family and Makobe truly became closer to us. Mike and I learned that it isn't that hard to make room for autism in our canoe.  But, next time we will be able to raise the bar and expect a bit more from Makobe around camp. Next time we will have an even better picture story for him. Next time we will bring a back up cartridge for our water filter. Next time couldn’t come soon enough for me.

For more pictures of Makobe's first canoe trip into Algonquin Park, please visit Badger Paddles on Facebook at this link:  For information about the Ontario IBI/ABA Autism Intervention Program, please visit

Making Room for Autism in Your Canoe
was written by Fiona Westner-Ramsay
The week of August 20th, 2010.
(Algonquin Park Memories Journal)

Fiona Westner-Ramsay is the proud mother of Makobe, owner of  Badger Paddles… for those who dig the water, with her husband Mike, and is also the author of Practical Information about IBI/ABA for Ontario Families.   She lives, with much content, just outside of Huntsville, Ontario - in cottage country, with her husband, her son, their dog Sadie and 3 adopted cats Mojo, Dog and Scardy Cat.

 *"Stim(s) or Stimming are the terms most used to describe a self-stimulatory behaviour or activity that is performed repetitively and usually to the alienation of others.  Examples can be screaming, hand-flapping, finger play, rocking, spinning, lining up objects, etc.

Our visual aids included information about where to go to the bathroom (i.e. the “Thrones” which are wooden boxes with lids over a dug hole that are used for going to the bathroom in Algonquin Park’s interior. Other parks, like Quetico, there may be no facilities available and you are to dig a 6 inch hole in the ground instead). We had Makobe use the “Throne” when we were there as he has used an outhouse before. But as we know they aren’t pretty and usually present a very unpleasant odor, we also brought a back up toilet bucket for him to use in case he was unable to use the “Throne” due to sensory reasons and to prevent any health concerns or issues. Note: when we return from our trip we will update Makobe's Canoe Trip "picture story" with actual photos of Makobe and events that will be repeated on future trips as visual aid.  Please note that can help with making visual aids (even custom) if you are unable to do so yourself. 

We started with very small trips at first, working up to longer trips until we were able to spend a few hours in a canoe with a bit of motivation (usually a swimming spot) and some edible reinforcement. Later it became naturally reinforcing for him, especially when he could drag his hand in the water as we paddled along. We also provided Makobe with a camp seat (a soft folding chair that is also known as a stadium chair that can be strapped to a canoe seat to keep it in place) so that he was aware visually where he was supposed to sit and to help maintain balance in the canoe. Mike and I have many years experience paddling in canoes and we both lean our boats when soloing so we are aware of a canoe’s balance points, therefore we are both comfortable with Makobe leaning over to trail his hand in the water as we paddle along. Although in some conditions like rough weather or large waves this wouldn’t be possible.

It is very important to bring proper rain gear for everyone on a canoe trip, but it is especially wise to invest in a good breathable waterproof outerwear for any child or person with sensory sensitivities like those found with an autism diagnosis. Sometimes a weather system can come in and catch you by surprise - things can get soaking wet and people can get cold really fast. Dressing in layers, including a fleece under a waterproof and breathable shell jacket/pants with waterproof boots can make for a very happy camper in wet conditions. The breathability factor is important as otherwise you perspire, which can make you cold as well. For our trip, Makobe had a youth shell jacket and pants from MEC and a pair of CROCS boots. Please note: Tarps are also a must for shelter in harsh conditions or heavy downpours.

Another consideration for bringing children or people with eating sensitivities is how eating and preparing food in the outdoors can affect taste and texture. Especially when cooking over a fire. Makobe has had many opportunities to eat meat and other types of food that have been cooked over the fire as we do so regularly as we visit Poppa Badger & Grammama’s land next door to us and camp. He will eat some things cooked over a fire but it is important we have a good coal base for cooking when preparing Makobe’s food. If there is too much smoke flavor or black soot – he will not ingest it.

"FIRST-THEN" is a strategy that we, like many other families, use to help Makobe cope in certain situations.  At first used in a visual aid - now we use it verbally.  In this example we said: "FIRST paddle in the canoe and find a campsite THEN swim in the lake”


  1. i am so proud of makobe doing his first over night canoe trip. it sounds as if it was wonderful for him as well as you and mike, and sadie. these trips require lots of extra planning in order to adjust makobe to new surroundings and different routines . fiona and mike you have done a wonderful job working so hard to give your son every opportunity to enjoy the great pleasures of a family canoe trip into the JUNGLE as makobe calls it. these are very special memories . and yes i am a little bias love proud grandpa

  2. Hearing about this kid always makes me smile!
    Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips. Khaled and I love being outdoors, and I would love to plan something like this as a family when he is older.

  3. What a brilliant trip report filled with wonderful details about Makobe's first trip. Great to see all of you enjoy this special family time. Hope my little one's future experiences on an overnight trip are just as memorable.

  4. Thanks, Poppa Badger (Mike), "Stranded", and Murat for your kind words and generous support! We truly hoped it would inspire families - ALL FAMILIES - to get out and paddle. Thanks for letting us share our adventure!

  5. Hi there,

    I read your story with interest. We have been canoeing with our now 15 year old non-verbal autistic boy for many years now, so we have been there and back. I would be interested in corresponding with you further if that is OK with you.

    Daniel Pike, North Bay.

  6. Hi Daniel,
    That would be wonderful! I would be very interested in further correspondence with you to be sure. Please email me at
    (Makobe's mom)


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