Many of us that enjoy spending time in nature love learning more about the spaces we play in. Whether it’s learning about new paddling spots to launch from or about the wildlife we’ll see along the way, we outdoor enthusiasts typically want to get more out of our adventures!
When you go on an Indigenous-guided tour, be prepared to see, explore, and appreciate the lands and waters we play in from a different lens by recognizing and supporting Indigenous People’s deep connections with these spaces.
On a recent trip to Sault Ste. Marie in Algoma Country, home of the Anishinaabe since time immemorial, I spent some time with Thrive Tours, an Indigenous-owned and operated guided ecotourism company, and the experience went above and beyond a paddling tour.
As a non-Indigenous person, I’m always excited to learn more about our amazing province, country, and world. I’ve been lucky enough to join in on a few Indigenous travel adventures from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to Puvirnituq, Quebec, and I’m happy to share a few highlights from my paddling trip and why you should plan your next adventure with an Indigenous-led tourism operator.
Whether you’re visiting Sault Ste. Marie (traditionally known as Baawaating), or a local, it’s always fun discovering new paddling spots in and around the city. As a stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) aficionado, I bring my paddleboard on all my road trips and travels. I was excited to learn I could BYO (bring your own) SUP for this Thrive Tours paddling adventure!
Our first stop was at Thrive Tours’ home base in the Soo, where I met the owners and operators, Amanda (Biimskoonkwaat) and Brad (Ozhaawashkwaa Animikii). Together, they adventure all year round, offering guided canoe, kayak, hiking, and snowshoeing while promoting and maintaining local Indigenous practices and philosophies.
After chatting about what we felt like doing – canoeing, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), we packed up everything (yes, everything, haha!) We headed to Garden River, located in Garden River First Nation. I learned that this is a sacred area, and a guided tour is a great way to experience this waterway.
Before launching our boats and board, we began by offering Tobacco to the water, a sacred way to connect with all living things. Brad shared the importance of Semah, the Anishinaabemowin word for Tobacco, “when we place Tobacco in our left hand, it symbolizes the closeness of that medicine to our heart. When we transfer those good thoughts and meaningful intentions into the Semah and place it in the water, we connect with all our ancestors and creation itself.”
Seeing wildlife always sparks joy and the Thrive Tours team combined the sightings with Anishinaabe teachings right on the water. Seeing eagles, migizi in Anishinaabemowin, swooping down from the trees in front of us was incredibly special. Eagles also symbolize love, or zaagi’idiwin, as part of the 7 Grandfather teachings.
As we continued to paddle, the occasional splash of salmons jumping out of the water kept me excited about what we would see (and learn about) around the next bend of the meandering river.
When it was time to take a break, we enjoyed warming up by a mini campfire, with snacks and great conversations while sipping warm Cedar Tea.
During this tour, I got to chat with Lucia Laford, a local Indigenous artist, educator and one of the Thrive Tour guides. Lucia leads a Paddle & Paint Woodland-style painting workshop where participants can create their own nature-inspired painting while out in nature! Lucia also teaches Anishinaabe Art and Material Practices at Algoma University.
“Woodland style is about visualizing the connection and relationships between people, animals, spirits, and nature. I paint my way of life, the Anishinaabe way, which includes ceremony and spirituality, but also my connection to the land and the plant, tree, and animal nations. In this way, my work is completely inspired by nature and the love and respect I feel towards Aki (the earth), Nibi (the water) and all things in creation.
The Paint & Paddle workshop is about connecting with yourself on the water and the land. Woodland art helps deepen that connection by exploring the relationships and personal kinship we have to life around us. We [Thrive Tours] helps facilitate the joy of being on the land and water, and we do so in a safe, respectful, and sustainable way. When paddling, we talk about the concepts in Woodland-style art while sharing Indigenous perspectives and teachings. Paddling and being able to touch the water and land that we are talking about serves as an incredible inspiration when painting!”
– Lucia Laford, Thrive Tour Guide, Woodland style painter and Indigenous Arts educator
For many Indigenous People, music was a way of storing ecological, ancestral, and traditional knowledge and teachings. Passing along that knowledge was often done through stories and songs.
The gentle current carried us along the river while Amanda and Brad, a powwow singer and member of the Black Bull Moose Singers, shared a few honour songs for women and all of creation. Lucia also shared a Water Song*. The lyrics and varied tempo beautifully represent and honour water – from fast-moving rapids to the steady slow flow of a river, like the Garden River we were floating along. We were all invited to sing along and celebrate being on the water.
While I had no expectations for the tour and was open to going with the flow of Thrive Tours, the way we concluded our paddling adventure was incredibly moving. When I asked if they do this for every tour, Amanda explained, “while every experience [with Thrive Tours] unfolds uniquely, we consistently incorporate physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects. Every adventure includes cultural teachings, Indigenous food sharing, nature-based activities, and First Nations ceremonies.”
Authentic Indigenous-led travel experiences can help share the stories, histories, and perspectives we don’t get to hear more often. What we can do as allies is to help support that by taking these tours and being open to learning. These excursions that combine outdoor recreation with learning education alongside an Indigenous guide lead to more consideration, respectful, responsible, and meaningful future adventures, whether we travel solo or with company. Travel experiences like this are a step towards taking us beyond land acknowledgements through active participation and ongoing learning, all while adventuring in the spirit and continuous practice of reconciliation.
Thank you, Amanda, Brad, and Lucia, for the unforgettable time in Sault Ste. Marie. I look forward to seeing you again soon (hopefully in winter, my favourite season!)
For more Indigenous-owned or led travel and adventure ideas:
Recommended resources and further reading:
Diana Lee lives for adventure, the great outdoors, and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP)! She is a certified ISA SUP Instructor, a librarian, and a reporter for Get Out There Magazine. Find out what she’SUP to @only1phoenixx on Instagram and Twitter.