Life lesson

We originally published this post with The Executive Roundtable, an accelerator group for next generation executives.


Back before I had a real job I was a political intern at the Ontario legislature. My 10-month posting included travel to distant houses of parliament across Canada and across the pond to see how other governments governed. The whole gig was an amazing experience, but for me the most interesting part was a trip to the North West Territories. In February. Yes, that February. Brrr.

I learned a lot on that trip, from the nuances of consensus government to how to pilot a dog sled on Great Slave Lake. I also learned how not to freeze to death in -42C temperatures. The latter I learned despite myself, and it left an impression on me: Don’t. Ever. Take. Shortcuts.

I’d ventured out with two other enterprising interns for a hike around Frame Lake. The Legislative Council of the Northwest Territories fronts onto this magnificent lake, and on the day of our trek it was frozen solid. We’d been outfitted by the Canadian military so we were well prepared for the cold. Plus, it’s a dry cold you know …

So there I was with my fogged and now crystalized glasses, my frozen camera and my ill-fitting boots. What appeared a short jaunt around a little lake turned into a funeral march. Not long after we started, the path that had been carefully plowed by some nice caretaker gave way to rugged Canadian shield. For every two steps we took, we’d drop at least knee deep and more often waist deep into snow. But forward we marched. We were sturdy Canadian girls and we could handle this.

About two hours in, I’d had enough. That frozen lake, with its tantalizing snow mobile tracks, was calling to me: “Just bail Mel. It’s easy. Just walk across me. The legislative building, it’s just meters away!” So, against what could in retrospect be described as better judgment, I bid adieu to my fellow travellers, and headed out on my own, across Frame Lake.

We’ve all heard stories about desert mirages, where desperation tricks the brain into believing that solace, in the form of water or in my case a warm fire, is just around the corner. Frame Lake was my mirage. Those snowmobile tracks lied to me. The snow on the lake was as deep, if not deeper than the snow we’d encountered on the trail. I slogged for at least another hour before I made it to shore, often crawling on my hands and knees. And once I was there, I couldn’t get out. Every time I tried to get off that lake, I’d slide off the rocks on the shore and land on my face. I had visions of them finding me in the spring thaw.

How did I get myself into such a predicament? I didn’t see the big picture.

As my luck would have it, I’d bailed on the trail mere meters before it exited back into civilization. While I was struggling across Frame Lake, my compatriots were enjoying a much-deserved hot chocolate and warming their toes by the fire.

Obviously I survived, or I wouldn’t be here 18 years later, in my warm slippers, writing this blog post. But I also learned a valuable lesson. Always, ALWAYS start with the big picture in mind. And beware of short cuts (AKA mirages).

I still go on hikes around lakes, and I still love to explore. Only now, I look at a map before I head out and I bring a navigator (my husband) with his trusty compass. And we don’t bail when it gets tough. Sure, there may be a detour here or there, a fallen tree to clamber over, a washed out part of the trail to traverse or deep patches of snow to navigate. But we see these as what they are – part of the adventure. We may take a break to beat back the blackflies, to snap a few photos or take a swig from a water bottle. But we never, ever take short cuts.