By: Tina Panos

It’s been exactly one week since I’ve returned from Newfoundland and The Cabot Expedition.  I struggle to find the right words to express how much this journey has meant to me, and how it has somehow changed me.  I admit that I had some sort of preconceived ideas how things would go, and to be completely honest, my thoughts couldn’t have been further than the reality of how it all played out.

I believed that a kayaking expedition with a mixture of business leaders and Soldiers was going to be a challenging dynamic of personality types.  I allowed myself to believe that we would have very little in common with one another and that if anything, there would be a significant divide between us.  I knew that I would feel safe with my ‘brothers in arms’, and questioned what I could possibly have in common with successful business leaders.  I was so wrong!

The first morning that we were to begin our journey, started out with a lot of ‘Hurry up and Wait’….something that is very familiar to those of us in the Military.  Our entire careers have been made up ‘Hurry up and Wait’, so we took it in stride that due to the high winds and rough seas, we would delay our departure by one day. We camped out where we were in Birchy Bay for the night, and would try again first thing the next morning.  I am a firm believer that there really are no coincidences in life, and that everything happens for a reason.  The next morning, while we were packing our kayaks up, we were greeted by none other than General (retired) Rick Hillier! What an awesome send off…and, we never would have had that send off had we left the day prior!

The following few days were quite similar to one another.  We woke up to a nutritious breakfast, tons of coffee, and then headed out on the kayaks, taking in the scenery and stopping along the way for photo opportunities, a quick lunch break, and then navigating our way to where we would camp out for the evening.  Despite being cold and that it rained most days, I have to say, that the meals made up for any misery we were feeling!! Made up mostly of traditional meals from Newfoundland, we couldn’t have asked for tastier cuisine! We dined on fish and brewis, lobster, moose stew, and the most amazing pastries!!.  I think someone told Paul (our Guide) and his wife that they would be feeding military personnel, and they took that to mean that they would be feeding an Army because there definitely was no shortage of food!!

Little did we know that on Tuesday, we would run into a huge obstacle that would cut the paddling part of our journey short.  We had been given a heads up by our Guides that it may be impossible to cross over to Fogo Island by kayak due to the pack ice.  It was just going to be too dangerous, but that plan B would take us to Fogo by ferry.  I have to admit that my heart sunk a little bit knowing that the chances of reaching our destination by kayak were pretty slim.  I could see it in the eyes of others, that they were a little disappointed too.  We paddled as far as we possibly could into the open water and took some time to just soak in the scenery.  It was icy cold, wet, and silent….but breathtakingly beautiful. All but the odd thunder of a collapsing iceberg in the distance, not a sound was heard.  For what seemed like forever, nobody spoke….we just took it all in.  The beauty of the icebergs, families of seals bobbing in and out the water in the distance, and the odd bald eagle soaring overhead.  It felt like I had stepped into another world for a moment of time.

There was no way we could cross by kayak, so we paddled back to a previous campsite knowing that Plan B was our only option to reach Fogo.  A few tears were shed, some quiet moments taken, and a lot of reassurances that it truly is the journey, not the destination that mattered most to all of us.  We shared some laughs and soldiered on!

Wednesday is a day that is etched in my mind as a life-changing day for me. Dirk (another Guide) had some contacts on Fogo Island that agreed to put us up at the Lions Hall for the night.  That evening we gathered in a circle and started sharing parts of our life stories.  Everyone allowed themselves to be completely transparent and vulnerable.  I thought to myself…”what are these civilians thinking of us ‘Soldiers’ all breaking down in tears”….that’s when it happened, the business leaders shed tears of their own,  they spoke of how they felt intimidated to be on an expedition with Soldiers.  I wondered how anyone could possibly be intimidated by us and felt that if anything, we were intimidated by them.  This is when we became a ‘tribe’.  I knew at that exact moment that I was surrounded by people who truly cared.  I am certain that it would have been a hell of a lot easier for these business leaders to write a cheque to our cause and be done with it, but the fact that they were there with us every step of the way meant so much to me.  They may have witnessed a few of us struggle with triggers due to our PTSD, but it didn’t scare them off.  If anything, they pulled us in closer and let us know that they weren’t going anywhere.  They instilled a confidence in me that despite having this disorder, I still had a lot to offer, and was not merely ‘damaged goods’.

The next afternoon we made our way to the Fogo Island Inn and it was absolutely stunning!  I could write pages upon pages about the beauty and friendliness of this place and it’s people, and still never come close to describing it. We had time to enjoy the sites, the food, but most of all, we enjoyed the camaraderie that ensued with getting to connect with one another on a higher level.

I will never forget this experience and have learned not to be so quick to judge other people based on what they may do for a living, or how successful they may be.  Success does not come from how fat your pocket book may be, it comes from the relationships that we develop, how we connect with one another, and how we grow from them.