My childhood, teenage years, and early twenties revolved around mountains. Specifically: any and all adventures involving them. I wanted nothing more than to be in the presence of their unassuming power; a power that can move you in ways you would never expect.
But those same years also revolved around an insatiable dream of travelling to space one day. And that kind of adventure—of space travel—pulled just a little harder. Hard enough that, at 22, I left everything I knew and loved behind in the Rockies to chase a career exploring the stars...in Ontario.
The move catalyzed a star-studded career as an Aerospace Engineer, building space robots for the past decade. Yes, space robots: anything and everything from robotic arms and tools to service and repair satellites that are no longer working but still orbiting Earth; to a rover to explore Mars (scheduled to launch in 2022); and even studying how moon dust affects hardware used for lunar exploration.
What the move didn’t catalyze was an expansion of my time in the mountains.
In Alberta I had everything my adventure-seeking self needed right at my doorstep. Or, at most a 45-minute drive away; where the mountains offered the backdrop for hiking, backpacking, or fly fishing gorgeous, turquoise rivers.
That access is difficult to find in Ontario. Which also created a challenge for work-life balance when mine heavily relied—and continues to rely—on nature. I desperately wanted to hike long distances that provided incredible vistas.
Without peaks to seek or summit, what Ontario lacks in mountainous terrain it certainly makes up for with water, and all the ways that you can explore on a different medium than solid ground. And so the province shifted me into another new way of working - and sparked a love affair with water.
I knew little to nothing about paddling: from how to get into a canoe, the various strokes required to get you places, or even what a portage is. Slowly but surely, I learned how to draw and cross bow draw; finding rhythm and peace in each and every stroke; acquiring a quiver of go-to maneuvers at my disposal depending on the conditions.
And I realized that like mountains, water also has an unassuming power and can move you in ways you would never expect. Backcountry canoe trips in areas like Algonquin Provincial Park, Killarney Provincial Park, or the Massasauga became staples for weekend getaways; places to find reprieve from the city and to re-energize.
Paddling is the facilitator in an exchange between the hustle and bustle of Eastern Canadian city life and daily work routines, for sufferfest circuits where I can exhaust myself and lay it all on the line. Where I find both my freedom and my power.
And at the end of an exhausting day, there is absolutely nothing better than waiting for the sun to set, grabbing a headlamp, pulling a canoe on a perfectly still lake, and paddling out to its center. Then, lying motionless and turning my gaze upwards. With timing and luck, I might be able to track the International Space Station, or catch an Iridium Flare or shooting star as they pass over.
Growing up in Alberta, I cut my adventure teeth on and in the mountains. And in my early adulthood, Ontario was the training ground for discovering the endless adventure available on the water.
While there’s been much change over the years, even as an adult I’m still a dreamer:
Dreaming at a sky full of stars. Visualizing the adventure of travelling to another planet. Or dare I dream even bigger: exploring the waterways of another planet.
Always imagining the possibilities while being moved in the most unexpected ways.
Natalie Panek is an Aerospace Engineer and avid adventurer. Extraordinary experiences have shaped her career and passions; whether learning to fly, driving a solar-powered car across North America, or building space robotics. She is the 2013 recipient of the University of Calgary Graduate of the Last Decade Award, was named on Forbes 2015 30 under 30, and received the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering Diversity and Equity Alumni Award in 2018.