Insights From a Wilderness Adventure

I recently returned from a 10 day river canoe trip in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada with a group of friends. This was my first time visiting the province of Saskatchewan and my first time this far north in Canada.

After a 10 hour drive north of the city of Prince Albert we flew one hour by float plane to the mouth of the Cree River at the north end of Cree Lake at 59 degrees latitude. We landed upon clear water and a long sandy beach where we unloaded our gear and packed our two canoes for a 150km paddle north. Upon reaching the sandy shore we saw large black bear paw prints in the sand. We were now in remote wilderness and were venturing into a stretch of river where we would see no other humans and have no cellular service for the next several days.

We said farewell to our pilot, got into our canoes and began paddling. We were now dependent on each other, the river, weather, and the ecosystem surrounding us.

Upon entering the river flow I felt awe and gratitude for the remoteness, beauty and purity surrounding us. We were in a land of abundance and with immediate access to the purest of drinking water, large fish that would feed us the entire trip and wild blueberries that were more abundant than anywhere I have ever seen.  Being one with the river and somewhat discreet in our travel we also had a unique vantage point to see black bears foraging and several large moose eating grass and weeds alongside and ever right in the river.

I have done extensive wilderness adventures and each one has its unique rewards, challenges and lessons. This adventure provided me with many insights that proved to me yet again the power of nature to heal, teach and transform. These are some of the main insights I gained from this trip.

There is value in experiencing myself without any role or hierarchy. In ordinary life I need to play roles and sometimes I get identified with these roles to the point that I forget who I am and what I am like when I have no role.  I was reminded on this trip that I am satisfied and at peace even when I have no role.

More is not always better. We live in a complex world and our lives are increasingly influenced by and mediated through technology. As someone who grew up without the internet and did not become socialized or form my identity through the internet I often feel overwhelmed and burdened by the prevalence of technology in my personal and professional life.  I also do not enjoy communicating through social media or through smart phones as much as I like in person communication. I learned on this trip that I am much happier with minimal computer and smart phone use in my life and plan to be much more mindful of how I use technology.

The earth is my home and home takes work. The feeling of being at home is interesting. Sometimes I feel it with certain people or in certain places or simply being. Sometimes the challenge, awkwardness and anxiety of a new experience makes me feel uncomfortable and less at home. Sometimes I can feel at home even if others are telling me where I am is their home and not my home at all. Being at home to me seems to be more of an experience and how I participate in the moment rather than a fact. My experience of this adventure was that it was a home. It became a home not because of any entitlement to it but because, in part, how I and the men I traveled with participated in this trip alone and together. The trip required labor, communication, chores, physical endurance, patience, wilderness skills, organization, leadership and strong character. In all these ways home was created. Home took work. I am reminded that though I am worthy of being at home on this earth and I am in a sense already at home, there is much work to do in keeping this a home for myself and others.

I am grateful to the men I traveled with, the friends, family and locals who supported our trip and to the ecosystem that resourced, challenged and inspired us.

Nature’s Mirror

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

After a few days rest it felt great to be back on the trail. My pack was down to about thirty pounds, I had five days worth of food and the poles were making hiking up and down ice a lot easier. I took in some beautiful views and ran into a few day hikers on my first day back on the trail. I made it to the “priest” shelter by about 5 p.m. It’s called the “priest” because the climb is so steep to reach the summit of the ridge that you need to see a priest when you get to the top to count your blessings. It was close to four thousand feet up there so I set up my tent inside the shelter to stay out of the wind. I ate, then tucked my food away in the roof of the outhouse. I tried to get a fire going but it was too windy so I called it a night. I put on a few layers of clothes along with my balaclava and cocooned myself inside my sleeping bag.

I awoke, wondering, “What is that sound?” I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d been sleeping. I heard something outside the shelter. I could hear an animal walking around the fire pit sniffing and making a huffing sound with its nose. “What is that? Is it a raccoon, a porcupine?” I was now paying close attention. Then it made the huffing sound again and then a snorting sound. “That sounds bigger than a raccoon or porcupine. It almost sounds like a pig or a boar.” I heard the animal come closer, huffing its way to the shelter. “Shit, that sounds more like a bear.” (I have encountered bears camping in Ontario and know the sound they make). Suddenly, I heard a loud ‘thunk’ as the animal stepped into the shelter. I could feel by the weight of this beast it was a big animal, bigger than a human. It walked over right beside my tent and I could hear it take a sniff toward me. My heart was now rising up into my throat. “You have to be kidding me. This isn’t how I go, is it? Should I make noise and try and scare it away? No, it knows I’m here. It’s not scared of me. Stay calm,” I advised myself. Now I was hyper-alert. My heart was beating so loud the animal must have heard it. I reached for my knife in the bottom of my tent just in case I had to wrestle with the animal. The animal began to go through my backpack, pushing it around in the shelter. Thankfully I had no food, toothpaste, or anything scented in there; anything attractive to animals was in the outhouse. Within a few minutes, which seemed like years, the animal got bored and stepped out of the shelter. We never saw each other eye to eye. I still don’t know if it was a bear. Whatever it was it wasn’t afraid of my presence. I slept with one eye open the rest of the night.

The daylight brought me deep relief from my late night wildlife encounter. “This may not be the last time,” I thought to myself. There was also a gift in this. This encounter vitalized me to my core, to the immediacy of now, and woke me up to the fact of my tenuous existence. I didn’t know it was possible to feel as alive as I did while the animal was breathing next to me. Nature is a humbling mirror when we dare to get really intimate with it. It strips us naked of all our means of psychological and structural separateness. It cuts through our false sense of superiority, immortality and confronts us with the facts of life: we are going die and we don’t know when it’s going to happen. In our essential physicality, we are as perishable as any wild animal. This moment, is all that there is.

Excerpted from Walk of Life: A pilgrimage in search of roots, healing and inner truth by William Timothy Walker