The sun is beating down hard on the deck railings, the high plains temperatures climbing to close to 100 degrees. A few weeks ago I was doing my best to whip my shock-corded Nemo tent poles together at 4 am, the metal so cold it nearly blistered my hands. It was our highest camp, and not long after I got all my gear packed into their waterproof Sea to Summit bags I hauled them to a pile near the campfire.
Noise. Shit. A grizzly? This is grizzly country. Everywhere. I stopped. Didn’t breathe.
The noise was tentative. Exploratory. Somebody was in the cook pans.
Not human. That was for sure. I was the only fool up this early.
Slowly I turned in the half light (this far north, in the Canadian Rockies not farm from the Yukon, it’s nearly noon bright at midnight). This time of day it’s the coldest and darkest. Camp food is a draw.
But for whom, precisely?
Beneath the bright red tarp that we draped over the metal kitchen table at night, a rather prickly visitor was inspecting the bean pot. Porky and beans, if you will forgive the pun.
He was big. At least to me. Damn man. (To the guides, he was average. Like the dandelions I walked in at a river outfitter’s on a lunch break that rose to my mid thigh, and I am 5’9″, Canada redefines big).
I found a small tarp. Gently shook it. Our head guide’s tent is always close to the fire so I didn’t want to make too much noise. Porky didn’t budge. The food was that good. Beans. Gotta beat the local chow once in a while.
So I stomped my feet, clad in thick Arctic Muck boots. Damn, they are warm. Clumsy for those of us non-Canadians who didn’t grow up in them, but they work.
He waddled off, climbed a tree that overlooked our path to the water supply. A lovely, rushing river, like many, as potable as any perfect, fresh stream that has never been sullied by humans and their pets (dogs are horrible offenders in this regard).
I have just spent four solid weeks in some of the most remote, wild forest left on the earth, certainly in the North American continent. By horseback, traveling miles each day in a long string of some twenty-three horses. Guides, clients, pack horses with large orange panniers carrying our gear, food, supplies.
Most come for the two-week expedition. I did two back-to-back. Wayne, the leader, told me one guy famously signed up for six weeks. Damn, man. Another has done fifteen, but two weeks a year. That’s a commitment.
I can understand why. It is a rare thing to experience real wilderness anymore, as there is so little of it left. That’s why Sawchuk and a group of similarly-minded folks have fought so hard to save the Muskwa-Kechika wilderness, the size of Ireland. And it’s also why Sawchuk gets folks out here. You and I really need to know what we may lose someday.
I train pretty hard for these trips. Nine months or so out of the year I work with horse trainers to teach me how to ride, how to handle a difficult and tough-mouthed horse, what to do with a runaway, how to get on a horse that tries to take off when you are mounting. I’ve ridden for about 62 years, on and off. Mostly on. Especially now.
Learning how to rein on a trail is essential. Reining skills can get a horse to side pass, move three steps to the left away from danger, a few steps back and then to the right. That is not easy at all. It takes all manner of small, soft touches at just the right place on the neck, using the calf, the heel. Not all horses are trained this way, by any means, but using careful movements, you can even often coax an untrained one to safety with patience. That can save your life and your horse’s in a tough spot.
The older I get, and I’m now 66, the harder and longer I have to prepare. As an aging athlete, endurance and resilience are key. Being about as graceful as a dyslexic camel (my brother got the athlete genes in the family), I attract injuries the way broad horse’s butts attract deer flies. As parts accumulate damage (21 concussions, a broken back, fractured pelvis…)and you begin to lose -based on who you are- a bit of eyesight acuity or other faculties you need to depend upon, training hard can well make up for the inevitable hurts on a trip this challenging.
Lots of them. And a lot more painful. This trip, the short list included having my left patella smacked at speed when my horse, Comet, decided to cut a corner slightly too closely next to a pine and I had no time to lift my leg or push the tree trunk away. My other ride dropped me hard on a steep trail as I was dismounting because he panicked when he lost sight of the pack line. Then two pack horses, loaded with panniers, whacked into me at speed in their eagerness to join the rest of the line. Quite a way to begin a tough day in difficult terrain.
Let’s be fair to the outfit. I had requested to ride horses that were not for beginners. You pays your money and you takes your chances. If I ask for a more challenging horse, this kind of thing can happen. Not the horse’s fault. MK has plenty of horses for beginners and intermediate riders, and they are very safe.
Then there were the falls. I stopped counting after twenty. I was wearing Arctic muck boots for the first time. They work. But they are inflexible, you can’t feel the ground, and you can slip and slide on steep rocky ground that has had some twenty-plus huge and heavily-laden horses churning it up ahead of you. Canadians grow up in these things. I grew up in Florida.
When the Canadian bluebirds come south, they sit on the beach for hours without sunscreen and turn to hamburger. When I go to Canada and try to manage my muck boots, I fall down. You see my point. We know what we know. Out of our element, we can falter. I do that a great deal.
Hours and hours and hours of long descents, sometimes in very hot weather. Sometimes you wake up and it’s freezing cold, and you dress for that. By midday, those five heavy layers are damn near killing you and your water bottles are drained. No river nearby. Or, you dress for warm, and by the second lunch, a summer thunderbumper is delivering icy drops onto your thin riding tights.
Mountains. Northern Rockies.
No Uber ride up here to take you to a comfy hotel. No soft down bed to cuddle in at night, although my Nemo tent was a damned good alternative. In fact, I am having a very hard time sleeping in my own bed after thirty days on a Thermarest.
Within seconds after we left to make the drive to our starting point, I had left every. Single. Thing. behind. We stopped at a Safeway for last supplies.
I walked away from all things electronic, but for the computer I had with me that I had to pack because I wasn’t returning to the start point. I had a power supply, tried to write a few notes. It got cumbersome and foolish, albeit I found out that the power bank worked beautifully. I just had no interest in anything technical. It had become an imposition. A distraction.
So, while I need the Net to write and work, I most assuredly don’t need much of anything else it offers. If anything, it gets in the way of life.
Not a bad thing to be reminded about, in a world where technology invades just about everywhere. How quickly you simply forget about all of it.
Other lessons from a month in the hardest wilderness I’ve ever traveled:
No matter how many times I fall down, I get back up. No. Matter. What. And am at the fire by 4 am, setting up kindling, camp chairs and the kettle for coffee. In thirty days I only slept in three times and they were all rest days. The more I moved the less I hurt. And, the real gift, the less I hurt about the BF dump got on my birthday last January. The. Whole. Point, in fact.
I am done with city life. After nearly 18 months of vacillating on whether to stay in Denver, despite the pollution and crowds, I am ready to leave. Really ready to leave. I don’t have much time left during which I can do what I do now. It’s time to live where I love what I see in the morning, whatever my limited resources can get me. The trip refocused me on more mountainous rural areas, but not far from cities where I have friends, which will be important as I age.
I found out that even when other clients engage in the most appalling behavior, including outright bullying, I have the moral courage to simply. Walk. Away. Not only is this the only choice because of the safety of the group, but also because the moment you engage at that level, you lose your agency. I won’t try to convince you (or myself) that it was easy or fun, because it sucked, and it really did screw up the quality of my trip at times.
Because I let it. And that is indeed the lesson. More than once, when the horses stayed close to camp at night, I buried my face in a sweaty flank and sobbed. Horses heal. I returned the favor by scratching the bug bites that irritated their bellies. You cannot spend time wallowing in a pity party when like everyone else, you have to pitch in to work.
Ten grand to get bullied. That’s one way to look at it.
If you have blinders on.
By the same token, ten grand to find out that I can choose not to be a jerk, a reactive POS, or descend to the very real desire to respond in kind. Because as a rather famous gentleman said once,
they know not what they do.
Most of us are about as self-aware as a dead nematode. I absolutely include myself in that statement. However, trips like this, when others sometimes behave very badly in stressful conditions, I can choose to take things personally. Or I can recognize that folks are anxious. You can get offended, or you can make room — as the guides do, because they must — for folks to freak out on your watch. Chances are you’ve done the same thing at some point, and it serves to have a little empathy. We are all allowed an asshole day. That some folks extend that permission a bit, well. I’ve done it too.
I belong in the wild, or at least very close to it. Canadian women amaze me, especially rural folk. Annie, on our first trip, was in her twenties, and had recently shot (and dressed) a black bear and a wolverine. She would walk around in a tank top and shorts when I was in my heavy down jacket and shivering. These women, who vastly understate their competence and have the strength of at least one and a half average men, are something else again. Unlike many of their American counterparts, they hunt, fish, grow their own food, often work multiple jobs, are guides and farriers and exceedingly competent. I wanna be more like that, but I can only be a dim shadow. Still, the more time I spent in the wild around them, the more realized I was happiest in a rural town, close to the high country.
That’s not to be heard as a judgment. It’s an observation, and it’s based not only a on few of the women on my trip but also those I met at hotels, at gas stations, on the bus and in all the other places I had a chance to speak to locals. Northern Canada breeds a very special kind of woman. And man, too, let’s be fair.
Alex, one of our wranglers and guides, met Annie at a bar fight. I am beginning to think that the Canadian Match.com criteria for eligible women includes surviving bar fights. Or starting them, for that matter, with the first punch.
I tried not to piss off any Canadian women. Probably a good move on my part.
Finally, I was reminded many times over about water and food. There were times we had to schlep half a mile to a clean stream, and someone had to carry the full pails back. While that may seem like a big deal to you, let’s compare. Please see this by Medium charity: water. You and I live in a world where we shit in clean water that billions of people would give anything to be able to drink. Where I was, it was, on occasion, mildly inconvenient. We had to parce out what we would use for cooking, coffee, hygiene. Or, make the additional walk ourselves.
These streams are pristine, but the glaciers are melting. There won’t be as much pretty quickly. Whether you agree with climate change or not, it’s happening. We have no idea how others live, and how lack of water is making refugees out of millions. And it’s going to touch all of us.
And food. The men and I women I met in Northern Canada eat what they hunt. Many are duly unimpressed with trophy hunters and are serious conservationists, but many also have to make at least part of their annual income (which isn’t much) by outfitting. Folks up there hunt for food. They have to. Food is expensive. Deer, elk, moose and other creatures are for the cookpot in many families, for whom the winters are long and brutal, the income is poverty level, and hunting keeps them fed.
I would prefer to pet rather than perforate with a bullet or arrow. But when you spend time with folks up in Northern Canada, you see differently, which is one of the main reasons I do this kind of adventure.
When you invest ten thousand bucks in an experience, what do you expect?
That everything should be perfect? That you will come back rested? I planned, scraped, saved, scrimped and hoarded my pennies for this trip. Was it worth it?
I guess it depends. As I slowly wind down, rest up, put my body back together for Mongolia and Ethiopia later this year, I am still mining this magnificent journey for all it gave me, taught me, showed me. For those things I had challenges with and why, the choices I made and the results I got from them, and the remarkable guides and folks I spent time with before and after the journey. It was nothing like I expected, and far more than I bargained for.
Far as I’m concerned, that was an excellent ROI for my ten grand.