I walk away from camp to brush my teeth before going to sleep for the night. My headlamp guides my way down a small incline through a stand of spruce trees. The light glints off the needles as I slip through the branches to an open area outlined by a few downed trees covered by moss. The air is cool and smells of dirt and wet leaves.
I turn off my headlamp. It’s completely dark. Fear grabs my heart. I can’t see anything as I look into the woods. The sky is cloudy and the canopy is thick.
I am in the middle of a ten-day solo journey through the northern tier of lakes in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. I have paddled with friends and family many times through the Boundary Waters, but for the past few years I have traveled solo.
My grandparents started taking my sister and me camping in northern Wisconsin when we were very young. Exploring forest plants, watching deer, eating blueberries and raspberries, and drifting on open water in my grandfather’s fishing boat are experiences deeply embedded in my being. When I am in wilderness areas I feel a familial relationship with rock, water, wind, sun, plants and animals. I never feel lonely, bored or scared.
There is an awakening fear present that helps me stay attuned to the motion of waves when paddling across a large lake, where to step on a wet rocky portage trail, when weather might change quickly, and where to be cautious of inadvertently startling a moose or bear.
But the fear I feel on this pitch black night is different. The outline of trees and plants that usually come as night vision gets stronger don’t appear. I could turn my headlamp back on to reassure the fear, but instead I sit on a log and look into the abyss. Be with this feeling. Breath, relax, let in the dark.
I haven’t seen another person for two days. But that doesn’t stop the presence of people as conversation after conversation forms in the mind. The ego brings up many issues from life back in the city regarding relationships, work, home, the past, the future. I feel this is how the ego attempts to keep out the raw intensity of wilderness. Here there are so many motions, changes and conditions. Nature reminds the ego, “You are not in control of all this; listen and respect what is here.”
To help the ego let go, I attend the sensorial experience of the present moment. What am I almost missing that my senses are carrying? What is changing in what I am seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting?
On extended trips I emphasize one of the senses for a day. During vision day, I see in detail the contours of waves, subtle differences in ground cover plants, and how clouds shift and change in the sky. On hearing day, the sound of the paddle slipping through water, wind moving through trees, and the variety of bird songs and calls. Then how the air and sun feel on my skin and the inner kinesthetic motion of paddling and walking. Ultimately, I open to all the senses at once, absorbing the symphony of experience. As I tune into the colors and tones of nature, the talking mind becomes quieter and quieter. I feel I belong here.
The next morning I am awakened by a moose tromping through the woods, cracking sticks with her footfalls. I open the tent’s rain fly to catch a glimpse. I hear her in the distance, but don’t see her.
Later in the day I paddle to a place on Quetico Lake where I can see down long fingers of water that stretch in all directions. The water is still, reflecting the late afternoon sun. No movement in the trees. All is settled and quiet. I turn the boat in a slow circle absorbing the immensity of beauty and space all around. How fortunate we live on this beautiful planet.