The inside of my two-man tent is light at 3 am, the far northern British Columbia summer night darkness lasting barely two hours. I had gone to bed at 7:30 pm, popped on an eye mask, and curled into my bag, which is rated to -20 F. My entire collection of essentials is neatly stacked inside packing cubes and protected by Sea to Summit Dry Bags. Including my technology. All of it. It doesn't get used out here.
My computer, a slim Chromebook, is in one of them. Asleep, as it will mostly stay this way for this entire trip. Out here in Canada's natural crown jewel, the Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness, there's just vast boreal forest, mountain ranges, cascading blue rivers, placid lakes, grizzly bears and, well, everything else you might find in one of the last great wild places on the North American continent. Except for Wi-Fi.
Separating myself from Wi-Fi for a week at a time isn't new. Being completely immersed in the wilderness, as well as separated from any kind of technology at all for a whole month is new. In fact, it's a revelation.
More and more of us are attached to our devices for up to fourteen hours or more a day. The cost of that attachment ranges from an inability to concentrate to the inability to zip up our fat jeans to the inability to focus our eyes. Intentionally living like my ancestors did before paved roads offered a true chance to return to simpler times.
And, in fact, to see how I might fare along the way.
So what happens on a day when you can't be on your computer? Turns out, quite a bit. It gave me a sense of what those who traveled in covered wagons might have had to face. How to live with less. Deal with emergencies by yourself. Stay calm no matter what. Learn to focus on what's at hand.
Out here, the day starts early. From the moment I get up, which is three hours before most folks, my hands are full. I pack my gear and tent into their bags and cart them to the staging point. There, tarps are stacked next to the saddles and pack saddles. Forty-six blankets, two for each horse, are piled under the blue tarp, which protects the campfire and our gear from the nighttime rain. Sometimes I run into the local porcupine, who is inspecting last night's pots for snacks. We can't toss extra food into the bushes. That attracts grizzlies.
I set up the kindle for the fire, fetch pails of ice-cold glacier water for coffee and oatmeal. Sometimes that water source is half a mile away. Sometimes when you show up, there's an adult moose who got there before you.
You're the one who backs up very, very slowly.
Water secured, I set out the camp chairs for the rest of the group. Right around four a.m., Emma, the youngest guide, pads quietly into camp. We smile at each other and get to work. We need a fire.
One of us always has a lighter. The person who can bear the cold the longest usually gets the fire started. That's usually Emma. Sometimes the wood is wet anyway and it takes precious toilet paper. It's hard to find dry tinder on the trail. No fire, no coffee. No coffee, everyone's in a bad mood.
Water. Food. Shelter. Safety. The first steps on Maslow's hierarchy. Somehow out here not much else matters.
You don't think about emails. News. Who did what to whom. After a while it begins to dawn on you that the rest never really did matter.
Once the flames lick the early morning sky, we set the grill onto the supporting logs. Sometimes we have to douse part of the fire before it sets our tarp aflame. The kettle, full to the brim with glacier water, sits wobbly-based on the grill, which is bent from a hundred such fires. Soon, coffee, nectar of the gods. The welcoming smell fills our noses and coaxes the recalcitrant guides out of their sleeping bags.
They shrug on their gear, grab halters and head off to track down our horses. Our mounts and pack horses wandered off to find fodder. Most are long-time veterans of these trips. Even hobbled with soft ropes, they move swiftly towards water and sweet mountain grass. Sometimes they're an hour away or more.
In the few, fleeting, precious moments of private time that I've gained by getting up uber early, I walk to the edge of camp to take in the view.
No matter where we've camped, there is breathtaking beauty. The kind that makes you suck in your breath. It makes you want to pull up a camp chair, a cup of coffee and stay a while. Like, the rest of your life.
But there's too much work to do.
When they get back, we start packing our panniers on the horses. That takes about two hours. By that time, the second wave of breakfast is finished. The other riders are up, they've eaten, and have broken down their tents.
Our panniers have to weigh precisely the same on either side, or else they will cause the horse back damage or make him fall into a bog or river. We share the scales. We move apples, rice, potatoes, and equipment to get the precise balance.
After a while you get good at it. It becomes second nature, a pleasant order to each day.
The Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness is accessible only by foot, by flight, by jet boat or by horse. There are no roads. One of the people who made sure the wilderness would stay a wilderness is our tour leader, Wayne Sawchuk.
Sawchuk was born in northeastern British Columbia, surrounded by forests and wildlands. From his early teens he was enraptured by geology and the challenges of the wilderness. His love of the land, and his dedication to photographing and protecting it led, in time, to the successful set-aside of this extraordinary part of the world. Since 1984, Sawchuk has been leading horse trips into these parts, past isolated and deserted outfitters camps where the grizzlies raid the kitchens and lay waste to the supplies. Each trip he takes out means another vote to protect his precious wilderness, which becomes our precious wilderness.
With the occasional, gentle correction from Wayne, especially early on, we learn how to break down, to set back up. After a few days it becomes habit.
It feels good to be busy, with a purpose, and to see the immediate physical results of that work. Tents and gear in bags. Bags wrapped in tarps. Horses loaded, secured. Done. Next.
My eyes work better out here. At home, I can spend up to twelve hours a day writing, although I take breaks. Not long enough breaks. My eyes get dry, irritated. My vision blurs after so many hours. I get fatigued. I get headaches. All side effects of our constant staring at glowing screens. There's now a "National Day of Unplugging," but we clearly need more than that.
Out in the wilderness it's like being released from prison. Every single breeze that ruffles the fuzzy curls around my face carries news. Portents. Each mossy embankment where I sit feels damp, soft as a down pillow. The sound of rushing glacier water just beyond my tent is a lullaby.
Books from the Author:
Buy WordFood: How We Feed or Starve Our Relationships at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Tackling the Titans: How to Sell to the Fortune 500 at your local bookstore, or get it online here: