"When's the last time you went camping by yourself?" my wife asks as I back out the van from our driveway. For a moment, I see myself as she does: week's worth of salt-and-pepper stubble, sunglasses, yellow canoe tied to roof rack of red family van.
"When I was 16," I reply. "When I was 16."
This October, I'll turn 50. So that's a lifetime ago. Then, I was at a wilderness canoe camp that included a three-day solo trip. A coming-of-age experience alone in the Northern Ontario wilds. Now, I'm the parent of teenaged campers, but I still remember how heading out alone on an adventure changes the nature of everything you experience.
Solitude is something we often avoid like a bad smell. In July, a team of American psychologists reported in the journal Science that they had asked adults to sit alone in a room for 15 minutes. No phones, screens or reading material – just their thoughts and feelings. In the room was a device with which participants could zap themselves with a mild electric shock that they had already experienced and described as unpleasant.
Two-thirds of the the men and a quarter of the women zapped themselves before the 15 minutes was up. "[The] mind does not like to be alone with itself," the authors concluded.
Sometimes it does. Out there in the wild, your brain goes into detailed intensity mode. The world tastes richer, is more interesting. Even if the bears you'll probably encounter aren't outside, but within.
At the put-in, I load my canoe, guitar acting as figurehead pointing over the bow, and push off. I take off my shirt and relax into the steady rhythm of the J-stroke.
In the distance I see Site 71 (the number changed to protect my favourite campsite), a sentinel line of mature white pine trees marching down a hill to the south and out along the site's ridge to the point's cliff-edged lip. I pull ashore and unload in mid-day heat, and decide to go for a swim before lunch.
One of the reasons I love Site 71 is for its four-metre-high jumping cliff, the top flat as a diving board, the perfect wilderness jump into deep, deep water. I stand on the cliff, surveying the lake.
To my left, I see a canoe breaching the point. I recognize them: the couple I'd seen at the put-in, the smile-less woman in the bow, facing sternward toward the guy who'd glared at me as if I was trespassing on a private beach. They're in a 14-foot Coleman canoe, the kind with Styrofoam sideboards, like a child's water wings, a bastardization of millennia of canoe craftsmanship.
In retrospect, I don't know if I hear or see them first. What I do recall are her words, galvanized nail-hard.
"Don't tell me that. You've been changin' your lure every five minutes. That's 35 minutes of you not paddling."
It's one of those crystalline moments when, because of some confluence of timing, location and acoustics you overhear a perfect sound-bite of strangers' conversation and it stays with you forever.
I jump. I jump for the guy in the stern. I jump to say enough. I'm here. I revel in gravity's awesome tug. My feet slap hard on the water, bubbles rush up in the dark greenish-blue water, I see my hands reflected down from the lake's surface as I reach up for the light.
I learned about the lake, and the point, a decade ago from neighbours.
"Where you guys going this weekend?" I'd asked as the couple lashed a canoe to their car.
She looked at me with a sheepish grin, what I took as a mix of selfish embarrassment at not wanting to tell me and a genuine desire to protect something deeply valuable to her. Taking a step forward, she softly mentioned the lake's name. It's the only place I've ever known that people kept secret.
Our annual family visits to Site 71 had the aura of coming to a secret place, not a provincial park – and better for it, I thought. There's still a flavour of the wild here.
But while eating a shore lunch, I hear the sputter, cough and then distinctive high whine of a chainsaw. I walk up the ridge to see that one of my long-weekend neighbours – five guys, two boats, bounteous coolers, 50 metres away on an island – is walking along the far shoreline of the little bay, chainsaw in hand, cutting driftwood and anything that stands in his way.
I've been blind to the fact that in the past decade the lake has gone from a relatively unknown to a very known destination; from buying camping passes at a remote Ottawa Valley general store, now a gravel lot, to online campsite bookings.
After dark I climb into my tent. I'd imagined this moment as one of calm silence, the sound of white pine needles rustling in the off-lake breeze. Instead I lie in my sleeping bag listening to classic rock radio, smiling ruefully to myself as the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction drifts from the island. And then the pre-sleep kicker: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young singing Woodstock with the chorus: We are stardust, we are golden and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden. Amen.
A camping gift
When I wake up the next morning, a single thought wisps through my mind: What am I going to do?
I take a deep breath and let myself sink into the unfolding day. I end up getting a wilderness camping gift.
The gift begins when I see that there's a steady flow of fuel drops from a loose valve on my Coleman camping stove – drops that form a deceptively innocuous clear pool. A choice. A damn-the-torpedoes part of me wants to light the stove anyway. After all, time is of the essence: I'm making coffee. The burner flame probably won't ignite the pool of gas. Alternately, the pool could ignite and with it maybe the fuel canister. I opt to use Site 71's fireplace, a ring of stones atop a flat section of granite on a rise at the water's edge – a simple structure tying me to ancient peoples and their journeys. I collect tinder-dry leaves and pine needles. They ignite instantly followed by the twigs I add. I judiciously fill my pot with just enough water for my coffee. I place the rack low over my little fire so the pot catches most of the heat. To my surprise and joy, the water boils within minutes, using just a handful of twigs.
In my 20s, I used to tell the canoe campers I led that a trip wasn't really a trip until something went wrong and we rose to the occasion. Now a piece of technology had failed and I adapted and found a simple workaround. The solution had been lying near me the whole time.
I use a Christmas-themed oven mitt, adorned with marching penguins, to remove the pot. I make my coffee and take a seat looking out over the water. The experience of making the fire creates a deep calm in me. Things like this matter here. It matters whether the wood's dry. The temperature. When the sun sets. Whether you're cold. Whether you get your coffee. It's not life and death. Just a little bit of an edge. It's a little edge that makes a big psychic difference for me. I feel more alert. More aware. More alive.
The eternal now
At day's end, I'm lying up on the point's dome, under the arc of a darkening star-dimpled black sky, yellowy campfires dotting the far shoreline.
I'm as solitary as you can be on the August long weekend on a big lake not too far from Canada's capital. My only company is the liquid prattle of burr oak leaves in the wind, the cackle of the crows, the eerie yodel of loons and the over-sized sounds of the ground squirrels, bellowing like chattering Tarzans as each conquered sticky pine cone thuds on the forest floor.
But the wildest sound is the sound of being with myself. This person feels a little like a stranger. I'm wary but intrigued to begin a conversation over coffee. Outwardly, I'm a six-foot-four, balding guy. Inside, there's a small convention going on: reflections on the loneliness I'd felt as a teenager during my solo trip, now replaced with a deep calm; debate about whether to ask my neighbours to turn down their radio; and most of all a range of emotions that I realized I'd been hungering to hear.
When I'd fallen in love with this place, the thought arose in me that I want to die here. Or at least that this be my final resting place. I'm particularly taken with Tibetan sky burial: leaving the deceased's body, in pieces preferably, to be carried skyward by vultures. The local turkey vultures would be on me in a minute.
My wife squirms whenever I mention this. "Think of something easier," she says. Sitting looking out over the lake, Big Dipper over my left shoulder, I know why Site 71 calls to me. It's timeless, infinite, the ground cover a mix of spongy brown decay and pale, shining green renewal. It's rooted in the eternal now. And lying here, held between Canadian Shield and the faint Milky Way, so am I.
Jacob Berkowitz is a writer based in Almonte, Ont. His latest book is The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars