I’m scared to go backcountry camping alone, but more scared not to. Because who are we if we don’t endeavour to do what we most desire to do?
So many voices tell me not to go.
“Are you doing it alone?” my mother asks, even though she knows I’ve successfully completed several backcountry stand-up paddleboarding adventures on my own already.
A male friend, who goes solo kayak touring regularly, also expresses concern – and he’s right. Solo wilderness camping is dangerous. I’ve seen actor James Franco amputate his hand in the biopic 127 Hours.
My own fears mount as I hem and haw about the weather, my destination, my plan. Who am I to think I can travel alone in the wilderness?
But then there is the voice, the inner voice that trumps all other voices. It’s always worth going. For who are you if you let fear stop you from doing what you most desire to do?
The plan is set: One woman, a stand-up paddleboard and two nights alone in the wilds of The Massasauga Provincial Park on Ontario’s Georgian Bay.
Doubts rise again at the park office when the campsite I want is gone and I must paddle much further. Can I paddle that far before dark? This is a park without roads: 12,810 hectares with 135 campsites accessible only by water. The day is slipping away. The last time I soloed here, I ended up paddling in the dark with my headlamp and then it died. Still, I found my campsite, nearly hysterical, a thousand stars shimmering above me.
So here I am, pushing my luck again, launching from the Three-Legged Lake access point at 4 p.m., dry bags of camping gear strapped onto the board. After a few wrong turns battling the winds, I find the 370-metre portage, lug the board and bags to Spider Lake and that’s where the magic begins. This part of the Massasauga displays an eerie, serene beauty ‒ the windswept feel of Georgian Bay, with stark rocky cliffs, striated granite and twisted pines, yet safe and sheltered from wild waves as an inland lake. Part of the UNESCO Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve, the park counts black bears; its namesake rattler, the eastern massasauga, which is a threatened species in these parts; and Ontario’s only lizard, the five-lined skink, among its many remarkable inhabitants.
Following the curve of Spider Lake shelters me from the worst of the wind. Light plays with rock and the water, reassuring me: It’s always right to come. Tripping with friends is rewarding but distracting. Paddling alone is immersive. You become part of the place. Time slows down. As I pull myself forward with every stroke, a great blue heron takes flight over the tops of pine trees and my worries blow away with the wind.
The upside of the longer paddle is a truly excellent campsite, lucky No. 13, with a sandy beach and sunset view.
After setting up the tent and a bear hang, I languidly paddle out on calm, pristine waters to watch the sunset dance on a striking granite outcrop jutting cathedral-like into the sky. As the light fades, I slip off the board into the shallows to cool my feet – and shriek. Two feet away is a large turtle ‒ almost as wide as my board ‒ with a mottled neck and algae-strewn shell. It reminds me of a sea turtle, only this is an inland lake, which means that must be a snapping turtle. I rationalize that snapping turtles are probably like black bears and massasauga rattlesnakes; certainly dangerous, but something that wants to avoid me even more than I want to avoid it.
Later that night at the picnic table, my one small light shines in a sea of darkness. In the sky, there’s a star or a satellite, I can’t tell. I’m pretty sure that plopping sound is the snapping turtle dropping back into the lake. No skinny dipping in the dark for me but I don’t care. Seeing that giant turtle with its ancient face, dinosaur-like beak, gracefully gliding in the water beside my board, was like seeing a dinosaur, a unicorn, something so surprising and unexpected that it becomes sacred.
We need nature. We are nature. Studies have shown the calming, psychological benefits of forest bathing, swimming, sun and sky. Here, I learn again to listen to my own voice as a small, insignificant moving dot on a map, with only a burning will to explore that ultimately trumps fear and propels me forward.
The following day is paddling perfection.
I leave my trappings behind, paddle to the far reaches of the lake, stopping for swims, seeing everything: baby fish in the water, dragonflies circling my head. On shore for a bathroom break, hundreds of tiny frogs the size of my fingertip jump madly away. The beaver smacks its tail at me as I jockey for a better photo: No, I do not want to be on Instagram.
Later in the day, amid this paradise, fear creeps in again, for the rain and storms I know are coming. As the sun sets, the wind wakes. Rain begins while I sleep. At 1 a.m., thunder jolts me alive. I wake again at 5 a.m., stranded on my sleeping mattress with about two inches of water inside my tent. I climb out to find water flowing off the granite cliff, creating a creek, dammed by my tent. I go back to sleep, trying to stay aloft on my island of a bed. Note to self: pitch your tent on high ground.
By 8 a.m. the rain stops.
The paddle back through placid waters is calm, glorious, triumphant even. I make mistakes but it doesn’t matter. I’m exhausted but feel stronger. I pass a woman kayaking and she asks where I went. “Did you do all that on a paddleboard? You’re awesome.”
I roll the word around in my mind as I fight the winds again. This isn’t really all that incredible, is it? A woman tripping alone in the wilderness? Because it’s my adventures large and small that keep me sane in this life, and make me who I most want to be.
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