The far­ther you go, the harsher the con­di­tions—that’s when you learn the most about your­self

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

The trips where you go far and push your­self hard are the best kind of trips.

By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

I’VE DEF­I­NITELY COME closer to dy­ing in the woods, and pass­ing a kid­ney stone hurt a lot worse. But I’ve not had a tougher day in wilder­ness.

We were half­way into an eight-day un­guided pad­dle trip through Wabakimi Pro­vin­cial Park in north­ern On­tario, a mas­sive 2.3-mil­lion-acre swath of bo­real for­est, river, and lake ribbed with soar­ing ridges of Cana­dian Shield gran­ite. We’d hopped a train that dumped us out at a river tres­tle where an old Hud­son Bay Co. trad­ing post moldered in the woods. With our first pad­dle stroke we were in to­tal wilder­ness. We had a rough itin­er­ary to make it to a float­plane pickup, a sched­ule that hinged on one sin­gle, mon­strous mid-trip day—more than 20 miles of pad­dling, three portages around thun­der­ous falls, and a first-ever stint at sail­ing the ca­noes across a miles-wide lake.

It was just as rough as we had feared: We broke camp at dawn and portaged the last wa­ter­fall at 7 P.M. with miles still to travel. Our last rapid was a 300-yard­long gaunt­let of ledge drops and gar­ish hy­draulics. Half­way through, my buddy Scott Wood slumped over in a hy­po­glycemic bonk. I pad­dled the lower rapid solo from the bow, tak­ing rollers in the chest, and Wood and I limped to shore, the ca­noe half-filled with wa­ter. At about a quar­ter to mid­night we threw up the tent in a fire-black­ened scrub, deliri­ous with fa­tigue.

One of the best days of my life.


Jim Har­ri­son put it most point­edly, in words that cut quick and deep. “The dan­ger of civ­i­liza­tion, of course,” he wrote in The Beast That God For­got to In­vent, “is that you will piss away your life on non­sense.”

Lately, I’ve been think­ing about where the non­sense is in my life. Like ev­ery­one else, there’s plenty of busy­ness: work, rais­ing kids, try­ing to vol­un­teer, be­ing an awe­some hus­band. The pace and sheer vol­ume of ef­fort it takes to do just a pass­able job at all of those things can get out of hand, but none of that is non­sense. Still, I won­der if there are cer­tain triv­i­al­i­ties—pro­fes­sional com­pe­ti­tion, fast food, so­cial me­dia, a win­ter beer gut—that I’ve al­lowed to take hold of lit­tle pieces of my spirit, like cor­ro­sion on a pipe joint, ren­der­ing all of my plumb­ing a lit­tle less ef­fi­cient, a lit­tle more prone to break­down. Part of this re­flec­tion stems from my sta­tion in life. My wife and I are soon to be empty nesters, a time par­tic­u­larly fer­tile for self-ex­am­i­na­tion. But some of it has to do with liv­ing in an age in which the no­tion of wild places set aside is in­creas­ingly cast as non­sense. For the last quar­ter cen­tury, wilder­ness has been a pu­ri­fy­ing agent for me, and my trav­els to

re­mote re­gions have made my time in­side the city lim­its more vi­brant and mean­ing­ful. So I’m feel­ing a re­newed hunger for stak­ing my claim in places where the foot­ing is a bit un­sure. I wel­come the work of scour­ing the rust away.


In the Wabakimi the next morn­ing, Wood and I crawled out of the tent on hands and knees, backs creak­ing like old wire, and gazed out on the largest berry patch I’d ever seen. Ris­ing from the ashes of a mas­sive light­ning-strike burn, low­bush blue­ber­ries sprawled for a thou­sand yards. We wal­lowed on our backs like bears, gorg­ing our­selves on blis­tered dou­ble hand­fuls of fruit. Re­ju­ve­nated, we launched the boats, pad­dled a few hun­dred yards, and landed the big­gest pike on a fly ei­ther of us had ever caught. We pad­dled on and on, north­ward ever, as the ash gave way to for­est and the for­est to sprawl­ing lake, edged with soar­ing cliffs where pic­tographs of cari­bou and suns have gazed over wild wa­ter for ages.

None of which was non­sense. It felt a lit­tle crazy, but no mo­ment seemed in­con­se­quen­tial. When I look at the pho­tos of that big pike and those gi­ant falls and the boggy trails where we sunk to the thighs with the ca­noes on our shoul­ders—in fact, when I think of other re­mote wilder­ness trips, from Alaska to Labrador to the Outer Banks—what I most re­mem­ber isn’t the pris­tine beauty or the smell of an 8-pound brook trout or ar­rowed ptarmi­gan char­ring on a wood fire. It’s a grat­i­fy­ing sense of self-suf­fi­ciency. The knowl­edge that I did that. I got there. I came home safely. At the time, in that place, I had what it took. And those thoughts are al­ways fol­lowed by an­other: I will do it again. For the fish and the game and the ca­ma­raderie, but for more.

On our last night in Wabakimi, I slipped away from camp and pushed a ca­noe into the river. As I drifted qui­etly in a dark la­goon, north­ern lights shim­mered in the sky, mir­rored on the wa­ter. I stretched out in the bot­tom of the ca­noe, my stom­ach bulging with pike and wall­eye we’d caught at dusk. A loon cried. I lay in the bot­tom of the ca­noe, and drank in the mag­ni­tude of the noth­ing­ness—and the ev­ery­thing­ness—that spread in each di­rec­tion.

The campfire was still burn­ing when I walked back to the tents. Wood had the maps out, por­ing over the next day’s route to the lake where a float­plane would pluck us from wilder­ness like a hunt­ing os­prey. The re­turn to civ­i­liza­tion would be swift. In two hours we’d go from pad­dling a re­mote river to haul­ing gear from the plane to the trucks.

I would be back home in less than a day, and ev­ery­thing would be there where I left it—work and fam­ily and bucket lists and to-do lists. No rapids to run, but no time to drop my guard, ei­ther. The chal­lenge of wild coun­try would be be­hind me, at least for a while. But the hard work of hon­or­ing its hold on the spirit never ends.

Il­lus­tra­tion by MICHAEL MARSICANO

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