Camping and Canoeing: Risk Mitigation - Fear & Loathing in Algonquin Park

In conversations about my upcoming camping trip, the input I have received from folks here at work has been invaluable. A couple of people think I'm nuts to go canoe camping by myself into an area where cell phones won't work. But then, we're all city-folks here in Toronto.

One colleague seems to have worked herself into tizzy, concerned that I will be eaten by a bear or fall into a pit and rot. It is at times like that that I recall Sigmund Freud's dictum "A fear is a disguised wish". She reports to me. One colleague wanted to simply to ensure that I had documented the big project I'm working on, in the event probably of being kidnapped by a band of otters. That's reasonable (the mitigation of the generally anticipated possibility of not returning, not the specified risk scenario).

One colleague believes that I am going to get my own TV show like Survivorman. Survivormungo. Hmmm - I'd like that.

Some think solo camping would be scary.

The first time I went camping by myself - about 15 years ago - I lapsed into a depressive state. Over and over the following words resonated in my head: "I am such a loser. I have no friends. I am all by myself in the woods. [Repeat Chorus]" Honestly. It was fairly miserable. It was probably made worse by the actual fact that I'd just broken up with a girlfriend and I was not in touch with any of my old friends at the time.

The second time I went solo camping the hopelessness and blackness receded. It was replaced by an electric, panicky, painful dread of the savage, terrifying and threatening unknown wilderness around me. I remember I took ages to fall asleep every night in my nylon tent, hearing sounds of what later turned out to have been bark-beetles chewing away on the trees around me. I was convinced that there was a wild creature out in the woods about to attack and tear me into bloody shreds. Somewhat seriously.

But the third time I went solo camping, the fear and the bad thoughts slipped away and vanished. They were replaced with a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, of confidence and a sense of connection with the nature about me. This is what has remained to this day every time I go.

I now relish solo camping and find that it replenishes me.

There are - as I see it - three top risks that I can reasonably mitigate against:
  1. Breaking an ankle while portaging, and subsequently rotting in pit.
    The actual portage route is - by the only account I could find about it - fairly level, and hazard-free. Since I am not significantly constrained by time, I can take my time and walk slowly and carefully. I can always drag myself through the bush if needed. I wear hiking shoes that have a metal shank down the length of the sole, to help stabilize my feet. I carry Band-Aids.
  2. Falling into the water and drowning, yelling "saaaaaaavvvvve meeeeee (gurgle gurgle)".
    I always wear a life jacket. On a trip once, a friend of mine decided to take the canoe along the shore edge for a 5 minute exploration. He came back soaked to the bone, and looking a bit scared. He'd been close to the shore, and decided to grab an overhanging tree branch so that he could step onto a rock. He'd lost his balance, fallen out and missed striking his head by inches on the rock. No matter what - always wear a life jacket. I do. Plus I appreciate the extreme danger of hypothermia, having experienced it severely about 10 years ago. I know how to right a canoe, how to get back into a canoe, and that you should never leave a canoe that has tipped over in the water (unless it is headed directly for Niagara Falls).
  3. Being attacked and then carefully eaten by a bear.
    I wear a bear bell while portaging. I sing while portaging (that would keep even the hungriest of bears away). Remember, 99.99% of bears are skittish around humans and do all they can to avoid them. I always look around while portaging, and do not listen to an iPod... I light a fire and keep it going at my camp site to let any potential intruders know that there is an annoying, unpredictable human at the camp site. I make noise. I have an early detection system called a beagle and his incredibly powerful sense of smell, and inherent (and very welcome) confidence albeit wariness while in the bush. I know never to play dead with a black bear and always to fight back. I respect their power and speed - Mike Tyson has nothing on a black bear in a bad mood. I carry a sheath-knife with me always. I know that this won't be the most effective defense against a bear. I took a negotiation seminar at work a few years ago.
And then there is the risk of death by blackflies, but luckily they're out of season at the moment (actual clipping from the New York Times... uhm, 101 years ago):

Well, time's a-tickin'... 5 days to go!



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