I'm on week five or so of my solo road trip through the western United States, and lately, I've been celebrating a lot of exciting firsts: first summit, first time sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot, first bison or American moose sighting, and so many more.
So, in retrospect, I started thinking about a really big first that was absolutely critical on my path to this trip: my solo backpack trip to Berg Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park. I wrote about my 3-night first-time camp trip for She Explores - if you missed it, you can read about it here.
To recap, I hadn't been camping since I was 13 years old, and I had never been camping in the backcountry. The tent I packed wasn't mine, and though I had practice pitched it once in my backyard, I had never pitched it on the trail. My backpack was new, my sleeping bag was new, and my ambition was relatively new, too. I spent three nights on the trail and one more in nearby Jasper National Park, and it's not an understatement to say that that weekend was a transformative one for me in general, but also for my relationship with the outdoors.
The same way I am learning A TON of new things on this road trip, I learned some really important things on my Berg Lake trip. I thought it would be fun to recap some of my firsts and major lessons on my 2016 Berg Lake hike:
I learned the importance of listening to my body.
Obviously my body is the vehicle by which I was able to make this trip, or any hike; it is indispensable. So it had to be healthy, and it had to be getting what it needed. Any time I hike, I have to listen to my body, and being outdoors alone with it for four days taught me how to listen to even just a whisper, let alone a shout from my body. It told me when it was time to rest my legs or lungs, when it needed to be fed protein, iron or carbohydrates, when it needed to be hydrated, and most importantly, how far it was willing or able to go without being driven to total exhaustion or injury.
My second night on the trail was tough. I had pushed my body so far those first two days, and it was letting me know; it was screaming at me. I was achey and sore all over. When I tried to apologize to it, I couldn't sleep - I was restless. I paid for the abuse for the rest of the weekend. I had to learn how to be gentle to and patient with my body. I had to make concessions, I had to adjust my pack and gait, and I had to slow down.
I learned what it means to trust my instincts.
I had no idea that I was so great at predicting the weather until I was thrown into the wilderness for four days without cell service! Everything that you need to know, understand and feel, it all exists within you. You just have to listen. Beyond predicting weather patterns, instincts are all about keeping yourself safe. Sure, avoiding storms or extreme sun exposure (and dehydration) is one of the important things that you need to be aware of, but ultimately you have to figure out how to "trust your gut", no matter the situation.
Don't feel safe somewhere? Pack up and move. Not only could you subconsciously be recognizing danger, but you also probably know that you won't rest easy unless you feel safe. So why waste the energy? Learning to recognize the difference between irrational fears and instincts is really difficult. I won't lie to anyone about how challenging it is, and I'm sure that I still fall victim to those silly fears here and there, even though realistically, I know when I'm safe. Simply put, it is always better to err on the side of caution and maintain your safety, especially when you're alone.
Threats come in a lot of forms - they can be bears or mountain lions, dangerous summer storms or winter blizzards, potentially other humans, or they could even be trail conditions like steep, exposed scree slopes. You don't always have to run away from these things, but you at least have to trust yourself to be capable of mitigating danger. If you're hiking out into bear country, be prepared. I read, re-read and reinforced in my head what the safest protocol is if I were to run into either a black bear or a grizzly out on the trail, and I armed myself with bear spray. I marked ranger cabins and safety pavilions along the trail on my map, in case of a forest fire or weather emergency. If I were to start feeling like a storm was brewing that could threaten my safety, at least I would know where to go when I recognized my instincts to get out.
The night I camped out at Berg Lake campground, my campsite was the furthest up into the forest. Despite it, I had resolved to stay up late that night, out on the lake, with the hope of catching a full moon rise behind Mount Robson on camera. The clouds blew in, and around 11:30 pm, I called it a night. I hiked back up to my tent to gather my headlamp and some toilet paper, and I headed for the pit toilet. As I neared the toilet shack, I stopped dead in my tracks - I could hear something banging against the wood door, rattling the latch that keeps it closed (and that keeps wildlife out). If I wanted to see what it was, I would have had to get within four or five feet of the door and I was unwilling to do this in case it realized my worst fear - that it was a bear. I hiked away into the forest, dug a hole to relieve myself, and ran back to my tent where I tucked into my sleeping bag, clutching my bear spray. I didn't sleep so well that night.
This was the perfect scenario of walking a fine line between irrational fear and listening to true instincts. On one hand, I knew it was an animal, that it was dark, that I would have had to get very close to find out what it was, and there were some dangers associated with that, regardless of what animal it was. My instincts told me not to approach the shack, and I used my skills and tools to find an alternate solution to the problem at hand. However, I was still overcome with sleepless fear that night: worst-case scenario fears that it was a bear, and since I was camped along the perimeter of the campground (against the forest), that bear would be coming for me first!
Much to my amusement the next morning, as I was getting organized and packing up my camp, the biggest marmot I have ever seen came stumbling down out of the forest and passed me without even a casual glance. I knew then, that what I had felt the night before, terrified, alone and armed in my sleeping bag, was pure, unproductive fear. But sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it's difficult to identify that. Nevertheless, I had a good laugh at myself that morning. Bumps in the night still make me pause, but I put a lot more effort into evaluating the situation before I let fear control my reactions.
I learned how to pace myself.
I used to have only one speed, and it was fast. I found myself often frustrated on trails when my typical city-dwelling, speed-walking pace was unrealistic to maintain on a trail, especially while climbing hundreds of feet in elevation over just a kilometre or two of distance. At times, it felt like I spent more time resting and recovering than I did actually hiking. It was so discouraging, and I thought maybe I just wasn't cut out for this hiking thing.
When you are alone and out in the wilderness for an extended period of time, you have nothing but time to figure things out for yourself. If you don't do it right away, you are not escaping the fact that you will have to face these obstacles at some point. You might as well address it. In order to keep moving at a consistent rate, I had to slow down. Carrying the size and weight of my overnight pack was very new to me, and it immediately forced me to slow down. Beyond that, when you are hiking solo, there is no one to keep up with and no one else to set pace for. You get to move at whatever speed suits you, completely guilt-free!
I learned that trekking poles aren't useless.
Imagine that, right?? I will confess that before this trip, I thought trekking poles were silly. I could not understand why hikers were using them, unless they were plagued by vertigo or some kind of injury that affected their balance or strength. On the advice of a friend, I purchased a pair of trekking poles and took them along with me, anyway. Boy, did I ever put my foot in my mouth.
When you are carrying a heavy pack and are traveling either up or down, trekking poles become absolutely invaluable for spreading the weight of not just your body, but of your pack. I won't travel long distances, especially going down, without my trekking poles ever again. Trekking poles saved my ankles on my 16 km descent and hike back out of the park.
Since this trip, I have discovered even more reasons why trekking poles will remain one of my most important gear items. Whether you are traveling through snow, or hiking through rivers, I can't stress how great these simple things are!
I learned that some Nuun tablets have caffeine in them.
This was an honest and silly mistake, but a valuable lesson to learn. I had picked up some strawberry lemonade Nuun Active tablets at my local MEC a month or so prior, simply out of curiosity. I loved them! I am not a big water drinker, and I find it especially difficult to motivate myself to stay hydrated while working a desk job (just go ahead and hook me up to a drip IV of black tea, please). These effervescent tablets were a delicious way to encourage me to drink water at work, and I quickly finished my package. So, when I was rounding up some final supplies for my trip, I threw another container into the mix. Since they were relatively new to me, I thought maybe the packaging had changed, and I chose a new flavour.
We all know how important it is to stay hydrated in general. But when you're out there burning up trail, you're losing a lot more than just water when you sweat. Nuun tablets are dissolvable electrolytes that are gluten, dairy and soy free, and are made from plant-based ingredients. Plus, they taste delicious in all of the best ways: they're NOT like drinking strongly flavoured vitamin waters or syrupy sports drinks; they're a subtle, fresh flavour. One of the reasons I loved them on this trip, and used them so fervently is because I was treating my water out of streams and the Robson River, and I hate the taste of my water purification tabs. The Nuun tablets not only mask the mineral taste of my purification tabs, but they feed my body the electrolytes my body needs.
So, where did I go wrong? Without realizing, I accidentally picked up a package of Nuun's wild berry "Boost" tablets. They're packed full of B-vitamins and electrolytes, and they're addictingly delicious, but the Boost line also contains caffeine. When Nuun tells you to "drink, and conquer!", they're not lying. But... I didn't need to conquer all night long!
I'll be happy to take a package of Nuun Boost with me on my next trip, but I'll stick to enjoying them in the mornings only, and switch to Nuun Active for the rest of my days. Nuun Boost is a great alternative to packing coffee on the trail. As much as I love enjoying a hot cuppa thanks to my Snow Peak French press, coffee is a diuretic, and maybe not your best friend when you're trying to stay healthy and hydrated on the trails. Nuun Boost, on the other hand, helps you stay hydrated while giving you the solid energy punch you sometimes need.
I learned that I am a guest in the wilderness.
Thru hikes and back country camping trips typically require a fair amount of preparation, gear, a lot of know-how and at least some basic survival skills, and as you've now seen, a lot of learning. Staying in the wilderness requires experience. Mother Nature is magnificent, awe-inspiring, and one heck of a teacher. Putting yourself out there, to be subjected to her highs and lows, is no walk in the park; she can be kind but she can also be temperamental, and even when you are prepared and experienced, she can still be ferocious. In many ways, our current civilizations have traded our skills of persevering in the wilderness for the skills of how to shelter ourselves entirely from her forces. Getting outdoors means re-discovering a relationship with raw wilderness, and it's not something that happens over night.
"The way forward to help conservation efforts might well be to invite people outdoors so that they can feel ownership of and responsibility towards these wild spaces. But we also need to acknowledge our educational role, by helping individuals understand that they are visitors to these wild spaces, not conquerers." Lizzie Jespersen, for Beside Magazine (issue 02), on conservation and the role of outdoor enthusiasts.
My relationship with the wilderness is still growing, and it's certainly booming while I travel across the western United States by car, hiking and camping my way through National Parks, Forests, Monuments and Preserves. My burgeoning relationship has taught me beauty, forgiveness, integrity, and connection. Perhaps most importantly though, it has taught me to be humble, for I will never and am never meant to conquer the wilderness. It is not something to be harnessed, and it is not something that I will learn to contain, but rather something I am learning to ebb and flow alongside, to share, to admire, and to marvel over. The wilderness is not mine to own. It is a privilege to experience it, and if I wish to return or share it with others, I must tread lightly, and with the utmost respect.
Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.
First: Lake Kinney 2016 | Second: Robson River 2016| Third: Robson River and Mount Robson 2016 | Fourth: Emperor Falls 2016 | Fifth: Mount Robson at Berg Lake 2016