Stories and photography by Mitch Doll, Nate Sawkiw and Andy Goodson
A few months ago, some friends and I discussed going solo camping in the backcountry for the first time. The problem was that we had camped together for so long, we began to question our self-reliance. We could always rely on eachother, whether for setting up the rain tarp or lending that 'thing' someone forgot to pack.
We agreed to go solo camping—but we would do it together at a river in the Manitoba Duck Mountains. I'll explain: we each chose different tributaries of the river to hike, at least two kilometres apart, then camped alone in the wilderness for two nights before rejoining to compare our experiences.
The goal was to challenge ourselves and demystify the solo camping experience. Here's what happened...
Mature trees along the abandoned road hung overhead and blocked the intense sunlight. A neglected bridge came into sight as we neared the end of the flat section of gravel.
I took my pack off at the bridge and rested for a moment with Andy and Nate. Recent rainfall had made the river vigorous, mirroring the anxiety and anticipation within me. I had to keep moving forward and cut the break short. Leaving my friends behind at the bridge, I pressed south into the treeline.
My time alone consisted of periodically barking like a dog in all directions. I also imitated animals such as apes. Eventually I would find my own sound: a low neandethalic grunt. These were the noises that would keep the bears away I thought.
The mid-afternoon was spent exploring the wet, old-growth forest before settling in. My camp was close to the river, near a tiny stream of rainwater that pooled on the ground before escaping into the river.
The stream water was clear and perfect for drinking. I felled a looming dead tree that threatened my tent location, and used it as firewood. The tree was mighty and my saw, small. It was a harrowing task, but I was ready for the stay by sunset. I drank Scotch whisky late into the night, watching the water pass by and the flames dance about.
Everyone had planned to shoot off bear bangers before going asleep to signal that all was well or three consecutive shots if there was an emergency. I did not hear anything of the sort. Either I had scared the bears toward their camps and would emerge alone in two days, or we were all too far away and the river was too loud to hear anything. Regardless, I was alone.
I poked the fire until it danced again, stoking subtle flames on par with the warmth of instant camp coffee in the morning. I took out a few rolls of 35mm film and my LomoKino camera. I sought inspiration from the location, wanting to create footage for an ongoing film project, however the filming was laboured. There was nothing but forest to fill the frame.
It was fun and I got what I needed, but I still wasn’t inspired. By mid-afternoon, I had used nearly all of my film.
I returned to camp, laid in the sun and read Breakfast of Champions. My bluetooth speaker ran out of battery power. That was disappointing. It had created a good level of comfort and was especially enjoyable around the slow-burning fire at night. I had no distractions anymore.
The sun was setting. It was golden hour.
I stalked the light through the forest with my digital camera. There was nothing else to focus on but the light. I studied it intently. I watched and waited as it crawled down the trees.
My camera was no longer getting in the way of creating the images I had envisioned. I perceived how it captured light, rather than how my eye saw it—a personal breakthrough. The sun was set.
In the anecdotes I’ve read from people that spent time in the forest alone, usually at some point, they wind up stressing the notion that they were elated by the experience. Having come to terms with themselves and having felt spiritually embraced by their surroundings, they head back to their homes well-rounded, more understanding individuals. What we choose to remember is subjective. I felt more like a brash house guest who had just tromped across the living room carpet in muddy boots.
After having my photo taken and waving goodbye to Andy I headed south-west and downhill into the bush, which got thicker and thicker the further I walked. It didn’t take long for my dog Oats and I to find the river. We hiked upstream through the gnarled tangle of brush and eventually found a nice dry spot underneath two old spruce trees where I set up camp. I felt claustrophobic staring into the fire, like a small bubble had surrounded me – inflated by my possessions and presence – that could pop at any time.
The rain eventually subsided and the harsh edge painted by my mood had begun to dull. I could see raindrops sparkling on the leaves for diamonds rather than little balls of hypothermia.
Having lightened up considerably, both in weather and demeanor, it felt like the right time to find a spot to hang our food and have a bite to eat. I felt strange cooking the meat. Watching the blood rise up out of the top and fat ooze out onto the pan made me feel vulnerable, like when a cop parks beside you at a red light and glares through you with polarized lenses. I gave Oats half the steak, as I had lost my appetite. I threw the clothes I cooked in into the food bag, strung a line up a tree and hoisted it up for the night. We played fetch on the way back, boiled water for the morning and sat around the fire until dark. I smudged moss, leaves and pine needles in an attempt to keep the insect hoard at bay. We fell asleep.
I woke up. I could hear a crashing through the trees uphill about twenty feet from my tent. Oats went ballistic. There was a sound, like a mid-register whine—if it was mad or in pain, I didn’t know. I started yelling, the thing kept howling. I managed to find my headlamp and the bear bangers. I had to hit the dog fairly hard to keep him from bolting out of the tent after this thing. I zipped the door down and fired a banger straight out into the clearing. The thing kept grunting. I clutched the mace, and Oats, waiting for it to go away or attack me. In that moment I decided that if it didn’t respond to being hosed down with mace by running away, as advertised, I was going to have to try and kill it, whatever it was. Never before in my life had I truly felt like an animal. A few minutes later it sauntered off. I zipped the tent shut and went back to sleep.
I woke up the next morning figuring it had all been a bad dream. Getting out of the tent, I saw the banger shell and lighter on the ground. I shared a nervous laugh with myself. I felt more relaxed that morning than I had in the entirety of the first day. I lit a fire and laid in the sun with a book. Things were peachy.
Oats and I went for a walk down to where I had stashed the food the previous day. When we got to the clearing underneath the tree the food was hanging in, I noticed Oats had not followed me. He stayed back at the edge of the bush. I tried to call him but all he would do is whimper, jolting his eyes in every direction. I looked down at where we had cooked the steak and something had been digging in the ashes.
I looked up and Oats bolted back down the path towards camp. I followed him. I grabbed a few bear bangers from the tent and headed back to our food. Once we got there I yelled a few times but heard nothing. So I fired a banger off above the dense patch of young poplars, surrounding the clearing our food was hung in. I heard rustling head off in three different directions as soon the thing exploded. I didn’t go back there again that day as I assumed something may have been stalking us.
The rest of the day went well. We found an old dilapidated tree stand not far off from where we were camping, a rusted oil barrel and a few old two-sixes. Oats chased a deer that stumbled across our camp, which set him on patrol for the rest of the day. I watched a woodpecker attack the tree above me, and let the birds serenade me until dark. I felt numb, totally content in doing nothing at all. I thought a lot about my life and relationships, where I was headed in life and where I wanted to go. How strange it is that in our modern times, so many people withdraw from society, cloistered in their own little hovels, forlorn, in a world that grows more disconnected, yet more interwoven every day.
Ever since the trip I haven’t exactly been myself, which was jumpy and on-edge, worried and overwhelmed. I think I spat out whatever strange Kool-Aid I had been drinking and learned that unless I make things happen, nothing will. It was something I’ve known for a long time, but have never truly accepted. But after I got back home, I watched a few videos online and learned that our unwanted guest was a bear. Next time I would bring a gun.
I was only a few steps into the woods when I started to shrink. Rain fell through cracks in a lush green ceiling held up by trunks of monumental grandeur, and I was a wet rat scrambling underneath its cover. I ducked under branches and rushed through ferns, going deeper into the river valley where I could find a proper burrow for a rodent like myself.
I stopped for a while under a large fir while the rain intensified. Before the trip, I was concerned I would react poorly to bad weather. But I was responsible for my own enjoyment and my nerves would have to deal.
There were game trails that provided easy pathways through the forest and eventually led to a perfect camping spot. It was a mossy flat next to the creek, shaded by fir, spruce and birch. I had almost settled at a spot only a few dozen metres away that would have been pure disappointment by comparison.
I lit up a ceremonious cigarette and got to work.
The first thing I noticed about solo camping is that a lot less time is spent bumbling around. I was focused entirely on the tasks, which became a mental checklist:
- Find and clear camping spot
- Set up tent and sleeping gear
- Tie rain tarp
- Find a tree to hang food
- Filter water
- Collect dry firewood
- Have another ceremonious cigarette
As soon as I had a free moment to relax, there was something else I could do to alleviate my discomforts. Eat. Drink. Change into dry clothes. Fix the crap-job I did tying the tarp. The process was exhausting.
Hours passed quickly and the forest fell pitch-dark. I had spent most of the day in complete silence and for the first time it started to bother me. Several shots of rum later and the campfire still felt lonely.
What turned everything around was music. I was too lazy to play the guitar I had brought out, so I listened to Bowie's Scary Monsters on my phone, then made it halfway through Act I of Zappa's Joe's Garage before getting paranoid and going to bed.
The next morning, I woke up blind in my left eye. I did not remember getting poked and thought I must have slept funny. I worried about it a bit, then got back to work.
The day was balmy and slightly humid which brought insects in to play. I was about to leave on a hike when I heard a muffled bang echoing through the river valley. I smiled remembering that my friends were still out there somewhere, then cursed them for breaking the immersion.
I hiked nearly five kilometres through the bush, following upstream to a river fork I had marked on my map and back. I set my own relaxed pace for most of the journey. As the day went on, I became increasingly anxious with the distance I had travelled. My eyesight had not improved much and the thought of a serious emergency crept up on me with each turn in the river.
The forest had distinct sections like micro-biomes. Some flourished with plant life where the sun penetrated the forest canopy. Others were dark, mossy forests dominated by tall, thin spruce. These sections made me jumpy as I was fooled constantly by uprooted tree trunks that looked like black bears. But I didn't cross any wildlife worth remarking, which was actually quite disappointing once I returned safely to camp.
I reached for another smoke and pulled out the last one. I wasn't a regular smoker, but I must have been nervous the previous night. It was a crutch I could do without I thought.
The late afternoon stretched on for longer than the entire trip. I had lost all my energy on the hike, I had no mental strength to play guitar or read and there were no tasks left for me except to fiddle with twigs. I wanted to nap, but decided it would be worse to wake up at midnight and be unable to go back to sleep.
I reached for another smoke. "Oh, no."
Solo camping was not half as hard, scary or lonely as I thought it would be and was refreshingly quiet and relaxed. I enjoyed the freedom and control over my experience. Though, as I sat restless in a cloud of flies, imagining packs of John Player falling from the sky, I realized that in most situations the worst problems are the ones you've created for yourself.