People kept saying I was foolish and stupid and irresponsible to quit my job every spring to go roaming in a canoe…but come spring, I’d leave. I had no sense of rebellion. I just had to go canoeing.
Where others would choose Shakespeare or Winnie the Pooh, I quoted those words from famed canoeist Bill Mason in my high school yearbook.
As an earnestly outdoorsy teenager, my dream was to do a solo canoe trip. When I finally went, I realized I’d had no idea what it would be like. I hadn’t yet learned that’s how dreams are.
My chance came in 1989 when I was 17 years old. I had been preparing for years. At 15, I built a 13-foot solo cedarstrip canoe (see all solo canoes in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide). The day I turned 16 I applied for my driver’s licence. All winter I bored my parents with unsubtle hints about what I intended to do with the newly minted licence in my wallet. They finally agreed to loan me the family Oldsmobile three days after exams for a solo canoe trip in Algonquin Park.
I felt like a hero driving up Highway 11, the canoe firmly tied down, Neil Young, David Wilcox and The Cult blasting on the stereo. I had my own canoe, a car and three days of food and camping gear. I was free.
At the put-in, my fantasies were assaulted by a cloud of blackflies. The bugs made the first portage part backwoods blood donor clinic, part primal therapy. Going solo means there’s nobody to share the pain.
I picked up my pace and forged on. Spurred on by the flies and an increasing angst I had yet to notice, I blazed through the first day of my route in a matter of hours and reached my scheduled campsite by lunch.
My leisurely schedule worked well. Too well. It completely backfired
That’s where things started, imperceptibly, to unravel. I had imagined it would be hard to do all the camp chores myself. So I had planned a short route with more time than usual to do all the tasks that are normally shared among a group.
I had also allowed time for the quiet contemplation of nature’s majesty, since everybody knows that’s the great reward of solo tripping. Bill Mason likened the wilderness to a church, and I expected the solo experience to be a kind of rapture I would want to revel in.
My leisurely schedule worked well. Too well. It completely backfired, in fact. Eating lunch at my first campsite, I faced the challenge of what to do with the remaining 10 hours of daylight. Might as well continue paddling—just a little bit further.
Before long I arrived at the campsite I had planned for night two. This time I set up camp. I chose the site carefully—an island that was too small for bears—and set my tent right by the fire pit. I laid out my sleeping bag and my clothes. No, the clean underwear over here, next to the flashlight and the toilet paper, and a jackknife in the right tent pocket. That’s right. Then I unpacked my food and cooked some pasta, washed my dishes and put them away and hung up my food. I gathered a pile of firewood and looked at my watch.
It was only 4:30 p.m. and the sun was still high. It was one of the longest days of the year. Better make sure I’m ready for dark.
so I panicked. And then an impulsive, subconscious calculation told me what was clearly possible if I just kept moving
So I gathered more firewood and broke it into foot-long pieces. Then I stacked the pieces into piles sorted by diameter. Then I sat down and settled in for some of that quiet contemplation I’d been looking forward to. Ohmmm. Which is when I discovered that my skittish 17-year-old mind had no interest in quiet contemplation.
The wilderness was like a church all right. EXACTLY like a church, like a huge creepy vastness haunted by an otherworldly stillness. I might as well have locked myself up in an empty Notre Dame Cathedral with a “do not disturb” sign on the door. The thought of five more hours of ear-ringing nothingness, to be followed by more of the same in total darkness, felt to me like being slowly asphyxiated by silence.
I am going to die.
And so I panicked. And then an impulsive, subconscious calculation told me what was clearly possible if I just kept moving.
Within 20 minutes I had broken camp and was back on the water, now entering the territory of day three. Another portage, a few more klicks of paddling and I was back to the car. I threw my still clean gear into the trunk and tied the canoe down in a fly-addled frenzy, then sped away with the windows down to blast away the bugs.
By nightfall I was exiting the drive-thru, a Big Mac warm in my palm, and before midnight I pulled back into the driveway at home. My parents were asleep and I found my sister on the couch watching The Arsenio Hall Show.
Just act natural.
I walked in and sat down. When she asked me what I was doing there, I said, I finished my whole route. So I decided to come home.
Tim Shuff eventually slowed down and enjoyed a solo trip of 25 days, measured by time, not distance. This story originally appeared in the 2008 issue of Canoeroots. Recirc is a new column sharing some of our favorite stories from the first 20 years of Rapid, Canoeroots, and Adventure Kayak.