Solo canoe tripping evokes noble images of earnest trippers reaching the height of outdoor purity. We can all picture it: mountains rise on the horizon, trees flood the foreground, and into this pristine wilderness paddles a lone canoeist across a lake so calm it resembles a sheet of glass.
There’s something to be said for this ideal. When you are alone you don’t scare away the wildlife with incessant chit chat (more on that later), so it’s easier to connect with nature (I love you Mr. Squirrel) and, yes, connect with yourself (Hello Ben, it’s me, Ben).
A closer inspection, one that includes psychological analyses of first-time solo trippers, exposes the solo canoe trip to be not the soothing emotional balm we think, but an inevitable step by stop process of slow mental unravelling.
STEP 1: BOLD STEPS INTO THE BEYOND
You paddle away from the put-in. You’re bold and you’re prepared. You’ve triple-checked everything but you still feel like you’re forgetting something. And you are, it’s your sanity. Self-doubt wraps its cold arms around you as you set off, thinking to yourself “What was I thinking? I like company. I like the whole safety-in-numbers thing.” But you remind yourself you are prepared. You shrug off that shroud of worry and paddle onward.
STEP 2: THE ILLUSION OF CONFIDENCE
Once you round the first point the trip begins to go swimmingly. This is when the solo paddler shines. You make great time because you’re never waiting for anyone. When you finish your portage you just get in your boat and go, when you’re tired of paddling you break, when you’re thirsty you drink. There’s no outward debate, at least not this early in the trip. But little by little you begin to question your purpose—and yourself. The possibility that you are tripping alone not because you wanted to, but because no on else wanted to come with you begins to bob around in the back of your head. Like a shadow unzip- ping your ego, doubt slips in.
STEP 3: THE UNRAVELLING
Its not until the noises of your paddle being pulled through the water, the splash of the bow against the waves and the wind blowing over your ears stops that you notice that it’s actually not quiet out there. Not in your head, at least. Your thoughts echo uncomfortably against the quiet of the woods. You need to break the deafening silence, so you say something out loud, some- thing like “Where do I want to put my tent?” No one answers, but feeling more alone than ever you wish someone would. So you keep talking.
STEP 4: DARKNESS FALLS
Nervously, you busy yourself with tasks to distract yourself from yourself. You pitch the tent, make dinner, clean dishes. With nothing left to do you settle on a rock overlooking the sun setting across the lake. You feel you are finally flirting with the solo tripping ideal. But that gorgeous sunset segues into night—the crucible of the solo trip. You crawl into the tent quickly, before it gets dark, well before it gets dark. You’ve emptied your bladder, several times, because no ones wants to wander in the woods at night to take a leak—that’s when they’ll getcha! And then the blackness creeps in. Sounds are amplified. Something crunches nearby your tent, you click on your flashlight, spastically waving it back and forth through the mesh door searching for that bear you just know is out there. Seeing nothing you crawl deeper into your sleep- ing bag and wish there was someone snoring like a chainsaw beside you. With eyes wide open staring into darkness, you begin to pray for the first time in a long while.
STEP 5: DEFENSE MECHANISMS
As you become familiar with this pattern over the first few days you begin to master the techniques of solo travel sanity: bringing the axe with you into the tent to sleep, the art of peeing in your canoe cup at night so you don’t have to leave the tent. You’ve learned that if you are going to ask yourself a question out loud you’d better have an answer so you don’t appear dumb. Sometimes you give yourself an accent to make your compulsive conversations seem like a joke. I prefer British ones (‘Ello Ben. Fancy a cuppa?).
STEP 6: FALSE SECURITY
But of course, when you spot the take-out, the fear that has been pecking at you flies off to find another lost soul looking for some peace in the wilderness. You feel cleansed, empowered. You feel like you have overcome a great obstacle. You are sure people will respect you more as a tripper. In fact, they probably want to trip with you now.
You make a mental note to ask them earlier next season.
Ben Aylsworth is unsure if he travels solo because no one likes him (except bugs, bugs love him) or because he’s mad about the empowerment, freedom and strength it brings him.
This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2007 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.