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The Weight of the Wannigan
Or, the Fear of Wilderness

By Tucker Lieberman

The river is not for everyone. But it was too late to turn back when this first occurred to me. I had fantasized my whole life about living in the wilderness, and when I saw a 45-day canoe expedition in northern Canada advertised on a bulletin board on my college campus, I decided instantly that I was going. I didn't research or ask questions. My parents drove me from Boston to Toronto to North Bay, leaving me with the guide and the other trippers, from where the group departed in a two-car caravan to towns of decreasing size: Temagami, Missinabi, Nakina. We then boarded a train, disembarked at some remote outpost, and paid a local to drive us, and our canoes, through the woods to a lake. Once we got on the Albany River, over 500 miles north of Toronto, there were no towns at all, and soon we were dozens of miles from any road. We planned to journey so far out that we arranged for a bush plane to rescue us a month later.

We were already on the river when my guide began to warn us of the coming portage, which meant we would be carrying the boats, tents, backpacks, and supplies along the side of the river. I thought he was joking. I smiled so that my partner -- a competitive swimmer on the high school boys' team in Florida who had done this trip twice before and would be staring at the back of my head for the next month as he paddled steer -- would think that I was in on the joke. As it turns out, portage is real, an inevitability when the river becomes too shallow, steep, or rough, unless one prefers to go over a waterfall. So, on the first day of our trip, I found myself saddled with a "wannigan," a cumbersome wooden box of supplies half my own weight, placed on my upper back and secured with a thick leather strap around my forehead. Balance as well as strength was required; a slight shift in the weight and I'd go tumbling headfirst.

I could have known more about canoeing and wilderness before I showed up. But even if I'd had a basic understanding of the elements of a canoe expedition, it wouldn't have helped me prepare for the weight of that wannigan.

Even for someone who desperately wants to make this kind of trip, there are personal battles. The only exercise my neck had ever gotten was bending over library books at a carrel. On that first portage, in ferocious physical pain and certain I would not last the week, I dropped the wannigan and backpack twice and leaned against a tree, hating myself. The elderly German professor in our group soldiered on by with a boat on his head.

Most people tell me they wouldn't attempt this kind of a trip because they couldn't separate themselves from the comforts of civilization. Certainly many things were different when I was living on the river. We left behind our wristwatches because there was no need for our days to be timed by anything but the sun. Shedding our watches was the sacred moment by which the guide determined that we were officially "on trip," an ontological status like being "on duty" or "on drugs." On trip, we rationed food: the daily piece of bannock, corn bread made in the reflector oven, could be traded for extra meal portions. When thirsty, we dipped our cups over the side of the boat, unless we'd recently passed a beaver dam. No one wore underwear, which stays damp and gives diaper rash. Although I'd never before been naked in front of anyone in my adult life, I stripped every day to swim. I felt nature's love for me through the touch of sun and water, though both elements were usually bent on killing me. Common sense became more important than test scores, inverting the academic value system I'd worked for all my life. All that mattered on trip was keeping bugs out of the tent and building good fires. I fell asleep to loons shrieking at dusk in orchestral hysteria, their voices angelic and raw.

We passed other human beings on the average of once a week. In this corridor of the continent that was still unsaturated by the information age, seeing another person was headline news. The passerby and we would stare, transfixed, as we floated separate ways, like dogs alerting to each other's presence. "Is that strange creature like us?" our body language said. "Do I look like him?" It was then that we realized what we had become. We had begun to forget humans. The river had domesticated us for its own purposes.

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