Weight of the Wannigan
Or, the Fear of Wilderness
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
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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