Lessons From The Back Country

Elk Lake, 2016

Elk Lake, 2016

I am an optimist.

I live my life by a mantra coined in college,

"Onward, with confidence."

I generally see this as a good quality, although sometimes it lands me in situations I am ill-equipped for. Recently I was asked if I would like to hike 12km into a back-country hut, on snowshoes. I readily accepted the invitation, without worry that I had never walked on snowshoes before, had no concept of how far 12 mountain kilometers really is, and didn't have any of the gear required to spend 4 days in December back-country. I love hiking, so how could this be any different?! 

Over the next few weeks Neil and I purchased what we would need for the trip. To my benefit, Neil is not an optimist. Time and again, this is how we save each other. In this case he recognized long before I did that it would be hard for me to walk a full day uphill into the hut, carrying a heavy backpack. To minimize my pain and anguish he came up with a brilliant idea. He googled "Gear Sled" and discovered the wonders of the BACK-COUNTRY PULK. Being as handy as he is, the result was nearly flawless. He pulled all of our luggage behind him for the majority of the trip, and hauled everyone's garbage out at the end of our stay. 

We joked about his status as a professional amateur, but really, he's a hero. 

The walk in was hard. I went through highs and lows of, "Oh man this is so awesome!" and, "Dear lord get me out of here!" The climbs up were punishing, and the downhills were elating. At times I looked at Neil and said proudly, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done!" followed a couple hours later by, "I'd rather jump off that cliff than climb up this hill." As an optimist, it was my ability to completely ignore how far 12km really is that allowed me to push on. Each time we crested a hill I believed the cabin would be right there. Every time a climb got tough I convinced myself that the hut was probably just over that tree line. The last 2km, though, were a straight shot down. I could see the distance we needed to cover, with no sign of the cabin ahead. Although this was downhill, I would argue that it may have been the toughest part mentally because I could see how slow the progress was, and how much farther we still had to walk before we found the warmth of the cabin. When we finally arrived at the Elk Lake Hut and met up with our friends my adrenaline was pumping so high I couldn't even sit down. 

I had done it! I had walked over an entire mountain in the snow, on these snowshoes I had never used before in my life! I could do anything!

Then I crashed HARD. That night I drank wine, played games, and had fun... but in the back of my mind, I was DREADING the walk out in two days. I really wasn't sure I could do it again. 

On our second day I woke up to find my body was not nearly as sore as I would have expected. It was as if my body knew that I could not afford crippling soreness when I still had to survive the winter wilderness for a couple more days. It spared me so I could enjoy the rustic pleasures of bunk-bed style loft sleepers, day hikes to the neighboring lakes, and walks to the winter outhouse. It was during our day hike that Jen described this as "Type II fun." Her theory on fun is as follows: 

Type I: You enjoy it while it's happening, and you remember it fondly. It is awesome from beginning to end. 

Type II: It may be punishing, scary or hard at the time, but you remember it fondly. When you think back you realize how awesome it was. 

Type III: It is not fun at the time, and it is not fun when you remember it... but maybe for some reason you still think it's cool. 

Type IV: It's not fun at the time, or when you remember it, and it just wasn't fun. 

She told me I might not realize it right now, but tomorrow, or maybe on Saturday I will love it. She was right. The trip swayed between Type I and Type II fun for me. I only have one regret. I wish I had skipped the day hike on day 2 to stay at the cabin, sit by the fire and read my book... or maybe that I had gone out and found a place to sit and watch the snow fall with a cup of tea. In retrospect what I've learned is that I like to have quiet reflection time and I found that the group moved at a quick and steady pace the whole time. We were always cooking, eating, playing games, doing essential chores like filtering drinking water, washing dishes, etc... or we were out walking. Next time I will carve out some time to sit still and reflect by myself in my own little corner of the wilderness. For me, that is what nature brings me. Peace and Calm. There was a brief moment during our day hike when Neil went ahead to tell the group we were breaking off, and I was left completely alone. It was instantly my favourite part of this entire adventure. 

 I stood there and watched the snow fall, and was so stricken by the profound, bottomless silence that surrounded me.

We were lucky to be traveling with a lot of very experienced, and knowledgeable friends. Here are some lessons from the back-country, that I'm glad someone was there to teach me: 

1. When the creeks and rivers are frozen you can collect buckets of snow for drinking water. Once they melt you can purify them through a filtration system. Voila - delicious water! 

2. Always close the lid and door on the outhouse, which should have a latch for the outside too. You don't want to find the wildlife in the toilet... 

3. If there is a styrofoam toilet seat in the outhouse - just use it. It's a lot better than freezing your tush off! 

4. Don't leave the TP in the outhouse. It gets all moist and weird from the cold air. 

5. Always bring a headlamp. You need this for trips to the outhouse at night, sledding in the dark, and reading in the cabin. The oil lanterns on the wall are not very bright, so you need to bring your own electricity. 

6. Invest in Hut Booties. They are the best thing ever - a super warm slipper that is waterproof and grippy on the bottom. They pack small and they can be worn in and out of the cabin without having to lace up your winter boots over and over.

7. The options for packable food are endless! Here are some great ideas that we will use again. Pre-mixed cookie dough in zip-lock bags allows you to bake fresh cookies! Ichiban noodles are nice and light. We made breakfast burritos and wrapped them in tin foil. Perfect for reheating over the wood fire. Pre-made pita pizzas are also light and easy to reheat. Popcorn kernels! Easy to pack, and delicious fresh-popped and tossed in salt and pepper. We also drank lots of hot apple cider with rum. That was probably my favourite thing. 

Despite my fear at the onset, the trip out on Friday was a lot more enjoyable for me than the trip in had been, probably because I had done it before and I had clear expectations. The first 5km of the trip out was straight uphill. This was hard. We were the first to leave, and at least 7 inches of snow had fallen over our tracks since the day we hiked in, so we were cutting a new path. It was extra hard for Neil with all the weight in the pulk that he was hauling. I carried my backpack for the first section because I wanted to get some weight out of the sled for him, but he told me I was faster without it and he'd rather just take it for me. Eventually I got the ultimatum that I had until the next hill to give up my backpack. I graciously gave in. On the hike out I decided to take pictures of some of the difficult parts, because I wanted to remember them too. In the picture below you can see the white snowey path laid out behind me (under the power lines), the bottom of the mountain where we started and a clear path up to where we had arrived. I remember when I looked behind me here I couldn't believe how far away the beginning of that white strip was, and although I felt like I could collapse I decided to take a photo instead. 

The final 5km of the hike home was perfect.

I honestly don't think I've ever felt so great in my life. The pace was steady, the terrain was pretty level, and all the hardest parts were behind us. I knew the car was there waiting in the parking lot, and a hot bath was just a few hours away! The last hill went by like a downhill ski, exhilarating, refreshing, and fast! I could have kissed Neil a thousand times over - this was the craziest thing we'd done, and we had now accomplished it together. 

On the way home we stopped with Jen at the Boston Pizza in Cochrane and then arrived back in Edmonton by 10:00 that night. We still made time for a hot salt bath before bed, just to make sure our muscles could mend. 

At 7:30 the next morning disaster struck. I woke up with the worst stomach flu I've had in years. I have a stomach of iron, but on this rare occasion... I actually threw up... again and again and again. As a result, I had to cancel all my plans and spend new years 2017 asleep. I can't say if I got sick because of some kind of food poisoning, an actual flu bug, over exertion, dehydration, or some other cause. All I know is next time we go on an adventure like this I am booking more recovery time afterward. The optimist in me had me scheduled back to work the very next morning. Thanks to my incredible colleagues they covered my shifts without worry and I've almost made a full recovery. 

Even after the flu, this week was still fun. Type I fun, and Type II fun. I can't think of a better way to start the year than by proving to myself that I can do something I've never done before. I know there are many people that hike a great deal farther, climb higher, push harder, and exercise daily the willpower and discipline it takes to not lay down in a snowbank and die because you think you can't go on. I am not one of those people. I am just an ordinary girl who likes to look at nature and admire its beauty.

But I made a commitment last year to interact with nature in a new way; to accept the challenges it has to offer, to not only admire what is lovely about it, but also to take part in what is wild about it. 

I can say that this trip was the perfect gratification of that commitment, and the beginning of a new relationship with the wilderness. This adventure gave me more than just a pretty picture. It gave me a new confidence in what I can push through, and a different understanding of how I fit into the picture. One of my favourite scientists, David Schindler, says he is, "sick of hearing people talk about being surrounded by nature, or out enjoying nature... like we are something separate from it. We are not separate from nature, we are a PART OF nature. We are nature." I have rarely felt more a part of nature than I did on Friday, breaking a path in the fresh fallen snow, sharing a road with a towering bull moose lounging at the edge of the tree line, experiencing the nature of one's own bodily limitations, and realizing the relationship between food and fuel by noticing those spikes and dips in the energy available to push on.

I may have been ill-equipped for what this trip had to offer, but I am grateful I had the confidence to do it anyways! I'm sure some people would think I'm dramatic when I say the only way to survive out there is to keep moving forward, but that was really how I felt. In my day to day life when something gets too hard I can usually take a break. I can stop to rearrange my priorities, and come back to my biggest challenge with a clear head. Out there you can't. If you give in to the desire to sit in a snowbank and pout you'll just get cold and waste precious time. You'll spend more time out in the elements, and could put yourself at risk. You need to push on. So there it is, that's my principle lesson from 2016. Confidence can get you into the game, but only stamina can bring you through to the finish line. 

Elk Lake Crew Dec 28-30, 2016

Elk Lake Crew Dec 28-30, 2016