Weight of the Wannigan
Or, the Fear of Wilderness
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
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.
someone could have a good time characterizing this trip as an exercise
in bourgeois idiocy. Not even nomads pack up their tents every sunrise
and paddle until sunset for no good reason. The Eabamet, the First Nation
tribe who lived in the area, took their joyrides in motorboats and they
looked on our struggling caravan as though we were the ghosts of their
ancestors. We carried a potato sack and caught pike (a hideous fish full
of bones and gnashing teeth that take down ducklings), but supplemented
our diet with a small stash of Snickers and apricot brandy. To clinch
the argument that this was a game for the idle rich, we each paid our
guide two thousand dollars to take us there.
But I don't think the trip was a form of easy entertainment. Some of us
may have been rich, and we were certainly idle, choosing to spend the
summer paddling ourselves into oblivion. But the experience wasn't contrived.
It wasn't a pre-packaged cruise or Disneyworld getaway intended to produce
sensations, memories, or even revelations. And our allowances for our
own happiness weren't unreasonable: I'm sure even Lewis and Clark had
a nip of brandy in their packs. We never strayed from the holy center,
the river in its supreme power. At the end of the day, we didn't return
to hotels; the river held us then, too. On portage, I learned to walk
bent over like a beast of burden, my head aligned with my spine, so the
cordlike muscles in my neck weren't crunched or snapped.
What was hardest about living on the river, it turned out, was not these
experiences. What was hardest, were all the things that stayed the same.
Sleeping arrangements were the first indication that social conventions
would follow us into the wilderness. I saw the guide spend several troubled
hours thinking of where to put his 13-year-old son who talked about nothing
but sex, the 17-year-old son of his close friend, the 21-year-old with
the odd glint in his eye, the 69-year-old professor who recently left
his wife, and the 50-year-old single woman. (I ended up with the professor,
a quantum mathematics genius from Germany who lived through the bombings
in World War II. He was amused that our guide referred to backpacks as
"haversacks," and he taught me a lively German folk song involving
haversacks, which is what you tie up your Marie inside when she won't
dance with you.) In another lesson about old-fashioned accountability
to each other, my partner in the canoe once asked me to pass him a wannigan,
and, not wanting to admit that it was too heavy, I wound up dropping it
on him and bruising his perfect thigh. I had to burn with that shame for
days as we paddled together. I had to burn with my discomfort of my own
body, too; I was sure that no one around me knew the lifelong embarrassment
I had of every inch of myself, the strength and the evil glow of that
self-hate. Tossing off a wristwatch doesn't change things like this. We
were all still procrastinators, avoiding sawing and chopping firewood
as long as the sun remained high. I was still introverted and bitten by
the writing bug, yet was faced with a wet, rotted notebook, and no allotment
of personal time unless I chose to give up sleep. We were all faced with
the question of unit cohesion: no relationship knits automatically, and
nothing but conscious effort turns a socially inept person into a team
player. We tried to be as honest with each other as we could. But it still
took a month for a young man to voice a simple existential question, as
the First Nation settlement Fort Hope crested on the horizon: "Wouldn't
this be so much more fun if we had a mission?"
Emptiness echoed. On the river, when you make a fool of yourself, there's
no ritzy sanctuary called "home" to retreat to at 5 p.m., no
place where nobody can laugh at you. There's no television, computer,
radio, or telephone to help clear your mind. There's no bed, no fridge,
no stove, no toilet paper, no books, no privacy.
Our so-called "civilized" toys are invented to help us cope
with our flaws, phobias, hang-ups, and desires. Our fears are submerged
in talk radio, soaked in the leading brand of bottled water, spritzed
with designer cologne, and run over by SUVs. Infinite consumer choice
provides infinite refuge from our problems. At night we worry which pillow
is softer so we don't have to worry about the real reason our heads hurt.
Despite my passion for the earth, the incomparable feeling of dependence
I get when surrounded by the elements, and the sense of freedom and wholeness
that comes from living closely to an ecosystem, I'd pause before going
on another long expedition. I remember how that first portage broke my
spirit, like a burnt pinecone bursting to let out the seed. I got better
at portage but I remained susceptible to those self-indulgent voices.
I got more comfortable with skinny dipping but I was always aware of how
bare it felt to have eagles look down upon the same body I spent my life
It isn't the weight of the wannigan that keeps us away from the river.
It's the weight of ourselves.
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