FRESH YARN presents:

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.

Undoubtedly 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 cursing.

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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