What’s the point of spending a week in the woods? Put simply, it’s something worth doing, it makes us feel alive, and it taps into our inner humanity that is covered over by the grime of frontcountry comfort. But behind that sentence, a thousand thoughts may come to mind or, perhaps, one could be left more confused: after all, in what addled mind does waking from a dream of a cozy bed into a frigid night in a frozen sleeping bag, a thousand miles from nowhere, sound “worth doing”? Let’s look at a handful of backcountry benefits, and if you’re not convinced to join us, or send your sons, on one of our multi-day trips after reading, at least swing on by the firepit sometime with a well-chosen libation, and we can sit under the stars and talk it out.
Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Several layers deep in a dream state many miles from any semblance of suburbs, thunder rippled through the air and a soft rain fell on distant leaves. A voice on the wind called my name but I could not tell from where as I pulled my cozy rain gear tighter around myself, small drips of water somehow finding their way onto my face. A rhythmic thwack on my arm began, delivered from some unknown force, and I could still hear my name being spoken in a groggy, repetitive fashion, and then a muffled, garbled “where’s the rain cover?” I mumbled back and burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag. Not my problem. Suddenly a vigorous shaking ensued, as if the storm of my dream had escalated quickly, buffeting me inside my sack, and I rolled over and looked up and clambered out of my dream to find that it had become a reality. It was two-thirty in the morning, lightning flashed overhead briefly detailing the lakeshore which we nested upon, rain was pelting our nylon tent, and for some reason, the rain-fly was missing from the equation.
That was hardly the most uncomfortable sleep that I have experienced, and as a result, we laughed as we scrambled to find our rainfly and secure it onto our tent. Being uncomfortable enhances our ability to become more uncomfortable, a talent which cannot be underestimated in a fallen world in which, as parents and educators, we are called to prepare our young charges to wage battle en la calle.
Living in the present
It is so easy to dwell in the past or dream of the future. It is very difficult to truly live in the present. Life in the backcountry, however, forces us to live very much in the present.
Surrounded, at times, by dangers of all shapes and sizes, one has no choice but to simply take on the task at hand. Take running a river by raft or kayak: oftentimes, rapids will be stacked on top of each other, or a large hydraulic will be followed by a standing wave. In such cases, the past is thoroughly irrelevant, save the knowledge gained from scouting the run or running that rapid before. The future is a small thought: How am I going to adjust after hitting the glassy tongue to then square up the wave? But the present is a necessity: If I don’t tee up this water feature, nothing else matters.
That is perhaps more extreme, but throttle it back to a canoe trip, and the present still reigns supreme. Last night’s campsite is a pleasant memory, tonight’s isn’t even a thought– when is lunch, anyway?— all there is to do is paddle, portage, swim, talk, think, look, listen, and live.
An old friend likes to tell a true story of a day-hike with an atheist companion in which the two men arrived at an overlook at sundown and beheld the valley below, the sky a range of vibrant colors, and the atheist let out a sigh, shook his head, and said, “Man! Isn’t evolution spectacular?!”
On the flipside, on a backpacking trip in the Teton Wilderness in northwestern Wyoming, we were lucky enough to have a priest with us who offered daily Mass, and one afternoon, with a small travel-sized monstrance, there was Adoration. With a collection of stones and backpacks, we made an altar, and we collected wildflowers and made bouquets to place atop the altar cloth at the monstrance’s feet. It was a sunny day, late afternoon, on a little rocky outcropping, mountains all around. And there He was, resting in a cathedral of His own design. It was interesting to see how fast the little wildflowers wilted after being picked, how reliant they are on their soil, no matter how rocky. The next night, we arose at two in the morning to hike under the stars and watch night turn into morning, morning into day, the sun shading the western peaks a pale pink.
Of course, while the backcountry shocks us into contemplation, we can achieve this in small doses in the frontcountry too. On rainy afternoons, my fourth graders and I embark on “contemplative rain walks,” in which we walk across campus, through the woods and across fields, silently, with no other intention but to be.
Fostering True Humility
It would be too easy to comment on another sunrise or sunset, the exhilarating waterfalls and waves, or the many rivers and roads that I’ve traversed. But rather than the grand showing how small we are, let us instead look at the tiny to see how loved we are: mosquitoes, those most infernal of beasts.
In northern Minnesota last summer, on a school trip with middle school students, every evening shortly before last light, hordes of mosquitoes would appear in thick clouds, so many that not only was their persistent whine a constant presence in our ears, but there was also a distant drone from the millions of little creatures sharing the woods with us. My friend and co-conspirator pointed out that in His infinite awareness, God is cognizant of the comings and goings of each and every bloodsucker. Imagine: if He can grant such attention to each of those nuisances and recognize each individual whine amidst the cacophonous drone, then the love He has for each individual human soul is staggering.
Loosen the Reins
Control. We all want it; many of us need it. The tricky part of it all is learning how and when to tighten the reins or loosen them. And some of us, even after we’ve learned, need regular reminders.
I remember one time being faced with the challenge of completing a mile-long segment of trail known as the “Knife’s Edge” on Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, with a full-grown man who was afraid of heights. It’s a stunning spot, perhaps the best day hike on the East Coast, and we had delightful late-May weather. For five hours, I coaxed him along, butt-scootch by butt-scootch, as he was too afraid to stand. I played the nice guy, the mean guy, the coach, the parent, the friend. Nothing changed his speed, not even the prospect of a cold beer at the day’s end. At first, I was all tied up in knots, filled with frustration, but the more I loosened control, the more peace was restored. By the time he asked, without a hint of irony, if it would be possible to call in a helicopter because it was getting dark, all I could do was laugh. We finished the trail by headlamp — many hours after the rest of the group. And when we got back to camp, sitting around the fire, a cold beer in his hand, he told his story as the conquering hero, the man who had defeated the mountain.
Chasing the impossible — controlling everything — is a hopeless task defined by hubris. Movement requires acceptance. Acceptance, not acquiescence. Loosen the reins, but don’t let go.
Adapt, Improvise, & Overcome
On a river trip one time, we came up with the hairbrained plan to paddle by moonlight, forgetting that the moon moves and the canyon walls were steep. Soon enough we were traveling in the cold darkness, our arms tired, our fingers freezing, bumping into things we could not see. The plan was to stop for a hot breakfast once the sun rose, but when it did, tall walls rose around us, and we were shrouded in shadows until around eight, six hours after shoving off, we mercifully paddled into her warm embrace. A compadre and I went ahead to scout for a suitable place to breakfast; but finding our map-planned spot wouldn’t do, we decided to convince the group to complete a short hike up to a saddle to see the horseshoe formed by the steady flow of the river. From our newfound vantage point, the wind ripping at our wet clothes, we saw a sandy spit down the river a ways that would not only be a superb breakfast spot (now turning into lunch) but also an excellent place to set up camp. It even looked like there was a suitable jumping rock. We were giddy at our find and, after kayaking the final quarter-mile, feasted, lounged around, swam, and played beach frisbee for hours under the crisp blue sky of a perfect day.
Countless times on the trail or the river, in the woods or on the seashore, little contradictions arise. Limited to what is carried in a pack and beholden to the fickle elements that swirl around, the only way out of a problem is to face it head-on and embrace it. Reliance on others is a must; the will to survive overrules the desire to settle.
Growing in Friendship
I could have used the story of my friend on Mt. Katahdin here, as shared struggles forge great bonds, but what comes to mind are the many boys, from lower school ones to college-age ones, whom I have seen transform upon entry into the woods. It often takes a couple days to really shed all of the grime and affectations that are picked up and glued on haphazardly along the paths of least resistance, but once they do fall away, it is amazing what appears: a joyful boy, a child at heart. And each extra day spent in the backcountry, the more idiosyncrasies begin to appear. The individuality of each boy blossoms, the leaders take on leadership roles, the cooks clamor to help, the handy ones rush to set up the tents, and still no one is interested in cleaning up… but they all lend a hand, some more clumsily than others. Songs, accents, and passionate conversations punctuate the air. And if there’s a disagreement, there are no rooms to hide in, no doors to shut, no space for passive-aggressiveness. Problems are dealt with, the parties move on, get over it. Every stranger met along the way is greeted, tips about what lies ahead are shared, extra bait handed over, best wishes offered aplenty. It’s no surprise that when many return to the frontcountry, they’d rather just turn back around to that simpler life of the woods.
N.B. This list cannot be considered comprehensive. It is merely an introduction to a conversation that one hopes will never end.There are still limitless lands to be explored, innumerable frontiers to be conquered, and as we continue to push the boundaries of possible with our boys and challenge them to drive beyond their perceived limitations while engaging in the beauty of our natural world, we will find that the benefits of the backcountry are, undoubtedly, bountiful.