“You don’t have to go, you know,” said my husband as I was preparing for my first solo canoe trip in Killarney.
“I know,” I replied, “but I really want to.”
Good thing he didn’t ask why because I am not sure I would be able to explain.
In books and movies, protagonists usually set out on a solo trip because they find themselves at metaphorical crossroads and feel stuck/confused/lost hoping a solution will reveal itself during those solo nature pursuits.
That wasn’t my story. Apart from occasional detours, the road ahead looked clear if not always level or straight. Sure I was turning 40 but I wasn’t losing sleep over it. I made peace with getting older long time ago. Occasionally I would turn around and think, “Where did the time go?” But then I would look at my children, my husband, my friends, think of all the wonderful things I’ve seen and learned, great trips I’ve taken, and beautiful moments I’ve shared with the people I love and knew: that’s where.
Although, I should say, my 40th birthday did have a role to play in my decision. I felt this important milestone required something bigger and more special than the usual sunrise ritual. So a solo canoe trip it was.
And we are back to the question of why. There are certainly many other ways to have a special birthday celebration that don’t entail the discomforts and dangers of a backcountry trip.
I guess I wanted to challenge myself, see if I could do it all on my own. An introvert in me was also craving an experience that was mine alone, away from other people, fully immersed in nature, uninterrupted… I was curious to see what was under all those layers of my various roles and responsibilities and how I would feel stripped of all, or at least most, connections to my everyday life.
Was I scared? You bet. Till the last minute I couldn’t believe I was doing it. What ifs kept circling in my head. What if I run into a bear? What if the canoe capsizes and no one will be there to help? What if the wind picks up and I won’t be able to paddle back to shore on my own? But once I arrived at the campsite and relaxed into the usual camping rhythm, I felt reassured: I’ve got it, I’ve done it all before and paddling a solo canoe is not that different or hard after all. I thought I’d be afraid in the dark but by the time the sun dropped behind the horizon, my senses had already readjusted to the forest sounds and sights – I felt at home.
What I wasn’t expecting was that at first I would keep thinking back to the Killarney canoe trip we’d taken a couple of weeks ago. Or that it would take me most of day one to stop imagining what my family was doing back home and thinking how much they would enjoy this campsite. Was I selfish to want this experience all to myself? Those layers are sometimes hard to shed.
Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was an explosion of thoughts in my head, constantly buzzing, fighting for a spot at the front of the line. Were they always there and I just couldn’t hear them through all the distraction and noise?
There was one theme I kept circling back to – women travelling alone. A lot of people thought I was brave/foolish/mad or all of the above to venture into the woods on my own. I wanted it to be seen as normal. While the number of women adventurers has been growing lately, ‘wilderness’ is still perceived as a (usually white) man’s domain, especially when it comes to solo pursuits. (Just look at the twelve Woods explorers selected this year.) So my hope is that the more we see women travelling by themselves, the more safe and confident the rest of us will feel to undertake solo camping trips. Not because of despair or because we have no one to go with, but simply to spend some uninterrupted time in nature.
I know this story will not make a best-seller list or become an award-winning movie, but that was never the intention. I wanted to have a special birthday celebration and I certainly got it. I welcomed the morning of my fortieth birthday watching the yellow ball of the sun breaking through a shield of clouds, accompanied by a distant call of the loon.
I had a fancy do of oily and messy hair, an elegant manicure featuring black stripes under my broken nails and a unique perfume with overpowering notes of sweat and smoke. And I felt beautiful, strong and happy. If this is what forty feels like, then I’ll take it.
I am not the one to make long-reaching plans and wishes, but if I can still pull off a solo canoe trip forty years from now, that would be pretty awesome.
*Read the full trip report here.