Can I survive in the woods alone? How tough am I actually?
I have wondered these things for a very long time, and decided to begin testing them with a super mini survivor-man trip. On a weekend off from work, I set out to spend a night in the woods alone.
I chose to head to the same area that my brother used for parts of his survival trips (in the Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island, BC). And so, I took a bus up to the farm where he spent his summer in Duncan. My plan was to head out on Saturday morning, and be back Sunday afternoon.
I wake up at 6am to help my brother harvest tomatoes for the farmers market. The sunrise is incredible! We are on a farm surrounded by mountains where the clouds play. The clouds…oh yes, clouds full of rain.
First, I put on four shirts and two pairs of pants. Next, comes my school backpack full of two books, my journal, one and a half water bottles, a small jam jar of pork jowls, rope, a light sleeping bag, and a hammock tent.
Since I do not yet own a hunting knife, I decide to bring a machete to help me set up my tent. Looking at the old farm bike that I am going to take, I think that it might be a good idea to hitchhike my way back. But who would pick me up if I was carrying a machete?
I got it!
Wrap the machete in my yoga mat!
Loaded up like a camel, I set out on the highway as the rain begins to fall. It takes me about an hour to reach the trail, another five till I stop for lunch, and an hour after that to find my camp spot.
At first the trail disappoints me.
It keeps breaking out into a clearing to cross a road, or to back onto a farmers field. I pass five or so joggers with their dogs, and hear the occasional truck roll by. Come on! I want wilderness!
But the trees are changing, and the trail is climbing. Each bend brings a new view and a new energy. After rounding one curve, I see a black shape at the trees just ahead. That’s a bear! Or I suppose I could claim it as Bigfoot since I saw it so briefly.
Having grown up in the Amazon rain forest, I did not think I would find familiar plants in Canada. But this truly is a jungle! The deeper I ride, the thicker it gets. That trail is a tunnel through a solid world of green. From a base of ferns rise columns of towering trees. They are covered in hairy moss so that they looked like frozen limbs of a giant monster lying on its back.
I pass over a high bridge and stop. My brother said that if I reached the bridge, than I had gone further than I should. Was this the bridge he meant? It doesn’t feel like I have been biking that long, and I still have plenty of energy to keep going. I decide to have some water while I deliberate. Hmm…water. Where has it gone? I have only half a water bottle left!
I decide to keep going anyway.
I am on the side of a mountain now, with either side of the trail steeply angled. My brother told me to camp at a river that will appear at the base of this mountain on the right hand side. This is what I am going for.
The air is thick with something. I feel fear, and dread. I am soaked and cold. Will it ever stop raining?
I round a corner to see the cause of all my fear. There, on the side of the trail, lies a great wound in the forest. A messy clear cut the size of a soccer field. Some trees hang half cut down, and others are fully cleaned but still left on the ground as though they are abundant. I can’t help but put down my bike and stand there.
It is hideous and sad. The stubble of stumps point to the now visible peak of this mountain in confusion. What must it be like for all in this forest to suddenly have an oddly geometric space cleared and taken away? Slowly I turn around to the towering trees behind me. Their anger is boiling. They are locked in place, staring at this empty spot every day. It must mock them.
I have contributed to this. I necessitate this. My hands are bloodied.
So I keep biking, feeling like Sauroman in the Fangorn Forest. Like the enemy among the soldiers. I begin to wonder about the animals in these woods. Cougars are what I dread most, and I know that they jump on you from behind. My neck shivers with goose bumps.
My brother told me that they attack if you look familiar – like an animal. This whole time I have been biking with my sandy coloured rain coat tied over top of my backpack. My hair is the same colour and my pants are forest green. Damn my nature inspired style! I look like a big fat deer!
I untie my coat and begin humming a song.
My spirits are lifted when I see the shining white of a rocky river on my right. Where should I stop to camp? Maybe I will climb down here? I keep going. What about this spot? I bike and turn around, then bike back again. Pacing in my indecision. Finally, I decide that I will climb down to the base, and try to walk along the river bank till I find a spot to camp. I leave my bike at the trail and stomp through the ferns to scope out my path. I have worn light canvas sneakers that are soaked, but give me the mobility of being bare foot.
It is amazing how spiders make their webs. They have endlessly filled up the space between each fern, and I apologize as I glide through them. I poke my machete into the tops of the soggy fallen logs to pivot myself when climbing over them. Suddenly I stop and grin.
I am deep in a jungle, soaking wet and filthy.
I stand unafraid in a mess of bugs with a machete in my hand. I have stood like this before. This is how I grew up. This is who I am! Suddenly I feel validated and fulfilled. I am the jungle kid. I am a wilderness girl. And I do my Brazilian citizenship proud.
Phew, I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that.
You can head back home now if you want Sarah. Mission accomplished. It is so cold and rainy, nobody would blame you!
But I keep going.
Spotting an animal trail that runs along side the river, I excitedly go back to carry my bike and backpack down with me. I climb along this trail with my bike in my arms for about an hour. It winds in sight of the river but never near enough for me to reach it. Then it curves back towards the trail. There is a waterfall on the opposite side of the trail that comes down under it and feeds into the river. My path treacherously climbs up the side of the cliff of the trail, over the water and down the other side into a flat area of trees. It is stunningly beautiful over there, that is where I want to camp.
To get there I must cross over the top of the water fall. The muddy trail drops off to the rocks on one side, and is not wide enough for both feet to fit at the same time. I slip and teeter with my bike on my shoulder, but I get across without much drama. Happily, I stroll into this flatter area, heading away from the trail towards that blessed river.
But I have crossed a boundary.
This place is an ancient place. These trees are old, and many lives have been buried here. This is a place of the dead. I would not be surprised to one day find my soul taken here to rest. When I first entered its boundaries the old trees quietly warned me of where I was. But as I persist, their voices get louder.
“You are too young for this place. This is sacred. You cannot be here!”
Walking quickly now I feel the essence of death. It is a thick seething fog. It stills the particles of air and keeps everything locked, suspended. Time and space are thick here, and I do not belong.
But, unbelievably, my bladder has decided that now is the perfect time to be emptied. Once I get to the river, I will pee and then get out of here. I push through the long grass, coming to the edge…AHH!
Staring back at me from a stagnant, green river are the faces of many fallen trees. Lying parallel and crossed like the ghosts in the dead marshes (I’ll try to stop the Lord of the Rings references).
I turn around and get out of their quick. It feels like I am being chased, and pulled in at the same time. My feet stop and I stand there in the rain with hopeless defeat. I could die here and nobody would be able to find me. I am so small. So fragile. Just a human, I don’t even reach the knees of these trees. I have lived 19 years, they have lived hundreds. My insignificance makes me want to lie down and sink into the moss of this floor. I will let this place take me.
But I keep going.
I go back to where I climbed over the waterfall. This is the highest point of the animal path – the closest I can get to the trail. I slip and fall as I climb up the side to reach the trail. The trail has cleared out a small opening to the sky, and I stand there, staring at the grey light. I wonder what time it is?
I will eat my food now and rest for a while. I sit staring at the waterfall that fed into the one that I just climbed over. It is beautiful.
I should go and fill up my water bottles from it, but the slopes between us look too treacherous. Instead I leave my water bottles open on the trail, trying to catch rain water.
After eating I head back to an earlier spot. I am going to climb down again and make my camp.
This climb is easier, since I am less careful now. I do not mind falling, so I make it to the bottom much more quickly. I come to a spot where there is a large green puddle making an island out a bit of land. This little island has the first young looking trees I have seen in a while. I’ll take it!
It is near the river but separated by another small bit of land, so that I can only reach the stagnant water, I decide not to fill up my water bottles.
Now, to set up my tent.
I realize that I don’t know how to tie knots. This is something I should learn! But I do know how to wing it.
After a short time, my tent is set up.
Now I want to nap.
I hang my wet clothes on the branches and pass out. Waking up to hunger.
My food is all gone and I haven’t had any water since the bridge a couple hours ago. I want to save the last of my water for the bike ride home. So I will distract myself with books. I read for a while about the energies of all things. And how you can see these energy fields.
The rain has stopped for a while, so I am going to sit by the river. When I put my feet down to get out of the tent, they crunch on small piles of skeletons. Yup. I have set my tent up on an animal’s dinner table. Looking over I see a rather large pile of poop. Looks like bears.
But I am too tired to set my tent anywhere else, so I take my yoga mat and go to sit by the river. This mat is the best thing I could have brought! It lets me lie in the grass while staying dry!
I feel a bit like I am on drugs because I am so hungry and dehydrated. It is actually quite fun.
I stare at the trees on either side of the river and feel the differences between them. I want to be a tree! I stand in the tree pose and meditate for a long time, imagining what it would be like to have roots and leaves. Then I stare at my hands trying to see if they radiate energy. I can see it! It looks like a mass of amazingly intricate patterns of teal and brilliant shining silver. I feel as though I have entered a new world.
My focus moves to the beautiful grasses all around me. The rain drops look like jewels. The grass is a beautiful woman who has gotten herself dressed up for this evening. Who are you dressed up for? But then I see the bees and the slugs, butterflies, and snails. There are so many! This is a very busy night life.
I am filled with love that comes out in tears. How lucky I am to be on this earth! With so many plants to get to know. To have feet to wander around on, and hands to feel the leaves. I am no longer mad at the rain, it just wanted to adorn these plants with jewels. It was just a reminder that it is natural to cry.
I realize now that there are many spiritual and mental advantages to fasting.
It is getting dark, so I pack up and go to my tent. I want to keep everything with me in the hammock, but this means that I will be sleeping with a machete at my side. I hope this is turns out okay.
Luckily, I can zip up the tarp around the tent, stopping me from being able to look outside at night and scare myself. Everything is wet still, and I am freezing. Through the night I take my socks off and put them under my arm pits for a while to warm them. I definitely needed to bring a thicker sleeping bag.
I wake up to the sounds of rustling outside. But I refuse to look. I know what nighttime does to my imagination, and I do not want to roll over nose to nose with a bear. So instead, I shake and dance in the hammock, scaring off whatever it was.
There is a howling like a wolf very close and very loud. Was that a wolf or an owl?
It is raining in the morning and I want to get out of here quick. I am so hungry and dehydrated. I can’t stop shaking. It takes me quite a while to take down my tent and pack up. Damn those knots!
Now to climb back up the mountain to get to the trail. I really don’t think I can make it. There is absolutely nothing left in my body to climb over all of these logs with my bike. Do I just give up?
Don’t look all the way up the hill to see how far you have to go Sarah. Look down at your feet. You only need to move a couple inches for this step. Then the next.
It is very slow climbing back up, and there is a big black shape in the trees ahead of me. Fine! Be a bear! Come at me, see if I care.
I make it to the trail and begin biking back. I really don’t know if I am going to make it. There are hours and hours of trail ahead of me, and one last big hill before I reach the farm and my brother. But the movement of my feet on the pedals is rhythmic and I just keep going.
I pass the clear cut with another apology. I am shocked at how I have changed since the last time I saw that tree and this corner of the trail. I reach the bridge again. Last time I went over it I was actually too scared to look over the edge. Now I am prancing around. Shaking like a crazy person, peering and leaning right over the edge. What can death possibly do to me?
I am feeling very reckless. I drink all of my water, not caring that I still have so far to go. Plus, if I don’t drink now I won’t even make it across the bridge!
I know that I am re-entering civilization when I reach a clearing made for a power line. This is the most wonderful news!
Where there are power lines and cleared ditches, there are…
With relief I scarf down many different berries. Which ones are poisonous again? I should have researched more.
I figure that if I eat a small amount of all types of berries then I will only have a small amount of poisonous ones – which can’t do me that much harm. Suddenly the trail is bursting with food – there are too many for me to eat!
I still need water, but my legs are shaking less now. I can bike faster.
The first face I see is that of a woman in her 50s walking with her great big dog. She has rubber boots on, and the exact same hair as me. Is this real? Or is this me in the future? Either way I smile at her, wondering what I must look like, and so very glad to be in the comforting company of people.
The rest of the bike ride is a blur. Somehow I have made it back. Here is the turn for the driveway, and there is my brother cooking lunch. Wow. What an experience!
While there are so many things that I will do differently next time, I am still proud of my first trip. I have strengthened my courage and willpower. I learned that animals are not as big of a threat as I first thought. I learned that I can bike 72km in a weekend. And that our bodies are incredible. I look forward to my next adventure.