According to some people we’ve talked to, the main thing that stops people from canoeing the river is fear. Fear of quitting a job, fear of losing income, fear of the river. What I haven’t heard anyone talk about is fear while you’re doing it.
I’m actually afraid of sleeping outside in a tent. Not so much now but earlier, definitely. Like, really afraid. From when I was a kid through college age I saw the woods as a safe, fun place. Then somewhere around the second bear and third rattlesnake encounter (I know, right?) things started to feel different. The woods started to feel like a threatening place.
It got pretty intense. At the peak of this phobia I could barely sleep in a tent. As the sun would set I’d feel this anxiety set in that would get so intense it felt like a cloud of static was slowly rising around me, muffling Dave or friends talking, the campfire, everything except for the sounds of things moving in the woods. Until it slowly faded away at dawn.
Not what you want! Especially when you’re planning a 3 month mostly-camping trip! I tried to kick it — and really thought I had — over the year leading up to this trip by camping a lot with a lot of friends, in a lot of different places and in places that felt safer (read: less bear-riddled) until I was feeling almost no fear at all.
Until the first night of this trip. The first few days of this whole adventure weren’t confidence builders. Three miles of bruising, racing rapids and losing the river completely in a mile-wide marsh the first day ensured I spent our first 17 miles in a state of near-panic. Which one would hope would dissolve when we got to the campsite in one piece. It didn’t. I jerked awake at every leaf moving and every twig snapping. And having two different groups of partiers wander down hoping to drink at the site reminded me our location was very, very accessible to anyone in the area who wanted to pay us a visit, good intentions or bad.
So for the first few days I was chronically sleep-deprived and became perpetually anxious, night and day. Any confidence I had that we’d make it to New Orleans, or even through the state of Minnesota, was completely shattered. Every upcoming challenge on the water felt insurmountable. The six mile bog on day 2? I was sure we’d lose our way. The 2 miles of open water we crossed on Cass Lake on day 3? I was sure the waves would kick up and we’d flip. Storms with high winds in the forecast? The trees around the tent look like they could topple any second, don’t they?? And it didn’t help that we accidentally swamped our canoe on day 3 and that I got tendinitis on day 5.
I essentially spent the first week of the trip vacillating between mid-level anxiety and abject terror. Anxiety about the trip in general and terror of serial killers and gang rapists and bears, specifically. Oh my.
I should point out here that Dave hasn’t shared these fears. Dave has been the MVP of this trip. Not only does he do all the paddling, he put up with all this Debbie Downer bullshit from me for the first leg of the trip. As well as the false alarms about bears outside the tent. Which can’t have been easy or particularly fun, I imagine.
Another thing about fear, though, is that it can fade as well as build. If you just keep sleeping outside every day, your subconscious will begin to notice that you keep not dying. At first this seemed like a miracle every day, then it started to feel normal.
Another big thing that helped shift my state of mind was meeting other thru-paddlers, who as a rule are unflappable. There couldn’t have been anything better for my state of mind day 4 than when a cheerful Matt and Taylor showed up at our campsite and were utterly baffled by all my fears and negativity.
Enough of our brains are outside our control that there’s only so much you can control your own fear. There are real physical dangers on this trip, aside from the already anxiety-inducing fact that you’ve quit your job to do something insane for three months. The conservation that night with Matt and Taylor turned to this topic. Tows, thoughtless boaters, cottonmouths, black widows, tornadoes — as I think Matt said at the time, “It’s best not to think of all the things that can kill you.” Which you can do, to a degree. But at a certain point you have to just keep sticking it out until the fear fades on its own. Until that part of your brain that suggests “You know, we are awfully close to the Illinois State Pen, and wouldn’t an escaped prisoner run right towards the river??” actually listens when you say “Shut up, I’m going to sleep.” Progress!
This was one of the hardest parts of the trip. At first I felt like the trip wasn’t what I thought it would be. More accurately, though, I’ve realized I wasn’t what I thought I would be. Sometimes you plan an adventure expecting to feel tough and strong and brave and instead you feel weak, tendinitis’d and wanting your mom for the first two weeks. And disappointed in yourself. I thought I would feel cooler, basically, than I did.
So patience has been the hardest lesson of the trip. Not only patience with water levels and weather, but patience with myself, physically and emotionally. “When will I stop being afraid?” was the wrong question. You just keep going, is the answer. And try to chill the fuck out. There is no guarantee the fear will never come back but if you don’t quit eventually you’ll get closer to being the person you wanted to be.