I recently went camping by myself for the first time, up in the North Woods of Minnesota, along the U.S.- Canadian border. This is a densely forested land that harbors many creatures, some of which are familiar to me and some that are not. Black bears, for instance, are no stranger to me. I have faced them down several times in the Great Smoky Mountains and have even lived with them as neighbors in central Florida. Wolves, on the other hand, are predators I am wholly inadequate to appreciate. I love the mystic around them and I’m thrilled that they are thriving here in the northern wilds, but what would I do if I came face-to-face with one? How about a cougar or lynx, ready to silently pounce upon an unsuspecting hiker? Then, of course, there’s always the Wendigo of Native mythology, whose territory I was now an intruder on.
With all that fueling one’s imagination, it’s hard to heed the rationale that the chances of you encountering any one of those animals is next-to-none. Yet, when you’re sitting there alone and the day gives way to an all-consuming night, you find yourself stoking the fire for as much protection as warmth. You tell yourself that it’s’ OK because I’m not truly alone, there are other campers in the immediate vicinity. You can hear their dogs barking and generators growling. Surely this would be enough to scare any wandering bear? But then a sound in the bush! You seize up and clasp you walking stick! You ignite the embers into an inferno! Grounded, you prepare to defend yourself against the attacker and then… a harmless deer emerges from the trees. You sigh with relief and laugh at your paranoia, but then think – why weren’t the dogs and generators enough to scare this creature from camp?
This paranoia can intensify even more when you’re out of the relative safety of camp. Alone, I picked up a couple of short hiking trails in Voyageurs National Park. Right off the road, they offered a quick detour from the pavement. Soon, however, I was back to thinking about how I’m alone on the trail. What if I turned a corner only to come face-to-face with a hapless black bear or sensed a cougar stalking me from behind? I grabbed the biggest walking stick I could find and was able to reason that at least the wolves would leave me alone. If they’re anything like my dog, they’re just sleeping all day. Then I made a noise – perhaps this would ward off any predator. I howled a low, bass-like sound with a couple of high yelps at the end. There, that oughta do it. A minute later as I turned a corner I ran into…. Another hiker! We both jumped and he asked – pleaded – if I was the origin of those bestial sounds. I said, yes, and he nervously laughed his embarrassment off. Clearly he had been just as spooked walking alone in the forest. I also laughed and realized that I wasn’t alone in my fear.
That second night as darkness fell, I felt weirdly more calm about my situation. No, my fear did not abate completely, but I simply accepted the fact that it wouldn’t. Running into my fellow outdoors-men made me understand that the fear of being alone, the unknown, of the dark, of predators is a primitive human feeling. I thought of my personal hero, Theodore Roosevelt and all his times alone in the wild. Surely, even he with his macho-persona, felt a deep-rooted fear at some point in all his nights on the range, or in the jungles. Now, like with anything, more experience and exposure will certainly lessen these feelings of anxiety, but I can’t expect them to disappear forever. I suppose the best I can hope for is to turn that fear into something useful such as preparedness and common sense. To have a healthy respect for the dangers of woods, but to not let the thought of those dangers inhibit me from enjoying the beautiful natural world.