Is Time in the Wilderness Dangerous?

“Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”
—- German Proverb

A few years back, on the way to speak at a local library on the joys of wilderness canoe tripping, I witnessed a terrible accident along the highway. Some young kid zipped past an older couple, who then slammed on the brakes, causing a chain-reaction of smashed-up cars. I stopped to help out and began immediately administering first-aid to the older couple until paramedics arrived. The passenger had serious cuts to her face and arms from broken glass and her husband, the driver, was pinned behind the steering wheel. He later died in the hospital.

I continued on to the library presentation, putting on a jacket to cover up my blood-stained shirt. You’d think I’d want to reschedule the talk. I was pretty shaken up about the highway incident. But I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic to go on stage and share my stories of paddling in far remote places. It was as if I was using memories of past canoe excursions to rid my thoughts of what had just happened on the way to the show.

Just as I was wrapping up the talk, a woman in the back row put up her hand and asked a simple question “Isn’t it dangerous out there?” My answer was just as simple. “No, definitely not! The perception of a wilderness trip being dangerous may be real, but in fact, it’s our civilized world, like driving on a highway, that’s truly dangerous.”

On the way home that night I thought about a particular trip that highlighted what I had said to the woman’s question at the show. It was at the end a lengthy and very remote river trip. Our bush pilot who was scheduled to pick us up that day was arrested for being involved in a pornography scandal…I definitely didn’t see that one coming.

Now, our crew was stuck waiting patiently for another pick-up, which we were told could be two or three more days. Our remaining food supply consisted of half-a-bag of GORP, a package of instant potatoes, a dozen prunes, and, quite possibly, a tame rabbit who was naively hanging around our camp looking for companionship. We had limited battery supply for our satellite phone because one of our members insisted on calling his wife twice a day throughout the trip, with most of the conversations ending in heated marital discussions; another member was sick from major dehydration; and we were informed by the air service that both our shuttle vehicles we left waiting for us, parked at the end of an 80-kilometer dirt road, were vandalized (flat tires) by some locals who had a dislike for canoeists abusing their secret fishing grounds.

It definitely wasn’t a good day, and it definitely wasn’t a good week. We were paddling upstream the entire trip, on a route that was more than just a little confusing. Portages were over-grown and water levels were low enough that we left a trail of canoe paint on the river bed just as Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs through the Black forest. The trip was remote and the only way out was to paddle six more days or wait for another plane to arrive; hopefully flown by a law-abiding Baptist minister with anti-porn believes.

What’s so interesting about that incident is that for all the time I spent traveling the bush, I worry far more over the dangers of driving to the boat launch than I do about the marauding bears, violent storms, or becoming hopelessly lost. It’s our “civilized” world that’s far more dangerous than wild areas.

Heck, I say bring on the bears, the storms, the confusion of my whereabouts in the wilds. I’d rather deal with these exaggerated dangers then perverted bush pilots, local vandals and deadly highways, any day.

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