Thoreau-Wabanaki Festival: A Guide to Solo Wilderness Travel (July 21, 2023)

The Thoreau-Wabanaki Festival is an annual gathering in Greenville, at the southern tip of Moosehead Lake, the gateway to Maine’s North Woods. The festival celebrates the lifeways of the Wabanaki, the people indigenous to the land now known as Maine. It commemorates Henry David Thoreau’s three journeys in the Maine Woods, two of which began in Greenville, led by Penobscot guides Joe Aitteon and Joe Polis.

This year’s festival concluded with a panel on solo wilderness travel. I shared my own experiences, along with traditional canoe and snowshoe guide Alexandra Conover Bennett and outdoor journalist Aislinn Sarnacki. I greatly enjoyed Alexandra’s and Aislinn’s presentations, and the lively discussion that followed, as we responded to questions from the audience.

I wish there were a video of the evening that I could post, but it was not recorded. Below is my personal presentation:

My home on First Roach Pond, January 2022. Photo by Eddie O’Leary.

This is a photo of my home, an off-the-grid cabin on the shore of First Roach Pond. I’ve spent two full winters there alone, miles from my nearest neighbor. I snowshoe in and out from the nearest plowed road, pulling supplies on a sled by means of a harness I buckle around my waist. It’s a distance of three to four and a half miles over land, about two and a third miles when the ice is solid enough to walk on. I split firewood for heat and haul my water in buckets from an outdoor hand pump. I use propane for lights and cooking and an outhouse in place of an indoor toilet.

No one who knew me in my early youth would have predicted I would choose to live in such a rugged way. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, then moved to Boston for college and grad school. My family was definitely not outdoorsy. I was a science nerd, preparing for a career in medical research. I spent most of my time studying indoors. My level of physical fitness was far less than ideal.

And yet, wild nature intrigued me. I wanted to get out and explore, but I wasn’t sure how to get started. In my early twenties, during breaks from my medical studies, I ventured into car camping. On one of these jaunts, my mother and I traveled to her childhood home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an area that has a lot in common with northern Maine. And one night, while car camping in a state park, I had an experience that changed the course of my life. I write about it in the prologue to my next book, and I’d like to read it to you now. The title is:

To Be Swallowed

Thirty-seven years ago, I stood on the shore of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, on a moonless night. Behind me rose the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, cloaked in virgin forest. Before me, water stretched to the northern horizon, black and silent. It seemed that I stood alone at the edge of the world. I felt a sudden sense of fear; I knew that the small candle-flicker of my identity could not prevail against the endless emptiness surrounding me. I felt the night flooding into my soul, dissolving all that I was. And then, unexpectedly, I became the night. I was the lake: deep, dark, cold, unknowable. My body extended down into the hard rough rocks beneath me. My mind was as vast as the wilderness around me, and as quiet. In losing myself, I found a more expansive identity.

Nothing in my life had prepared me for this experience. I was twenty-four years old. I had always lived in cities, and was raised from early childhood to follow a scholarly path. I had been taught to approach the natural world analytically. To a certain extent, I had been encouraged to admire nature’s beauty, but in a detached, intellectual way.

On that night, my relationship with the natural world became intimately personal. The wilderness spoke to the core of my being in a language far older than any human tongue. My spirit melted into an infinite river of ceaselessly flowing energy, without beginning or end, then reemerged subtly enhanced, never to return to its previous solitary dimensions. I felt stronger, freer. I sensed a single divinity that is my own inmost nature and the essence of all creation.

On that night, I was called. Called to explore my primal bond with the natural world, and with its Creator. Called to reconsider the life path I had chosen—or had I really chosen it at all? Was I just doing what others had always expected of me?

On that night, I was called to begin the journey that will last the rest of my life. No, I did not simply abandon all prior plans and embark on my quest without a backward glance—though that was, in truth, what I wanted to do.

My mentors had prepared me for a conventional scientific career. I feared they would disapprove, would tell me that I was wasting my abilities, wasting the considerable resources they had poured into my education. I fully valued the importance of their work. But I now knew that my own work lay elsewhere. I wanted to pursue what they would consider a mere illusion, something that could not be measured or quantified, something that did not even exist. How could I explain the deeper reality I sensed that night?

In the end, the call was too strong to ignore. I got going, slowly, tentatively, hesitantly at first. Thirty-seven years later, the journey continues. I have traveled outwardly, up mountains and down rivers, eventually settling in the Maine Woods. And I have traveled inwardly, seeking my authentic self. Along the way, I have found healing on multiple levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

At the time I had this experience, I really did need healing. When I was in my teens, my father developed bipolar disorder. When I was twenty, he committed suicide in a violent way that left me traumatized. I was searching for answers, for meaning, to find a sense of wholeness. But all of these seemed utterly beyond my reach. My experience on the shore of Lake Superior offered a glimpse of a path into a new way of being, into a life that was larger and more vibrant than I had ever imagined possible.

It took me a few years to realize the full significance of this experience. When I was twenty-seven, I learned that a dearly beloved aunt was dying of ovarian cancer. The knowledge of this impending loss, combined with lingering trauma from my father’s suicide, brought my inner struggles to a head. I plummeted into depression. I sought conventional psychotherapy, but I also found powerful medicine in nature. I roamed the trails of a suburban park, letting go of past and future, simply allowing the landscape to absorb me. I reveled in the gifts of the Earth, flowing in through all my senses. My heart opened to the natural miracles that surround all of us every day, and I felt my stifling soul begin to breathe.

The poet Mary Oliver asked: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I started to give serious thought to this question. I hoped to share the healing I found in the natural world with other struggling souls.

But I was also coming to the realization that nature itself was in dire need of healing. Over time, I came to understand our growing environmental crisis as the biggest threat to our collective health that humanity has ever faced. In the words of eco-theologian Thomas Berry, “We cannot have well humans on a sick planet, not even with all our medical technologies.”

Nineteen years ago, at the age of forty-two, I took a big leap. I left Boston’s halls of academe and moved to the wilds of northern Maine. My plan was to write about our relationship with the Earth, in a way that would guide people into deeper, more joyful connection with nature. I believe that rekindling our intimacy with nature will benefit both our own personal health and the health of the natural world that provides for us. I saw this work not as a departure from my medical career, but as the practice of medicine in a broader sense.

I’ve already talked about the emotional and spiritual healing I’ve personally found in nature. Now there’s a growing body of scientific evidence supporting the role of nature connection in enhancing our emotional well-being, improving our mental function, and even extending our lives.

But I also believe that if we connect more deeply with nature it will benefit the Earth as well, because it will inspire us to take better care of the natural world. We’ve inflicted serious wounds on the Earth, and in order to heal those wounds, we need to make changes in the way we live. We’ll be motivated to make those changes only if we have a genuine connection with nature – a connection we feel in our hearts and in our guts.

I had lofty goals. But when I arrived in Maine, I soon realized that I was woefully ignorant, despite my supposedly world-class education. I had much remedial learning ahead.

Splitting firewood at my off-the-grid cabin on First Roach Pond, November 2011. Photo by Nadine Weiger.

I needed to learn how to wield an axe, to build a fire from whatever materials I could find around me, to tie reliable knots, to navigate by compass, to paddle a canoe down rocky, fast-moving rivers. I plunged into my outdoor training with the same intensity I had previously applied to my academic studies. I took advantage of every opportunity to wander the forest with experts in birding, tracking, botany, and foraging.

And as a middle-aged woman, I needed to figure out ways I could work around my physical limitations. At first, I thought I would never be able to portage a canoe on my own. But an instructor at the Maine Canoe Symposium taught me how to lift the canoe from the ground up to my shoulders by rolling it over my hip. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to manage long backpacking trips. But then I realized I could break them into daily segments that were shorter than the mileage covered by twenty-something hikers, which would give me more time to rest and enjoy the views along my way.

Equipped with my new skills, I headed out to experience the Maine Woods in all seasons, under my own power: in hiking boots, by canoe, on snowshoes and skis. Wherever I went, my aim was to be fully awake, in each moment, to the woods and waters around me: to open my heart, mind, and senses to my surroundings; to give myself over to the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations flowing in from all directions. This approach is summed up by the term mindfulness—a term that may be overused a bit today, but which I try to embody to the fullest.

I set myself two goals. I wanted to know the source of every sound in the woods: the voice of every bird, frog, and mammal. And I wanted to know the terrain well enough that, if all maps and all roads suddenly vanished, I could confidently navigate the woods on my own.

I’ve journeyed hundreds of miles up mountains and down rivers in pursuit of these goals. I’m at peace with the fact that my life will be too short to realize them. What’s important to me is that I keep learning.

I love traveling solo. For one thing, you set your own schedule. As Thoreau noted in Walden, “the man—or in my case, woman—who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.” For me, the first steps or paddle strokes of a long solo outdoor journey are among life’s greatest joys. Nothing equals the sense of pure, wild freedom as my spirit reaches forward to embrace the adventures that await.

Solo treks in the wild are riskier than traveling with a group, but there are ways to minimize the risks. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had training in survival and navigation skills. I pack a basic first aid kit. I carry a compass to guide me if I lose my trail or get turned around. Even on day trips, I make sure I’m prepared to spend the night in the woods if something goes wrong. I bring a fire-making kit with multiple redundant ways to kindle a flame. I carry a knife, tarp, and cord with which I could assemble a simple shelter, and a bivy sac that would serve as a minimalist sleeping bag. I always let a trusted friend know where I’m going, and they will alert the warden service if I don’t check in by a specified time.

En route from Allagash Lake to Chesuncook Lake, August 2011. Photo by Mike Hiza.

When I look back over the many solo treks I’ve done, it’s hard to choose my favorites. In 2009, I put in my canoe a stone’s throw from here, in Moosehead’s East Cove, and spent three weeks paddling up to the Canadian border. I paddled up Moosehead Lake, down the West Branch of the Penobscot to Chesuncook Village, where I offered a service at the little church, complete with a sermon about the spirituality of whitewater canoeing. Then I headed over the Mud Pond Carry—where Thoreau famously got lost—to the Allagash headwater lakes. I ran Chase Rapids below Churchill Dam, then continued down the Allagash to the Saint John. My eighty-four-year-old mother, ever my trusty supporter, drove north from Greenville to Saint Francis to pick me up at the end of my journey.

On another canoe trip, I had Allagash Lake and its outlet stream all to myself for five whole days—five amazing days of wandering wherever the spirit blew me. I explored tiny islands, crawled deep into a rocky cave, climbed an old fire tower to gaze over the surrounding country, botanized in a peat bog, and swam below Allagash Falls. It felt like a childhood fantasy. It seemed I had entered another dimension, a mystical realm all my own, a vast, wild playground that offered infinite possibilities.

Undertaking a solo canoe trip that involves whitewater or large, windy lakes is no joke. If you overturn in whitewater, you could potentially lose all your gear, not to mention your means of transportation. If you overturn halfway across a big lake, death from hypothermia is a very real possibility. When I wanted to paddle a particular route, I consulted with more experienced canoeists who knew my level of skill and strength. If they told me I shouldn’t attempt a trip alone, I followed their advice. For example, I wanted to follow Thoreau’s route down Webster Stream and the East Branch of the Penobscot. The rapids on this route are more challenging than those on the Allagash. I also learned that I would need to find takeouts for unmarked portage trails that were situated perilously close to the edge of waterfalls. So for this trip, I paddled my solo canoe, but in the company of a guide who knew the rapids and portage trails well.

Wassataquoik Lake, Baxter State Park, October 2015.

Backpacking into the heart of Baxter State Park is certainly a favorite. Wassataquoik Lake has to be one of the most exquisite places on Earth. On various treks, I’ve been the first person to stay at the lake in the spring, and the last one to visit in the fall. For the most part, I’ve had the lake all to myself, except for the birds and beavers and snowshoe hares. On my fall trip, I was blessed to be at the lake for peak foliage. When I took this photo, I was the only human for miles around. My job that day was to savor the astonishing beauty, to capture it in pictures and words so I could share it with people who would otherwise never know about it.

Moonset over the Saddle, Baxter State Park, February 2012.

I find special joy in the harsh, austere beauty of winter. Moments like this, watching the moon set over the Katahdin massif as the dawn kindled behind me, are beyond compare. But solo winter treks pose a much higher level of risk; minor mishaps or injuries that would be of little consequence in warmer temperatures could easily lead to death from hypothermia. On any winter outing, I make extra sure that the clothing and gear I’m carrying will get me through a frigid night, if I’m unable to make it to my planned destination.

Snowshoeing across the ice of First Roach Pond to my off-the-grid cabin, pulling my supply-laden gear sled, February 2021. Photo by Eddie O’Leary.

Perhaps my greatest adventures are the two winters I spent alone at my cabin on First Roach Pond, miles from the nearest neighbor or plowed road. The peace of the snowy woods, the dazzlingly starry night skies, and the coziness of my fireside were more than adequate compensation for the physical work involved.

Not surprisingly, there was an occasional unexpected challenge. The second winter was colder than the first, and my entire graywater system froze solid. For over two months, the drain in my sink was offline, so I had to collect all my wastewater in a pot and haul it outside. In another mishap, I inadvertently flooded the generator that powers my satellite dish and charges my laptop. Without it, I had no way to communicate with the outside world. I had to load the generator onto my sled and drag it about two and a third miles across the ice of the pond so I could get it repaired. By the time I hauled it back, it was dark, and I was navigating by the stars. These misadventures initially seemed daunting, but I was pleased—not to mention a little surprised—that I managed to rise to the challenges. In the end, I felt empowered rather than discouraged.

At my cabin in winter, I was alone for weeks at a time without seeing another human in person. Perhaps the greatest challenge was that, with no distractions, I had no choice but to come face to face with myself. We all probably have certain aspects of ourselves that we wish we could change. Over the quiet winter months, I learned to come to peace with myself as an imperfect human being.

People ask me if I ever get lonely. I rarely do. In the woods, all nature becomes my companion. I feel deeply connected to the wild world around me. I’m acutely aware that I am an integral part of a vast cosmos. And though I am small, I am not insignificant.

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