Months ago, my friend and mentor Bill Conrad gave me a copy of Calvin Rutstrum’s “North American Canoe Country.” Bill told me he expected a book report. Here it is — better late than never.
Written in 1964, the book speaks to the timeless truths of canoe tripping.
For me, what really hit home were Rutstrum’s observations about going alone and equipment. I’ll split my book report into two parts. This week I’ll cover solo canoe camping. In a future column, I’ll compare notes with Rutstrum on camping and paddling gear.
In the chapter “Going Alone,” Rutstrum writes: “I have … labored in solitude for weeks over portage and water routes when a simple invitation would have secured a pleasant companion for the bow or stern of my canoe. Why, then, do we go alone? My experience has convinced me that, to feel profoundly the enchantment of the wilderness, we must go in complete solitude at one time or another.”
I agree wholeheartedly; I thoroughly enjoy my solo canoe trips.
All my life, solitude has been a welcome companion. I can be as gregarious as the next guy. But — in heavy doses — people annoy me. Especially as I get older. I’ve found a kindred spirit in Rutstrum. His observations on the psychology of solo canoeing serve as a reminder that, when I paddle solo, I am not alone.
He touches on the inevitable feelings of loneliness. He warns that a solo camper will miss the stories around the campfire, the shared adventures, or that one individual whose company you treasure. But, as Rutstrum points out, even that can become repetitive and tedious.
When sitting alone at my campfire, I can still hear peals of laughter from those group trips back in the day. Warm thoughts of my campmates bring a smile. But knowing I’m still out there — still canoeing and camping — brings an even bigger smile.
Rutstrum speaks of the circumstances that bring us to go it alone. For Rutstrum, it might be a lack of companions free to commit to his elaborate wilderness journeys. For me, I’ve simply outlived most my canoeing buddies — some literally, others in terms of ambition, ability or desire.
Rutstrum advises against seeking out companions just for the sake of companionship. “Barnacle attachments” he calls them. That’s a polite way of putting it.
There is much to be said for solo canoe camping. As a writer, I’m reluctant to admit this, but Rutstrum says it better than I ever could.
“There are … mixed emotions, but you have a great sense of relief,” he writes. “For you have been travelling by the methods of others; camping and eating their way, not yours.”
Solo canoeing frees you to travel at your own pace. You can pick your own campsite. A few times of trying to pitch a tent on boulder-strewn islands or mainland moonscapes convinced me not to allow my friends to pick our campsites. On group trips it can also be a challenge to find an area vast enough to accommodate several tents and a campfire.
Above all, as Rutstrum points out, solo tripping allows you to more deeply experience the wilderness. Not only are you free to explore more, but your senses are heightened and you become less threatening to wildlife.
“Life of the solitary man by its very nature becomes subjective,” he writes. “You are not the intruder; you feel yourself an integral part of the composite natural scheme.”
He concludes that, once you experience this, you’ll find it hard to resist the allure of solo canoe tripping. Amen.
I expect that my friend Bill Conrad will give me an incomplete grade on this book report. We’ll see what he says when I finish it in a future column.
(This is one of my columns, which ran in Gatehouse Media publications.)