There's something very special about the backcountry when you realize that when things don’t go as planned, the only person that can help you is you. There is rarely any cell service where I go backpacking and hunting so if my situation takes a wrong turn, it's only myself and the people I'm with that can rectify the problem. I had a realization on a recent trip that the problems we encounter in the backcountry are actually real problems. They're not ones we've made up in our heads like what we're going to eat for dinner, how we're going to deal with a frustrating co-worker, or even how we're going to make our mortgage payments. Backcountry problems are freaking real and they can be downright scary at times. While I don't actively search for ways to make problems for myself when I'm in the outdoors, I will say that I've come to appreciate it when problems do come my way because I know that each problem solved is notch on my belt and confidence in myself and my skills.
Looking back over the past few years, I can recognize a handful of problems that were indeed real problems that needed solving. No one was going to step in and say "don't worry Emory, I'll just do this for you." No – it was only me that was responsible for recognizing the problem and solving it. Had someone stepped in to take care of them for me, I’d likely never learn my lessons and never continue to grow as a person. The more I think about this, the more I believe that everyone should spend time in the backcountry so that they can finally differentiate real problems from the problems we tend to make up in our heads in our daily lives.
This whole problem solving realization came to me a few weeks ago on a backpacking trip when the water source I had expected to be near my camp was bone dry. The nearest source was about a mile away and down a large hill that would take about 25 minutes to get to. Tack on the time to filter water and walk back up to camp and I'm now at over an hour spent just to acquire clean drinking water. Any plans I had for relaxing that night at camp were botched because of my unexpected two-mile round trip jaunt. But here's the deal, I literally had only two choices; make the water I had with me stretch through to the next day and risk slight dehydration (it was hot out) or hoof it the two miles to ice cold water. No one was going to make the hike for me and no one was going to magically bring me the water I needed. Furthermore, the sun was on its way down so decisions needed to be made. The choice was clear and soon we were hiking down the trail to clean water. Priorities – plain and simple.
Sure, this whole water thing may be a minor infraction, but the point is not about how grave the situation was or wasn't, but rather to show how the problems we have to solve in the backcountry are real and not something we've just conjured up in our heads. Water or no water - you make the choice. Sometimes you really have no choice in the matter at all. In fact, most of the time you could probably argue that the decision has already been made for you and you just have to accept how you're going to go about doing whatever it is that needs to get done.
A River Runs Through It
Two years ago, I was elk hunting with a friend and we dropped into a big drainage with plans to pop out the other side, but when we reached the bottom we were met with a flooded river that prevented us from continuing our route. I didn't account for how much rain we had received in the past few weeks and as such, we were boxed in with no where to go but up the hill we had literally just slid down. We were miles from the truck, in a flooded canyon, and the only choices we had were to swim in freezing cold water to the other side or find our way back up a steep hill. Neither of us liked the situation, but we both knew no one was going to solve the problem for us so we picked a route back up the hill and went for it. At one point I remember looking down to where we came up from and thought to myself "jeeze, one slip and I'd tumble a hundred feet to a pile of rocks." That was a real problem - not one I made up in my head. Pulling on ferns to keep me steady while I climbed further engrained this point.
The backcountry as a way of putting things into perspective. Each time I leave my truck I know that whatever plans I have in my head for how the day is going to go can all go to hell in a matter of moments. If it does, then I'm responsible for finding a solution to my problem, making a new plan, and getting home as safely as I can with the people I brought with me. Not every problem encountered will be a life or death, but I promise you that it will be a real problem that you'll need to solve. Take these opportunities to accept the challenge and don't cut corners. Figure out creative ways to solve the issue at hand and build yourself some confidence while you're at it.
It's not that I look forward to solving problems in the backcountry, it's that I now appreciate the realness of them. All the crap of every day life is stripped away in that moment and you're left with a handful of real decisions to make based on real problems. Do you appreciate this too? Do you savor these moments and take them head on or do you complain that your trip didn't go as planned or that you failed in this area or that? If it's the latter, I highly encourage you to change your perspective and take each problem that comes your way with a positive mindset and an opportunity to learn something about yourself.
Stay safe out there and keep your eyes wide open,