Bart Simpson once inadvertently summed up solo camping. In an episode where the TV troublemaker is left home alone for several days, he accurately proclaims: “Day is Awesome! Night is scary…”
I stumbled across this day-night dichotomy in 2010 when I rode my motorcycle solo from Vancouver to Inuvik. I hadn’t given much thought to my nightly camp-outs—I’d just stop whenever exhaustion kicked in. The unsettling specter of solo-tenting arose after I set up for the night at Dease River Crossing, British Columbia. I camped alone in the boreal forest and spent a sleepless night convincing myself that every sound in those bear-ridden woods was just the wind. It happened again a couple of years later, in Yellowstone National Park, when the wolves started howling outside my tent at 2:00 a.m. and I realized that not even my wife really knew where I was.
Like renovating your home or running a marathon, it’s easy to forget the woe and focus on the rewards. After all, solo camping is also freeing, fun, challenging and exciting. So as I drive into Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, near Thunder Bay, Ontario, anticipating 72 solo hours, those four words are forefront. In a park with 300-metre-high lookouts, wild Great Lake shores and serene wooded trails, day would definitely be awesome. Night? A possible flipside tiptoes through my mind as I leave the last of my cellphone reception at the park gates.
Solo hiking is a mindful endeavor. With no one to chat with, you’re free to listen only to birdsong, labour over photo-ops of ferns and flowers and rest wherever you feel. Of course, you’ll be more mindful of safety too—I tend to step more carefully, pack more supplies and take fewer risks while out alone. During the first afternoon, on a 10-kilometre hike to Middlebrun Bay, a twisted ankle or bear encounter become foremost concerns. (For the latter, I sing aloud to ward off bruins: “No bear, no bear / not a single stupid bear to scare me / no bear, no way, no how…” Another thing about solo camping—you go a little nutty. In a good way.) At the trail’s terminus, a glassy bay looking south into Lake Superior, I wade in for a refreshing dip. But how far offshore is it safe to swim when there is no one else nearby? I wisely stay in the shallows.
A fully-engaged brain plays tricks when the eyes can’t see. Later, once the sun becomes crimson and dips below the poplars at Marie Louise Lake and my campfire disintegrates into coals of a similar shade, the day’s unassailable awesomeness begins to shift. In darkness, in a secluded section well away from other overnighters, the silence that had been comforting turns to whispers in the woods. I feel less like a guest and more like an interloper.
A breeze rustles a nearby pine. Then it rustles the underbrush, stronger.
That’s not the wind.
Through the blackness, I see a small, shapeless mass approaching at a rapid clip. The aggressor breaches the dim firelight; I jump up and flick on my headlamp just as a wily fox charges past my bare legs. The creature changes its course like it’s running a maze and is gone as abruptly as it arrived. Had I been with friends, we would be in hysterics. But alone in the shadowy woods, I’m left to envision a troop of red foxes gathering in the foliage, waiting to pounce. (After all, I must reek of beef jerky by now.) The fantasy spoils my vibe. I douse the coals and call it a night. Chased off by a critter the size of a cocker spaniel? Solo camping messes with the mind.
If 10 solo clicks to Middlebrun Bay had me considering bears and bruises, a return trip of 22 kilometres to the Top of the Giant, including a 230-vertical-metre climb, sees me doubling-down on precautions. A crunched ankle halfway into the descent, sans cellphone reception, could mean a night in the bush.
The trail system leading into the park’s signature hike offers a long, flat warm up before a steep, sweaty climb. Two hours after starting out, I crest the summit and stop to guzzle water at a panoramic viewpoint looking east to Tee Harbour and onward to the imaginary line that bisects Lake Superior and separates two countries. Funny—aside from singing to ward away bears, I’d barely spoken a word in two days.
At the Top of the Giant, the trail ends as if the granite has been sliced with a cleaver—plummeting more than 200 metres as sheer as a skyscraper then rolling another 90 metres through lakeside poplars to the ragged shoreline of Superior. I follow the wake of a container ship—toy-sized from this vantage—westward across the inland sea to Thunder Bay. I’m alone and free to mindfully immerse in Ontario’s most impressive viewpoint.
Or I would be, had I shut off my phone. The sightline to T-Bay brings five-bar reception and a plethora of latent pings and buzzes. I could have used a little of this LTE last night. (“Siri, list all known fox attacks in Northwestern Ontario.”) This vista-point is a place I would have loved total serenity and, ironically, the one place I don’t have it. Handy for the Instagram account, though.
I’m lakeside again, watching the sunlight and firelight fade while I reminisce about the day. The fox is back, however, and it brought a friend. They’re staring at me from just inside the limits of the campfire’s glow. Tonight, my site is off-limits to challengers. I get up and aggressively stomp my feet. They pay no mind. I grab a fallen branch and pound the ground like a silverback gorilla. The smaller of the two scampers off, terrified. The other is nonplussed. It calmly sits in place, eye contact locked.
I step forward, branch in hand. “Get outta here!” It finally obliges, although much more slowly and deliberately than its petrified partner. I don’t believe I’ve yet outfoxed it, but it’s gone for now. I return to my fire and toss on another log. Loons and sparks. Silence and starlight. Fox and man. Another awesome day ends; a not-so-scary night begins.
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