Ever get one of those earworms when you're out in the wild?

I’m not talking about a ‘Wrath of Khan’ type of worm. I mean a song you don't necessarily like that repeats in your head and you can't get out.  I rarely listen to music during my travels so the source usually isn't an iPod or other MP3 player—it's usually a catchy tune that gets placed there randomly either by another person or incident somewhere along the way. Typcially, it's an awful song by someone like Milli Vanilli or Air Supply, but sometimes you get lucky and actually enjoy your little mental companion.

What earworms have haunted your journeys? Here are just a few of the memorable tunes that have taunted me over the years (and the context in which they entered my brain on each particular adventure):

Can't Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue

In 2003 I met my buddy Mick in Vientiane, Laos. He was a kayaking and rafting pioneer, opening up remote rivers in the country to ecotourism. We were about to head up to northern Laos to do the second descent of the Nam Pha River, where we would also set up camera traps to get evidence of rare species like the Asian water tiger in order to protect the area from development.

Mick had just returned from a private guiding gig where he took none other than Australian pop star Kylie Minogue and her boyfriend on an adventure tour of the country. They finished the tour in Vientiane and had a couple of days in the city before they left. Kylie had picked up a stomach bug in the jungle so was confined to the fetal position in her room. The boyfriend came down from the room and told Mick to "Take me to one of the girlie bars." Mick did as requested and took him to a bar known for its ladies of the night. 

As Mick resignedly sipped his drink on his bar stool, Kylie's man was beside him negotiating a fee with a girl he'd chosen. At that exact moment the "La la la" opening chords of Minogue's perfectly-titled mega-smash Can't Get you out of my Head blared over the sound system of the bar. The boyfriend, unable to shake his girlfriend even when she wasn't there, was overcome with a sudden wave of guilt and bolted out of the bar, back to Kylie.

After hearing that story, the tune that intercepted Kylie Minogue's boyfriend rolled endlessly through my head down the Nam Pha River.


Breakfast at Tiffany's by Deep Blue Something

Now this is an example of an awful, cheesy song that tortured me for about two months. When I was canoeing across Canada in 1995, we had a five-week section of upstream paddling on the Saskatchewan and North Saskatchewan Rivers that took us from Lake Winnipeg to Edmonton. My partner at the time used a Walkman (anyone remember those?) to pass the time. I'm not sure if he was playing tape or CD on the thing, but he had Breakfast at Tiffany's on repeat and sang it horribly day after day.

I couldn't hear the actual song as he was wearing earphones, but the line "and I said, what about Breakfast at Tiffany's. She said I remember the film and as I recall I think I kind of liked it, and I said well that's one thing we've got," repeated in my head for the next six weeks. And it repeated in my head in his terrible voice, not the voice of the band. Pure anguish. I will never forgive him.

photo"If you're going to sing ‘Breakfast at Tiffany's,’ you stay up there on that hill!"


Amsterdam by Coldplay

In 2005, I circumnavigated the Haida Gwaii archipelago with my friends Todd and Keith. We were stuck under our tarp one morning at the mouth of Tasu Inlet on the outer coast of Moresby Island. Just 50 metres off of our campsite floated a small, anchored dock with an enclosed frame tent on top. It belonged to a local fishing lodge as a rainy day lunch spot for their clients. With no one around, we paddled over to it and entered.

Being complete dirtbags, we helped ourselves to some pop and chips from a cooler, then noticed a CD player in the corner. I pressed play and Amsterdam spilled from the speakers. Now I'm, ahem, not the biggest Coldplay fan, but this song was perfect for the moment. I played it over a few times and the beautiful piano and tone of the piece matched the serene mood of the sheltered cove we were in. Long after Todd and Keith had paddled back to camp I was still lingering with that song. After not hearing music for 25 days, it was a real treat, and Amsterdam played on in my head the rest of the way.

photo"Don't Jump! I'm sorry I put that Coldplay song in your head!"


A Long December by Counting Crows

In 1998, I tried to canoe across Canada for the second time, choosing a new west to east route. My partner Ben and I had been working our way upstream on Northern B.C.’s Babine Canyon for several days.The river was flooding and our canoe had just been cracked stern to bow after I lost control of it and it got sucked under a large log jutting from the bank and spit out the other side. I managed to swim after and corral the canoe before it disappeared, and we had all our gear, but were now days from anywhere with a broken canoe. Also, the slow pace due to bushwhacking around the deepest canyon section had us running low on provisions.  We had to turn back, reroute, and resupply in the town of Hazelton, 100 kilometres away.

At that moment, the line "and it's one more day stuck in the canyon, and it's one more night in Hollywood" from the Counting Crows song ‘A Long December’ rose from the ether. I sang the line out loud and my partner Ben smirked at me. The next day we almost drowned in that raging canyon when our canoe flipped and we were sucked into the chasm. Thankfully, 'A Long December' was not the last earworm I ever had run round my head.


Big Girls Don't Cry by Fergiephoto"I know we're starving, but at least we have Fergie."

OK, I'll admit it—this song is a sinful pleasure of mine. But ONLY because I discovered it on perhaps my favourite journey ever. In 2007, Taku Hokoyama and I were on day forty of a 75-day, 3,100-kilometre trip from Winnipeg to my family's cottage in Parry Sound.

I'd eliminated lunches from this journey, so Taku and I ate only a handful of snacks during the day between breakfast and dinner. I wanted to travel light, doing one-hop portages and continuous movement all-day, everyday. As a result, Taku and I arrived in Calstock for our food resupply like ravenous, hunted wolves.

We resembled Christan Bale in the movie The Machinist—merely skin painted over taut muscle and bone—and both went immediately to the ice cream fridge in the local grocery store/post office and bought four ice cream sandwiches each. I also scored some 100 per cent DEET bug repellent, which was banned at the time but still available at this First Nation-run store. Anyway, as I was checking out my ice cream and DEET at the cash register, what song came out of the little radio behind the cashier but Big Girls Don't Cry.  The chorus of "I'm not gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket" stilled my savage heart as Taku, the cashier and I paused thoughtfully to have a quiet moment with Fergie. The cashier remained in Calstock, but Fergie joined us the rest of the way.

One more thing..."Heyyyy Macarena!" (You're welcome.)

Read more about these tales and others in my book LINES ON A MAP.