Answering The Call Of The Wild
No, I was never raised by wolves. Nor was I ever in the scouts. In fact, I did not go on my first back country adventure until my early 20's. Yet here I am, working year round as an outdoor educator, canoe and hiking guide, and outdoor skills instructor. So how did I get here?
My suburban childhood was fairly typical. With summer spent at the cottage or car camping with the family, I always loved being outdoors. Early mornings fishing for rock bass with worms and long days getting 'lost' on new trails were my fondest childhood memories. Learning how to build camp fires, or setting up our families giant 8 person canvas tent were skills that would unknowingly change the coarse of my life. Those summers spent playing outdoors were a gift given to me by my family who worked hard to make that happen. It is only now as an adult that I am beginning to understand just how important it was to me.
As a young teenager, my friends and I would spend most of our free time on our mountain bikes, looking for creative new ways we could injure our selves. Unfortunately, the city I grew up in hit a growth spurt around the same time as my friends and I. Almost doubling in size in just a few years, most of our wilderness quickly became more suburbs. I went from living on the very edge of town to being in the middle with out ever moving homes. Our time spent outdoors together quickly turned into time spent playing video games or starting yet another awful punk band. Either way, our love for the outdoors gradually faded away.
Fast forward to my early 20's where I had some time off from work and a little bit of cash to burn. For reasons beyond my understanding I had an unbelievable urge to go on a backpacking trip. I had no experience on anything more than a day hike, and no gear to my name. Yet I could not shake the urge to go on some grand adventure in unfamiliar woods. Just as I was convincing myself that this was an unrealistic dream, I received a call from my cousin Kyle from out west asking if I wanted to do a backpacking trip in the mountains with him. Suddenly all the limiting factors vanished. Kyle had the gear, the experience, and the knowledge of some amazing locations. With a plane ticket in my hand I took off to the west coat to hike the Northern Cascades. It was a level of challenge that I hardly expected. Being loaded up with 40lbs on my back and hiking up near endless switchbacks had me feeling like every step could be my last. Somehow I always found the strength to take that next step. And before I knew it, we hiked all the way up to the snow line and only needed to find a place to camp. The first order of business was a hot cup of tea. Sitting down, with a cup of tea made from glacier water, looking out at several glacier topped mountains, I was awestruck. Never has tea tasted so good, or was a view so captivating. As much as I felt like I was in a strange new world, I also felt completely at peace in it. We enjoyed four incredible nights at that site. Living in comfort with what we had packed in our bags. I may have never guessed what an impact this trip would have on m life, but I was fully aware of how special that time was. Both with family and in feeling free in the mountains.
Camping became a larger focus in my life again. But like most people, I only found the time to get out once or twice a year. Most of my time was spent at work as a live sound technician, pushing road cases, coiling kilometers of cables, and being chastised by drunk concert goers about how they can't here the keys (as the keyboardist is playing backup guitar). It would seem that one can only be told to turn up the keys so many times before you loose your passion for it. So as my 20's were drawing to a close, it became more and more apparent that I needed to find a new path in life. Camping became a great escape that I could think about when ever I had to push cases at four in the morning. Around this time I happened to see a program on BBC about a man named Ray Mears going down one of Ontario's most iconic rivers, the Missinaibi. He spent a lot of time talking about and demonstrating these amazing wilderness living skills that he called “bushcraft”. Not only was this a new phrase for me, it was a new outlook on wilderness skills. Up until now I had only seen wilderness skills in the context of survival, with no shortage of colourful personalities going to all sorts of extremes to entertain viewers. This bushcraft thing seem very different. For one, Ray Mears never seemed like his life was in danger. On the contrary, he seemed nothing less than comfortable. Yet he was using natural materials sources on his trip to extend that comfort further. For anyone who knows about Ray Mears, it will come as no surprise that I was absolutely riveted. After that program finished I was already on YouTube looking up more content from him. And that is where I started going down a seemingly endless rabbit hole of bushcraft videos. I was hooked. The idea of using nature to enjoy nature struck a cord with me. It also seemed like an effort to revisit ways of the past that has nearly gone out of memory. As a fan of nature, comfort, and history I looked out on this 'new' world of bushcraft and dove right in.
Around this time, my mother was experiencing some rather challenging health problems that eventually led up to a heart transplant. When someone you love is in a life and death struggle it is really challenging to find the joy of a job you have long since lost passion for. Camping became less about enjoying time outdoors and more about grounding my own sense of self. Time outdoors was some of the only time I could feel relaxed and less stressed. I quickly realized the healing potential of 'dirt time' and became almost single minded about maximizing my time outdoors. If I was not camping, I was dreaming about it, reading about it, or watching way too much YouTube about it. To say I became obsessed would be a gross understatement. My mother's hard fought battle for her health put a lot of things in perspective for me. Life can be short, and spending it doing a job that brings little joy was no way for me to live.
I called up my cousin this time. Asking if he could find the time to take me back into the mountains. I needed a soul searching trip that would give me all the answers to where I should go in life. What I got instead was one of the most challenging and rewarding camping experiences of my life. It was the first week of September. Yet the moment we started to hike the sky turned white with snow. My “waterproof” Gore-tex boots had soaked through in a few hours and the nights got only colder. With no camp fire to warm and dry my feet out with, I had to make peace with the fact that cold wet feet were going to stay with me for the next eight days. That first night I had woken up shivering and needing to use the “facilitrees”. I could only guess what the temperature was, but it was fidget. Nature saw fit to throw me an olive branch. The sky was clear, the stars were out and the moon had lit up the most brilliant vista I have ever seen. As beautiful as the view was, the cold was unrelenting and I desperately needed to crawl back into a sleeping bag. The next week was filled with amazing hikes, great views, and lots of great talks with my cousin. However, it failed to reach it's goal. I left those mountains no more sure of what I wanted to do with myself than when I had arrived.
Fast forward to the next September and I had started a job as an outdoor educator with a YMCA camp in Muskoka. I am not sure when I decided to try a job in the outdoors. It most likely came about as a way of getting paid to go camping. I figured I would try my hand at being a guide of some sort. With some encouragement from my partner, I booked a Wilderness First Responder class. At this class I met a lot of people working as outdoor educators and guides. I had never really heard the term outdoor education before that, but it sounded like a lot of fun. I was happy to find out that I was right. Not only did I love the job, I now had a foot inside the door of a new industry that filled my heart with excitement. It was now easy to care about my job, if not effortless. With this new experience came many opportunities to learn. Often on the heels of failure. But there is no better place to fail than at a place that encourages people to try new things and abandon comfort zones. At the end of the season I knew that I had found something special. A new world to discover if you will. A way to take my growing passion about the outdoors and share it with others. It was a giant leap into the unknown, but one that I needed to take. You could call it answering the call of the wild. But it would be more accurate to say I was just following my heart.