There are times I question backpacking. I’m more of a canoeist than an hiker and the idea of walking all day with a pack strapped to your back seems more like a never-ending portage rather than a joyful walk in the woods. So why did I decide to take my students out on a backpacking trip in the Land-O-Lakes’ Frontenac Provincial Park, rather than a canoe trip this time? It was to simply minimize the paper work necessary for an on-water activity with youth. But beyond that, the act of backpacking is still one of the best ways to connect with nature, and it’s also the most fundamental means of getting around out there.
Most noted philosophers used—and still use—walking to get their thoughts going. Jesus Christ wandered the wilderness for 40 days to deal with the temptations of the devil. Wilderness visionaries like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau walked a great distance to experience the wilderness landscape. (Muir walked for two months in 1868, from San Fancisco to Yosemite, and Thoreau walked a 100 days in 1866, from Montreal to Quebec City.) But you don’t need a major pilgrimage to become familiar with nature. You just need to travel by your own means, that being by foot, to feel connected. In fact, it’s a worldwide phenomena; the Japanese call it “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku). There was even a study done for the Journal of Affective Disorders, which found that people suffering from depression can improve their mood by simply walking in the woods for less than an hour, though it can be worsened by strolling down a busy city street.
The opposition to all this, of course, is that we no longer walk as far on a regular basis as people did back in Muir, Thoreau or Christ’s time. The automobile has spoiled us. We think nothing of driving an hour out-of-town to a super-size shopping mall to catch a sale, but won’t even consider taking a stroll to the corner store to buy necessities like bread and milk. Of the 3,000 hikers a year who attempt to walk the entire Appalachian Trail from Virginia to Main only around 300 make the entire distance. We’re definitely getting lazier.
A good majority of my students were definitely lazy on our trip. At first, the complaints of walking with heavy packs exceeded the comments of their connection with the natural surroundings. To be fair, however, they were weighed down with massive packs. This was their first hiking excursion and even though I educated them prior to the trip on how to get their pack weight down under 40 pounds, a good number of them tipped the scale at 50 to 60 pounds. A couple of the girls in the group brought enough cloths to grace us with separate fashion statements each day. Gigantic sleeping bags, full size pillows, and even a mini bed mattresses were rolled up on top of some packs, with no waterproofing system except for maybe a garbage bag.
Where we were backpacking was the perfect catalyst for outdoor learning. Frontenac Provincial Park is a good chunk of semi-wilderness and is positioned on what’s called the Frontenac Axis—an extension of the Canadian Shield, between Algonquin park in Canada and the Adirondack Mountains in the United States. It’s close to suburbia but has an impressive list of flora and fauna that call the region home. On our three-day hike we counted five different species of snakes, three of which were uncommon and one (the Ratsnake) that’s endangered. We also heard the park’s native population of wolves howling away at night and had a bunch of rare wild turkey’s gather around our tents the morning of the second day, gobbling away and making a fuss.
This was the first time most of the students had camped before, or better yet, hiked with a heavily loaded pack and then slept in the woods before. The first day out, the muddy trail and bothersome mosquitoes made them second-guess signing up for such a program. On the second day, the complaints of the weighed packs continued but they were all in less of a hurry to get the trip over. They were having a good time challenging themselves, and more importantly, getting comfortable with their natural surroundings. On the third day the students seemed tired, less hyper, but more attuned to what was going on around them. No longer did the girls care what they were wearing; some students even lessened the burdens of others who had overloaded their packs and gained crippling blisters on their feet. Even a small few suggested we walk a bit further, see more country, before the school bus came to pick them up and bring them back home.
At the end of trip, I was glad that the canoeing trip wasn’t allowed and we were forced to walk in the woods all day. It was proof that backpacking can be one of the best ways to experience wild areas. After all, hiking is still rated as the top outdoor recreational sport in North America. A backpacking trip, even for three days, is much more glamorous than a walk to the corner store. A hike frees the soul, and according to Bill Bryson, author of A Walk in the Woods, “You exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation.” It’s a time of mental, spiritual, and physical rejuvenation. If you think about it, going for a walk may no longer be the main way we’re mobile each and every day but it has increasingly become the way we deal with the stress of day-to-day life.
Having an argument with your spouse? Go for walk in the woods. Pondering over a new career move? Go for walk. Continuously tempted by the devil? Go for a walk. Want to teach students to reconnect with nature? Go for a walk. It’s what we do to contemplate life, a way to simplify things so we can do nothing else except think. Bill Bryson said it best when he gave the reasoning for walking the Appalachian Trail with his buddy Katz. It was because a little voice in his head said, “Sounds neat! Let’s do it!”