On the other end of the line my mother’s phone was ringing, but the familiar tones sounded distant, thin and faded. When she picked up and said “Hello?” her voice could have been coming through a child’s tin-can telephone. I held the satellite phone tight against my ear and tried to stand as still as possible, double-checked that the antenna was pointed skyward, to the circling celestial bodies that made it function.
Our conversation was brief, and stilted by a long delay on the line. “Are you having fun?” she said even as I said “I’m having fun,” and we both paused, and then broke the silence right on top of each other again. “Is everything okay?” “Yeah, I’m having a good time.”
“Really?” Even through the tin-can effect I could hear her surprise. I told her in delayed bursts that the terrain was beautiful, the people were great, the food was good and the sun was shining.
“You’re really enjoying it? You haven’t been upset, or angry, or scared?”
I paused. How many days had it been since I’d spent my lunch break sitting frozen with my bear spray unholstered in my lap, safety catch off, listening to a loud rustling in the buck brush a few dozen feet away? And how long since I’d flopped down in a tangle of evergreens, tilted my head back and screamed my throat raw, letting my exhaustion and frustration bounce off the mountainsides and down the creek drainage I was working, knowing there was no one close enough to hear?
“Yes,” I finally said, answering her first question. “And yes. Yes, yes.”
For a long time, “outdoorsy” was an abstract that I aspired to, the way that some people want to be “fashionable” or “witty.” It was about how I wanted other people to see me as much as it was about anything I actually wanted to do; it was also about how I wanted to see myself.
I was like someone who claimed – telling others, telling herself – that she wanted to become a chef, having hardly set foot in a kitchen. As a kid I read books about wilderness and adventure, shipwrecks and survival – Jack London, Huck Finn, Robinson Crusoe – in the urban confines of our third-floor apartment, and I climbed in the house-high snow banks that the ploughs pushed up on the edge of the football stadium parking lot, pretending that they were mountains. But the real thing was a mystery to me.
I lived in an old residential neighborhood on the fringes of downtown Ottawa, my mom in that attic apartment, my dad in a narrow townhouse a few blocks away, and me shuttling between the two every Friday. The area’s main artery meant nearly everything we needed was within walking distance – groceries, pharmacy, dentist, doctor, bookstore, bakery – and my mom didn’t even have a car. (My dad had an old, semi-functional classic that was more hobby than mode of transportation.) I moved through a city-center world of concrete and metal, public buses and sidewalks and street lights that came on humming at dusk.
By the time I started high school, I had slept in a tent three times. Two childhood summer camp excursions had ended in disaster: a three-day canoe trip had gone smoothly enough until a collision in some rapids on the way home, when two of our boats had smashed together and somehow, my hand had gotten caught between them at the point of impact, and had been split open from knuckles to wrist. A year later, the junior girls’ overnight hiking trip had seen our sixteen year-old counselor lose the trail and lead us, a dozen 10-to-12 year-olds, aimlessly through the forest for hours in a deepening thunderstorm; all our gear had been sent ahead to our campsite by canoe, and by the time we were found, we were hungry, soaked, blue and hysterical.
An epilepsy diagnosis put an end to my sailing and canoeing – no small watercraft allowed – and a newly discovered fear of heights killed my brief tall ship crewing career, too. So much for shipwrecks.
I turned sixteen, got a driver’s license, a fast-food job and a fake ID, and resigned myself to my urban existence. For years, I made no further attempts to explore the world beyond the city. But the abstract idea of the outdoors, divorced in my mind from my unhappy experiences with the real thing, continued to appeal.
I don’t think I would have gone after the job if I hadn’t needed the money quite so badly. I would have been too afraid – of injury, of extreme discomfort, most of all of failure, of being unable to measure up and get it done. I would have opted for the safe and familiar: cashier work, temping, waiting tables or pouring pints. But a friend, a geologist, promised earnings that would nearly double those of my usual urban gigs. And so I emailed my resume to the operations manager at her company, a local consultancy that always needed manual laborers for its array of deep bush mining exploration camps.
Ten days later my month-long stint as a dirtbagger began. I’d been assigned to a camp in east-central Yukon, five hours’ drive and two 40-minute flights – the first in a bush plane, the second in a helicopter – from my home in Whitehorse. My geologist friend, Martina, was there, too, along with a second, senior geologist, a cook, a helicopter pilot, and three other laborers. Our home until the snow flew consisted of six large canvas tents – three sleeping tents, a kitchen, an office and “the dry,” kept warm and sealed for all our wet gear. Each tent was 12 feet by 15 feet, with a plywood floor and a diesel-burning stove for heat; together with a plywood outhouse, the six were encircled by a flimsy electrified fence, lit up at night to keep the bears out. Outside the fence, a cleared helipad and a fire pit completed our camp.
We were there to collect soil samples – dirtbagging – on a staked mining claim. Every day I would be assigned a line on a grid, dropped off by helicopter on the side of a mountain somewhere on our claim, and then I would hike along my line, navigating by GPS, digging up soil at 50-meter intervals and collecting data as I went. Eventually the dirt would be shipped out in its numbered brown paper bags and tested for minerals and other trace indicators in a lab down south. Our client was looking for gold.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. But I knew enough to know just how ignorant and unprepared I was; I knew that my new job went way, way beyond my previous wilderness experience. I was anxious to set my colleagues’ expectations accordingly. Back in town, I’d been torn between wanting to put the best possible spin on things – I needed the job, after all – and wanting to be absolutely upfront about my skills and experience, or near-total lack thereof.
A short briefing session at the company warehouse had made things clear enough. No, I answered, I’d never handled a shotgun before. No, I’d never operated a chainsaw. No, I’d never ridden in a helicopter. I was told that if I ever got stuck out on my line overnight – if weather rolled in and the pilot couldn’t reach me (“it only happens a few times a year”) – I was responsible for my own emergency survival gear. I was handed an empty metal coffee tin (“great for boiling water in”) and a pack of waterproof matches. At home I ransacked my cupboards and added more to the tin: a granola bar, a packet of instant oatmeal and a rain poncho that folded up into a tiny sealed pouch. It was the best I could do.
One week before I left for camp I’d turned in my latest magazine assignment, an 800-word back-of-book essay called “A Deep-Freeze Outhouse Epiphany.” It was a short, light piece about a trip I’d taken the winter before: I’d spent five days volunteering with a National Parks Service crew in Alaska, at a remote checkpoint on the Yukon Quest, a 1000-mile dog sled race, and the essay was about how much a fish-out-of-water I’d felt, how clear it had seemed that I didn’t belong, surrounded by quietly competent park rangers and wild bushman mushers in our tiny snowbound cabin.
The crux of the story was my “outhouse epiphany” – the moment when I sat bare-assed in an outhouse in -50 Fahrenheit and realized that if I could hack this with a smile then maybe I didn’t need to worry so much about belonging after all.
At the time, the trip had felt like a victory to redeem all those childhood wilderness defeats. It had felt like the first step on the path to my longed-for outdoorsiness. But as I finalized a few small revisions with the editor, as I packed my bags for the bush, my sense of triumph shriveled. The outhouse moment might have been a first step, true, but I was afraid that I might be on a very long path.
Every day I kept waiting for the pain to subside, for my fitness level to catch up, for my body to adapt to the demands I was placing on it. And every morning, when my travel alarm clock beeped at 6:30am, I rolled over on my cot and thought: “Everything hurts.”
From there, most days were about the same. My two tentmates, Kel and Martina, the geologists, would be up and working in the office long since, so I’d be alone as I crawled out of my sleeping bag and scrambled into my work clothes for the day: long johns, rain pants, heavy wool socks, long underwear shirt, fleece jacket, gore-tex jacket, wool hat, leather work gloves stained and crusted with earth. I’d wear my mercifully loose rubber boots or an old pair of sneakers around camp for the morning, postponing the daily confrontation with my hiking boots for as long as possible.
In the kitchen, everyone would be gathered for breakfast and a daily safety briefing. Our curly-haired cook, Cory, would serve up scrambled eggs and pancakes and bacon and hash browns, fruit and granola and yogurt. Most days I had some of everything. Kel and Martina would hand out the day’s grid assignments, and we’d compare lines and grumble over pros and cons – a high-altitude line meant less bushwhacking but more exposed rock outcrops to maneuver around, more steep scree slopes to slide across; a line lower down often meant a day-long struggle with dense buck brush and alders, fighting for every fifty-meter interval, gaining ground one step at a time.
The pilot would fire up the helicopter and we’d double-check our packs and gear – sample bags, sample tags, notebook, GPS, radio, extra layers of warm clothing, helicopter flag, bottle of water, thermos of coffee, lunch, snacks, emergency survival coffee tin – and grab our digging tools from the untidy pile beside the helipad, climb in and lift off.
I squatted on the ground with my back half-turned to the helicopter, its steel and glass nose hovering an arm’s-length away. Wisps of hair whipped around my face as I turned to make eye contact with the pilot and give a quick thumbs-up. I turned away again and felt the wind off the blades intensify briefly as the machine lifted straight up and away from me, leaving me alone on the exposed hillside. The helicopter’s steady heartbeat faded in the distance as I stood up straight and gathered my gear from where I’d tossed it hastily on the ground.
Set-out and pick-up were the two most dangerous parts of my day. Most of the time there was nowhere for the helicopter to land, so I’d been taught how to enter and exit the helicopter while it hovered a few feet off the ground. I’d climb out onto the skid and dump my gear, then ease my weight off the aircraft slowly, the pilot compensating as I went. Once on the ground I’d stay low and still, in the pilot’s line of sight, until the air was clear again – on a steep hillside, the blades whirred alarmingly close above my head. At the end of the day I reversed the process, crouching in an open area, the flattest I could find, while the helicopter whump-whumped closer and closer and closer, until the machine was just above my shoulder. Then I’d scramble in a crouch to the door and climb up – slowly, again – onto the skid and, if the chopper was far enough off the ground that I couldn’t just step up, I’d grab the seatbelt and haul myself in hand over hand.
Plenty of things can go wrong on a hover exit. Coming in so close to the ground means the pilot has no room to recover in case of a sudden wind shear, or a mechanical failure, and more than one passenger over the years has forgotten protocol, climbed out and walked away from the helicopter, and been mangled by the turning blades. But today everything had gone smoothly once again.
I double-checked my gear – pack settled on my back, bear spray holstered on my hip, radio and GPS clipped to the front of my coat – and paused for a long look around. This was a daily ritual: drinking in the view from my set-out spot before I descended into the brush. Mountains rippled away on all sides of me, ragged and rocky on top, above the tree line, and their lower flanks covered with dense evergreens. It was late August, leaf-peeping season in the Yukon, and here and there streaks of bright yellow willows ran vertically, following the creek beds down, while up high, red patches marked the areas where wild blueberries had ripened and their leaves had turned.
When I’d had enough I started down the hill, losing elevation as quickly as I could, sometimes crouching and sliding on my heels down slick mossy slopes, dropping a few hundred meters before I reached my line. When a long beep from my GPS announced that I’d reached my target I turned south, towards the head of the drainage, and began my day’s work. It was going to be a long slog through dense, tangled brush, and today Kel and I had split a line between us. We would be finished when we met up in the middle, and I wanted to be sure I got my share done on schedule.
The pain stayed the same every morning, but other things had improved with time. I was surer on my feet now – the bruises on my shins and thighs, thick enough in the first few days to make me look like a Dalmatian, were fading to yellows and browns, and, as Martina had promised, I’d gotten better at “reading the bush,” sidling more comfortably between fallen trees, choosing solid footholds instead of rotting wood or treacherous caribou moss, and finding the gaps in seemingly solid walls of buck brush.
The pilot had showed me how to use a chain saw, setting me to work clearing some small trees away from his helipad, and one of the other laborers had taught me how to find and follow my line using a map and compass, in case my GPS failed. I still felt a long way behind the others – every one of them remained far more confident in the bush than I was – but I was learning, and fast.
I knew my long day was nearly over when I heard Kel’s dog barking in the distance. Kel was the senior geologist in camp, a bush veteran who’d been working in the Yukon backcountry for thirty years. She called herself the “dirtbag queen” – she’d spent years soil sampling before going back to school and upping her paygrade, and she had war stories that would have been enough to send me fleeing back to the city, if I’d had any way to leave besides walking. She was, for a city kid like me, the most intimidating and fascinating character in camp. A few days earlier, she’d reassured me that she’d seen greenhorns do much worse than I was managing, and I had taken it as a serious compliment.
We met at our final sample site and then headed down the hill and across the creek, eventually making our way to an open grassy area that I’d used as a pickup spot earlier in the week. There, we dumped our packs and flopped down in the grass to wait for the helicopter. I had a drink of water and dug a chocolate bar out of my pack – at first, it had been a daily necessity, a blood-sugar stopgap to get me home to camp, back when I’d practically crawled to the helicopter each day, exhausted and shaking. I’d gotten stronger since then but the chocolate still made a nice end-of-day reward.
I looked up at the color-streaked mountains, the cloudy sky, and listened for the sound of the helicopter in the distance. I thought about that conversation I’d had with my mom, a couple of nights before. I had expected to survive my bush camp experience – inexperienced or not, I figured there wasn’t much I couldn’t grit my teeth through for a good paycheck – but I hadn’t necessarily expected to enjoy it. Now that I was here, though, I had trouble imagining going back to anything else. Why sit at a computer all day when I could get paid to hike? Why ride a bus packed tight with a hundred strangers when I could commute through the mountains by helicopter instead?
Beside me, Kel chewed thoughtfully on a piece of long grass. We’d had a hard fight to get our line done, and even she was worn down by the effort. “Well,” she said finally, “even a bad day in the bush beats a good day in town.” I nodded agreement.
The past weeks had punctured my abstract visions of outdoor life, and left me instead with a bruised, blistered, dirty reality. I could have been disappointed, disillusioned. But to my surprise, I liked the real thing better than my pedestal ideal – fear, frustration, uncertainty and all.