Monday, August 20, 2018

Surviving in the Alaskan Wilderness

“It is extremely challenging and some students WILL quit. Expect to suffer.”

The marketing materials appealed to me. At the time of signing up for the one-week survival course in January, I was in the early days of recovering from a crushing romantic breakup. I wanted to be lost, obliterated, remade. I wanted physical suffering, perhaps as some kind of penance, perhaps to take my mind off the spiritual pain. The survival course sounded perfect. I pulled out my credit card.

By the time the course actually rolled around in July, I was a different person. I had a new home and a new routine. My emotions had stabilized. But nevertheless, the Alaskan Field Course approached, a foreboding presence on my Google calendar. It was a wall or moat, dividing the calendar into distinct before times and after times. July Jacob had to find new motivations for following through on the commitment of January Jacob. I found four reasons for doing it:

(1) I wanted to test my will. Life is hard and I am soft. There seems to be a lot of obstacles between me and the life I want to live. I wanted a difficult experience that forced me to go beyond my previous limits, an experience that not everybody made it through. It functioned as a symbol to me that I would be able to conquer difficulties elsewhere. 

It's not quite that I want to be a hero. But I want to know that I'm capable of being a hero. I have this fantasy that if there were something difficult and important to do, that I would have the will power to step up and do it. But if my will is untested, it's just a fantasy. By doing hard things, I gain some confidence that I am the person I imagine myself to be. 

(2) I love comfort too much. On the big 5 personality model, I score above average in neuroticism, loosely defined as sensitivity to negative emotions. I like to have my home environment arranged to be comfortable and quiet and I feel distressed if I can’t accomplish that. I try to fight this. In the woods - starving, sleeping on leaves, being cold and wet when it rained, doing hard labor - I knew that comfort would not be an option. I would be forced to learn how to be comfortable with discomfort. I might still instinctively seek comfort, but I want to have the knowledge that I can handle discomfort when it is necessary. 

(3) I wanted to have the knowledge that I could survive wherever I was in the world. I wanted nature to seem less hostile and more like home. 

(4) In the intervening 7 months, I had told a lot of friends that I was going to do the course, so I didn’t want to look weak by backing out or quitting. This might have been a stronger motivation than I like.

The Alaskan Field Course involves surviving under instructor supervision for a week in the Alaskan wilderness with minimal equipment - just clothes, a canteen, backpack, knife, and a small length of cord. No sleeping bags, food, tents, or water purification tech. 

Both my January self and my July self got their desires met. I can’t remember ever suffering so much physically. I was starving and sleep deprived most of the time. Food is not a top 2 priority in a survival situation (#1 temperature control and #2 clean water), so we made do with a few hundred calories of foraged berries that were bitter and sour for the most part. And, lacking sleeping bags, we needed to tend a fire all night to prevent hypothermia which made for broken sleep through the mercifully short Alaskan nighttime. 

Work was the lifeline tethering me to sanity. On the second day in the field, our instructor showed us how to make the A-frame structures that are in my pictures. His method of motivational speaking involved a lot of dark humor. “Results are mandatory”, he reminded us. The pressure of needing to get my shelter raised and water-proofed lit a (figurative) fire under my ass. I haven’t worked that hard in a long time. I hustled for about 12 hours in the long Alaskan daylight to build my shelter, gathering sticks and moss and grass. I spent more hours on it in the following days, haunted by the nightmare of my hut leaking in the rain and being forced to spend a night doing survival calisthenics to ward off hypothermia. That was the miserable alternative available if shelter or fire failed and the weather took an unlucky turn. 

I kept surprisingly busy in the course. There always seemed to be something to do to mitigate risk or make ourselves more comfortable. I partnered up with another student to share a shelter. Once our shelter was established, we built another one for our firewood so we would have some dry wood if it rained. Gathering firewood was the single largest use of time. 

Two-a-day courses in survival skills kept our lives interesting and added an extra layer of difficulty. For example, on the day of building the shelters, we had a hands-on course in how to safely cross swift rivers. This resulted in all of our shoes being wet. Other days, we learned how to carry injured hikers, wrap a bandage, make birch-bark bowls to enhance the efficiency of foraging, use a compass for navigation, and to trap animals and fish. 

There was a lot of misery. My will was sapped early in the week from caffeine withdrawal and later in the week from starvation and an accumulation of small injuries. My body did bizarre things. At night, it would tingle all over. I think it was a response to the starvation. My guts felt things they had never felt before. 

But there was also much that was pleasant about the experience. As my eyes adapted to the work, I began to see the forest as a store of resources. I knew that tree had analgesic compounds in its bark, that tree had sap that was a great fire starter, these leafy plants were good to eat and had protein. I learned how to sleep on the ground and I learned that moss is nature’s upholstery. My hands developed comfort and intelligence with the knife. I was turning into a bit of a wood-elf. 

Other highlights of the trip included the Alaskan scenery. We were surrounded by gorgeous mountains and camped on the banks of a clear wide stream with jumping fish. The monkey parts of my brain loved living in scenery that normally I would politely admire from a respected distance. I loved climbing over and under logs, chopping branches, eating berries fresh off the vine, and sleeping on the ground. It was a physically stimulating sort of life. 

The fellowship with other students was pleasant. In rare moments of downtime, we would lounge about on the moss and drink some boiled nettles or chaga, discussing which McDonald's food we would consume when we returned to civilization. 

The pace of work slackened in the last few days. With the extra free time, our minds turned to fishing. A variety of methods were attempted to catch them: traps, baskets woven out of green sticks or roots, hand-fishing, spears, and makeshift fishing rods. Most of the methods caught at least one fish, but the fishing rod was the most successful. It was just a string baited with guts and tied around a stick. It worked surprisingly well. 

I was disappointed not to catch any fish myself, but I did manage to barter for a small trout. I spit roasted it over a campfire. It was deliciously warm and fatty. 

From one perspective, the Alaskan Field Course is a wonderfully ridiculous thing. I’m surprised that you can buy such a real and dangerous experience in this age of regulated capitalism. The safety net exists, but it’s minimal. The nearest road was a treacherous 9 mile hike away. And we took risks. 16 adults, some of them brand new to the outdoors, spent the week running around with knives, climbing logs, foraging, hunting, and bushwhacking. We were constantly one wrong step away from needing a helicopter evac, or else spending a grueling day carrying a peer to safety. I loved that nobody stopped us for our own safety. It felt like freedom. 

The week passed by in a blur. Much of the time I was just focused on surviving. As I returned to civilization, I was left with a ghost of the forest experience. The ubiquitous smoke of campfires haunted the corners of my vision for several days. Each itch I instinctively assumed to be the probing of a mosquito.

In the end, I found what I wanted in the Alaskan wilderness. I feel harder, tougher. I lost my addiction to caffeine and sleeping with ear plugs. I've never been backpacking, but it sounds easy to me now. You get to carry food with you! And a sleeping bag! Lots of things sound easier to me now. At least temporarily, the course lowered my expected level of comfort. I’m happy I did it. I survived.