Fear of the Unknown
When people hear that I’m going on a solo camping trip, most react with the question: “Aren’t you scared?”
“Scared of what?” I ask in return.
You know, scared of the dark, creepy forest? Scared of the ever-lurking bears? Scared of those crazed serial killers who trek out into the remote backcountry to stalk out lone campers? They always know exactly where to find you.
Indeed, the backcountry can seem an ominous, unknown universe with all manner of creepy-crawlies, beasts of prey, and mysterious nooks and crannies that an unsuspecting backpacker could fall victim to, ne’er to be seen again.
But when I booked my first solo trip for August 2016, none of those fear factors were on my mind.
The only thing I was pondering was my long-time dream to spend two weeks out in the backcountry. And given my lack of co-dreamers, the only way it was going to happen was if I went by myself.
Actually, I imagined that much of what I would likely experience on my solo excursion was already well known to me.
I had been out in the backcountry many times before. I knew what gear to bring, how to set up camp, and what it felt like to live in the outdoors for a few days.
Only one thing appeared to be a giant question mark: whether I’d feel a deep sense of loneliness being all by myself in the wilderness for that long.
At least I thought that was the only Unknown awaiting me out there …
Ignorance is Bliss
In fact, the fear of the unknown crept up on me in a completely unexpected turn of events on the very first night of my very first solo trip.
Because it was my first time camping alone, I had decided on an easy and familiar route on the the La Cloche Silhouette Trail in Killarney Provincial Park.
I would do some day hiking further into the interior of the trail, but given that it could get pretty remote once in deep, I would only camp within the first few kilometres of the hiking loop.
Well, as luck seemingly would have it, someone had cancelled their reservation on hiking site 2 (H2) the third night of my trip. That meant I could stay on H2 for the first five nights of my trip, instead of moving back and forth. Perfect.
So, there I was on H2, a beautiful little campsite that I nicknamed “the townhouse” because, while it wasn’t very wide, it was comprised of several “levels” like the floors of a townhouse.
At the top, upon entering the site, was “the bedroom” where I set up my hammock tent. It was the first time I’d be trying it out after having only experienced sleeping in ground tents.
On the next level down was “the living room”, which in campsite terms meant a large area of flat rock that looked perfect to lie on for some suntanning or stargazing.
Further down was “the kitchen” where I ended up cooking most of my meals. And down one more level was “the bathroom” — the bathtub being a sparkling, blue lake with a gorgeous view of the trees and white ridges that circled the water’s edge.
Although H2 shared Lumsden Lake with H1, a grove of forest acted as a giant fence between the two campsites so that if you decided to throw a one-woman, no-clothes party — you know, just because — you could do just that.
You also had to go down a 300 metre side trail to access H2 from the main trail. So, basically, if you wanted quiet, isolation, and no unwanted visitors, H2 was the place to be.
The hike to my campsite had felt easy and comfortable. Although I was alone, I instantly felt a wave of familiarity come over me as I took my first steps on the trail, immersed within the trees. I was home.
Now, on H2, I went about setting up camp and found myself too focused — or perhaps, too distracted — to worry about bears or crazed serial killers.
There were more grave matters at hand, like making sure dinner was made and devoured. (Hunger always won).
As darkness fell, I lay out on the smooth rocks of the living room, gazing up at the night sky. The tree branches swaying high above created a border around the stars that twinkled playfully against their black canvas.
If this was solo camping, it was awesome.
Feeling my eyelids grow heavy, I retreated to the bedroom and settled into my hammock tent for the night.
I had pegged down my tent’s rain fly just in case of an unexpected downpour, but could still feel a light wind wafting through the mesh sides of the tent.
Lulled by the breeze and calm all around, I quickly and easily drifted off to sleep.
The Mystery Creature
In the middle of the night, I was jolted awake by the sound of rustling beneath me.
Frozen still in my tent, I listened as something — some uninvited pilferer — rummaged through the gear I had stashed under my hammock tent.
My heart racing, I cringed, horrified, as I then felt the Mystery Creature slowly slink from one side of my tent to the other, rubbing against my back as it slithered underneath me.
The creature felt long, lean and muscular — but my brain was too paralyzed with fear to work out exactly what it was.
Now, I felt it prodding — pawing — at the side of my tent, near my left shoulder. The Mystery Creature was also trying to figure out what this giant, hanging cocoon could possibly be.
In a flash, it was back on the other side of my tent, now swatting much more aggressively at my right shoulder. Everything in me finally kicked into gear and I started hurling my elbow into my unknown intruder.
A second later, it vanished.
I could still hear my heart pounding in my ears. I was terrified.
All I wanted to do was bury myself deep inside my sleeping bag, but I somehow gathered my wits and slowly peered out through the mesh.
I stared into the dark, making out the silhouettes of the trees around my campsite. All was silent and still.
I lay back, waiting a few minutes. If the Mystery Creature was planning to return, it’d be making an appearance again soon. Maybe this time, with its friends.
But the minutes passed and I was still alone. There was nothing I could do now but sleep out the rest of the night until the sun rose.
Claim Your Territory
The next day, I was in full out Hunger Games mode. Not only was I sharing a campsite with the meddling Mystery Creature, but we were stuck together here for the next four nights!
It had crossed my mind that I could leave my site if I was really that afraid. But that seemed a little rash. My second night on H2 would determine whether an abort mission was required.
If the Mystery Creature returned tonight, I could only assume that it was attempting a calculated strike against The Hanging Cocoon (i.e. me). In that case, I’d leave the next morning. If I was still left standing.
I went about my day, reassured by the sunlight. I took a dip in the lake, fixed myself some food, and read a bit of the La Cloche Silhouette Trail Guide.
I had come to the grave conclusion that the Mystery Creature was either a coyote or a wolf. Then, I came across the page in the guide that mentioned that bobcats also roamed the park. Silent and stealthy, rarely was the bobcat seen. Perhaps only felt.
As dusk returned, I decided to skip another night of stargazing sprawled out — exposed — on the rocks. Instead, I retreated to my tent early.
If the Mystery Creature was to make an appearance, I needed to be ready. But I had no real weapons on hand. I’d have to improvise.
I had packed bear bangers, which would make a gunshot-like noise upon firing. However, it was supposed to be launched straight up into the air — a difficult feat from inside a hammock tent. I might have to fire it straight at the Mystery Creature if it left me with no other choice.
Then, there was my hiking stick. Somewhat awkward to use as a jabbing device from within the tent. But if the Mystery Creature happened to claw a hole into the mesh, I’d have a window to jab it out of.
I also had a Swiss army knife with me. The little blade could possibly poke out the Mystery Creature’s eye. If I managed to get within precise poking range.
But then there was the issue of whether I’d be able to see well enough to hit my mark. My eyesight was pretty dismal, and it would be quite dark outside. I just might have to wear my glasses and headlamp to sleep.
Darkness fell. I lay quietly in my tent, ears perked, on high alert for any odd, nightly sounds. But only a chorus of crickets chirped out their familiar melody around the lake.
I now understood what those comments on the hammock tent reviews meant when they talked about human burritos. You certainly did feel just a little bit more accessible to the outdoors — and its inhabitants — than in a normal tent.
Suddenly, wild howling — shrieking — rang out in the near distance. A pack of coyotes were celebrating their kill. I celebrated too. It looked like some other unfortunate being had taken the hit tonight.
Perhaps the Mystery Creature wasn’t actually part of the pack — a lone stalker still hunting its prey for the night. But I decided to err on the side of optimism and let the crickets sing me into a deep, Mystery Creature-less sleep.
Don’t Quit on Fear
I never did find out what exactly the Mystery Creature was, but I did come to one very clear realization from my encounter with it.
Don’t quit at the first moment of fear. Take advantage of the fact that fear is an amazing teacher, and stick around for the lessons it endeavours to gift you with.
What I learned was that an empowering element of solo camping is that when you find yourself deep in the throes of panic mode, it’s also — and only — You who must get yourself calm and thinking rationally. Ain’t no phoning a friend out here.
I’ve also learned that the more fear-worthy experiences you face head on, the more you teach your brain that when it’s faced with those similar feelings of fear in the future, its response should be to confront it, rather than run away.
Most of our fears in life don’t actually come from encountering wild animals in the backcountry. Rather, our everyday fears — of failure, rejection, and judgment — are what often make us seize up and avoid pursuing things that will actually make us happy.
I’ve slept out in the backcountry in my little hammock tent many more nights since the Mystery Creature’s visit. I won’t lie — sometimes, when I hear what sounds like footsteps lurking around outside, my heart jumps into my throat, and my mind flashes back to That Night.
But all of the incredible moments — and sleeps — I’ve had being alone in the Outdoors have made overcoming that first, fearful night of solo camping well worth it.
So, when people ask, “Aren’t you scared?”, I can only think that the greatest Fear of the Unknown is never finding out what it’s like to experience being immersed in nature solo — just you, the trees, and maybe a Mystery Creature or two to keep you company every now and then.
>> Photo Credit (Hammock tent): Lilli Chan