by Robert Maxwell
I’ve always loved spending time in the wilderness. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the country, where I could shoot rifles and bow and arrows, and the forest was just a few steps from my door. A young boy’s paradise. But when I was eighteen I decided I wanted to do some seriously self-reliant wilderness living.
I spent two weeks gathering everything I thought I’d need to live off the land: a framed hiking pack, tent, sleeping bag, matches, cooking pot, homemade bow and arrows, and a journal to record my thoughts. I was a shameless idealist, and my idea was to distance myself from “the system” and live in harmony with nature, away from the sickness and disfunction of a money-hungry society. It was early October when I finally hiked out to the south shore of Lake Huron, four miles from my house, far from where gardens, fields, cattle and apple trees make way for white pine and spruce forests. I didn’t realize it then, but my fluffy, romantic view of all-out wilderness living was about to collide with the brick wall of reality.
After two full days of rain my tent, clothes and body were thoroughly soaked. Hunting and foraging were also a lot tougher than I expected, so I’d barely eaten anything for 48 hours. Then 72. Then 96. The only food I had were a few garden carrots and potatoes that my father left at a rendezvous point in case I needed them. Without a doubt, they kept me from dying. But even worse than the physical difficulties was the sudden and unexpected loneliness. Sitting there on the bald limestone shore of Lake Huron, waves of self-pity rolled over me. I’ve never felt so alone before or since. My plan was to stay a month. In the end I only made it to day ten before dragging my fifteen-pounds-lighter body and my belongings home for Thanksgiving dinner. Boy, did that roast ham taste good.
It wasn’t until I’d taken a couple of weeks to recover that I reflected on my journey and what it had taught me. I realized as I peeled through my torn, water-stained journal that I’d been wrong about society. My views were too harsh. People, I realized, are made to be with other people. It seems obvious enough, but for eighteen-year-old me it took a hard bout with reality to get it into my head. Still, that first wilderness experience may have curbed some of my blind enthusiasm, but it certainly didn’t extinguish my love for living simply in a natural setting.
About a year after my wilderness adventure, I started reading Thoreau’s Walden. His story of a simple, self-reliant life in a self-built cabin intrigued me, and before long a new dream had sparked in my mind. In November of 2009 I drew up some plans for a cabin of my own. I chose a remote corner of my parents’ 91.5 acre property, cleared some trees and began making preparations to build what I hoped would one day become my permanent home.
Without a doubt, building a cabin when I knew nothing about building was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve faced. But slowly, time and struggle began producing results. Today my cabin is still a work in progress, but I’m confident it won’t be for too much longer. It’s tucked away among spruce and maple trees, and in summer it grows a lovely yard of ferns.
The same impulse that drove me to journey to Lake Huron’s south shore is responsible for my cabin. I’ve always loved the wilderness, and always will. But like everything in life, enjoying the wilderness properly requires balance. I didn’t recognize that when I was eighteen. I made the mistake of thinking that wilderness living was an all-or-nothing deal. It’s not. My cabin will give me just as much opportunity to enjoy nature and live sustainably and self-reliantly as I’d hoped to find on Lake Huron’s shore. But I’ll also be close to the people I care about, have a roof over my head, and hopefully avoid semi-starvation with a few garden vegetables of my own. All in all, not a bad deal.
Robert Maxwell is an online strength and fitness coach and founder of The Man Factory. Are you a man 50 or older? Become your best self at www.manfactorytraining.com/strength-north-of-50