I enjoyed my stay as a recluse in a remote Canadian wilderness profusely but anyone who thinks three months in the wild were a romantic dream come true is as detached from reality as those who say that Cambodians are hospitable, Thais smile all the time, Filipino have tasty food and Brazil is not any more dangerous than London or New York. Whatever was the agenda behind all this crap is irrelevant – we live in the 21st century so it’s time we pulled out heads from our behinds and put an end to this fabrication.
Mother Nature, albeit beautiful and awe-inspiring is also harsh and unforgiving. We have evolved to romanticise life in the wilderness and perceive it for something it is not. Fiction presented by books and movies portrays wilderness and people who dwell in it as peaceful and merciful but reality is quite a ways different. Real mother nature is a wicked old witch.
If you want to have a warm and cuddly wilderness experience, go to see a movie or risk getting killed. I got to spend a significant amount of time in Mother Nature’s embrace and grew to respect and admire her. It showed me how small and insignificant I am and how she’ll carry on being the same wicked old witch regardless of whether I live through my encounter with her or die.
This important understanding that Mother Nature is a wicked old witch is one of the primary reasons why so many hikers die in the wilderness. Their fear of reality prohibits them from seeing the whole truth. They see beautiful surroundings and mighty elements, but refuse to acknowledge the very thing that makes Mother Nature tick – the inherent cruelty.
I have, since the inception of this blog, offered nothing but whole truth. I don’t have a huge fan club because my reality is not partial and majority of people are not able or willing to accept unskewed facts. And I know most people are not ready to hear that Mother Nature is anything but majestic so I don’t anticipate much positive response here either.
Do not get me wrong, though. I was out there, I speak from experience yet I will be the first to defend Mother Nature’s beauty and show her respect. I love her more than I love people and enjoyed few short months living side by side with her more than years living side by side with people. There are no words to describe how much I love nature and how much she means to me, but that is not an excuse to leave out the part where Mother Nature is a wicked old witch.
While I was in the wilderness, alone and vulnerable, Mother Nature threw some mighty difficult shots at me and when I responded by bouncing back, she threw another one and then another and another. I came to understand that I exist within nature, not the other way around. Mother Nature has long been here before a sequence of events I had no influence over resulted in my creation and will long be after I and all of my achievements perished.
I am naught but a powerless, unworthy drop in the ocean of life and whether I like it or not, I’m finite. All I was given were a few short years of existence yet I was also granted the freedom to roam the nature a free man. Free to think, free to understand, free to make my own judgement. Free to do things no other creature I encountered had the privilege of doing.
It was this ability to think that set me apart from other inhabitants of the wilderness and provided me with a tool that made survival in an environment dominated by cruel Mother Nature easier – imagination. For no matter how harsh the shots that Mother Nature threw at me had been, I was always able to look forward to what my dreamed of future would hold for me. To be comforted by a thought is to gain solace where there is gloom.
Mother nature is cruel, but she’s also fair. She does not seek out her victims. She throws shots completely oblivious to whether they bring you prosperity or suffering. Her actions are unconscious and uncaring and will come down by the same force whether you worship or curse her. I respect Mother Nature’s power and admire her beauty, but I understand she’s as much my best friend as she is my worst enemy.
Let this be the lesson to you. To enter Mother Nature’s realm is to expose oneself to both the good and the bad she has to offer. Be prepared, or perish. There is heavenly beauty to be seen and endless knowledge to be gained out there, but Mother Nature is as much of a wicked old witch as she is a beautiful bride, a shrewd healer, or a guiding spirit. She’s not out to get you – she’s not out to get anyone. She’s just there, following her own course to which we respond. Sooner or later, you will be recycled. Are you prepared?
One of the earliest things I learned when I left to live as a recluse in the Canadian wilderness was that nights out there are extremely cold even in Summer. I did my hermit experience over the warmest months of the year – June, July and August, but while it was nice and warm during the day, night time temperatures dropped below zero. And since I didn’t anticipate freezing temperatures, I neither had clothes, nor other equipment (sleeping bag, tent or stove) to keep me warm at night.
The lake I chose for my stay away from civilization was very remote, but – to a point – accessible by car. The nearest paved road to the lake was more than 100km away but invasive logging industry left a passage through the forest which I was able to use to get myself closer. Needless to say, this forestry equipment road was full of obstacles and rough terrain that’s normally only negotiable by heavy machinery with continuous tracks, but being a skilled driver and having been blessed with dry weather, I was able to safely traverse this incredibly challenging stretch of the road all the way to the lake.
The entire journey took me about 5 hours to complete, but I was only about 300 km north of Edmonton as the raven fly. I don’t know whether it was these extra 300 km north or the fact that there is no civilization anywhere near the lake, but as someone who spent countless Summer nights outside while living in Edmonton, I can tell you for sure that while it does get cold at night even in Summer, it doesn’t get below freezing. Not in Summer. But as I learned after my first night out in the wilderness (and each night thereafter), despite daytime temperatures reaching pleasant 29 °C, they were followed by night time drops to -3 °C.
5 hour long drive north of Edmonton and you’ll experience brief Winter every night even during Summer months. I personally think this had more to do with complete remoteness of the wilderness than its placement along the longitude. I have not done any scientific research on it, but high concentration of warm bloodied mammals who radiate body heat into the environment surely contributes to keeping the temperature in urban centers warmer than in the wilderness. And it’s not only body heat – you have heat generating car engines, thousands of computers, stoves used for cooking, machines used in factories, people bathing in hot water – so many things to keep the environment warmer… And on top of it all, you have pollution that keeps the heat trapped.
During my first month in the wilderness, it rained almost every afternoon. July was a little better and come August, there was hardly any rain. Sky was cloudless most of the days with sun baking down on me from wee morning hours until late night. Yet even in August, when daytime temperatures were in their 30’s, as soon as the sun was gone, the gauge started dropping rapidly and got to freezing just before the dawn.
Luckily, I had everything I needed to keep the fire going and there was plenty of dry firewood around, plus night only lasts a few hours a day this time of year so even though ill equipped, I kept myself warm-ish by utilizing natural resources. Regardless, it was a lesson I learned the hard way – remote Canadian wilderness can be very cold even in Summer months. Especially at night.
In order to survive, I had to swap night with the day. I got most of my sleep during the day when it was warm and I didn’t have to spend time feeding the fire and when the sun went down, I kept myself entertained by staring at the stars. It’s mind boggling how many of them there are and how clearly they can be seen when you’re away from city lights and pollution.
First night was hands down the worst but I got right down to building a primitive shelter that would tightly wrap around the bed of dry leaves the following day. I kept improving on my natural tent every day, but night time temperature drops were just so severe, I quickly realized that the only way to stay warm at night would be by building a shelter big enough to have a fire inside. If such shelter was well isolated, the fire would keep the interior warm even during freezing nights. One would still need to feed the fire, but pay back in feeling warm over night would be well worth it.
To experience life as a recluse, I returned back to my home country of Canada. There were several reasons for it:
Canada Is Safe
I’ve been half way across the world and have seen firsthand how little personal safety means in some parts of the planets. It is a popular thing to say that third world countries are not any more dangerous than most metropolitan areas in North America or Western Europe but this is just the most dangerously misleading statement ever.
I remember vividly when I first returned back to Canada after spending a year in South East Asia. I needed a new passport because I’d traveled so much my old one was out of blank pages, but I also used the trip back to meet with my accountant to file income tax returns and have thorough medical check-up done which after a year in countries with unsafe water and no hygiene standards in food preparation, as well as high prevalence of dangerous diseases, including Malaria, Dengue Fever and AIDS, was long overdue.
While in South East Asia, I had to adapt to omnipresent dangers, inherent xenophobia, corrupt police and criminals ready to kill at the drop of a hat. I learned to live cautiously and remain vigilant at all times to avoid becoming a victim. Just as everybody else, I put up with recurrent verbal abuse without as much as turning my head and stayed put in a hotel room every day after dark. Not that taking the abuse and keeping low profile made much difference, for in many South East Asian countries you don’t have to look for crime – crime will find you.
Needless to say, after spending a year in crime ridden countries, I returned back to Canada with a mindframe which dictated me to always remain aware of my surroundings, put up with continuous abuse and never leave home after dark. But… then I realized that I had never been abused, nevermind victimized in this country, that going grocery shopping at 11pm is normal here and done by many, and that after you’re done midnight shopping, you can safely carry your groceries home through empty back alleys and won’t experience as much as someone making inappropriate sound.
Even in my home city of Edmonton, Alberta – generally considered to be one of the most crime prone cities in Canada – you’ll have young girls strolling home alone late at night after having a few drinks in a bar and it won’t even cross their mind that it could be dangerous in any way. The worst thing that could happen to them is that they would stumble upon someone they’d like to have sex with and end up getting Chlamydia which they then merrily pass on (yep, talking from experience).
Whoever spreads the misinformation that a visit to third world countries is not any more dangerous than life in most first world cities is a delusional liar. I lived in, or visited New York, Los Angeles, Miami, London, Paris, Berlin, and many other western cities and have never experience anything remotely dangerous to every day existence in SE Asia. While living in London, UK at the end of the 20th century, I stayed in Brixton where I socialized every night by going to clubs and returning from them in the middle of the night every night. I also attended many concerts at the Brixton Academy pacing my way through the borough back and forth on foot.
Brixton, for those who don’t know, is what – to be politically correct – is referred to as a vibrant multi-cultural neighborhood. In other words, it’s considered to be a crime ridden area, a ghetto, however crime ridden in the UK is not the same as crime ridden in Thailand or the Philippines. The nearest I got to crime after 6 months of living in Brixton was being offered ecstasy in a club called Panic. Wicked music in that bar – all really heavy house with guest DJs the world over. Wonder if this club still exists. Since I do not do drugs, I just said I didn’t want anything and that was it.
I’m not trying to say that there is no crime in western cities. Crimes do most certainly occur – sometimes serious crimes – however, one must put things into a perspective before making an assumption. A chance of an encounter with a criminal on a mission in New York exists, but is negligent compared to chances of encountering millions upon millions of people going on about their lives, never engaging in criminal behavior. Most back alleys in New York do not have criminals lurking around at night. I wish I could say the same thing about back alleys in Indonesia or Cambodia.
As someone who’s well aware of dangers, I could not possibly consider any third world country for an extended stay in the wilderness. Being generally safe, my homeland of Canada was a solid bet. I would have liked to do it in other safe countries, such as Iceland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, Japan or Ireland, but because of the 21st century world limitations, these options were either impractical or downright impossible.
Lots of Undisturbed Wilderness in Canada
As far as landmass is concerned, Canada is the second largest country in the world (after Russia) but our population is relatively low – only 34 million people, most of whom live within 200km from the border with the USA on the south of the country (which happens to be the longest land border between two countries in the world). With population density at mere 3.4 people per square kilometer, Canada is one of the least densely populated countries in the world.
To put it into a perspective, the population of the United Kingdom is almost twice that of Canada, but their land area is 41 times smaller than that of Canada, which using unrounded figures adds up to 75 times as many people per square kilometer in the UK than in Canada. And since vast majority of Canadians live near the border with the USA, much of the country remains very sparsely populated.
According to the 2001 census by Statistics Canada, 79.4% of Canadians live in urban centres. That means 27 Million Canadians live in the cities which account for less than 3% of total Canada’s landmass, leaving mere 7 Million to occupy the rest of the world’s second largest country.
According to the same census, only 0.3% of Canada’s total population lives in the polar territories (the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut), yet they account for 41% of Canada’s total landmass. In mathematical terms, there is on average one person per 50 square kilometers in these territories. With this type of population density, finding undisturbed wilderness should not be a problem.
To offer a better perspective on 1 person per 50 square kilometers population density, consider this: population of United Kingdom is just over 62 Million. If their population density was the same as that of northern Canada, there would be all together 4,872 people in the UK. If Lebanon had the same population density, the country would only have 200 people (population of Lebanon is currently 4.2 Million).
Canada is simply an ideal place for people seeking remote, undisturbed wilderness. What’s better yet – not only is there nature and solitude aplenty, the vast stretches of Canada’s north are still sure to have places where no human foot stepped before. How is that for an adventure?
Canadian Wilderness is Safe
I have considered wilderness recluse in other countries, but since I wanted this to be a positive experience without compromising my personal safety, much of the world was not an option. None of the countries in the tropical regions, for instance, were an option because their jungles are simply as dangerous as their cities (with dangerous wildlife being the least of your concern).
However even if safety could be ensured, unlike Canada, most tropical countries are heavily overpopulated (while people in the first world countries work hard to multiply their wealth, people in the third world countries just multiply) so finding true solitude is difficult with chances of someone walking across you increasingly high.
Canada is also nowhere near as corrupt as many third world countries so should my recluse get noticed, it wouldn’t result in extortion or worse.
Personal safety is a no issue in countries like Iceland, Switzerland or New Zealand as they are both safe (people don’t casually murder those they randomly stumble across) and not overpopulated, but life in a 21st century world makes extended stays in countries you are not a citizen of challenging (more on this in the next section).
I Don’t Need Visa for Canada
A stay in countries other than your own typically involves several restrictions. The length of your stay is usually limited to a couple of months at the most and so are activities in which you are allowed to engage. Self sustaining life in the wild is a perfect excuse for a corrupt police officer to abuse his power and extort money from you so sticking with facilities for tourists is recommended.
Being a citizen of Canada allows me to stay in my own country indefinitely and roam the Crown Land (that’s what we call public land in Canada) freely at my own leisure. I don’t need to apply for visa to stay in Canada for as long as I need nor to explain to anyone what I want to do while I’m here.
I would love to experience life as a recluse in Iceland, as countries don’t get any safer and friendlier than that, plus Iceland is incredibly beautiful, has some of the world’s cleanest and healthiest water and coastline abundant with fish never too far away, but as a non Icelanders I’d have a lot of explaining to do to get through the loopholes and roadblocks that would green-light me for my recluse and I wanted this to be my private, secret mission I could complete without anyone looking over my shoulder. I had to ditch this idea.
Life in the 21st century world is full of restrictions and bureaucracy. We don’t live in the hunter/gatherer society with people free to move anywhere they want and able to choose how they make their living. It makes all attempts to live the hunter gatherer style exceedingly challenging and difficult. I had to make work-arounds with these restrictions in mind which made my options few.
Survivalism in Canadian Wilderness Is Only for the Tough
I did take my shot at wilderness survivalism in tropical jungles and enjoyed it profusely. I was restricted by the above mentioned reasons, but chose a relatively safe area in Malaysian Borneo and made a deal with natives who call it their home so my presence was known and accepted, minimizing any potential of attacks.
I stayed with a community that makes their living collecting bird’s nests in a complex of caves in eastern Sarawak. To make long story short, while jungle survival had its challenges, I found the fact that coconut grows in jungles year round and takes less than a month to grow to full harvest a cheat that made survival there too easy.
With nourishment for your body taken care of, you’ll have a lot of energy left for everything else. Compared to that, survival in Canada is far more challenging and that makes it more interesting. Canada goes through all four seasons, including harsh winters during which survival becomes a real challenge and a test of manness. And I’m not a girl.
I went to live in a recluse because my heart could not take any more falsehood, duplicity, hypocrisy, corruption, malice, cruelty, egotism, narcissism, greed, hostility, delinquency and dishonesty. I desired purity, righteousness, compassion, kindness, hospitality, integrity, uprightness and respect. Because I could not find any of the latter without prevalence of the former among humans, I left to live where the latter reigns.
So one day, without much planning or preparing, without consulting with anyone or seeking permission, I left and stayed gone, unaccounted for to everyone but God. I lived face to face with myself, depriving all living men from a chance to disturb me. I gave and was given, for in a company of Mother Nature, sharing is unconditional.
This extraordinary undertaking has taught me many things. Things about myself, about my soul, about self-reliance, about poverty, about silence, about my back country and about the downsides of living in a non hunter/gatherer society. Let me reflect on my experiences and share some of the knowledge acquired with you. I will explain in a little more detail what life as a recluse has taught me in next several posts. Click on the NEXT button at the top to browse through it.
Solitude is bliss. It is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever experienced. Life as a recluse taught me that solitude and loneliness are two very different experiences and that being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. As a matter of fact, I found that loneliness is much closer to alienation than it is to solitude and alienation is experienced when there are other people around. If you go recluse on the society, you’ll give it no opportunity to single you out and make you feel isolated which in turn eliminates any chances of feeling lonely.
Henry David Thoreau, great writer and philosopher who spent 2 years living in voluntary isolation by Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts said it best:
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.
As you shun society, you are compensated with peace and develop appreciation of it. The abundance of time and beauty that surround you will inspire peaceful inner experiences which are laced with incredibly uplifting spirits. I found that time away in solitude is very rejuvenating and boosts both health and happiness.
Allow your mind to quiet down and you’ll see your heart grow more than it ever did before. When you are alone, there is nobody there to judge you and point fingers at you. You can be yourself the way you’re meant to be. Solitude is a great way to awaken your inner child and open up to wonderment you last experienced when you were little.
Feel your soul awaken to health, purity and harmony and let your internal energy sources catch new breath. It will force you into solidarity with yourself and give you a fresh new passion to live and make use of your time. And in the end you’ll understand that being outwardly deprived is very inwardly enriching.
My experience with solitude helped me become more humble and come to terms with many of my life’s issues. I haven’t completely settled down with myself yet, but this was just me getting my feet wet. I now understand how many lessons one can learn from a lifestyle of simplicity and purity and I’m not gonna stop learning after just one chapter.
When you are alone, when you are standing there face to face with yourself and nature is the only thing to judge the duel, you are reminded of birth, death and interdependence. The modern society obstacles that prevented you from manifesting your true self no longer exist. You gain complete immunity to the inner tension forced upon you by the world you used to be a part of.
Here in the wild, you are not judged. Being alone does not mean you’re lonesome, having nothing does not mean you’re poor, letting go does not mean you’re weak. Here in the wild, whisper can roar as loudly as thunder. The best way to dislike someone is to live with them. So go out and experience the bliss of solitude for yourself.
I started playing with an idea of living like a hermit shortly after I’ve reached an advanced stage of spiritual freedom. I longed for a full on hermit experience – to withdraw entirely from the society and move into the wilderness where I would live completely alone, in complete solitude with nothing but my two bare hands. Surrounded by silence and undisturbed by the messiness of the outside world, I looked to the hermit experience as a means into a deeper sense of my own self.
In my case, there were a few additional reasons that drew me towards the hermit experience. For one I wanted to see what I’m really capable of and whether I’m really as tough as I’d like to think I am, but I also wanted to get a taste of what it’s like surviving with absolutely nothing. And when I say “absolutely nothing”, I very much mean “absolutely nothing”.
You can’t truly understand poverty, unless you have absolutely nothing. You can’t truly understand loneliness unless you are completely alone. But most of all – you can’t truly understand what you’re really capable of, unless you have to do it all on your own, with no chance of anyone offering a helping hand or advice.
There was also this fact that many great spiritual leaders went through the hermit experience before reaching their apex as spiritual leaders. Buddha did it, Jesus Christ did it, Moses did it, Prophet Muhammad did it… you can go quite a ways back to understand what profound impact withdrawal from society and return to the simple life had on some of the greatest names from the past.
If these great spiritual leaders did it and considered it one of the most important stepping stones on their path to greatness, it was only a question of time before a desire to enhance my personal growth by seeking simple life and withdrawal from society popped into my mind. It was a natural progression of the things to come.
We all search for the unknowable – whether knowingly or unknowingly – we all pace the same universal path to the bottom of our hearts, where we hope to find the answers. But as the demands of our daily lives increase, the touch with our otherwise abundant inner nature gets lost and the quest for the answers returns zero results.
My first run at living in solitude exposed me to a different, much truer and more satisfying me. Perhaps it was the silence so deafening I could hear my every heartbeat echo through the woods, perhaps it was the closeness with nature and all of her creatures who embraced me as one of their own, perhaps it was the stars I could see so brightly and distinctly I felt like I’m flying through space, or perhaps it was all of it together that returned me to my original, unadulterated state in which I reconnected with the vital forces of life and creation and experienced feeling of time that expanded to its relaxed abundance, affording me the most gratifyingly ample feeling that there was nothing more I needed to do than just sit and appreciate the beauty of nature and life within it as it was presenting itself to me at that very moment.
The Hermit Experience
I don’t have talent for writing so I’ll just quote Henry David Thoreau because it simply cannot be said any better (you may have heard this quote if you saw the movie Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams):
I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
I went into the wilderness for 3 months without telling anyone. I carefully picked a very remote lake in Northern Alberta and completely disappeared without a trace. I packed my netbook and camera along but didn’t have a solar charger so their power only lasted for initial few days. Learning to slow down was single most difficult part which I’m gonna have to continue working on as I still haven’t mastered it. I returned back solely to clear the path for my next, longer stay away from the consumer society.
I didn’t ask for permission, I didn’t waste time trying to explain to anyone why I needed to do it – I simply did it. To my surprise, after I came clean with my parents, they weren’t mad. Not even after I told them that this was just a warm up and that I will go back after I’ve taken care of a few legal and moral obligations my citizenship requires of me. My dad’s response was that I involved myself in more than too many crazy adventures in the past and many worked out for me, so there was little to raise concern that I’d have any difficulty pulling this one through just as successfully.
There was simply no argument my parents could make to counter my intention to leave behind this insane money-chasing, going-nowhere life in a pretentious and superficial world where I was along with other zombies naught more than a living dead in a scheme laid up by power-tripping war lords.
My mom’s illogically baseless statement that life in the wilderness could be dangerous was the easiest to counter. I mean, how could life away from drug dealers, rapists, murderers, drunk drivers and other human filth be dangerous? Potential dangers lurk around anywhere you go, but in general terms, it doesn’t get any safer than when you are away from people.
My parents are deeply religious so their main disappointment with me is that I don’t go to church like they had taught me to, but if I were to acknowledge the existence of God, I wouldn’t expect to find him in the filth of the greed-fuelled war machine. I’d look for him in rivers that flow through land, in animals that tread its soil, in rocks that crown proud mountain tops. I’d look for him in flowers that add fragrance to the meadows, in pine needles that soften up the mountain floors, in drops of mist that glide lazily through the shades of endless forests. God is Earth and whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of Earth. We are all Sons of Earth.
My philosophy is kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water. I want to embrace a slow living lifestyle which would allow me to serve the Earth and appreciate her beauty. I want to live in rhythm with nature and her seasons for they each are beautiful in their own individualistic way. I want to take time out to watch clouds glade over the moon, sunrise outline the shape of the mountains and thunderstorm light up the northern sky.
At my first run at living alone in the wilderness, I lived like a hermit. Because I don’t live in a hunter/gatherer society and my country has enforceable laws I as its citizen am subjected to, I’m presently taking care of my obligations so I can return to the wilderness and stay there for a long time. But this time around I won’t live like a hermit, I will live as one.