Back-Country Travel in the Age of Constant Communication
“We decompressed into wilderness and silence, spewing residual tension and noise in all directions until we approached the emptiness of our surroundings and could feel again. Absorb again.”
— Doug Robinson, from A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open (Mountain N’ Air Books, LaCrescenta California, 1996)
Over the past forty years I have lived and worked and made long expeditions in Canada’s North, and I have seen many changes in the core elements of wilderness travel. The gear has changed, yes, and in some ways it has improved. Canoes, dogsleds, tents, stoves, clothing… the quest for improvement and innovation never ends. The cleverness of our tool-making is a wonder, and a caution.
Most of these refinements and innovations are not harbingers of a sea change in the realm of back-country travel. What does constitute a sea change — an upheaval, a revolution — (for no word seems too strong) is the steady infiltration, by an insidious category of innovations and tools, into the daily rhythms (and blues) of expedition life and wilderness travel. I refer of course to the tools of communication.
I work as a bush pilot and guide, based in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Nowadays when I drop off a small canoe party out in the vast barrenlands, at the jumping-off place for a long journey down a remote Arctic river, we chat as we unload the packsacks and the canoes and the food barrels. As we finish, and I prepare to fly away, I take a moment to ask: “And what are you carrying, for communication?” It is no longer the older question from years past: “Do you have any means of communication?” Rather, these days, two-way communication is assumed, and it is only a matter of inquiring politely as to which of the tools the party is carrying. And — this is the subtle clue I am seeking as I hear their answers — what is their attitude toward these devices on their journey?
Too often (to my way of thinking) these days, my question is answered with a breathless laundry list of devices and technologies: SPOT, DeLorme InReach, Iridium, InfoSat, GlobalStar, VHF, ELT, PLB, WeatherLink, and every year or two a new one I have not heard of. These whiz-bang communication tools have made the HF radio (not to mention Morse code, semaphore, and smoke signals) obsolete, and they allow constant two-way satellite-linked tracking, message-sending, and weather forecasting, all in places where only a short time ago a weekly check-in on a static-buzzing radio channel was considered downright extravagant. Hearing the list, gauging the tone and inflection of the description, I glean some notion of the party’s motives and philosophy, and their perception of the nature of their journey. I make a silent guess as to how often I, and others, will hear from them, and under what circumstances, in the weeks ahead.
I listen, and I only speak up strongly, in response, if I gather that everything might wind up depending upon these tools of communication. For despite all these ways and means, the itinerary for a trip in a landscape as vast as the tundra (think ocean, large empty ocean) should never be summed up by “Well, we are just going to see how it goes, and call for a pickup wherever we are when we get close to our end date.” “Not good enough!” I blurt out. There must be a place the party will try to reach, or where they will remain, a date when they are to be considered overdue, and this must all be written down and handed to someone so that when the — SPOT Iridium InReach Global Talkie Walkie Digital Doo Dad — is crushed beneath a boulder or lost to the river or chewed by a wolverine, we who will be starting to wonder will know where to begin looking, and when.
There is that workaday aspect of all this, and then there is another aspect. I will not try here to answer for others, but will only pose this question: How does this new realm and reality of “constant connectedness” change the spirit, the mystery, the intangible essence, of our journeys out into the wild silent spaces of the world?”
As you pack your gear, take a moment to heft all those parts and pieces of this wondrous technology, one at a time, in the palm of your hand. Consider how you will use these tools, and how you may in fact be used by them. Think about what you will allow – or not allow – this new option of “connectedness” to become, for you, on your journey. Your journey!
— The article above first appeared in the journal Tvergastein in December 2016, in the issue devoted to the topic of Travel. Tvergastein takes its name from the mountain cabin of Norwegian philosopher and activist Arne Naess, the thinker credited with coining the term “deep ecology.” Tvergastein is online at http://www.tvergastein.com. This month here at the Hoarfrost River we are busy preparing for, hosting, and guiding 13 students and a professor from the University of Alberta, Augustana campus. I will return in March.