Getting lost, eaten alive by bugs and rained on between quad-burning hills is sometimes just a part of going out into the woods. We don’t go because it’s easy, but do we shoulder a pack because it’s hard?
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Beta, survivalist and contributor Jim Baird makes his case for adding a little bit of suffer into your next adventure.
The remote wilderness of Canada’s Labrador is a beautiful, but a harsh and rugged place. The landscape is dotted with jagged mountains, and thousands of wild rivers and lakes. Long winters regularly see snow accumulation of over eight feet. In summer, black flies can be so thick that it’s not uncommon for a single clap to kill fifty. The northern coast houses icebergs and polar bears, while much of it’s interior is covered with stunted black spruce forests or tundra. Many of its rivers pose a serious whitewater challenge and reaching the interior by canoe requires significant upriver travel.
During a visit to the town of Goose Bay, I had the chance to sit down with legendary Labradorian Joe Goudie. He told me of the feats his father Jim, and his brother, Horace, achieved in the 1930’s when they worked as trappers in interior Labrador. One of the most notable stories included 2000 miles of paddling, portaging and snowshoeing over a span of less than eight months. Life as a trapper in those days meant an extreme amount of hard physical work. In fact, just reaching the trapping grounds meant 500 miles of upriver travel and a 30-mile portage. With the brutal labor endured, one could think that Horace and his father where slaves to their lifestyle, and would have left it in a heartbeat if other employment opportunities arose. However, in his autobiography, “Trails To Remember”, Horace makes it clear that he didn’t just survive this life of “hardship”, he thrived in it.
I met Joe just after getting off the Northern Ranger, one of two ferries that service the remote Labrador coast. Our group of four had just completed a 33-day canoe expedition, which was as hard as a month-long trip gets by today’s standards. Our route included multiple trail-less portages, two of them lasting over two days in length, 9 miles of upriver travel, dangerous open water crossings, bone crushing whitewater, and travel on four different rivers. Yet despite the hardships, it was one of my favorite trips of all time.
A sufferfest allows you to access seldom seen places, view more abundant wildlife, and cast for fish that’ve never seen a hook. But there are other motives that operate from a deeper place within us. Here are five reasons to plan one of your own.
#1 You Will Get Inspired
You need to find motivation. Stories like Horace’s inspire me to push on when times get tough and to search out challenging trips for the future. With the feeling of accomplishment after completing a challenging trip that scares me is gratifying. Nothing is more rewarding in life than facing your fears, and believe me, it can be scary before you venture off on a difficult wilderness trip. But I find it’s moments on hard trips that are among the most enriching in life – and they make you appreciate life so much more.
#2 You Find Out What you Can Really Do
Many people of Horace Goudie’s time, and before achieved impressive feats on a regular basis, in fact, doing so was the norm for many in 1930s Labrador. Physical conditioning is a huge part of what makes these feats possible, but it’s also what’s in your head. Things that seemed tough when I began undertaking expeditionary wilderness adventures were harder to me when I started pushing my boundaries, even at times when I was in better shape. Backpacking 10km with a heavy load was a chore. Now, a tough day is twice that. What you can mentally handle will increase with the more sufferfests you complete.
As your ability to suffer increases, you’ll find you’ll want to to ramp up the difficulty of your trips to keep challenging yourself. But you want to increase the difficulty of your trips in increments, because you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, or you might wind up in trouble. Slowly raise the bar with the difficulty of your trips, and before too long, you’ll still be having fun in a given situation, when a couple years prior you’d have been ready to call in a heli-evac. You’ll realize that your breaking point is far beyond where you ever thought it could be, and that you are stronger than you think.
# 3 Personal Growth
It’s early 2017, and after spending 75 days surviving in the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, and filming everything – no camera crews, my brother Ted, and I won season 4 of History Channel’s show Alone. And we took home the 500,000$ reward that comes with outlasting the other competing groups. After we got out of the wilderness, it was mandatory that each contestant receives a psychological evaluation. Survival, even if it is for a TV show, can weigh heavily on the mind. I explained to the psychologist, that yes, there were times in my stint that were incredibly hard, and both physically and mentally painful. But that now I feel deeply content, more connected with myself, and more connected to the things and people that matter in my life. He told me that I’d gone through a period of personal growth, and that you can’t go through a period of personal growth without a period of pain. I take the hardships endured on sufferfests as just that. The pain you need to endure to be able to grow as a person, and experience life to the fullest.
# 4 You Will Learn What it’s Like to Conquer Fear
This past July my wife, Tori, and I spent eight days backpacking 100 miles through the Canadian Rockies, walking from the Trans Canada Highway in Jasper, National Park, to Grand Cache, Alberta, crossing the Wilmore Wilderness en route. Before we began the trip, we knew it would be the toughest thing we’d ever done together, and one of the toughest I’ve ever done too. Our packs were heavy – because admittedly, we’re not the best at traveling light, packing out camera equipment and solar chargers. On the sixth day Métis horse packers we bumped into weighed my bag at 65lbs and Tori’s at 55. I’m scared to know what they weighed at the beginning of the trip, but on the morning of Day 2, we were amazed at how mobile we were after feeling totally broken at the end of our 15.9 mile first day. Pushing on, we were demolished again that evening and our campsite on day two presented our last chance to bail on the trip. Here, we were about a day’s trek from a road. After that, we’d be deep in the wilderness.
It’s funny though, despite the fact that we felt mentally and physically broken on the last three miles of the trail each day, we’d always feel mentally great when we got to camp. That last three miles is where feelings of fear would encroach. Fears like, are we going to make it to camp today? and if we can’t make it today, will we be able make it to the end of the trip? Will we run out of food? will my blisters become infected? Is my body going to be able to handle this amount of pain and physical exertion? Yet, these feelings were always alleviated as soon as we’d reach camp where we’d be struck with a new found confidence that grew with each day. Getting to camp meant we’d made another 12+ miles and were on schedule. It meant we’d reached another mini-goal and we’d proved our fears wrong once again. It was really a mental game. We kept pushing, and on day eight we finished our trip on time. A wave of happiness and fulfillment came over us as we high fived, and dropped our heavy packs.
The initial feeling was soon replaced by a bitter-sweet feeling, which slowly turned to near sadness that the trip was over. It’s funny that despite the pain, fears, and exhaustion of sufferfests, it’s still sad when they’re over. It goes to show that on the trail, just like in life, we take hard knocks as we conquer fears and accumulate a mass of smaller goals in pursuit of our larger ones, but the real feeling of accomplishment is not held solely in the end goal, rather in the journey. It’s the smaller progresses of each day that reward us with a steady flow of happiness. In life, it doesn’t always come as automatically as it does on the trail, so sometimes you might need to take a second to acknowledge it.
# 5 It Will Make Other Parts Of Your Life Better
Doing hard things by your own muscle, sweat and blood in the outdoors helps you develop a deep determination and willpower, and it puts you in touch with your basic needs for survival. If you can handle a sufferfest, and come out with a feeling of pride at the other end, other hardships life throws at you won’t seem so hard. Your true reward on completion will be a deep sense of pride, and a confidence that can’t be found any other way.
In Horace’s obituary a line read, “Horace lived his life exactly the way he wanted to live it”. So go ahead, plan a sufferfest and live your life the way YOU want to live it.