Northern adventures can be tough. To live outside for a hundred days on the Barrens in the NWT without any protection from the elements other than rain gear and a nylon tent is a jarring adjustment from the comforts of home. Even more so with an autoimmune illness tagging along. Some friends wonder how I can tackle a remote long-distance paddling trip while struggling with lupus. But after 20 years adventuring in the North, I have become comfortable being uncomfortable. In truth, I believe backcountry travel, even with an autoimmune illness, is easier than maintaining a full-time job.
Life in the backcountry is more forgiving for someone who struggles to keep up with the pace and franticness of everyday life. Rest is crucial in managing an autoimmune illness and there is seldom enough time in a day to do so while juggling work and chores. Outside, I can live on my own terms, following only the whim of the weather, the wildlife, and the boyfriend. There are no schedules telling me where I should be and when I should arrive. Without timelines or deadlines, I am free to travel at my own pace. And my partner John and I? We travel slow.
I have learned to adapt to the challenges of backcountry travel by giving myself extra days—time for lollygagging and dilly-dallying, for exploring and observing. There is no final destination we are racing toward, no monumental feat we are trying to achieve. Daily life is simplified. We wake. Enjoy breakfast. Savour coffee. Paddle. Hike. Portage. Mind the bears. Watch the wolverine. Search for bird nests. Gobble up berries. Nap. Cook dinner. Read a book. Sleep. Wake, and repeat.
Sure, there are times we must paddle for 12 hours to take advantage of calm spells, but inevitably on the Barrens, we will be wind bound on shore for a day or three. These are the days we rest, sleep in, saunter about the tundra, and stroll beaches.
There are few distractions; no emails awaiting a response. No cell service. No one is tailgating us. There are no engines revving or mufflers blaring, interrupting thoughts, waking us from naptime. There are only bears and moose to interrupt our bliss, and they are far less frightening to me than highway traffic.
We are also free from societal pressures about appearances and outfits. We simply put on the same clothes we wore the day before, and the month before that. Compression gloves to quell joint pain and swelling have become essential clothing for me but I hesitate to wear them around town. Their hideous aesthetic elicits stares and questions. “What are you wearing? Why are you wearing those?” Questions I would rather not answer. There is no one on the Barrens being nosy, allowing me to wear ugly gloves freely. Outside, there is no need to hide my illness, mask my pain or frustrations. My limited energy is not wasted on pretending to be fine. I am free to vent my frustrations to the wide-open skies of the Barrens.
Also helping to keep my body healthy is the occasional dose of fear—the most effective and natural of cleanses. That tired saying, “Scared the shit out of me,” is literally true. In those moments, standing on a cliff edge overlooking a long stretch of whitewater, fear, and dread overwhelms my system. John sees it only as a positive as it lightens the portage load.
I have had to make adjustments to my approach to backcountry travel. There are far fewer 50-kilometre hiking days, fewer 12-hour paddling days. I must always consider how I am feeling. But by listening to my body, allowing it time to rest, and avoiding stress, I can control my symptoms. I am grateful my lupus remains manageable and I have begun to understand its nature.
In the beginning, I resisted the idea of being ill. I pushed myself in the mountains, refused to slow down. But once I accepted my diagnosis and began working with it, I learned to relish the quieter days. I enjoy sauntering now. I appreciate more the places I am able to travel, all the wild places I have been fortunate to nap in.