I’d much rather be here on the ground
wishing I were in the air
than in the air wishing
I were on the ground.
Quoted in Deep Survival
I see them in pictures nestled on the sides of mountains in the inspiring swale of the Rockies or the Cascades. Tiny, diminutive tents where inhabitants are poised for the great ascent in the days to follow.
Here in the Canoe Country base camps afford very little value. Here supplies are freighted and accompany those who set out. I have known of few instances where it was necessary to bring in goods to be retrieved at some later time. For those on the way to Hudson Bay, sometimes seventeen-foot canoes need to be brought in by train. Here they will be exchanged for the large North Canoes that have transported groups across Lake Winnipeg.
Most canoe trips are not like that. Canoes are fleet and agile crafts, easily adaptable to most conditions in the North. While size restricts the amount they can carry, that can be a good thing. Portages come easier. It reminds us of the more primitive where we don’t have all the luxuries of life back home. Canoes and the hardships of the trail have a way of keeping things lean and stripped down.
For any challenging venture, base camps are necessary. If lines become too extended, if one mismanages the delicate balance between too much and too little, there is a danger that those who attempt might not survive.
I think of the establishment of extensive base camps moving up the mountains, for example, on K2 or Everest. Gradually, these safe havens become smaller. Still, they are a place for storing up what might be needed at the higher elevations.
They become places to retreat to, harbors to wait out the weather.
Here, human company is enjoyed where radios can be set up to stay in contact with those supporting the ascent.
Psychologically, base camps provide a measure of consolation knowing climbers are not alone in a hostile and unforgiving landscape. They point to a habitation on the far margins of the familiar world.
In swirling snow and with conditions growing worse, even in snow ditches dug out to escape the unrelenting cold, they provide assurance there is a place where reserves have not been exhausted.
Base camps are also necessary in life if we are to be successful. Too many people attempt an ascent carelessly, thinking defiance and bravado and the will to overcome is enough to take them to the summit. They have not planned for the support they will need.
They are unaware that unless conditions
are perfect, they will fail in their attempts.
I think about base camps this time of year as the lake prepares for summer boats.
Back in the days of voyageurs, it was imperative they plan correctly to leave places such as Grand Portage to make it back to Quebec City, or to the hinterlands of the Athabaskan country. Once there, they would have provisions to take them through the winter.
But if delay cost them, they would risk canoes being frozen in small tributary streams. There would be incredible hardship and danger in not making it home. Perhaps some provision was set aside along the route to rely on if limits were stretched.
If you read books about the race to the South Pole, you will know that Scott approached this in the conventional European way of laying in large stocks of food and equipment to accompany him on his journey. Finding them in a seamless world of ice and cloud cover would cost him vital time and eventually end in failure and death.
Amundsen, on the other hand, embraced the traditional ways and lived as natives, procuring provisions as he moved across treeless expanses of endless ice. He succeeded in reaching his objective.
And so, we have these two imperatives where we must walk a fine and carefully constructed line: the need for base camps that can support us, and the knowing we will also be provisioned along the way with opportunities we cannot yet imagine.
In our planning, there must be some recognition we will have what we need when it is necessary. We don’t have to know everything. We can’t guarantee outcomes, but once we have set off, it is likely that some essentials will need to be there that can assist us.
Still, to embark without consideration for what will be necessary is foolhardy. Nature will not forgive the lapses in judgment, the naiveté, the hubris of those who think they can overcome by sheer force of will or imagination or blind luck.
* * *
Base camps are not the entire journey. Few intrepid explorers in this day, as well as in the past, would be satisfied knowing they had arrived only to set up camp. One does not stay there except to acclimate to the altitude, or to wait out nasty weather. It is not a place where one wants to establish too much comfort. Otherwise, ambitions might be lost.
However, base camps provide us with platforms where we can venture out knowing we have the support if it is needed. There is a plan B, and moving up towards goals is an incremental matter of building a structure as well as taking chances. In doing this, we can move forward with a higher degree of certainty.
From perches higher up the face we can look down and occasionally see the infinitesimally small beads of nylon color that remind us we are not over-extended or alone.
There are places in a world of immensity we can call home, and, because of this, it gives us greater confidence in moving towards the pinnacle of our experience.