Thoughts and admittedly a bit of a rant  on the Wilderness Superhero “Look-at-Me” Adventure Narrative

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Thoughts and admittedly a bit of a rant  on the Wilderness Superhero “Look-at-Me” Adventure Narrative

Bob Henderson


I am a big fan of singer-songwriter Todd Snider’s opening to a song: “I’m not trying to change your mind about anything, I’m trying to ease my mind about everything.” And this is my personal aspiration here. I am on a rant and a semi call-out to various adventure narrative  writers with the grunt and “firsts” and embellishment tendencies. Also, before I begin, I am painfully aware that I am going against my preference to focus on the positive, not the negative. Or using language reminiscent of Eric Fromm, my preference is to focus on what I am obedient to, not that to which I am disobedient.” Here I will go against my own grain and focus on my disobedience in a rant, that in the spirit of Todd Snider, I have to get off my chest. Finally, I write this from the perspective that I’m going to die tomorrow. Therefore, I will be more direct, certainly more honest and courageous than I might otherwise be. In short, I will not be worried about pissing people off. I claim the privilege of a curmudgeon. 


 I’ve recently read three-and-a-half adventure narratives and have had several discussions with travellers and educators on this topic. Over my lifetime though, I am confident I have read well over 100 adventure narratives, contemporary and historical. I will give them category names as we go along. It seems there are an increased number of grunts, firsts and embellishments with less inclusion of place and culture.  I will not dispute the notion of character building of self-propelled outdoor travel, but what kind of character building? I worry that we tend to promote the wrong moral traits. I know that sounds arrogant, but I am concerned, and as Martin Hagglund suggests, in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, “concern presupposes that something can go wrong or get lost: otherwise we would not care.” 


But first, a telling metaphor courtesy of Diane Ackerman’s book A Natural History of the Senses. 


Have you ever heard of a “love apple”? In the Elizabethan Age (1560-1600) lovers would exchange such apples. You peel an apple and put it under your armpit until it absorbs your scent, then you and your lover make the erotic sensory exchange for mutual inhaling. We’ve drifted from that bit of sensuality, haven’t we? Now we mask our scent with deodorants and perfumes, finding our own natural odour offensive.  I can’t help but think we’ve got that one all wrong. I suppose the keyword is “natural”. The deodorant has become so culturally ingrained that we’ve stopped questioning – and perhaps even thinking of – it. A hint for identifying such unnecessary, unquestioned things is this: when there has to be a healthy dose of advertising to promote said idea (i.e., replacing our natural odour (masking only) for artificial ones), then one should question the worth of the idea itself. 


 Something similar is happening in our relationship with nature. Like covering our natural scent, might we be masking some truer, deeper relationship with nature?  Human/Nature relations actual and potential and latent impulses for self-realization in Nature: that is too broad a topic. So I’ll stick to Canadian adventure paddling narratives. I’ve read a lot of such books and articles over the years and if you’re reading this, you probably have too. 


Let’s look into this. 


 I want to address the “look at me–you can’t do this!” adventure narrative. You won’t hear it called that but that is often one of the not so hidden messages.  Another message is, of course, the almost otherworldly physical energy and mental resilience demonstrated in the “this many kilometres a day” thinking. A recent Canadian Geographic Society sponsored group paddled south to north in Labrador. On their first day they travelled 51 kms. In most guiding experiences, one seeks an easier first day to work one’s way into the flow of a trip carefully/slowly. The trip is billed as a first. It might well be but usually you should ask, “Who’s to know?” The fact that this one is being videoed and written up might not make it a first. Though this one might be given that the lay of the land and water runs mostly west to east. Seems an unnecessarily contrived challenge 


This rant though has cultural concerns.  A friend, Phil Mullins, makes a distinction between wilderness and sustainable approaches to travel. He and I are paddling in the same current.  Phil, along with many these days, will wisely tell us that we paddle in peopled/contested landscapes, not “wilderness.”  An approach that acknowledges that; one that honours local traditions, is place responsive and aware of our need for a de-colonizing personal journey will be one trending towards a more “sustainable” way of relationship and character building in nature. Our culture needs such relationality – more inclusion of place and cultures. I like the way he paddles in the currents. It can be a new zest for life. 


When our modern Canadian paddling “explorers” (also a problematic assumption) go down the waterway of obscure (read: artificial) challenges, what for decades I’ve been cheekily calling “the fluvial virginity syndrome,” you get such endurance-focused, at times, narcissistic narratives devoid of…well…the place of travel. Nature portrayed as sparring partner! The mountain equivalent is the peak-bagging narrative. 


I don’t doubt that there is a zest for life in such travel. I assume it is an obsession to endure, to overcome, to suffer even.  One author of my three and a half narratives put it this way: “reveal in the punishment.” Pardon me if I’ve missed some salient spiritual, philosophical insight.  “When getting to the finish is primary, I see little more than a “joy of grunt.” All else is secondary. Does it have to be so physically difficult? One might ask, “is it worth it?” What is wrong or lost along the way? I’ll return to this question later. I see toxic masculinity in this punishment: toxic to the body, to indigeneity, and toxic to outdoor educator’s efforts, as an expression in a culture realm, to seek some ecologically place- based consciousness.  I think I am supposed to see some glory of respect in the punishment.


Within these adventure narratives, every day and most every page can be the same: blood sucking bugs, crotch-deep in mud, boils on the feet, blisters on the hands: ever proximal danger.  In one such book, I developed, after a while, a strategy of reading the first sentence of each paragraph, but yes, I kept reading because I was interested in the route. However, I was not sufficiently rewarded with route insight. If you do travel about a bit yourself, such person-centered-against-nature writing just gets boring after awhile. One grunt day looks like another. You have expectations for some insight in a place-responsive manner. Or, you hope for some insight into the deeper character of the traveller. And to be fair, some adventure narratives do this. I am not talking centrally about those ones. 


And then there is  the “explore” label and the claim of discoveries made in wilderness?  If there is not a written record about a river and when it is paddled, is that what qualifies a trip as “wilderness exploration”? Such “discoveries” seems to overlook the much-travelled nature of these lands. More than likely, “these rivers-without-chroniclers” were common indigenious peoples family routes in a planned trade rendezvous network (see Conrad Heidenreich’s work on pre-contact trade routes). Then there is food gathering, fur trade and trapping travel. People have lived here for millennia.  Most of us have long past dismissive attitudes towards indigenous peoples as to call the Canadian bush “wilderness” where “discoveries” are made.  I really thought we were past that. 


Show me a “new route discovered and explored” and those people, with the right observational skills, will show you tent rings, axe blaze marks on faint trails and the remnants of campfires. Ernest Oberholtzer said of his Anishinaabe guide Billy Magee, “he could feel the trail under his feet, where it once had been.” Now that’s what I am talking about when I say “observational skills.” I am not saying I have those skills down pat but I am aspiring to them and that demands attention to the land and a pace and respect of travel that allows for such learning. There is character building” in this quest to.  Do the ego driven modern “explorers” even have the wherewithal to notice these subtle signs of folks who have previously passed this way, let alone share this knowledge to others who vicaroiusly follow their exploits?


The aggrandized term “expedition” is often used by our modern explorers to describe relatively modest travels. It is suggested here to think of your travels against a backdrop of canoe travel history before throwing around words like discovery and expedition. Sure it works sometimes, but often the label is not the best choice. In the early 1700s the Blackfoot would, in the early spring, descend the Red Deer and Bow Rivers to the Saskatchewan to Hudson Bay, to await European trading ships on the shore of Hudson Bay. In some years, they would return empty handed late in the autumn; the ships having either failed to arrive or arrive too late for a safe return upriver. Now that’s an expedition (see Arthur Ray’s work). Suffice it to say, if you know something of Canadian paddle history pre and post contact, you’d be careful with your usage of the term expedition. Europeans; Franklin, Hanbury and Hearne in the barren grounds come to mind as folks on expeditions. The aforementioned Oberholtzer, an early canoe travel recreationalist, who traveled with guide Billy Magee in Northern Manitoba and areas north into Hudson Bay was out for 133 days travelling over 2,000 miles (3220 km). He wanted to be part of the tradition of his hero J.B.Tyrrell who surveyed that country less than twenty years earlier.   There’s a recreational expedition. William Epps Cormack traversing the Newfoundland interior seeking friendly contact with any remaining Beothuk peoples on an expedition that made sense and had genuine purpose. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be throwing around lofty terms especially for obscure firsts and contrived challenges that hardly make sense other than for the rigour itself. If our modern “explorers” were to learn of such travel histories, their exploits of trips may not seem as grand. I can see both sides. Perhaps within the context of our relatively modern sheltered lives, folks today are looking for a grand adventure. But. let them show a little modesty and understanding of the traditions to which they might aspire to be apart. 


There is another kind of “look-at-me–you can’t do this” adventure narrative: less the (not always but trending towards) narcissistic endurance/hardship show and more exhilarating stunt stuff which often involves danger endeavours for the sheer thrill of it.  Honestly, I read much less of this type of literature, so I should take a pass. I will say more in passing that I value few of these narratives, whether they be about kayaking off a waterfall or free climbing.  It is more the sentiment that the places don’t seem to matter at all that irks me. Here’s a passage from one such acrobatic adventure narrative: “And if one is going to travel, the particular place you go matters less than what it leads you to explore within yourself. In the end, a mountain is just a mountain and a river just a river, unless you approach it with open ears and eyes, and especially, an open heart.” Then, why not an urban flooded culvert paddle run that teaches much about the self? I read into this passage that the place–the river–hardly matters. 


There are also “look-at-me–you CAN do this” narratives. I am not addressing these. On average, they can be inspirational and more balanced in theme and perspective. If done well, the “look-at-me” falls off from notice and a kinship or rapport with the author follows. I might add that my comments so far are concerned with the messages that these various narratives give. The folks who write or video them may be good people of course.  It’s the writing and messages, often embedded unwittingly, that is irksome.  


An example or two of writing within the landscape would be useful to further my argument. In 2019, some friends and I arrived at Thelon Bluffs, where there is a rapid. What follows would be my account of that moment in time at the Thelon Bluff rapid, were I to have kept a more detailed journal:


“A stand out spot on the river with a high steep bank on river left. We all hiked to the lookout with a light, loving breeze keeping the bugs down. One stayed on the shoreline to fish. We could see the rapid at the bend had some surprisingly big waves which were easily missed on the inside bend river right with about 100 feet of calm water. After the hike and with a big pike, we did an upstream ferry over to river right and followed the calm water, passed the big waves (two as I remember) on the outer bend and continued on. We’d have that fish downriver for lunch. I thought: “how wonderful to get this big vista over the land to the east and see that long view of the river corridor from which we’d come in the west.”


This is a simple description of a spirited joyous belonging quest narrative, common to your garden variety arctic river canoe tripper experience but seldom shared with the public.  Now, what follows is a passage from what can be called, “a wilderness superhero-look-at-me–you can’t do this” adventure narrative. (I’ve lifted this directly from the page–no embellishments from me.)


“Paddling through the rain, I approached the start of the whitewater in my canoe. They were deep rapids, free of visible rocks, but with big standing waves that could easily swamp a canoe. Naturally, I decided to canoe right through them. By this point I had a pretty fair idea of what the boat and I could handle. I allowed the main current to suck us down the centre toward the towering whitecapped waves. With my paddle I steered into them. The canoe rode over the crest of the first wave, becoming almost vertical as the bow soared into the open air. Then we plunged into the next wave, throwing frigid water in my face. I exhaled at the shock–there’s nothing like a bucket of ice-cold water smack in the face to wake you up. It was an exhilarating roller-coaster ride through these big rapids, the canoe flying up and down as I steered and paddled, with one eye on what lay immediately in front of me and the other on the best course farther ahead. When I’d passed through the last of the big waves, I glanced down and saw that my knees were submerged; a considerable amount of water had accumulated inside the canoe from the wild run. A pack of matches sat bobbing in the canoe. Fortunately, I had extras. I pivoted toward shore and paddled into a rocky area to unpack everything. Canoes can hold quite a lot of water before they sink, as I knew from past experiences fooling around with them in the rapids or big waves. Still, I figured it was prudent to dump out the water before continuing, especially since I knew I was nearing the Thelon’s dreaded giant lakes.”


As I see it, this Thelon Bluff exhilarating roller-coaster ride, canoe flying up and down encounter has three possible interpretations in reality. 1) The author [read: I’m not talking about the canoeist here] paddled the calm water on river right but thought it a good place for a big water embellishment. 2) The author got swept up unwittingly in the current and ran the rapid…sort of by mistake. Hence, the “naturally I decided to canoe right through them” save-face measure. 3) The author/canoeist can be taken at his word and intentionally ran those easily avoidable big waves on river left which I suggest is a foolish move for reasons almost all canoeists of northern waters will understand. I’ll likely never know which of these three actually happened, but I am certainly curious. 


Another example from the same rapid running author: I find it unconscionably troubling a canoeist, claiming a historical frame of mind, not stopping at the Hornby cabin because of “lack of time.” This is a choice place for barren grounds story exploring. Three graves besides their fallen in1920s cabin. Trails they used to access the hill to search for caribou that never came. Lack of time?  You can’t stretch your legs for ten minutes? Perhaps, the author paddled by unknowingly and would have stopped had the location been more obvious from the water. 


Then again, what archeologically minded sort could pass by Lookout Point, again on the Thelon River. Here, Dene and Inuit people had met to trade, Dene coming from the west and Inuit coming inland upriver  from the east. Here, Inuit have travelled to gather wood for sled frames at the mouth of the Finnie River coming into the Thelon’s Lookout Point giving the point its grand vista. It is a gathering place packed with tent rings and campfire sites and an incredible 360 degree view.  What is missed in the so-many-kilometers-a-day narrative style is brought into question here? One answer is, an empty place to travel through NOT a storied place echoing with meaning. 


Not a) knowing or b) commenting or c) stopping or d) all of the above about/on/at the Warden Grove, an equally much storied site also is troubling. No historian or archaeologist and/or paddler-sensitive to place worth their weight in travel history and anthropological literature could not stop at these locations on the river. By the way, option “d,” I assume, is correct for Warden Cabin and Lookout Point at least. I’m forced to wonder, can it be worth it…to be so rushed against time as to miss such pillars of northern river storytelling? Again, I am left to ponder. I suppose it would be okay to miss the above if one claimed no interest in such things as a staunch naturalist might for example. However, as the rapid paddling author does claim heritage sensibilities, then I, for one, am concerned about something being wrong and/or lost. It is mystifying. OR, is the grunt adventure narrative a publisher’s prize? One cannot argue that grunt narratives sell. I just see much lost potential for story-telling about peopled/cultural places and about an interesting author perhaps. 


Now an embellishment example. I know of an, at times, adventure narrative author who wrote of an eight-day winter outing where he watched a moose being taken down by wolves on a lake. Truth be told, by another on the trip, the outing was three days and they saw a moose on a lake. That’s it. 


Relatedly, I’ve had an author friend asked by his publisher, “why don’t you tell more stories like…” you guessed it!  Answer given to the publisher; “Because many of his stories didn’t happen.” The publisher has not stopped printing the embellishing writer’s work. I could go on. This does us all a disservice. Folks less familiar with time in nature will come to expect such encounters and who knows they might come to be, but likely not with the frequency our wilderness adventure writers experience them. One’s own experiences just don’t measure up.  It’s better in a Disney story. Those bears are always rearing up and growling. Worse, such embellished stories deter the uninitiated from developing a relationship with the natural world, for fear of experiencing the (fictional) dangers celebrated in popular travel writing.


Now here is the rub. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, in a book titled Adventure of Idea wrote about “adventure” as a civilized virtue, along with truth, beauty and peace. He was outspoken against the idea of inert ideas that have become normalized as embedded in our subconscious. In all cultures there are such ideas that have worked well for us once, but in time, they have become tired/stale/counter-productive, ever wrong. There are and will always be inert ideas among us. He put it this way: “But, given the vigour of adventure, sooner or later the leap of imagination reaches beyond the safe limits of the epoch, and beyond the safe limits of the learned rules of taste. It then produces the dislocations and confusions marking the advent of new ideals for civilized effort.”  I think the “look-at-me; you-can’t-do-this” and its associated values have now, or more certainly are becoming, inert ideas. Although the wilderness superhero adventure narrative is still popular in terms of speaking engagements and book sales, it is and will continue to reveal itself as counter-productive. I am speaking culturally here. It still appears to work quite well for the individual though I can’t help think the relational ecologically minded belonging adventure narrative is ultimately healthier than the ego driven individualistic competitive adventure narrative.


SO how about this more ecological, relationally grounded adventure narrative that might even show promise as a healing agent (less toxic) in cultures and for individuals. This narrative would challenge us to remove the superhero mask, and perhaps recover something we’ve lost.  You might call it “the remote/backcountry, spirited joyous, look-at-me, you can go here too, belonging/ecological quest – nature as home-place sustainable” adventure narrative. Let us simplify that to: “look at me in this place, you can be here too” or even the more advanced, “look at this place in me-come along.” We know what the aforementioned “look at me”, grunt narratives look like. That is the inert idea following Whitehead’s thinking. This relational narrative, although it has always been with us, is harder to pin down for individuals. That is because we are striving for it (or should be–I daresay). It is the adventure “beyond the safe limits of learned rules of taste” not the inert ideas currently enamouring Western Culture.   We need to care about who and how we are in relation with the earth. We need to be concerned about the messages portrayed that harm our relationship to nature.  We need change. Human caused climate disruption, social and ecological injustice: I’ll leave it there. 


It is easy to grasp the “character-building” and “wilderness” stuff of the grunt narrative and journal writing. There is a  long history in a colonial past and present.  Though it should be getting harder and harder to accept them. It is another thing to grasp the “character building” associated with the belonging quest of the spiritual/relational narrative. They have a long history too: Mary Schaffer’s Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies (1911) and P.G.Downes’ Sleeping Island (1943) come to mind. It pains me and many friends and colleagues to see the notion of character limited to specific forms of endurance and hardship.  For the Earth’s sake, I hope we start to shift toward a “look at this place” narrative and advance to a “look at this place in me” narrative. I wonder if we can become obedient to and thrive in such narratives? I think we can and believe that “culture moves.” AND, it is moving in some sustainable directions.  Slowly, so slowly. Solutions for a sustainable relationship with the Earth assumes a constellation of deeply rooted character traits in need of development. 


 I understand these traits as a new cultural and individual adventure that eco-psychologists think of as a latent spiritual impulse. It has laid dormant, but is not lost. We need emergent place-responsive relational adventure narratives. And back to the love apple metaphor. Does the “look at me” superhero wilderness adventure narrative, impressive as it is physically and mentally for endurance qualities, mask us like deodorant and perfumes from deep embedded relational aspects of the self-seeking a belonging expression – an at-homeness. Let the true natural odour out! 


What inert ideas are embraced in popular wilderness heroic quest adventure narratives? What sorts of beings are mentored when we guide a trip or write a book from such a perspective?  What sort of relational presence with land, water and indigenous peoples is being normalized by nature as wilderness and as a sparring partner?  These have been concerns for thoughtful travel writing and guiding for decades. I hope I have addressed a widening of this conversation concerning adventure narratives, and spark  more accounts focused on “this “place in me.” with the thoughts above.


Thanks to Chris Blythe, Paul Stonehouse, Phil Mullins, T.A.Loeffler, John Jennings, Simon Beames, Margot Peck and the staff of Trails Youth Initiative for recent dialogues along these lines of inquiry.  All of you in significant ways have helped my thinking along most recently. 

Bob Henderson 

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