Cold Comfort isn’t that Cold
Six years ago, some friends and I canoe-camped the Delaware River. We traveled with the current — sometimes paddling, sometimes drifting — and camped on Namanock Island.
While I remember from the little expedition the sound of paddles dipping into the water and the weight of the sun shining through the humidity, I also remember packing for the trip. Because packing for the trip taught me about the role of comfort during these outings.
During this packing, scenes of fresh fruit and cold beer wafted through my head. Things I wouldn’t dream of backpacking with were suddenly made fair game by the extra capacity afforded by the canoe. Extra snacks, extra blankets and camp chairs could all be carried effortlessly by the river. I could produce a veritable living room in the wilderness.
We didn’t pack all of these things, but we packed a lot. Once afloat, we relaxed for eight miles on the water until we found our island, set up camp, and then relaxed some more. A quiet afternoon gave way to a peaceful night followed by a morning of watching the fog lift.
Contrast this with a cold night in Mendocino National Forest in northern California. On this trip, a short fastpacking out-and-back, I took with me only a light sleeping bag and a hammock for the night. I found myself longing for warmth when a cold desert wind came up in the middle of the night and chilled me both above and below my suspended nest. The wind only let up to be replaced by a mass of still, frosty air.
I didn’t sleep much that night. Instead, I watched a big, bright moon rise over the trees and I listened to a pack of coyotes yip and laugh while I shivered.
But despite these two experiences, I’m not yet ready to say that one was better than the other.
I don’t like being cold. Rather, I like snacks and I like naps and I like blankets. I did, however, enjoy both trips because I’ve found that comfort, or discomfort, is a side effect of traveling — not a goal. Camping, after all, is an exercise in minimalism — an exercise that not only takes me from one point to another, but also one that tells me what it took me to get there. And if discomfort arises in the name of speed or agility, then that’s okay.
Regardless of comfort, both trips gave me a chance to step out of normal life. That’s why, I think, I do these things to begin with. Having a planned route and a compact kit relieves me of constantly wondering what I’m supposed to be doing, a question that otherwise looms over my days.
And while this structure isn’t limited to camping, it’s harder to find outside of a one-dimensional, time-boxed itinerary. In normal life, away from trails and rivers, not every day has a clear goal. Some days don’t have any goals. Ideas and responsibilities, instead, arrive for me as disconnected interrupts and I’m lucky if I remember half of them.
The kind of planning that goes into exploring the wilderness sounds rigid, but it accomplishes the opposite. It ends up liberating my thoughts. These trips, comfortable or not, serve as a centering process for me. They are a kind of recalibration. They remind me of a way to think and operate that approaches the amount of deliberation and forethought I’d like to have all the time.
The Delaware, at the point where we finally landed at the end of our paddling, was just as serene as where we started. We got out and found our car and drove home with some color in our faces and some peace in our heads.
But I knew, from studying the maps, that farther down, the river would widen and go over rapids. It would meet tidewater at Trenton and continue on to fuel commerce in Philadelphia and Camden. It would become something big, but only because of a calm sense of direction upstream.