The first camping trip I ever did alone, at the age of 22, was probably outside the norm: I chose the high Arctic. Polar bears, pooh! I only learned later in life that camping scientists take rifles with them on the tundra.
Okay, I admit to a slight fear of polar bears. This is healthy. I had read the literature: they are the only kind of bear that will actively hunt humans for food. This hit home when, after I landed at the Iqaluit airport with no plan for where to stay before heading further into the wilds, I walked in a random direction to a hill and set up my tent on it. I was exposed, but I would have a view of them coming. Except, when you’re zipped in a tent, you have no view. As I lay huddled in my sleeping bag, there were scruffling noises outside. My heart pounded. Finally, I could stand it no longer. If I was going to die, I’d rather die standing than ignominiously wrapped up like a hotdog. I burst out of the tent.
It was a mouse in the dry grass.
I felt like an idiot. However, to be fair, now that I have more backcountry experience—with black bears at least—they are often surprisingly quieter than something tiny, like a bird, in the bush. I was only a half-wit rather than a full idiot.
The trip improved when I made it to the national park, Auyuittuq (I wasn’t fully Into the Wild crazy—a ranger might save me). This two-week trip and this landscape made a deep impression on me, magnified by my solitude. It was to the Arctic that I sent my character Lena Stillman, and I imagined it based on Auyuittuq. Austere, heart scouring—crushing. Risk can mean punishment.