How I Discovered I Hate Camping Alone

When my buddies bailed on a backcountry fishing expedition, I figured I’d just go anyway. I didn’t expect how different it would be.
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When my buddies bailed on a backcountry fishing expedition, I figured I’d just go anyway. I didn’t expect how different it would be.

A version of this essay appears in On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockiesby Chadd VanZanten and Russ Beck.

The original plan was for the four of us to backpack into the Wind River Range and fish for four days—me, my son Klaus, my buddy Brad, and Brad’s buddy Chris.

Four of us for four days. That was the plan.

The four-man fishing trip has a certain elegance. Four people can furnish good company without stepping on each other’s feet. A four-man team also fits perfectly into one SUV, so you can split gas money, and if you encounter a bear, odds are decent it will eat one of your friends instead of you. The four-man team is simple, efficient.

But plans fall apart. It’s what they do.

This one crumbled when another of Brad’s buddies asked to join us, and Brad obliged. I don’t even remember the guy’s name. But because we could no longer fit in one vehicle, we split into two teams, with each group driving separately.

This was Plan B.

Nobody panicked. Two teams in separate vehicles actually adds flexibility to a trip like this. For example, it enables part of the group to leave early or stay longer, and two vehicles is also more convenient in the event that one of the two drivers is devoured by a bear. You might say that our back-up plan was marginally better than the original.

But back-up plans fall apart, too.

Chris needed to move the trip up one day because of his work schedule, but I couldn’t go any earlier because of mine, so we created Plan C—the two teams would drive up on consecutive days and fish together during the two-day overlap. Not tragic, as far as back-up-back-up plans go, but soon we moved on to Plan D when Klaus had to cancel altogether because of swim team practice. Plan D survived only briefly before Plan E was hatched so that Brad could leave an additional day early for reasons I’ve forgotten.

According to Plan E, I would leave home on Sunday, hike in on Monday, and meet up with Brad’s team that afternoon. Unfortunately, I was delayed by one extra day because of a minor case of engine trouble, but it it’s meaningless to keep track of the back-up plans from here on, because by then Brad was in the mountains and we couldn’t communicate with anything other than satellite phones and we had no satellite phones.

Under the terms of what I will designate “Final Plan F,” I hiked in a day and a half late with the intention of somehow finding Brad, but Brad’s team was meanwhile plagued by a variety of hardships, including heavy rain and a case of violent diarrhea, which caused them to hike out after only three days, which meant we missed each other completely.

I wasn’t heartbroken. I love fishing alone. With an entire week off, I could stay as long as my food held out, and I figured I could force it to hold out for a long time. I actually got fairly excited about it, though that didn’t last.

final plan f

The author in the St. Lawrence drainage of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. Photo by Chad VanZanten

It was still raining a little that first day, but as soon as it cleared up, I grabbed my fly rod and fished a nearby lake, where the exuberance of the resident brook trout was surpassed only by their sheer numbers. With no traveling companions to answer to, I realized I could fish for the rest of the day if I wanted to. So I did.

Back at my campsite I pulled on a jacket and unpacked my foodstuffs. The lack of dinnertime banter was a bit discouraging, but I told myself this could also pass for tranquility.

For dinner I had a custom-made dehydrated casserole of potatoes, bacon, and veggies. I’d used the recipe before, and although the pre-packed ingredients required only the addition of boiling water, I figured I must have committed some grave error in its preparation because the first mouthful was only slightly more appetizing than moistened pocket lint.

As I choked it down, I made an important discovery about subsisting in the wilderness: having company really helps you lie to yourself about how the food tastes. When you’re with a buddy, even if the food is really crummy, you say, “You know, this doesn’t taste too bad.” And he agrees—“Yeah, the crumbled bacon was a great idea.” Without companionship, every meal tastes exactly as good as it really is, and of course I don’t mean that in a good way.

No campfires were allowed that year, and the short-lived flames of my cookstove made a poor substitute. Without fire or friend, I sat watching the night draw a black hood over my campsite, and I formed misgivings about my ability to pass a week in so lonesome a condition.

I’d seen solo backpackers before. I saw several on the hike in. Soloing never struck me as particularly demanding—I assumed I could do it if I wanted to, but between my sons and friends, the opportunity had never presented itself. In my tent that night, I thought a lot about my two boys and how it would be to fish with them and Brad. And I’d never even met Chris, but I thought quite a bit about him, too.

final plan f

Turns out camaraderie is the best spice for backcountry food. Photo by Chad VanZanten

In the morning the sun rose over the valley and I started to look on the bright side again. As I warmed up a cup of cocoa, I laid plans for a full day of solitary fishing. I identified a stream to explore, and with my tenkara rod I soon discovered that it held equal numbers of cutthroat and brook trout. Most were small, twelve inches and down. As is usually the case in the Winds, I was able to hook a few larger fish, one of which was seventeen inches or thereabouts. But such good fortune is less satisfying when you’re alone. A great fish is always greater when there’s a witness to it.

With every fish I brought to hand, I checked the progress of the sun to see if enough daylight remained for a few more casts. Hiking around in the dark in the Wind Rivers isn’t exactly death-defying, but it’s not to be taken lightly, either, especially when you’re alone.

To our primitive ancestors, night wasn’t the respite it is to us. Today’s man sees the setting sun as a signal to sit down and turn on the television. To our antecedents night was just another hazard to cope with, as threatening as any rival or predator. When you are alone at night in a very remote place, you may not be gripped with the same fear felt by ancient man, but you’ll get a taste of it, and I got mine that evening—as I hiked back to camp, I saw the face and forepaws of some large mammal emerging suddenly from the brush a few yards ahead. It was instantly evident to me that it was a bear, and I’m still not sure how I avoided wetting my pants, dropping everything, and running like scared cat.

However, in the failing light I eventually identified the creature as a porcupine. Even so, I stood frozen on the trail as it shambled away murmuring.

And so a second day of solo fishing was followed by a second evening of gloomy stillness, and the third day and evening passed in much the same way. There was again no fire and no one to watch fire with, so I turned in shortly after dark. I’d hardly made a dent in my rations, but I realized I couldn’t last the rest of the week no matter how many Clif Bars I had remaining. Before I’d gotten all the way into my sleeping bag I’d decided to abandon Final Plan F in favor of just heading home. I lay there for a long time, staring at the top vent of my tent where a little starlight leaked in.

My single most un-favorite thing about backpacking is breaking down my tent and packing away my gear, so slept later than I intended.

Then voices woke me up. People voices.

I poked my head out of the tent and squinted. There were four of them, coming up single file from the main trail by the lake in the valley floor. A guy about my age leading two teenagers, and an older guy bringing up the rear. They laughed and joked as they approached. Each carried a fishing rod, and although unannounced social calls are generally unheard of in the backcountry, I got it in my head that they were coming to visit me for some reason, and so I hastily dressed myself.

They weren’t coming to visit, of course. There was a footpath that wound past my campsite and went on to a small lake a mile or so up into the hills. But still I made it out of the tent and was sitting on the ground tying up my boots when they passed by.

“Hello,” called the guy in the lead. “Nice morning, huh?”

I’d been trying so hard to act like I’d only just noticed them, I inadvertently answered, “Good!”

final plan f

Catching huge trout: awesome. Not having anyone to cheer for you: less awesome. Photo by Chad VanZanten

In my defense, I’ll point out that I hadn’t spoken much in the previous seventy-two hours. I’d said “hi” to a couple hikers on the trail the first day, and I think I said “good as it gets” the next day when a college kid asked me how the fishing had been.

“I mean, good morning,” I stammered.

The lead guy chuckled and nodded.

“Going up to Blue Lake?” I asked before they got out of earshot.

They didn’t want to stop and talk, I could see that, but the lead guy slowed down a little.

“Yep,” he said over his shoulder. “Ever been up there?”

“Sure, yeah,” I said. “The fishing’s great.”

That stopped them.

“How great?”

“Yeah and how far is it?” asked the older guy.

I looked up the hill and pursed my lips. “Mile,” I said. “But this trail doesn’t really go all the way up. It’s hard to see once you get to the boulders, and it’s kind of a climb. But the fishing?” I held up my hands. “Ridiculous.”

They looked at each other, nodding and grinning.

“What do you use up there?”

“What do you got?” I asked.

They hurried over and surrendered their tackle for inspection. Apparently, they were visiting after all.

“What’s up there? Browns?”

“Brookies.”

“Is it hard to find?” The older guy was sweating a little already.

“Not really, but you might want to go up the ravine instead. It’s a longer hike but you can follow the creek right to the lake.”

“How much longer?”

“Mile and a half, maybe. It’s tricky. It’s boulders all the way up.”

“Hm.”

“Just go slow,” I said. “You’ll be fine. If I can make it, you can.”

They pocketed up their boxes and thanked me.

“I’m Dennis,” said the lead guy. He introduced the others. Tanner, Jay, and the older fellow was Boyd. We shook hands.

“So,” said Dennis, “you heading up there today? Want to come with us?”

“Thanks,” I said, “but no. I’m heading home after breakfast.”

“You by yourself?” he asked, looking around for other tents.

“Yep,” I said. I may have put my hands on my hips and stood a little taller.

They nodded, raised their eyebrows.

“You don’t get nervous up here alone?” asked Boyd.

“Nope,” I answered—a little too quickly.

“Well, we’ll be up there all day if you change your mind.”

They thanked me again and I watched them file off up the ravine.

I set up my stove and laid out some breakfast fixings, pausing now and again to scan the hillside and mark the probable progress of Dennis and his party. They seemed like a nice bunch of fellows. I replayed our conversation in my head, hoping I hadn’t understated the difficulty of the climb nor overstated the excellence of the fishing.

Sunlight burned away the dew and a mist rose in the glare. All around me the valley lay quiet and smoking like some prehistoric landscape, with only my tent and meager gear to suggest otherwise. Down in the floor of the valley, the fish in the lake began their morning rise.

When I’d finished my cocoa and rinsed the cooking gear, I stood over my tent and considered pulling up the first aluminum stake. I may have even bent down to get started. But I didn’t. Instead, I packed a lunch, put on a hat, and grabbed my fly rod.

Plans fall through all the time. It’s what they do.

Chadd VanZanten is an environmental editor whose outdoor writing has appeared in Big Sky Journal and Eat Sleep Fish. This essay is a preview from On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies by Chadd VanZanten and Russ Beck, which was released by The History Press in June 2015 and is available from Amazon and bookstores.

final plan f

A version of this essay appears in On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies by Chadd VanZanten and Russ Beck.