When I was a little younger, back before my wife and I adopted our son, I made a point of doing a solo camping trip every year. These trips were not car camping, where you pitch a tent next to your vehicle in a nearby state or county park. My camping trips were truly solitary affairs. Sometimes I would hire a boat to drop me off on an uninhabited island in the Great Lakes or Gulf of Mexico. Other times I would simply park my car next to a national forest trailhead, and just start walking. After a couple of days, I would simply turn around and start walking back.
I am a very good camper, and consider myself reasonably competent to deal with most of the potential hazards that can occur when camping for a few days in the wilderness. I can deal with bad weather. I always carry the means to treat water if something happens to my own supply. I’ve never needed to use my first aid kit, but always have it nearby. If a bear or cougar were to approach, I would know what to do, although I understand that the outcome of some things will always be left up to God or fate or simple luck.
Backpacking with 40 or 50 lbs. on your back certainly entails a challenge to your physical capabilities, at least when you are no longer 20 years old, but are instead a middle aged man. However, the physical challenge of a solo camping expedition is not the biggest problem I’ve had to confront. Far more serious for me, at least, is the psychological impact of utter solitude. You come to realize just how much you rely on human companionship, even trivial human interaction, for mental well being. When there is no one nearby, the mind begins to entertain thoughts or emotions that are otherwise suppressed. I can admit a certain tendency toward morbidity and depression when experiencing complete solitude. There are ways to fight that, of course. While backpacking, I try to practice a kind of meditation, clearing my mind of nearly everything but the rhythmic pattern of my steps. I try to stay alert to my external environment, rather than allowing myself to dwell on my internal thoughts and emotions. It is always a challenge, however.
Imagine being alone, utterly alone, not for three or four days, but for three months or more. Now imagine that instead of being in a beautiful forest, or on a subtropical beach, you are in the middle of the ocean, a hot, dark, flat liquid plain whose featureless expanse is broken only by the occasional life-threatening terror of an equatorial storm squall. You are completely alone, on a 20 foot long rowboat, engaged on an epic voyage. You are rowing a boat, alone, from Senegal in West Africa, to (if all goes according to plan) French Guyana in South America. You are rowing that boat for 2,500 miles, carrying all of your own supplies, with no one nearby to help if things go bad. You are Katie Spotz, 22 years old, about to do something very few people have ever done before; in fact, far more people have been in outer space than have rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Katie Spotz will be the youngest person to have ever accomplished this amazing feat. As I type this essay, Katie is on an airplane enroute to Senegal; her odyssey is about to begin.
What will Katie’s days at sea be like? She will wake up at 6:00 each morning, and immediately tether herself to the boat just in case she should fall overboard. Once thus secured, she will determine her position, and have breakfast. All of her meals will consist primarily of dehydrated foods. Starting at 6:30, she will row for two hours, then stop for a mid-morning meal. After the meal, she will prepare the day’s water supply by desalinating several gallons of sea water. At 9:00 she will begin rowing for another two hours until her 11:00 lunch break. After lunch, she will again plot her position and set her course for the afternoon. Then it is time for a nap until 12:30, followed by another two-hour stint of rowing. At 2:30, there will be another lunch break of 30 minutes, then two more hours of rowing. Dinner is at 5:00. Once dinner is finished, Katie will again determine her position, and check in with her land team via a satellite telephone (her only human contact during the entire trip). If the day has gone as planned, she will be 30 miles closer to her destination than she was 24 hours earlier. If needed, she will scrub and clean the bottom of the boat. At 6:30, she will start rowing for another two hours, then secure the boat for the night with a parachute anchor that prevents backward drifting. When ready for bed, Katie will un-tether herself from the boat and enter a water-tight compartment that is about 6 feet long and 3 feet wide for well-deserved sleep.
Katie Spotz is not taking this adventure simply for her own sense of accomplishment. She is doing this to raise money and awareness for the Blue Planet Run Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring safe drinking water to places that lack that precious resource. Since 2002, Blue Planet Run has helped deliver safe drinking water to more than 200,000 people in 18 different countries. Katie Spotz hopes to raise at least $40,000 for Blue Planet Run, an amount of money that would deliver a lifetime of safe drinking water to well over 1,000 people: men, women, and children who would otherwise be subject to waterborne bacteria that are the leading cause of premature death in much of Africa and other underdeveloped locales.
So far, Katie has raised nearly $37,000 for Blue Planet Run. That amount is in addition to the thousands of dollars she needed to enable her trans-Atlantic journey.
If you are as excited about Katie Spotz and her cause as I am, you can read more about her on her own website, www.rowforwater.com. You can also learn more about the Blue Planet Run Foundation at www.blueplanetrun.org.
Good luck, Katie, and Godspeed.