Surviving the Great Indoors

5 shelter-in-place lessons from living in the wilderness

By Amy Freeman

Oceans and whales are a humbling reminder of how small we really are.

Shelter in place, stay at home, schools are closed, work from home— whatever the local mandate in your neck of the woods is, you are navigating this new normal as best you can. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been left reeling at times. Some days are better than others. There have been tears, but there have also been successes. If you’re reading this blog post you’re probably a paddler or boater, which means you’ve most likely lost one of the best ways to destress and cope as boat launches, state parks, national parks, and wilderness areas are closed. Lately I’ve found myself drawing on lessons learned during years of paddling, camping, and traveling under my own power in wild places. Perhaps these lessons learned from the great outdoors can be used to help us survive the great indoors.

My husband, Dave, and I have traveled over 30,000 miles by canoe, kayak, and dogsled. We’ve spent more of our life together sleeping under the stars than we have indoors. Among other things, we have crossed South America by bicycle and canoe, crossed North America by canoe, kayak, and dogsled, and spent a year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. At the moment, however, we’re holed up in a house in Ely, Minnesota, struggling to adapt to the new reality of COVID-19 and stay at home orders. It’s been challenging, but we figure heck, if our marriage and personal sanity have survived all our time spent in isolation while traveling together we’ve maybe learned some useful coping strategies along the way— and we’ll get through this too.

Blackstone River in the Peel Watershed, Yukon, Canada

Clear Communication

Sharing a canoe and a tent with no one else around for miles has given the two of us an appreciation for clear communication. If one of us is upset about something it does no good to let it simmer for days until finally reaching the boiling point. Whether the issue is about setting up the tent or doing the dishes, we’ll talk about it in the moment. This has brought about a greater sense of empathy for each other. When I know what’s going on in Dave’s head, I have a greater awareness of his feelings. Whether in the woods or at home, clear communication and empathy for one’s partner are key.

Exercise

On our various expeditions the mental clarity— even serenity— we’ve experienced can, in large part, be attributed to regular exercise. You may not be able to get out to your favorite waterway to exercise in your kayak or canoe like you did pre-covid-19, but the endorphins and sense of well-being that come from moderate exercise will help you get through this. I realize that we’re lucky to be in a spot where we’re unlikely to see many people if we head out the back door for a 20 minute run or a walk around the block. If you can do that— great. If you’re truly stuck indoors, maybe now’s the time to get into yoga or aerobics or weight-lifting (with improvised weights). Whatever you choose, just get moving even if it’s  for 20 minutes every other day.

After being pinned down by a gale for 24 hours, Amy Freeman packs her kayak along the B.C. coast during the second month of a 3 year, 11,700 mile journey across North America.

Set Aside Alone Time

While paddling a tandem canoe from Great Slave Lake down to Lake Superior, Dave and I were literally stuck in the same boat. That’s a lot of time spent together— maybe even too much time. Well, this is pretty similar to being in the same house as your spouse 24/7. We would occasionally need a break from the other person and so typically no questions would be asked if one of us took a walk alone or spent some time sitting on a rock a little ways down the beach. Whether it is time spent reading or gardening or knitting, talk about it and make a plan for how you can take some time for yourself.

Set an Intention

We have been driven to complete our various expeditions because of a clearly defined purpose. When we traveled across South America we were teaching kids in hundreds of classrooms about the Amazon Rainforest. When we spent a year in the Boundary Waters it was to raise awareness about the threat of proposed copper mining. An intention can buoy your spirits and give you a sense of direction.

Make Big and Small Goals

When Dave and I were making our way across North America our big goal was to reach Key West. However, there were times when the going got tough and that goal seemed dauntingly big. Those were the times for small goals. Dogsledding across a dozen-mile wide bay on Great Bear Lake in a blizzard called for goals like keep moving for the next 5 minutes before taking a break, after a mile we’ll switch who is in lead breaking trail, one more mile and I’ll eat an energy bar, etc. The bigger the challenge, the smaller our goals were; the narrower our focus was. The thing is— these little goals add up. Achieving each one may not seem like much at the time, but before long you’ll find that you’ve made significant progress towards your big goal. It feels like we’re in a blizzard right now so instead of focusing on the end of the pandemic, concentrate on what you’ll make for dinner tonight.

When the sea is calm its easy to day dream about far off places and long term goals, but when challenges make progress seem impossible just focus on your next breath, next step, next paddle stroke.

Dave and Amy Freeman have traveled over 30,000 miles by kayak, canoe and dogsled through some of the world’s wildest places, from the Amazon to the Arctic. National Geographic named the Dave and Amy Adventurers of the Year in 2014 and their images, videos, and articles been published by a wide range of media sources from the CBC, NBC, and FOX to the Chicago Tribune, National Geographic, Outside, Backpacker, Canoe and Kayak, and Minnesota Public Radio. When Dave and Amy aren’t on expeditions or speaking tours, they guide canoe, kayak and dogsled trips near their home on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota.

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