thoughts on hatchet

the desolation and allure of the wilderness

I switched schools twice as a preteen, and, although each school was different, the bizarre constant that seemed to follow me everywhere was the book “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen.  All my English teachers assigned it, and luckily for me, I loved the book and eagerly reread it.  “Hatchet” is about a thirteen-year-old named Brian Robeson whose parents have recently divorced.  Disaster strikes when Brian tries to visit his father and his plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness.  As the sole survivor, Brian must try to live on his own with nothing but a hatchet his mother gave to him as a parting gift.  I think I was especially enthusiastic about this book because of its realistic portrayal of wilderness survival; “Hatchet” is based on Gary Paulsen’s real-life experiences.  I memorized Brian’s strategies in the naïve sixth-grade fantasy that I would be able to live off the land if I was ever stranded in the wild.

The summer after my senior year of high school, I unexpectedly got the chance to put my knowledge to the test.  My school sponsored a ten-day summer trip in the Canadian wilderness at Quetico National Park.  I soon found myself heading up north on a Greyhound bus with five other girls.  The fourteen-hour journey wound through Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and finally Canada, where we were greeted by a beautiful sight: The campsite had a huge shimmering lake dotted with dozens of islands with thick evergreen trees and ancient rocks.  I knew this experience with loaded backpacks would be nothing close to Brian’s ordeal.  In fact, I thought it would be a cakewalk.

Despite the gory details of “Hatchet,” I had always viewed wilderness survival through the rosy lens of adventure and natural harmony.  My concerned grandmother frequently mentioned the fact that I would be using an “outdoor” toilet (the ground and the leaves).  But it soon became clear that the absence of a bathroom was the least of my troubles.  Every day, my seven-person crew spent an exhausting six or more hours canoeing through the lakes.  Whenever an island blocked our path, we anchored at the shore and carried the sixty-pound canoes through forest trails.  I sweated and tried to ignore the flies buzzing around my face as I lugged the canoe over the rocky hills, sometimes through waist-deep mud.  I also had to get over my lifelong germaphobia.  There was of course no soap, and because of the camp’s rules about litter we had to eat food off the ground if we dropped it.

And the mosquitoes!  On our first night outside, my crew was caught by surprise by a huge swarm of them.  I swiped my hand through the air and felt dozens of the mosquitoes’ tiny bodies hit my palm.  We frantically tried to assemble the tents while swatting our attackers.  In all, I had about 200 mosquito bites by the end of the trip.  Brian encounters a similar swarm in “Hatchet”, but I had not fully believed that such a thing existed until I experienced it myself.

I began to count the days until I would be able to take a shower and curl up in a real bed.  The nights were boiling hot inside the tent, the mornings and days would leave me shivering with cold, and I always had the bad luck of sleeping on the spot in the tent that lay directly over a tree root.  There’s a reason people no longer live in the wilderness, I began to think to myself.  There’s a reason we advanced and created civilization.  This was unusual for me.  I had always loved the outdoors and spent a great deal of my childhood outside.

Yet for all the difficulties, there were some wonderful moments.  Halfway through the journey we were given a rest day, and I spent a blissful afternoon reading “Never Let Me Go,” by Kazuo Ishiguro, on the grass.  On the last day, I lay down on a rock and fell asleep!  I woke up feeling immensely refreshed, my backache inexplicably gone.  The last night was the most magical of all.  My crewmates and I snuck out of our tents once the mosquitoes had retreated for the night and spent an hour gazing up at the stars.  As I looked down at the menacing black water lapping at the shoreline, I felt positively cozy on our safe little island.

Still, I was relieved when we returned to the base camp.  Dirt fell visibly from my skin and hair as I showered, and I felt as if I was scrubbing off an extra layer of skin.  It was wonderful to chow down on a homemade dinner.  As the bus headed home, I breathed a sigh of relief and resolved to never embark on such an extreme wilderness trip again.

But after recuperating for a few days inside, I again began to feel the pull of the outdoors.  It was a small tug, and I felt satisfied merely by a walk with the dog through the forest near my home, but I started to have a vague understanding of the longing to return to the wilderness that Brian has in the sequels to “Hatchet.”  There is a reason why people advanced and created indoor spaces, but there is also a reason why people continue to seek out the wilderness.  The outdoors provides a peace and solace that manmade structures can never equal.