In the mid-1980s, a British-born Canadian, Chris Czajkowski, built a cabin on a small part of the wilderness homestead of Jack and Trudy Turner, who had homesteaded their plot in the southeastern part of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, in west-central British Columbia, for 34 years. The Turners gave Czajkowski a section of their property on which to build her cabin, and helped her build using logs cut and milled on site. It was a quiet life, but full of the wonders of nature and the silence of the outdoors.
Ultimately, however, the Turners decided to move back to the city and donated their land to Tweedsmuir Park, which meant it was time for Czajkowski to go as well. She moved on to a new site at 5,000 feet above sea level, 10 miles south of the boundary of Tweedsmuir Park. There she built two log cabins – this time on her own – using lumber milled on site as well as lumber brought in from town. To document these exploits, she wrote two books: Cabin at Singing River about her first cabin, and Diary of a Wilderness Dweller about her experiences at her second location, which she called Nuk Tessli after the Carrier phrase for the west wind that blows there.
Czajkowski no longer lives in the bush – health problems required that she move closer to civilization, though she is still on 40 acres accessible only by a rough road. But her stories were fascinating to me when I was growing up – I wanted to be her, to live in the wilderness without people, to explore the untracked outdoors and see the landscape in all seasons. To trek for a day and half in and out of town for supplies and mail. To have a floatplane bring supplies. To avoid bears and watch moose and wolves, to climb surrounding peaks and gaze on the landscape from above.
Not everyone is as comfortable with their own company as Czajkowski is. It’s something that we’ve realized during the weeks of the pandemic and social distancing – some people are better at hanging out on their own than others. Some people feel bereft of social contact and activity, while others are happy to be unburdened by the swirl of a busy social life.
There are many articles that discuss how the pandemic has pushed people’s lives off-kilter: scuppering the comforting routines of being out in the world without worrying about the coronavirus, like picking up a latte at the local café, hanging out with friends on the breakwater, or going to the pool or gym with a buddy three times a week.
But people have started to adjust, adapting to a new normal. It almost seems normal now to go to the grocery store and wait until someone has left the store before you’re allowed in, to stand 6 feet apart in the line up at the till, and to take off your mask and wash your hands vigorously when you get home. To get your coffee from a sidewalk take-out window. To host Zoom meetings or do Google hangouts with friends. To walk around the neighbourhood for exercise instead of going to the gym or pool.
Some of my friends have even reported relatives developing better relationships with their families. One family is closer because they’re home together regularly instead of working on a one-week-at-home/one-week-away schedule, while a child is happier at home with his family as he doesn’t have to go to school, where he was struggling.
We have a remarkable capacity to adapt, and that gives us the ability to deal with the upheaval the pandemic has caused to create new life patterns.
We are also learning how to be alone, in many cases by picking up hobbies that we might not have made time for otherwise. Bread baking, in particular, seems to be a popular new hobby, as does gardening. I even know someone who turned one wooden bowl for every day he was at home during the pandemic.
People have gotten more used to being on their own and in their own skin – and they didn’t need to go to a remote corner of the province to do it. But it begs the question of what we’ll do once things go back to “sort-of normal.” Will we remember how we overcame some of the pandemic upheaval to enjoy being solo, alone with our own thoughts? Or will we immediately jump back into our social circles and ditch the idea of hanging out with ourselves?
For some people, however, there is no choice but to remain solo; for example, if they have a compromised immune system and have serious concerns about catching the virus. Or if they’re stuck in a long-term care home with the situation deteriorating around them and their only contact with loved ones is via phone with a window between them.
Last week I experienced one aspect of how isolating the pandemic can be. My dad was admitted to hospital after a stroke, and was moved to a rehabilitation centre a week later, and my mum hasn’t been able to visit him because of the pandemic. We can call and email, but it’s not quite the same as meeting in person. And the pandemic also means it’s not smart for either me or my sister to fly to Ontario to help out. So while being alone at home during the pandemic can be manageable, in other cases it’s not that manageable at all. And it doesn’t feel at all normal to live under these particular restrictions.
I still admire Czajkowski and her determination to build a life alone in the wilderness. But it’s not something I see myself doing anymore. While I’m happy being alone, I don’t need to be that alone to function. But I do need some quiet and a space to call my own.
Here on our acreage we have space, but the neighbourhood is noisier than we had expected – largely because our neighbour runs industrial machinery at random hours of the day. The best times are in the early morning when it’s just the birds who are up and singing, or in the late evening, just before bedtime, when the last birds are heading to bed and the sun is setting on the western horizon.
It may not have bears and moose wandering through it (though we did have a bear wander by a few years ago), like Czajkowski experienced, but it is a semi-quiet place to call our own.