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Thread: Atavistic fears

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    Atavistic fears

    Periwinkle's account of a solo night hike up Bondcliff way, in which she is quite upfront about being scared of the dark, brings up an interesting subject, which one might call atavistic fears. Forests and darkness are in fact scary, and I think really that it is rooted in evolutionary considerations: we're diurnal animals, our sensory equipment doesn't work that well at night, and we are (were) easy prey for nocturnal predators. It's also clear that being alone, as opposed to accompanied, makes one about ten times as susceptible to these fears. Of course examined dispassionately the risk of being attacked and eaten at night is infinitesimally small in most of the places we recreate. So why not just get over it? I think in fact that this "getting over it" does happen. Probably twenty-five years ago, when I was into exploring simplicity, I decided to experiment with leaving behind tent, sleeping bag, pad, and just lie down on the ground where darkness found me. This was somewhere near Zealand notch, I could probably even name the trail if I had a map. As it turned out, I couldn't hack it, it was too scary, and I ended up stumbling out three or four miles in the dark back to the trailhead, to avoid sleeping with the terrors of being alone in the dark. About five years ago, after twenty years of intervening experience, I had my one and only unplanned bivvy in the woods, in the North Cascades: an overly long cross-country day trip route where I came down on a cliff band just after dark and I couldn't find my way down through it in the dark. So I just found a level spot, the uphill side of a big old-growth red cedar, and slept the night away on the duff. I was a bit cold, and hungry, but psychologically perfectly comfortable. Resigned. The way one might feel about being marooned for the night in an airport terminal. Perhaps the red cedar had a calming influence, the big old ones do have great presence.

    Interestingly, I have also since discovered another atavistic fear, having to do with really brushy, restricted-visibility travel. This was another solo travel experience, through an old burn, on the Fraser plateau in British Columbia. Really featureless terrain, brushy lodgepole forest, and I had been following a compass course all day, without anything in the way of intermediate reference points. About noon I crossed into an old burn, very brushy, more than head-high, couldn't see more than ten or fifteen feet in any direction, and walked for about three or four hours in that stuff. It really spooked me. At one point I climbed up a remnant tree, just so I could see more, and breathe a little easier. I pressed on to get to the other side of the burn, I absolutely did not want to spend the night in that scary place. Just at dusk I reached the other side of the burn, and breathed a great sigh of relief. I think this could also be explained as a "predator" thing, we like to be able to see around a bit, and definitely seem to have an esthetic preference for opener woods and more parklike landscapes, where our good vision is not rendered useless.
    Last edited by thuja; 07-01-2006 at 05:57 PM.

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    Senior Member cbcbd's Avatar
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    We all have our limits and fears, and those can be pushed and experimented with as we please. Sometimes we can do it on our own, but most times we can only push ourselves in the company of others or when caught in a "situation".

    I believe everyone has potential to get past these fears, you just have to know how to go about doing it. It's a shame to see someone shy away from an experience because right away they refuse to attack their fears - especially when they have the guidance of a trusted one.

    I think in your case in the North Cascades it was just one of those things where you are in a situation and you did what you had to do. I find it much harder to get past an irrational fear when you plan for it.
    It seems that once you are put into that situation most people will do just fine or better than they expected and then later say "wow, that wasn't bad at all".

    But I also think most people never plan a cold and hungry night on the duff and actually follow through with it.

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    Senior Member DougPaul's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by thuja
    Periwinkle's account of a solo night hike up Bondcliff way, in which she is quite upfront about being scared of the dark, brings up an interesting subject, which one might call atavistic fears. Forests and darkness are in fact scary, and I think really that it is rooted in evolutionary considerations: we're diurnal animals, our sensory equipment doesn't work that well at night, and we are (were) easy prey for nocturnal predators.
    This may be a culturally influenced viewpoint. (Too many Grimm's Fairy Tales? )

    In the book "Amazon Beaming" the author (Petru Popescu) describes the experience of Loren McIntyre (a National Geophraphic photographer and writer) when he was kidnapped by and lived with a tribe of Mayoruna (natives of the Brazilain rainforest). There was always someone up and active in camp, including any time at night. At one point, McIntyre is taken on a night hike through the rainforrest (includes thorns, all sorts of stinging plants and animals, and predators such as jaguars. The natives were perfectly at home running around in the dark as they intentionally lost McIntyre. (Others rescued him and tended his wounds.)

    So anyhow, it sounds like some groups of humans are perfectly happy running around in the woods at night.

    BTW, the book is a fantastic read. (I've read it several times myself). I highly recommed it. In fact, I haven't read it in a while--I think that I'll give it another reread.

    Doug

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    Quote Originally Posted by DougPaul
    This may be a culturally influenced viewpoint. (Too many Grimm's Fairy Tales? )
    Doug
    I have always found it interesting and amusing that "panic" comes from the greek god Pan, the god of wild forests and darkness. And that "panic" fear was originally specifically the fear of being in the presence of Pan, that is, in wild forests.

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    Senior Member Periwinkle's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by thuja
    ...in which she is quite upfront about being scared of the dark....
    Just a small technical point, but what was freaking me out the most on the way to Bondcliff was the lack of visibility from the fog and too much noise from the river. I was really more worried about startiling a bear than the darkness itself. A minor point, certainly, but a major personal leap forward.

    I started off terrified of the dark. Literally jumping at any little noise. Not a good thing where I'm always getting a late start and slow. Half the time I was hiking out by headlamp. I worked hard at getting over that fear because I wanted to keep hiking and not hurt myself jumping at shadows. Not so say that I'm entirely fearless now (obviously not ), but at least I'm more rational and controlled.

    As cbcbd said, "I believe everyone has potential to get past these fears, you just have to know how to go about doing it. It's a shame to see someone shy away from an experience because right away they refuse to attack their fears...." I completely agree.

    I think it's important to face your fears and overcome them. Especially on the trail. You need to be focusing on what is there, not what you imagine might be there.
    One must take off her fear like clothing; One must travel at night; This is the seeking after God. Maureen Morehead, In a Yellow Room

  6. #6
    Senior Member DougPaul's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Periwinkle
    Just a small technical point, but what was freaking me out the most on the way to Bondcliff was the lack of visibility from the fog and too much noise from the river. I was really more worried about startiling a bear than the darkness itself. A minor point, certainly, but a major personal leap forward.
    Headlamps in fog do rather limit one's ability to see...

    I hope you thought to take the headlamp off and use it like a flashlight--might help to reduce the bounceback.

    But in total, fog to limit the seeing and river noise to limit the audibility do add up to a bad combination. But from the viewpoint of someone (or a varmint) at a distance, the headlamp will function as a beacon and be visible for a lot farther than you can see. And, of course, one can/should make as much noise as is practical.

    Hopfully, once you realize that the headlamp is a beacon and give the varmits a chance to avoid you, it will reduce your fear.

    Of course, maybe you already knew all of the above, but I figure that it is worth saying just in case anyone does not.

    Doug

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    Senior Member sweeper's Avatar
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    This all has to do with conditioning. We prep our bodies for the phsyical demands of a climb but not the mental.
    We can gain an idea of what we could encounter through reading books, but like going over a speech in your head, until you speak it, say it out loud, you're not going to be sure how it sounds.
    Years ago I had a fear of the woods at night and while evaluating some military training decided to do something about it. I send the units out, telling them I need to pick up some paperwork and would met them at the site. They had to take a round about route to get there, I cut straight through the woods.
    Each unit I sent out it became easier to walk through the woods. Knowing I was becoming familiar with the route I started changing the route.
    By the end of the week I was looking forward to being alone in the woods.

    Once I got back to the "States" I continued my training, at first camping at some of the less used sites during the week, then plannning on camping in remote areas, alone.
    If hiking alone is an awakening experience. Sleeping alone in the deep woods comfortably is pure freedom.
    “Two roads diverged in a Yellow Wood, and...”having nailed another checkpoint, I reset the bezel ring on my compass for the next azimuth, with a slight offset to the left. I took a bearing, crossed the road and re-entered the woods on my new heading.
    “... and THAT has made all the difference”.

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    Senior Member Pete_Hickey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sweeper
    By the end of the week I was looking forward to being alone in the woods......
    .....
    .... Sleeping alone in the deep woods comfortably is pure freedom.
    Oh yeah. To me, heading off on a bushwhack... alone... Then stopping--who knows where-- for the night. Ah! That is SO PEACEFUL!

    Even just a long bushwhack. When you're several miles from any trail. To stop and just breath in the solitude.
    There's no place like 127.0.0.1

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