How 52 days in the wilderness changed me forever

Young Burnaby woman gets her eyes opened during a trip down the Fraser River

After spending 52 days living in the wilderness, I finally came back to my hometown of Burnaby. I was shocked by how different my lifestyle was in the city compared to how I lived in nature.

One of my adventures was an eight-day, 135-kilometre solo hike on the Sunshine Coast Trail. One day on the trail, I began to experience upper back pain after walking nine hours with a 40-pound backpack. I continued to keep my spirits high by singing for the bears and hoping that there will be people at my next campsite.

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However, when I made it to the campsite, there was absolutely no one there, which made me a bit upset. I went swimming right away anyways. I later began cooking my dinner with frustration because the yellow jackets kept trying to sit on me. Eventually, I just gave up on walking away from the biting insects and just let them crawl on me.

It was then getting late and it was time to go to the forest to hang my food from the bears. I kept trying to throw a rock with a rope attached to it, over a branch but instead I kept missing and failing. I started losing hope.

After two hours, I finally got it.

Completing my errands improved my mood right away. I came back to my tent ready to sleep. I sat there and calmly watched a snake slither past me and begin swimming in the lake. I was empowered by the thought that at the age of 21, I could officially survive alone in the forest. For the first time in my life, I felt at peace being far away from civilization. I felt like I can do anything I want in life and I do not have to wait for someone to do it with me.

sasha tree
Sasha Makhneva had a trying time with bugs, but survived. - CONTRIBUTED

For my next trip, I spent a month canoeing and rafting on the Fraser River, from Mount Robson to Vancouver with the Sustainable Living Leadership Program. I was very fortunate to spend time with 14 people who were passionate about sustainability.

Every day we had a routine. We would wake up and go collect wild berries to put into our oatmeal. We then packed up and got onto our canoes and rafts, where we shared our life stories and sang harmonically. Occasionally, we jumped into the river to swim, seeing bighorn sheep, grizzly bears and eagles staring back at us from the shore. In the evenings, we got to eat dinner with the communities along the Fraser River. Then we skipped setting up the tents and just slept under the stars all together. I felt connected being a part of this supportive community.

Entering the city, I began seeing an increasing amount of garbage, fisheries and industry along the river. The city was overwhelming. There were all these people who all had these devices called "phones.” I was tempted to say hello to the people, but I was not sure how to get their attention. I felt like a displaced animal. The cars felt too close to each other. Everything was fast and fighting for my attention. I was tempted to pick up every piece of garbage I saw.

Sasha Makhneva travelled down the Fraser River in this canoe. - CONTRIBUTED

The city had a lot of single-use products that were disposed in large numbers every day. The lifespan of a paper coffee cup is five minutes, meanwhile it took 100 years for the tree to grow to produce the paper to create the cup. I returned to a place where people were not finishing their food, water was being wasted, and untouched food was being thrown away. Even though I was surrounded by people, I began to feel isolated. I started checking my Facebook in the morning, just to get a sense of connection.

This was all a big contrast to my backpacking trips, where I carried only the essentials, every drop of water was conserved, every bit of food was licked clean from my plate, and each plastic bag was re-washed at least ten times. There were no cellphones and no advertising; just me, living in the moment. I awoke to smiling faces as opposed to Facebook.

Fortunately, I came home with a purpose. For the river program we had to create a project to execute in our home towns upon returning. My project will be creating a series of short films about my adventures.

I hope that by sharing my stories, I will inspire others to be mindful about the resources they use, and for youth like me to be inspired to pursue experiences in the natural world. Spending 52 days in wilderness taught me that happiness is found in the simplicity of just being alive and living in the moment.

Sasha Makhneva is 21 years old and a resident of Burnaby who took part in the Sustainable Living Leadership Program, created to teach participants how to become sustainability leaders in their communities. During this program, the participants get educated about the Fraser River ecology and environmental issues by actually traveling along the entire river by canoe, raft and a small amount of shuttling. The program helps participants to create and execute a project in their communities that would inspire sustainable living.

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