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Capturing the Moment

When you keep a journal, your wilderness adventures are as near as the turn of a page.
By Jeff Rennicke - March 8th, 2000

Sometimes it's what you don't say. The June 19 passage of a journal I kept during a 1985 solo canoe trip down Alaska's Noatak River contains a strange, wonderful, unfinished sentence. I was sitting on a log at the mouth of a small creek, my journal across my knees, when I heard a rumbling behind me. In the middle of a sentence I looked up, stopped writing, and locked eyes with a grizzly. Without moving my eyes from the bear, I stood up, backed toward the river, and waited. After what seemed like hours, the bear finally huffed, lunged, and ran off. Quickly, I stowed my notebook, pushed the canoe into the current, and floated off, trembling.

Turning the already-yellowing pages of that journal brings it all back: the fear, the beauty of the animal, the sense of being completely alone, my knocking knees. It is probably all still there buried in my memory, but the words on the crinkled and smudged paper spark the flames of that memory. That's the beauty of journals.

Journal-keeping is an age-old art. Henry David Thoreau, one of the most famous American journal keepers, called his notebooks "a calendar of the ebbs and flows of the soul." Let's face it, our memories, even at the best of times, can be leaky vessels. On a trip in a new, wild place you find yourself confronted with wonderfully strange sights and sounds as you ride a roller coaster of emotions. You say to yourself, "I will never forget this as long as I live." But you will. Maybe not all of it, but time has a way of dulling even the sharpest of memories, unless it is all right there on the pages of your journal.

Keeping a journal is really very simple. You just have to get started. The easiest way is to follow the "Five W's:"

Who is going to write this?

On some organized trips it's common practice to appoint a "designated journal-keeper," someone who keeps the notes and then sends a copy to everyone after the trip. This method can be effective, but we all see things differently and express them in our own way. "Writing is the sum of what passed between me and the land," said Mary Austin, author of The Land of Little Rain. It is something "which has not, perhaps never could, come into being with anyone else." The only way to ensure a record of what passes between you and your chosen wild place is to keep a journal yourself.

What do I write about?

Some people would rather face a grizzly at 10 paces than try to write a sentence. "What would I write about?" they ask. The answer: everything.

Write down quotes from people you are hiking with. Record what wildlife you see or the mileage between camps or the color of the clouds before a rainstorm. Sketch in the margins the shape of a flower you want to look up later. Pay attention to all the details. Think of your journal as a butterfly net: The tighter the weave, the fewer details that will slip through the holes.

Don't concern yourself with punctuation or spelling. Don't erase, rip out pages, or worry about snappy beginnings or profound endings. No one is reading this except you, so write from the heart. It is the essence of the words that matters, not the grammar. Don't write only the happy stuff, either. Be honest. Write about the blisters, the unfiltered water that made you sick, the bugs, how after two days of rain all you really wanted was to go home. Swings of emotion are common on wilderness trips and the down times are as much a part of the trip as the good ones.

Besides, writing about your negative feelings can be cathartic. Recent studies have shown that writing about your feelings can boost levels of certain disease-fighting cells in your immune system, have a positive impact on blood pressure and heart rate, and help you cope with pain. On the other hand, suppression of adverse or unfavorable experiences could have negative effects on health, according to psychologist James Pennebaker, Ph.D., of Southern Methodist University, Texas.

Trips don't begin and end at the trailhead. Neither should your journal. Entries made a few days before your trip can capture the flavor of planning, poring over maps, and the anxiety that kept you awake the night before you left. Keeping your journal handy after the trip lets you capture those moments when a sweet memory surfaces in your mind, or you suddenly realize how the experience has changed you, or you just want to jot down a few plans for your next outing.

When do I write?

To some, sunrise on a mountain lake is the most inspiring thing in nature. To others it is a moon rolling across the plains. There is only one hard-and-fast rule on when to write: Don't wait for the "perfect" moment. Do it in the morning with campfire coffee. Pack quickly to give yourself an extra 15 minutes before the others are ready to hit the trail. Keep your journal at the top of your pack, so you can write during rest stops. Do it between bites as you eat lunch on a ridgetop. Do it at night in the tent.

Write every day. Memories are like river stones left in the current: The longer they are there, the less sharp they become. Let it slip for even a day and some of the smallest details - the shade of blue on a butterfly's wing, the wolf track along the river - begin to dim. Writing a single entry a day is a manageable chore. But if you have to go back several days and catch up, you may not have the energy to put into today's thoughts, and you could short-change your present-day's entry. If possible, pick a specific time of day and write at that time every day. Once you start, you will find the ideas, observations, and descriptions come easier. A trickle becomes a flood.

How do I keep a journal?

I use a pocket-sized notebook that stays handily in my shirt-pocket or fanny pack so I can jot down random thoughts, like the direction of the wind, or the way my mind drifts on long uphill stretches when I am trying to think of anything but the steep trail ahead. Once at camp, I take out the larger notebook I keep safely tucked in my pack. Using the notes I've collected during the day in my small notebook, I compose a journal entry in the larger one. I write in pen so it is more legible, but keep a pencil handy as a backup because it never runs out of ink.

You go out into the wilds to be out in the elements. The same wind and rain that thrill you, however, can be tough on a journal. To protect your notes from the elements you can either stick with your basic spiralbound notebook and simply keep it in a water-tight plastic bag, or you can go with something more hi-tech. There are companies out there making waterproof notebooks especially designed for use on the trail. These journals contain chemically-treated paper and plastic covers, so you can write in any weather. There are even all-weather pens designed to write at any angle, in the rain, and at temperatures below freezing, meaning weather can no longer be used as an excuse for not keeping up in your journal.

For those who are looking for a little help in structuring their journals, there are companies offering specially-designed trail journals that feature headings for such things as distance hiked, weather conditions, availability of water, and other details to help you cover the bases.

If the scene outside the tent is not inspiring enough, you can even head to the bookstore and buy a journal with an inspiring cover and interesting textured paper to spice up your writing time.

Why should I keep a journal?

With boots and maps, packs and tents, we explore the physical wilderness. A journal is a simple tool for exploring the wilderness of our thoughts, the flashes and specks that are otherwise forgotten. Date your journals on the cover and keep them in a dry place out of the direct sun so they will last a lifetime.

There is a western tanager in the pine tree, its colors like a shard of rainbow. There is a grizzly staring at you from the bushes. Write it down and 20 years from now, as you flip though the notebook, you will hear the birdsong and see the bear. Some people are blessed with photographic memories. For the rest of us, the least we can do is to be sure our memories are spiral-bound.


"I consider myself a storyteller," says Jeff Rennicke. "Once we told stories around the campfires, now we do it over the Internet, but at its heart it is still the story that counts." Rennicke has told his stories in over 250 magazine articles in such publications as National Geographic Traveler (where he is a Contributing Editor), Sierra, Reader's Digest, and Backpacker (where he is currently the Midwest Field Editor). He is also the author or co-author of eight books including River Days, Alaskan Bears in Life & Legend, and Isle Royale which received the 1990 "Director's Award" for the best book on a national park. He has also won the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award presented by the Society of American Travel Writers foundation.

Chasing stories has taken him dogsledding in the Arctic, river rafting in China, trekking in Antarctica, paddling on the Amazon, hang gliding off the Outer Banks, sea kayaking in Siberia, crawling into the dens of hibernating black bears in Colorado, and kayaking alone down the rivers of Alaska's Brooks Range.

When not traveling, Rennicke lives with his wife and two daughters on the shores of Lake Superior in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

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