It was decided. I was going to spend a summer in the bush. I'd come to Canada in the summer as I had every year after moving to the Middle East 18 years ago. I always missed the green. The air without humidity and dust. The wild. This year was going to be unusual. I was going to pick berries and forage to save our lives; teach my little kids how to navigate without a GPS. Bake pies. Tie knots. I needed to find a way to disconnect from crazy city life. To reset. To figure out my next move in my career and to see if I could really function without having a city around me.
After seeing the state of the old house, not lived in for seven years, my sister said it was impossible. To live like that with some much wild around us, no one for miles. My dad said I'd have until Tuesday. All bets were in.
Without a landline reaching me, I'd done some research. Rogers had installed a new cellphone tower in the nearest village, Nipissing, about 20 minutes from our old homestead. We were sitting on 200 acres, with a 100-year-old house on a remote logger's road, an area known for harbouring American Vietnam draft dodgers in the 70s — no one would find them there! And a few short years ago, cellphone access was just a dream.
Locals I'd chatted with who'd been in the region or on our property for maintenance said by all accounts I should get a cell phone signal at my place. Maybe one bar or two, but a signal no less. For me a signal means data, and for me an Internet connection is life or death. I could afford to stay a month in the middle of nowhere if I could work on essentials in order to keep my online businesses afloat. Otherwise I'd have to go back to suburbia where my parents live near Toronto.
Part of me wishes I could be a "normal" tourist. Spend Sunday brunch in Kensington Market, have the time to compare hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus tours in cities nearby, visit theme parks. Or maybe jump on a plane to visit my husband in Thailand. But alas, without the energy for anything but exploring my land like the back of my hand, I opted for the wild. On a trial run at my parent's cottage on a nearby lake, 20 minutes down the road, I'd calculated my appetite for data.
In three days applying basic Internet surfing habits for work and pleasure — an online video chat, some work on collaborative documents, uploading some photos to a publishing platform, a Netflix TV show and a few Spotify songs, I'd consumed two gigabytes worth of data. I couldn't do piecemeal because I'd end up spending $1,000 over the month.
I needed a plan.
If I were to spend a month in the bush alone with two small kids, and black bears and raccoons clawing at the windows (not to mention the moose!), I'd need 40 gigabytes to play it safe. My cellphone signal in the bush was barely attainable, but when connected to data, I could Skype whoever I wanted with relative ease, even locals. I could find recipes for pies. I could figure out what mushrooms are poisonous; I could get us out of the bush when we get lost.
In what was to be the most expensive Internet transaction in my life, $350 for unlimited phone calls (who cares!) and 40 gigabytes of data, this was the best offer I could find in North Bay. If I were to last a month in the wild, I would have no choice but to cough up the cash like any addict. Of course I lied to my family about the outrageous fee.
If you look to continents like Africa, how Canadians in remote locations access internet isn't unlike landlocked countries in Africa. People who live in the north are intelligent. They are fierce, they are survivors and they appreciate the best of what Canada has to offer: fresh water, abundant wildness, good-spirited neighbors who will help you in a jiffy if you ever need them. They are our lifelines to protecting what's ours. Our own wild.
Maybe this is Mother Nature at work? Keeping the locals in Northern Ontario off Facebook to protect their way of life in the wild so they have time to bake cookies? Collect wild mushrooms? I was there for a month. And because I could pay, had the luxury of living wild and free and being connected whenever I needed to ask Google a question or get myself out of the forest. With all that alone time, with the Internet, I was able to discover that I wanted to make documentary movies and with the power of online shopping, had a camera delivered to my neighbour's door.
Going off-grid and offline (at the same time) is unnatural today, even for die-hard naturalists. My summer in the wild with plenty of data allowed me to take footage and photos and share them almost real-time, and during the course of the summer noticed how I'd inspired my friends to do the same.
I can say those 40 gigabytes for me helped keep me grounded in the wild. To ask friends for words of support. Without them, my dad would have won the bet. I would have been back to Toronto and shopping at the mall.