A Three-Day Kayak Trek to Conquer Fear Using The Hero's Journey

This is a personalized post from the base camp of our founder, JD Arbuckle.


When is the last time you’ve really been afraid?

Not something like potentially losing your job or failing a test, but good old fight or flight terror? Well, you might want to head out the door to find some, because terror has been used for centuries to kickstart serious psychological growth through certain initiation rituals and challenges. These don’t exist anymore, and now 10% of the planet is neurotic, depressed, angry, and immature.

 

IN SEARCH OF FEAR

I’d like to share my recent journey with you through the Suwannee River wilderness. This slowly winding river through southern Georgia and out to the Florida Gulf Coast is filled with hidden springs, decent fishing, and long stretches of total solitude.

Even though these small camping trips serve as a great vacation and reset, that’s not why I enjoy them. Buried down deep inside every growing human is a need for something called the hero’s journey. The very first stories ever written, like Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Iliad, all follow a formula. These epic tales speak directly into our hearts, whether you know it or not. And they might just save your life.

 

THE HERO’S JOURNEY

We meet an untested hero, who is called to adventure. He meets a crucial helper(s), who provide him with tools, secrets, or guidance.

Then, he moves through his trials. He enters a new world of darkness and mystery. He passes or fails his tests, but he cannot turn back. He may encounter more helpers, but his own strength will be put to measure.

Our adventurer finds what he seeks. He saves what must be saved, or he kills what must be killed. He retrieves some sort of magical elixir, pictured in a thousand different formats.

Then, the return. It could be a triumphant walk, an exhausted crawl, or a frantic flight. But the hero cannot forego this crucial step: returning to society to deliver the gifts his new found power brings.

If you’d like, you can read this exact interpretation from the book “The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. It’s beautiful.

 

FROM JOSEPH CAMPBELL:

“The mythological hero, setting forth from his common-day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark, or be slain by the opponent and decent in there in death.

Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains reward.

The triumph may be represented as the hero’s union with the goddess-mother of the world, or his recognition by the father-creator, his own divinization, or again — if the powers have remained unfriendly to him — his theft of the boon he came to gain; intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being.

The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection.; if not, he flees and is pursued. At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread. The elixir that he brings restores the world.” 

 

THE POWER IN THE FORMULA

So, why am I telling you this? Because YOU’RE THE HERO OF YOUR OWN STORY. And many deep but solvable problems arise from never going through your own journey, or never seeing yourself in this way.

If you’ve ever struggled with depression, anxiety, fear of failure, confidence, motivation, long term vision, or the whole gamut of “I wish I was more than I am” syndromes, there is hope for you. No, not only hope: there is light at the end of the tunnel, an antidote, and a step-by-step map to take you there.

You have the ability to create your own heroic journey. You’re already in one, and not by choice: your entire life from birth to death. But to be honest, you don’t have much control over that story. However, by engaging in constant adventure, you can experience the life-giving power of a personal quest over and over. And when you keep seeking them, your ultimate epic tale will work out well too.

Without the knowledge of the hero formula or understanding you’re supposed to be the hero, all of the ancient stories we have recorded are just stories. They are filled with strange plots, irrelevant details, and mystical creatures that never existed. It’s just entertainment.

 

That’s not why they were written.

There is psychological, transformational power inside a good myth. Every scene in the stories of gods and heroes have specific correlation to personality types and universal life experiences. Every unique plot structure or tool is a symbol for something we all struggle with.

In a past long gone, you would sit around the campfire as a child and hear the story of Percival, the young boy off in search of the Holy Grail. You’d imagine every detail as it was told by a village elder. There’s no actors to take away from your imagination, and so you would naturally imagine yourself as the hero. And then, you would go to bed and stare at the stars.

You may wonder, “Why did a young boy like that leave his home? What was the point of the wounded king? Should I leave my home? Will there be a wounded king inside me when I grow up? What can I do about it?”

You would think, struggle, and grow. We have no time for this mode of reflection anymore.

 

Stay consuming, comforted, and cynical, and you will never be strong.

Strong people are dangerous. Being dangerous is currently looked down on today, and that’s a travesty. Positive masculine traits should be worshipped and sought after, just like positive feminine traits should be idolized and grown.

We all need adventure, struggle, initiation rites and other tribes of strong people to follow. If we don’t, there will be a missing piece in the soul.

This is why you must go into the woods, or some version of it: your magical elixir is waiting for you. Let’s walk through my latest journey, and see if we can find the formula inside. The end result is clear, as I write something like this that was gifted by the wilderness. These words will help someone, and your own gifts are on the way too.

 

THE EXPEDITION BEGINS

I left for Suwannee territory at 3AM for a short three hour drive. The growing need for these travels come upon me naturally, until planning and packing for a short weekend is an absolute necessity. I was burnt out, working hard, and spinning my wheels. I needed a win.

 

I had a call to adventure.

You’re going to laugh, but it’s such an important detail to the formula. I’ve become obsessed with Bigfoot encounter podcasts. I’ve heard hundreds of stories from people who break down and cry while recounting the fear they felt as they caught a glimpse of their burning red eyes, or heard their roar right outside the tent.

For the sake of telling a story, let me get you into the same head space I’ve been brainwashed into: “Of course they aren’t real… But maybe…”

Thousands of hikers go missing every single year, no bodies ever recovered. In every encounter told, the victims describe the exact same smells, sounds, and behaviors. There are myths and drawings for versions of Bigfoot from dozens of cultures, on every continent, for thousands of years.

It’s just… interesting. And listening to Bigfoot encounters before three days alone in the woods was not the smartest thing I ever did.

I arrived at a place called Suwannee River Rendezvous, a fantastic campsite right on the river. Walking into the office, I offered some cash to anyone who could drive me an hour or so north, so I could float for three days down the river and end up back at my car.

I met Suzie, the long time owner of the campsite. Suzie has just beaten a certain type of cancer that has a 10% survival rate. Sounds a bit… magical, if we’re being honest.

She was from Minnesota as well, of course. We’re everywhere. This means she was as helpful as can be, and we talked while she printed out maps with cool details I didn’t have.

 

I’d met my helper, and she gave me a guide.

My paddle was in the water by mid morning. The Suwannee is wide, and the slow current is a miracle: you can really just sit in your kayak and float down the center, Tom Sawyer style.

For six hours, life was great. I played the harmonica, read a book, did a little fishing, and enjoyed the sights. I talked to a few other adventurers, but the riverbank homes and company started to get sparse near the evening. The sunset was incredible.

The state provides “river camps” all along the Suwannee, small groups of screened in cabins and even bathrooms! That’s not my style, I’m not out here to stay in a Hilton like that. So I paddled past the first camp, looking for a cool place on the shore to set up home base.

Darkness fell before I could find a single clear spot. I paddled in the pitch black, only turning on my headlamp to check the map and scan the terrain because the swarms of bugs was overwhelming. As the beam crawls across the brush, it looks like those overdeveloped photos of the stars at night. That’s thousands and thousands of spider eyes staring back at you.

 

I’ve entered a world of darkness and mystery.

Finally, there is an old broken wooden platform sticking out into the water, with rotten stairs that led to a decently flat patch of grass. I quickly unload the kayak and tie her up, then start unpacking for the night.

First, get your tent and bed set up. You don’t want to do this in the rain, and you want a clean place to store certain gear. Then, make sure the rest of your pack and tools are organized. Don’t bother changing until the very end of the night, unless you’re soaking wet. You want your one other set of clean clothes to stay that way. Then, it’s time for the only good thing that’s going to happen tonight: food.

I made a small stealth fire as I boiled some dehydrated cheddar and broccoli soup. With those tuna packets and plenty of spices I had a delicious and high-calorie meal.

I watched a grasshopper jump right into the fire, and kill itself. Bugs aren’t very smart. But hey, we humans do stuff all day long that harms us. At least we invented the wheel, so suck it, bugs.

As I wait for dinner I’m sitting there watching this grasshopper cook. Oops, did I just say cook? … I’m no Bear Grills, but I figure if I’m going to talk this talk, I better walk this walk.

It took me five solid minutes of staring at it in my hands before I could pop that sucker into my mouth and bite down. Crunchy, tasted like mushrooms. Builds character.

It wasn’t a great night’s sleep, and I could hear critters much larger than squirrels checking out my site constantly. Around 5AM I got up, because there’s nothing better to do.

By the way, your sleep schedule might be horrible because of your environment: your phone, your LED lights, your constant access to entertainment that makes sleeping seem so lame. Try a trip where your tent gets too hot after sunrise to sleep in. And a few hours staring at a fire after dark makes sleep the most exciting thing you have available.

Unzipping my tent in the morning, there’s a three inch huntsman spider who has made a web a foot away from my face (not to mention the buggers crawling between my rainfly and screen all night). Nice. I sit and watch a moth fly into his trap, where he stays in the center. He jerks his leg a few times in the direction of the moth, testing the weight. We do the same with a fishing rod to set the hook.

 

He crawls outward, works, eats, and moves right back to his center. There’s probably an awesome metaphor for balance in there, but I’m too tired to care.

I went back down to that wooden platform with all of my gear as soon as possible, to enjoy a nice breakfast and coffee while avoiding as many crawlers and slitherers as I can. The morning fog off the river and the occasional gator splash sharpens the senses. Today should be filled with good sunshine and plenty of brilliant springs.

As I pull into each spring, it’s easy to see why Ponce de Leon thought the Fountain of Youth was here. If he knew about the power of myth, he wouldn’t have wasted time looking for something nonexistent and symbolic. However, when armor-wearing Spanish soldiers marching eight days in the 100 degree heat came across one of these springs, it would absolutely feel like you took five years back after jumping in.

I had lunch at one of those river camps mid-afternoon, and decided to make it to the next one before sunset. Do I ever learn?

My personal highlight of this trip was during a float down a residential area of the river. I had my gear stacked up in the kayak, my feet over the side, my fishing rod out, and my hat over my eyes.

I hear this guy on his phone, talking about his landscaping or something. The voices carry over the river, so he pauses and says,

“Diane, there is this cat in front of me right now floating down the river… I don’t know if he’s even awake or… Oh, he just gave me the peace sign… Where you coming from?”

“A couple camps up,” I called back.

“Where you headed, the coast?!”

“Thinking about it.”

“Well good luck! So, Diane… Ah man, that is so cool… Anyway, the brick color doesn’t match the…”

His voice fades away as the current picks up, but now there’s just a hint of storm clouds above. I’ve never kayaked in a storm, but I can’t imagine it’s a ton of fun. So, I begrudgingly take out the paddle, get on my knees to keep the core tight, and furiously paddle near 8 miles in 2 hours to reach the next camp. That’s about 3,600 rows, if you’re a gym goer.

 

I’ve faced a trial.

The hero formula starts to shine through again as I reach my final test. I pass under the most menacing mob of hawks, circling and watching me. My kayak docks just as the first giant clap of thunder takes over and it starts to pour.

I haul the gear up to the river camp, and it’s dead silent and seems abandoned. There’s no roads to reach this place, and campers can only arrive by river. I get everything into the old screen cabin, and survey the territory.

It’s impossible to describe how absolutely fantastic you feel at a time like this. Hours of endorphin-flooding exercise, adrenaline, and just the right amount of stress gives you a high like nothing else. I’m 20 miles away from civilization, I have complete self-sufficiency with me, and I just finished what I set out to do with my own strength and determination.

 

I’ve found a magical elixir.

But my journey is not over, because I still have to escape this mysterious world. I’m not so lucky to have a triumphant and easy return this time, and I start to feel the terror creep in as the storm begins to fight back. Darkness falls again and night takes over.

The other empty cabin doors slam open and closed while the wind and rain whips through camp. My cabin light flickers in such an unnerving way it’s better to just keep it off. The mossy patterns on the screens look like old Aztec skulls staring at me. I noticed my mummy sleeping bag in the center of the cabin looks a lot like a coffin. I hear coyotes howl. But best of all, every time the lightning flashes and illuminates the field, I expect a seven foot, red eyed, ruthlessly evil Bigfoot to be waiting.

 

Monsters and magic used to be very real.

Imagine the young village shaman who must go on a similar quest into the nearby sacred mountains. All his life, he has heard of the terrible spirits who live in these mountains. He knows that if he survives this night, if the spirits let him live, he will return with powers. That’s a truly terrifying night for a man, and terror is transformational. He DID return with power, by believing that what he did mattered.

The emotion of fear cannot physically kill you first hand, so it makes for the perfect ultimate human enemy. Push through real fear in your own life, and you’ll feel another link added to your personal chain of strength.

I sat there railing blues licks on my harmonica for hours, with a flare gun on one side and a handgun on the other. If I’m going out like this, it’s going to be with a fight.

Finally, the storm starts to die down and I try to get some sleep. I’m still on edge, so I decide on a bit of meditation: 100 deep, slow breaths. And by 50, it was all over. I felt more calm than I had in weeks.

 

I had returned back to this world.

It was still drizzling in the morning, so I made a ridiculous tarp-tent for my kayak and began the trip anyway. There were only a few springs left to explore, but I made it quick and was only really focused on meeting my ride at noon. I had already found what I came for.

I’d brought a pay-per-minute flip phone instead of my smart phone on this trip, and I recommend you do the same. You can still make emergency calls or coordinate a pickup, but you’re not sitting on Facebook in the middle of the woods, because then what’s the point?

The first shower and meal after these trips are heavenly. The celebration can start and you deserve a good rest that night.

 

AFTER YOUR JOURNEY

The following days and weeks will feel quite different. Without thinking about your problems, you may have discovered new solutions. You’ll find the strength to have the difficult confrontation that needs to happen. You can carry a successful hero’s journey inside your heart for the rest of your life.

Some people grow up without ever consciously taking on a challenge. It seems like the easy route, but it’s actually a curse. Your personal power slowly fades away until you make the choice to light your fire again.

Look back over your entire life, and the situations you’re in now. You should be able to pinpoint where you are in this process, and that’s a very exciting thing. It means no matter how you feel, you’re on a path. And if you keep seeking, your story will continue.

 

Launch your own hero’s journey as soon as you can, but meet yourself at your current level.

If you’ve never gone into the woods, don’t schedule an Everest trip. If you’ve never stood up for yourself, don’t go chew out the CEO of your company.

Create a plan where success is inevitable. Sign up for the six mile Spartan Obstacle Race. Train as hard as you can, and even if you end up crawling and falling into the mud, you made it through and no one can take it away from you.

Schedule that uncomfortable conversation, and write out your script. Get out what you have to say, and no matter what happens, you will feel free.

Continue to reframe yourself as the hero of your own story: not the victim, the bad guy, the entitled, or the failure. Find mentors and tribes that can help you. Over time, you will forge yourself into the strong and capable human being you were meant to be. Good luck.

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3 Comments

  1. Patrick McWilliams

    Man, I’d love to take a trip like this sometime in the next few years. Sounds amazing.

    Reply
  2. KATE COHEN-POSEY

    JD, wow what a writer you are! Speaking of heroes–when my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s we went on a tour of St. Augustine. My mom asked the guide, “Why would Columbus leave a nice comfortable place like Spain to travel into the unknown?” The guide was taken-aback by the simplicity of her question that seems so obvious in hind-site. I wish he had said, “Columbus was looking for big foot.”
    As I am well-along in my own hero’s journey I’ve discovered that the bigger the challenge I take on, the more authentic I become. My own rule-of-thumb: When the Universe asks you to do something, always say, “Yes.” And, be careful, because sometimes requests from the universe are softly spoken.

    Reply
  3. Sarel

    Great writing, JD.

    I only went camping a couple times this Fall. Feeling now like I never went at all. Your tale is making me seriously considering one last trip before the nights are intolerably hot and humid.

    Reply

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