In the middle of a wilderness trip, the last thing you want to experience is a mysterious medical ailment. But only a few days into a Bloodvein River excursion, one of my tripmates started to notice something was not quite right with one of her legs.
Every few minutes, whether she was paddling or standing or walking along a portage, a strange vibration would pulsate over the vicinity of her hip.
She would grasp at the affected area, but nothing was there. She would inspect her leg, but could not find anything.
The pulsating sensation would continue unabated for several days. Then came the disturbing diagnosis: Phantom BlackBerry Notification Syndrome, or PBNS.
Along with the closely related PINS, or Phantom iPhone Notification Syndrome, PBNS is believed to afflict millions of Canadians in a variety of vacation settings that range from the remote wilderness of the Canadian Shield to all-inclusive resorts on the Mayan Riviera to cottages scattered across southern Manitoba.
Victims tend be professionals who work long hours in jobs where they must be in constant contact with colleagues, clients or customers at any hour of the day or night, primarily through the use of handheld mobile communication devices. But they may also be harried parents, social-media addicts or merely obsessive professional sports fans.
Unaccustomed to separation from their iPhones or BlackBerrys or Androids, mobile-communication-device addicts begin to experience anxiety during the first few minutes away from their beloved machines. This is believed to be the result of the sudden severance from a virtual network of business contacts, family members and completely random strangers whose half-formed thoughts about the latest Mad Men episode somehow take precedence over real-life conversations with people physically present in the same room.
The shock associated with the sudden absence of this hive mind can be enough to force people to actually experience their immediate physical environment. But since the human brain has evolved to constantly seek out new packets of information, the intense nature of our conditioned desire to scan for data leads our neurosensory pathways to invent BlackBerry or iPhone notifications in the form of phantom vibrating sensations, nonexistent ping tones or simple compulsions to reach for devices that do not exist.
People who suffer from phantom limb syndrome, a much more serious ailment, may seek treatment in the form of acupuncture, hypnosis or antidepressant drugs.
The treatment for Phantom BlackBerry Notification Syndrome is far easier: Victims are encouraged to take longer and more frequent holidays, ideally in places where they cannot receive wireless signals of any sort. But that remedy is not available to the vast majority of sufferers. Hence the need to maximize the time available to get away.
Almost all people who regularly go on wilderness trips will experience, at least on occasion, some form of inability to immerse themselves within the rhythms of the natural world for the first three or four days of any given journey. It does not matter whether it's a physically strenuous backpacking trip or a laid-back flatwater paddle: the mind, left alone to experience the natural world -- as well as the company of a small number of other people -- will struggle to adapt to the quieter yet more sensory-rich environment.
To ease the transition, potential PBNS sufferers should attempt to turn off their mobile communication devices for extended periods during the days or weeks leading up to a trip. Disengaging from the virtual collective is easier with a head start. After all, the goal is to enjoy time away from the city as much as possible -- and that means without experiencing the anxiety associated with the loss of a virtual social network.
Once the withdrawal symptoms pass, wilderness travellers may experience a form of bliss associated with the emancipation from their addictions.
The sky, when you actually look at it, may appear a more vivid shade of blue. White-throated sparrows and mourning doves, should you listen to them, will sound more solemn and baleful, respectively. The terpene scent of pine resin and earthy musk of humus on the forest floor will seem overpowering, should you open your nostrils to them.
The advent of internet-enabled GPS devices threatens this emancipation, however. There are locator devices that allow wilderness travellers to access Facebook and Twitter accounts from any place on the globe.
The remedy for this problem is even more low-tech: A game of hide and seek. Simply hide the batteries and take them out only when you really need to let somebody know where you are.