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Offbeat

What It’s Like to Go on a Digital Detox Retreat

In 2017, it's a constant struggle to stay off social media and unplug from the smartphone. So when I was tipped off to a digital detox retreat in Canada's Northwest Territory—a week of no news, no Twitter, and no texts—I knew I had to go.

Anyone who’s ever lived in or visited NYC knows the city is more than just fast-paced. It’s 24/7, 365 mayhem with no off button. That’s why I recently moved out of the city in favor of a less rushed and quieter home in the woods (ahem, a rural suburb). But I soon realized that even in my low-key new life, I was still obsessively checking my phone—waking up on Facebook and falling asleep in the flow of my Twitter feed—all in an effort to feel some sort of human connection.

One day, as I was scrolling through one my social channels, I stumbled upon a digital detox retreat hosted by Folk Rebellion in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Ever the skeptic, the idea seemed hokey—something wealthy Millennials hop onto in order to achieve growth and balance and other buzzwords. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I knew I needed the escape—even if it was to the extreme. (Plus, let’s be honest, I really wanted to cross the northern lights off my travel bucket list.)

So, I booked the trip and packed my bags for a WiFi-free week in the wilderness. But getting there was an adventure in itself. After three flights, two long layovers, one night at a deserted Days Inn, two lost suitcases, a much-needed pint at NWT Brewery, and a 30-minute ski plane ride, I finally arrived at Blachford Lake Lodge—a whopping 36 hours later.

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The ski plane gave me time to quiet my mind, as I peered out the tiny, frosted window onto the endless sea of snow. For a brief moment, I was startled by how desolate my week-long home was—not a single house or person in sight. But when we landed atop a frozen lake and were greeted with cheering new friends, dogs and hot tea, I knew I’d made the right decision.

Our guide Maude took us on a brief welcome tour, down snow-packed steps to our respective log cabins, heated only by wood burning stoves and loads of blankets, and then down further to a sauna that stood a few steps above the site of our future igloo.

Because this was a group retreat, we were told we had to stick to a scheduled program, which began with a hearty dinner prepared by the Blachford volunteers. Wintry cocktails were poured and passed around by Georgie, an English transplant who’d been traveling the world for five years. And as everyone introduced themselves, I looked around and realized this was the first time in my adult life I was actively opening up. In the past 10 years, I made a point of avoiding eye contact with anyone I didn’t know because of my reluctance to make small talk (especially on the subway). My time was precious and there was no room for strangers in it. Now it dawned on me how many opportunities and friendships I may have missed by keeping my headphones in and my focus on my phone.

And so, I traded my laptop, iPad, Kindle, and cell for a survival kit filled with waterproof Rite in the Rain notebooks and Green Goo lip balm and moisturizers, that would save my poor, wind- and cold-burned skin by the week’s end.

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The days that followed were filled with ice-fishing, igloo building, Polar Bear plunges between hot tub dips, cross country skiing, and a lot of reflection. I found myself listening more, missing my Twitter less, and cursing myself for not fighting the internet algorithms that isolated me from meeting new people and enduring new challenges like this one. Without arming ourselves with our security blankets iPhones, we all developed a fast and mutual trust with people who were strangers mere days before.

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We opened up about surgeries, divorces, traumas, illnesses, frustrations, and dreams. The conversations we had called into question much of what I thought to be true in my own life. For months, I’d been plagued with a brain fog and weakened short-term memory, but only a few days into my technology-free week, these symptoms began to fade. I was smiling more, my introvert-hangover was nonexistent, and I was less overwhelmed by constant group activities, like journaling and bracelet-making, than I felt while out with friends and their phones. Removing technology took away my cynicism and brought out the goofy, dream catcher-making kid that was always hidden from my well-curated Instagram feed.

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Ironically enough, after five days, we never even got a glimpse of the northern lights—the main reason so many of us decided to join this retreat in the first place. But after evenings of soul-searching conversations and growing friendships, we began to forget that we originally came for the photo-op. Pics-or-it-didn’t-happen meant nothing anymore because the experience was real and the Snaps were in my mind, not disappearing within a few seconds.

And so on our last night, during a round of heartfelt toasts, Clark, our massage therapist for the week (we weren’t totally roughing it, after all), ran inside shouting “Aurora! Aurora!” Glasses clanked on the dinner table as 22 people clamored for the doorway. We hustled to put our boots and coats on and slip-slided our way down to the lake. I paused in a spot far from the rest of the group, and silently looked up at the blues, greens, purples, and pinks dancing across the sky.

A week before, I would’ve instinctively reached for my phone to capture the moment. Instead, I stood with my hands in my pockets, neck craned up at the stars, and felt content with my silly, summer camp week 200 miles from the Arctic Circle.

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When I arrived back in New York, I switched my phone from airplane mode to do not disturb—where it’s stayed ever since. I deleted my not-so-social apps, bought an analog alarm clock and put all my chargers in the kitchen. My focus is as sharp as it was in my isolated wonderland and my craving for internet-attention is waning.

So far, my life is better being lived IRL.

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