“Life for some strange reason has suddenly become simple and complete; his wants are few, confusion and uncertainty gone, his happiness and contentment deep.”
-Sigurd Olson, “The Way of a Canoe”
This past week, Sue has been hinting to the staff that the blog should have some guest appearances. For the most part, we’ve been able to avoid committing to anything, but under some duress, I agreed to give an account of a recent solo trip that I took on a day off. I know that the wilderness is a great place for serenity, relaxation, and a more calm pace of life, but I’ve been taking trips with my family for a while, and this means that I’ve learned a set routine, mostly from my father. It consists of:
Hurry! Drive up to Tuscarora! Hurry! Unpack, reorganize, and repack everything! Hurry! Get out on the water! Hurry! Find a campsite! Set up the fishing rods! Make supper! Wash dishes! Bed! … Repeat for the course of the trip, until we come to the final paddle out, then the rush through the showers to get back on the road to home.
While I enjoy this style of tripping, it sometimes seems to displace the peace that would otherwise be present, so for my first day off of work from Tuscarora, I decided that a solo trip would be appropriate. I hadn’t really considered the trip very much, and so my departure from the boys’ dorm at about 4:30 was rather disorganized. I hadn’t packed some of my gear from home, so I was borrowing some from Outfitting. Subscribing also to the “just tough it out” philosophy, I was also going without some otherwise helpful items. When I finally finished packing things up into my Army-surplus duffel bag (a shapeless lump of canvas, with luxury straps designed to dig into the shoulders), my final outfit consisted of a water bottle, a sleeping bag, Sigurd Olson’s The Singing Wilderness, a pot, a stove, some dehydrated spaghetti, and a tent.
The trip started with a portage from the door of the boys’ dorm (back by bunkhouses 5 and 6 to the cross bay entry point. Before I even reached the water, I was regretting the decision to include the “Charlie Brown” tent (more details later). I made it to the river, though, and was finally on the water for the first time this year. I realized after a few minutes of gung-ho paddling that I had plenty of time, since I knew that there were campsites available. This was almost a life-shaking realization, since it went against almost 16 years of BWCA training.
I managed to slow myself down quite a bit, inspecting an interesting rock cliff and then climbing up to the top to catch a nice view until I was driven back into the lake by the black flies. I finally made it to a campsite on Ham Lake, and spent the rest of the evening setting up camp. It wouldn’t take me that long to set up camp normally, but usually I don’t spend an hour locked in a mortal struggle with the tent I had found in the dark, eerily abandoned corner of Outfitting. There was a reason that this tent had been exiled: it was awful. It weighed about 127 pounds, had numerous design flaws, and smelled like it had been sitting in its corner for roughly 12 years. I fought to set it up for awhile, then gave up and just tied one part of the roof to a tree. Having finished my “fortress” against the terrors of being alone out in the dark, I went to eat my spaghetti, and discovered that I had no silverware. This wasn’t a problem, as there was a flat bit of bark nearby. I drank the soupy sauce and then ate the congealed powder at the bottom of the pot with the bark. Like all wilderness meals, it was more than gourmet. I watched the sunset and a few beavers swimming around, and then went to bed, ready to sleep late in the morning.
After thrashing about in the cold tent all night, I woke up at 5 AM to thunderous bird song. I read Sigurd Olson’s beautiful prose for an hour, had more spaghetti for breakfast, and then hit the road. Mr. Olson describes my paddle across Ham better than I could:
“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves.”
With this beginning, I started off on the laziest day of paddling that I’ve ever experienced. A pair of loons accompanied me across Cross Bay Lake, and I saw a muskrat and a fox. The portage to Snipe Lake was prefaced by an hour-long break. I had intended to ponder life in general, and though my head was fairly vacuous at first, I gradually became immersed in the sky, the woods, and the water. The life that I had wanted to ponder seemed far less confusing and more complete when it was fused to the wilderness. I gradually came out of my reverie, and portaged to Snipe Lake. After an exhilarating paddle against the growing wind on Snipe, I portaged through to Missing Link Lake. I had switched from single portaging to doubling up, since there was no need to rush through. On Missing Link I paddled all the way to the portage and was about to start the path back to Round Lake and Tuscarora, but then I stopped.
I didn’t need to rush out of the woods. My immersion in nature shouldn’t be cut off by my need to be back home. I leaned back over the stern gunwale and watched the clouds drifting across the sky.
I woke up on the other side of the bay. I could have drifted the entire perimeter of Missing Link during my two-hour nap, while I was absorbed into my canoe, the lake, the forest, and the movement of the winds. Before the last portage of the trip, I had finally been able to slow down to the pace of the Boundary Waters, the pace of life as it should be. **
** Sue would just like to add that Andrew must have been called away, or surely he would have added “on a day off” to this sentence.