photos and text by staff member Rachel
Per-se-ver-ance [pur-suh–veer-uh’ns] noun. 1. steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
Spend any amount of time in the wilderness and the observant student of life will be presented with a multitude of lessons. With every canoe trip into the Boundary Waters, I take time to look for a new angle in which to experience the wonders of nature surrounding me. Often my perspective is influenced by those that I am fortunate enough to paddle with. This trip I was lucky enough to have two paddling partners, my co-worker John Kenney and John Muir in the form of his book “Travels in Alaska.” The lesson of perseverance, a difficult virtue in today’s society of instant gratification, came from both of my travel companions as well as from nature’s own fire and water.
The elemental parts of nature, those at their seemingly simplest forms, can have a great impact on a trip. In canoe country, water is an essential part of why we travel from far and wide to northern Minnesota. Dipping a paddle, tossing a line in, and watching the light shimmer on the lakes watery facade is what most of us dream of. No one ever imagines their perfect trip without the presence of water, but what if that water is persistently drizzling from a leaden sky? Inclement weather can ruin any trip in a flash, flooding out dreams of sun basking with a good book, fishing and cheery campfires.
In the middle of the night, the pitter patter of raindrops on ripstop forecasted what was to come. Our day off was destined to be a damp one. Despite the dreary outlook for the morning, John was determined to have peanut butter toast for breakfast. All of the firewood left from the previous nights campfire was drenched, making a toasty outlook looked rather bleak. While I fired up my ever dependable camp stove to boil water for breakfast, John started hunting up some dry tinder. As I mixed the cinnamon muesli and brewed my tea, John flicked the lighter again and again when each new attempt sizzled under a fat rain drop. Long after I would have thrown in the wet towel, John made one more attempt before sitting back to eat breakfast. Huddled in our rain jackets watching an empty fire grate, we ate in silence. After the second spoonful, much to my cynical surprise, a promising flame sprang to life! Muesli set aside, John was once again stretched out in front of the fire grate, carefully adding one small, dry twig after another. With a bit more patience and a little light-headedness, a merry blaze was roaring in the grate, defying the storm clouds above. Toast has never tasted finer as we stood next to a hissing fire slowly turning to warm up. Tummies full, yet still drenched from head to foot, we packed up and headed on our way.
Gaskin Lake was our destination on this trip, each for our own reasons.
I was determined to see the fresh burn from a fire that had started at a campsite in June. John was here for the fish. Paddling through the drizzle we worked our way across Gaskin from our island campsite on the east side to the site of the burn on the west side. As we paddled through the wind and rain, I was reminded of a passage from the book I had been reading;
“A high wind was rushing down the strait dead against us, and just as we were about ready to start, determined to fight our way by creeping close inshore, pelting rain began to fly. We concluded therefore to wait for better weather. The hunters went out for deer and I to see the forests. The rain brought out the fragrance of the drenched trees, and the wind made wild melody in the their tops, while every brown bole was embroidered by a network of rain rills.” Travels in Alaska – John Muir
John Muir was an enthusiastic student of nature who let nothing get in his way of exploring new glaciers in the then largely unexplored Alaska. His descriptions of the places and nature he saw glow with his passion and understanding of the wild places he rambled through. With Muir’s words in mind, I began to see the forest instead of focusing on the crummy weather, making the best of the day presented. We paddled near the shoreline, looking at the trees, searching for wild rice, feeling the rain on my face and scanning the skies for eagles. Eventually we arrived at our site seeing destination.
Fire is another one of those elemental parts of nature that brightens our wilderness experience, but is also something we often demonize. Campfires in grates, well contained and fed by campers, become welcome companions on any trip. Once the illusion of control is lost, fires become things of nightmares, raging out of control and consuming the scenery canoeists come to enjoy. In reality, fire is as natural and as essential a part of nature as water is, cleaning up the old and renewing the landscape. The peninsula of Gaskin that was burned was not a scarred black moonscape but a mottled collection of charred balsam and birch mixed with green cedars and solid white pines. This had been a small fire that burned erratically, as fire is often wont, coming close to shore at some points and leaving a green buffer in others. Already new growth was persevering, slowly covering the blackened ground. Next summer, hosts of fire loving forbs will flower all over this spot such as fireweed, pearly everlasting, and my favorite Bicknell’s geranium. As I took pictures of the burn, we slowly drifted with the wind until I hear John quietly say “Moose. 11 o’clock.”
Standing on a ridge, blending in with the burned tree trunks, was a huge moose. She slowly alternated between watching us closely and munching on some of the young growth that had started to shoot up in the past two months since the fire had gone through. Moose love when fires scorch through the woods. Their favorite salads include the fresh, young growth of balsam, alder, willow and birch that populate open areas such as these. Her bulk was little hindrance as we watched her stealthily move through the woods and down the far side of the ridge. We paddled around the point, hoping to catch a glimpse of her on the other side. Barely touched by the fire at all, the far side’s lush green growth easily concealed our moose who made as much sound as a squirrel in the underbrush. Our only reward for rounding the point was being circled by a low flying osprey, annoyed with us for intruding on his favorite fishing bay.
The rest of the day we completed the loop up through Henson, Meeds, and Poplar. We took in the sights through a steady haze of rain and were rewarded for our perseverance with a sense of solitude. Not once did we pass another traveler after leaving Gaskin behind or see a far off canoe. It was just us, the woods and the drizzle. As we moved from lake to lake, John would occasionally expertly flick out his fishing line, testing the waters for a nibble. It would seem that the fish also though that this was a day better suited for hunkering down and waiting it out. Although there would be no shore lunch for us, John continued to flick out his line here and there with a fisherman’s tenacity, never giving up completely, just trying out a new spot then moving on.
This had not been a trip of postcard blue skies and star filled nights, but as we loaded up the car we both agreed that it had been a fun trip. I had to work a little harder to find the silver lining in the heavy gray clouds that dogged our day off, but once I really started to look, they were as shiny as ever. Taking away a new lesson from the woods, on future trips I will persistently look for the good in each day and the small little beauties that make up the wilderness. The challenges we face on canoe trips and in life can sometimes feel like we are constantly trying to start a fire in the rain. It may take a while to get going in the right direction, but with a little perseverance the flame finally catches, making the blaze more than worth the wait.