The lake’s resident loon eyes the sudden disturbance to its serene lake with suspicion. The dull clunks of paddles on aluminum echo across the darkening waters as a pair of tired canoers ply their way toward a low-lying peninsula. After five lakes, a beaver dam-filled creek, and seven portages, the paddlers are alone in the midst of the wilderness. A sudden wind picks up tosses their canoe from side to side, an ominous reminder of how alone they are if something goes wrong.
Evan had hatched this journey just the week before. He’d imagined it as a restorative trip before the start of his senior year, a chance to be alone with his favorite confidante, a rising junior named Mark who’d moved to Duluth the year before. Mark is an outcast in northern Minnesota, the precocious child of a family that had accumulated vast wealth on Wall Street before a string of affairs and divorces had driven them to attempt a refresh along the shores of Lake Superior. His father had paid Evan’s freight to an exclusive hockey camp earlier in the summer, so this invitation seemed the best way he could pay Mark back, even if a canoeing permit pales in comparison to a week with a host of ex-NHLers. But Mark, he knows, appreciates the gesture, and welcomes a chance to escape the juvenile locker room antics that bore him.
What he did not count on was Mark’s complete disinterest in stopping to gaze up at the eagle in the tree on the second lake, or to study the flowers and listen to the birdsong along the creek. Evan had hoped to revisit a couple of lakes he’d paddled with his dad five years earlier, but instead, they’ve pushed themselves to the limit, traveled about as humanly far from civilization as possible. But while Mark has set the pace, Evan finds himself drunk off his longing for ever greater solitude, and takes a perverse pride when Mark is the first one to suggest they bring their day’s journey to an end.
“Okay, would really like to find a campsite before dark, bro.”
“It says there should be one here.” Evan grimaces as he stares down at the sopping wet map while still taking halfhearted paddle strokes.
Mark surveys a rock-strewn shoreline that fronts a dense thicket of tamaracks. “There isn’t.”
“Give it here.” Mark leans over the bulging packs in the center of the canoe, stops to stabilize the rocking craft amid the chop, and snags the map.
“Oh, come on. Learn to read. It’s on the next point.”
“Fine, fine. Maybe wanna help me out here?” Evan paddles frantically to guide the canoe away from the rocks. Their chatter, incessant all afternoon, dies as they swing their bulky craft back outward into the lake and steer it into the next bay, where the waves return to a manageable level.
“The mosquitoes are getting me even with all this wind,” Mark grumbles, his paddle strokes reduced to feeble splashes as he slaps at his barren knees. “I need more bug dope. God, why did we think this was a good idea?”
“You’re cute when you’re angry.”
“Oh, shut it.” Mark resists the urge to pile on. It’s the sort of thing his dad would do on one of their family vacations to the Caribbean when he inevitably lashed out at his mother for being late for dinner or forgetting to buy enough rum. He is not his father. For that matter, Evan is not his mother. Mark’s dad sometimes had a point, even if the way he expressed it usually led Mark to hide in his room, where the goalie-in-training would bounce tennis balls off his wall and try to stop them from getting past him. His release had the added benefit of making an obnoxious racket that would occasionally distract his parents from their yelling. Occasionally.
“Damn, now we’re going straight into the sunset,” Mark complains.
“You could, you know, actually wear your cap forwards to shade your eyes.”
“C’mon Evs, you know I’m too vain for that shit.”
“I’m sure you’re gonna pick up a lot of girls out here.”
“Little sympathy here? Not all of us can have perfect girlfriends like you.”
“I tried to get Bridget to come, but she won’t sleep in a tent. And I don’t think my mom would’ve gone for that anyway.”
“I love how your mom thinks she’d be a bad influence on you, but just loves me.”
“Well, you are scary good at fooling adults into thinking you’re not the little shit that you are.”
“You’re not half bad yourself.”
Evan grumbles but settles for channeling his mixed emotions into a few powerful strokes. Mark is right, of course: compared to much of the hockey team he’s the quiet and articulate one, the one who’s seen a bit more in life than most. He’s built himself an image as the saint. But when he looks at his own conduct over the past year—sneaking out to surf when he can, the stolen moments with his girlfriend, lying through his teeth at those events where role model high school athletes tell younger kids to stay away from parties—he hardly thinks he deserves that reputation. The simple fact that he’s drawn to the likes of Mark instead of some more modest friends, he suspects, shows where his true loyalties lie. No regrets, he tells himself, or at least not any glaring and lasting ones.
“Heyo…look, there’s a campsite,” Mark announces, breaking Evan’s reverie. “Amazing what you can find when you can read a map. Nice big rocks, should block out all this wind.”
“Means we’re gonna get eaten alive by bugs.”
“It’s this or another portage at dusk. Remember how much you hated the last one?”
Mark swats a mosquito on his arm and eyes the flies circling his head warily. “The portages only suck when you’re on them. Easy to bounce back from. Just like going over the boards for another shift, right?”
“Like you’d know, ya damn goalie. We do that next one, you’re carrying the canoe and doing the cooking in the dark.”
“Actually now that you mention it, this site here looks just fine.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Evan guides the canoe into a rocky landing, and a few clunks of aluminum on rocks again shatter the silence of the lake. Mark hops out and maintains some measure of grace as he pulls the prow into a small bite in the shore. He dances a mosquito-directed jig as Evan clambers over the bags and on to dry land. They haul their bags and the canoe up on to an embankment and collapse on to the log alongside the fire ring.
“Well, considering how far we came, we made damn good time,” says Evan, tracing their route on the map. “Course it helps when your travel partner only has one speed and is getting D-I scouts looking at him…”
“Would’ve been faster if those dicks at the second portage didn’t take up the whole landing.”
“Not sure if they were more bitter about how we went blasting past them or what you said to them.”
“It needed to be said. Might be my first time in here, but at least I know my freaking etiquette.”
“Glad you paid attention to that Leave No Trace video.”
“Or I’m just a model of decency. East Coast class, baby.”
Evan’s eyes roll into the back of his head, but the buzzing mosquitoes distract him from a retort. They’re out for blood, so he picks out a tent pad and sets Mark to staking it out while he fumbles for the cooking gear.
“Where’d you get all this stuff?” Mark asks as he admires the little-used tent.
“It’s left over from my dad.”
“He was outdoorsy?”
“In a good, Minnesotan way. Camped, fished, hunted. Learned it from his dad, taught me enough to get by.”
“You did all that, too?” Mark asks. Evan has surprised him before, but he has yet to get him to join in one of his trail runs or early morning swims across the lake at a mutual friend’s cabin. For good or ill Evan isn’t ever one to rebel against a group, even as he stays in careful control of himself. He is an utter conformist, if at least a thoughtful one. This invitation into the wilderness was a shock, the closest thing to a risk he’s ever seen. Unless he’s hiding more? Mark has seen Evan’s brooding look just often enough to believe his friend may be capable of things he doesn’t let on.
“I know, I know. Never really liked fishing, thought it was boring. I was way too much of a mama’s boy to ever kill anything. My mom’s sold off the guns now anyway. Your dad ever do much like that?”
“My mom’s family did, actually, but nah, you can’t catch my dad sleeping on anything other than Egyptian cotton. He likes his nature, but from a safe distance. And he’s pro-Second Amendment since he’s a good Republican, but god forbid he actually pull a trigger himself.”
“Figures,” says Evan. This is either the seventh or eighth time Mark has bemoaned his father’s hypocrisy since the start of the day, a habit that long ago wore thin. “Hey, you know how to use a water filter?”
“No freaking clue.”
“Here, I’ll teach you. Come on down here…just watch, it’s not hard.”
“Emma tried to get me to drink lake water straight once. That was a red flag right there.”
“That was your Silver Bay girlfriend?”
“Yup. Total granola girl.”
“Somehow I don’t see that being your type.”
“Eh. Fun to fool around with, but so damn flaky.”
“Now that I can see.”
“We’d go on day hikes so we could make out in the woods and smoke some pot. Or, mostly, she smoked pot and I played along just enough to seem cool so I’d get what I want.”
Evan groans. “Don’t know why you’d need an altered state what you’re already sort of in one just being out here. God, I love it. Or, I guess it would be more of an unaltered state. Untouched by man, cept for us campers.” He smiles, hoping to draw at least some momentary appreciation for their surroundings out of Mark.
“And the loggers who clear cut the whole thing and gave us the forest as it is now. Or the natives who managed it forever before that. Or—”
“God you always ruin things.”
“Plus I hope you don’t mind a little altering after dinner.”
“Shit, man. What’d you bring?”
“Whiskey.” Mark fetches a bottle from his pack and slams it down next to the sputtering camp stove. “Hauled that over all those portages, it better be good.”
“Damn. You ever had Scotch before? Where’d you get it?”
“Nope. But divorce has its pluses.”
“I should’ve known,” Evan says, shaking his head. “Your mom’s little prince gets everything he wants.”
“She’ll do anything to make me like her after what she put me through. Kinda sad, but I’m gonna milk it for all it’s worth.”
“And I’m sure the kind that comes in a plastic bottle is the top shelf stuff.”
“Here, let’s take a swig. Worth celebrating that we made it this far.”
“I’m game.” Evan suppresses his natural fear, cracks the bottle, and knocks it back. “Woah. That’s fiery. Way better than most of the cheap stuff we normally get.”
Mark follows suit. “Yeah, this I can do. Good call, me.” He kicks back and takes a second sip, freed from momentary mosquito annoyance, and musters up his cockiest smile.
“God, we’re terrible.”
“Come on, Evs. You and me, we’re some of the most responsible people out there. I’m not gonna feel guilty that I can handle my shit.”
“Good way to put it…but I’m gonna remember that line next time I have to babysit hung over Marky.”
“Harsh, harsh. What’s for dinner, anyway?”
“Pasta. Only thing I know how to make, so I hope you like it.”
“Well, we can wash it down pretty easy.”
“Only then we’ll have to pee when the bugs come out.”
“‘When they come out?’ They’re already draining pints.”
“Oh, just wait till dark when it gets totally still.”
“So much for campfires and marshmallows.”
“I’m sure you’re real sad we’re not gonna get to sit around and tell ghost stories.”
“You know I love my alone time with my Evs. Gotta steal you away from Bridget every chance I get.”
“She does say you’re the best third wheel she knows.”
“What an honor. Real fun for me to hang at your place when you’re banging however many times a week.”
“Oh, shut it. As if you don’t wheel with the best of them.”
“Just…nah. Doin my best not to moan. I’ll get there.”
“That’s my Marks. Hey, we’re boiling here.”
Dinner is a rushed affair, one punctuated by the steady staccato of mosquito swats and a chorus of curses from Mark, interspersed by the occasional grumble from Evan. After the dinner Evan washes the plates as rapidly as he can while Mark surprises himself by successfully hanging a bear bag on his first attempt. Confident that he’s completed every task on his checklist, Evan deems their evening a success. The Scotch bottle then heads straight into the tent, where the two boys take long pulls during their search-and-destroy mission aimed at the mosquitoes who have made it in the doors.
“Ah, damn, this one’s inside too. How are we supposed to sleep with all this buzzing?” gripes Mark as he smashes another bug into the mesh door.
“They’ll die down. Maybe if we’re lucky we can go out and look at stars later. Can you grab my book from the bag?”
“Yeah, what you got…a John Muir bio? Hah. Someone’s stickin with the theme.”
“What do you have, backlogged Wall Street Journals?”
“Close enough. Last four copies of The Economist.”
“God, you’re predictable, you tool.”
“As if you aren’t, ya damn hippie.”
“I read one book about Muir and now I’m a hippie?”
“You do kinda have that vibe.”
“What vibe? Like I smoke pot and drive a flower bus?”
“Nah. Just okay spending time with yourself in the woods.”
“Huh, wonder why I’d have that after what’s happened in my life.”
“Not everyone goes that direction when the shit hits the fan.”
“As you always remind me.” Evan smirks at Mark to show his dig is all in good fun, and Mark shrugs in concession and returns to his magazine. His eyes travel across the text, but retain little: the light is bad, and even he has to admit that a bunch of sarcastic Brits’ thoughts on inflation in sub-Saharan Africa don’t quite fit the mood of the moment. He takes another swig from the bottle and casts a sidelong glance at Evan, composed and buried in his book. Annoyed, he looks away, and makes the mistake of turning his gaze up toward the mob of mosquitoes trapped between the tent and the rain fly.
“God, that buzzing doesn’t stop.”
“Kinda makes you think you need to pee, doesn’t it?” Evan flashes a grin.
“You’re evil. You’re actually evil.”
“I thought I was the saint in touch with nature.”
“You had your chance up until now. Now, no chance in hell.”
Evan returns to his reading material and Mark reluctantly follows suit, and the two strain their eyes as the sunlight slowly fails. Evan pulls out a mini lantern for a spell, but he can see Mark fidgeting out of the corner of his eye, and suspects he needs to provide some entertainment. Before long, he shuts off the light and gazes out at the emerging stars.
“John Muir was kind of a mystic, you know. Felt like the trees and the waterfalls spoke to him, in a way. Basically all the wilderness people were like that, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson up here when they made the Boundary Waters. It was a big fight to get it. You need some kinda conscience to make that movement happen, some deep faith. You gotta believe in what you see around you. But when I’m out here, just looking out at that sunset and that still lake…I get it.”
The darkness hides Mark’s scowl. Is this Evan taking a poke at his militant atheism, or just him trying to one-up him with his more appropriate reading choice, always-perfect Evan yet again made one with his environment in a way that Mark, for all his worldliness, cannot?
“When people start talking to me about their chats with trees,” he says, “well, we’ve got hospitals for that kind of thing.”
“You’re so joyless.”
Mark shrugs. “Just think the world can be a pretty place without throwing in gods under every little rock.”
“Maybe. But it’s more than that, you know? Out here, all those things we worry about every day just seem…small.”
Evan shakes his head, unsure what this means. Mark mumbles something about years of brainwashing and Evan doesn’t press it, knowing it will invoke Mark’s typically vulgar reaction to the Evangelical childhood his philandering parents tried to force upon him. Mark is relieved that Evan lets it go, but, knowing Evan, he’ll tuck this away, look it up when he gets back to technology, and subject him to conversation when he drives him home after hockey practice next week. Mark knows all of this; why, then, this need to murmur that verse? Instinct, he figures, and the knowledge that Evan will understand when he does look it up. Evan plays the humble game, but Mark knows that a god complex lurks beneath. Would they be friends otherwise?
Mark knows it because he lives it. He usually took advantage of his mother’s inability to instill discipline in the Sunday school class she taught at their Silver Bay church to play cell phone games with the closest things he had to friends there in the back of the classroom. But, overachiever he always is, he’d still memorized all the Bible verses they studied. He’d enjoyed Matthew Four because it was Jesus at his most badass: going straight into the wilderness and thrice thwarting the devil himself. He’d wanted to be tempted in that same way, to prove his worth. For Mark, the allure of wilderness isn’t in the promise of solitude: it is in its war with temptation, a war he must prove he can win. He always wins.
“I still say getting out of tents and into AC was a win for humanity,” he says. “How many freaking people are gonna die in Africa tonight cuz they get bit by the wrong mosquito, and here we are going into the woods to do it to get away from our first world problems.”
“You thought it was a fun idea to come here…”
Mark collects himself before responding. “I did. And I still do. But because I love to conquer shit and push myself, and this is an easy way to do it. And, like I said, gets me some alone time with my Evs.”
“Let’s save the kissing for later. But—how bout this. I just read this chapter on Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy’s like you, East Coast money, total boss, all about conquering the world. But he got it, he knew why we need to do this. When he went to Yosemite, he and Muir snuck off and just spent three nights in the wilderness, deep talks the whole time. Talk about living.”
“That’s awesome, I’ll give you that. Hell, I think anyone we elect President should have the balls to go out and do that. Still…goes to show you can love this without becoming one with the trees or whatever shit like that.”
“But Teddy loved being with Muir. He understood what he was talking about, even though he couldn’t stay. He had this…this feel for things beyond him.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“It’s…” Evan struggles. “It’s like this. Why do you always have to play the hardass, man? I get it and I love it when you do it. But sometimes…I just think you’re so sure that you think you know all there is to know that you just get a little…blind.”
Mark collects himself, again talks himself down from a vicious rebuttal. “Wouldn’t doubt it. You’re not the first person to tell me that. But wonder alone ain’t a gospel.”
“No, of course not. Not sure it needs to be. Still really hurts to lose it.”
“I believe that. And I need to piss.”
Evan cackles. “Have fun! Don’t let too many mosquitoes in when you get out…”
“Gonna leave the door open for a while just to spread the love.”
Evan purposefully kills the unwanted entries as Mark takes his leak. He can lead a friend to wonder, but he can’t force him to see it. It’s a pity; who knows what a god-driven Mark would be capable of? Instead he meanders, forces the issue when he sees fit and practically always wins when he does, but Evan senses no underlying strategy or logic, not even from the smartest kid he’s ever met, the closest thing to a kindred spirit he has. Is there one for anyone? Perhaps not; not entirely, at least. But there can at least be some guiding maps across the portages between these lakes. This is what he seeks in his releases; this is what Evan DeBleeker lives for. Contentment wafts over him, and he lets loose a sudden laugh: somewhere in here is his college admissions essay.
Mark returns, cursing up a storm. Evan joins in the silent slaughter of mosquitoes, but isn’t sure how to convey his sense of serendipity. He arranges a ragged old PeeWee State Tournament sweatshirt as a pillow and zips his way into his sleeping bag. Mark, however, stays sitting upright.
“Do you think it’s good to go chase the wonder on purpose like this?” he asks. “Or should we just let it come when it’ll come?”
Evan sinks further back into his sweatshirt-turned-pillow and closes his eyes. “I dunno that you can force it. You’ve at least gotta be open to it, though, right? And willing to wait, or find it in places where it’s not always easy. Travel does that for me, usually.”
“I get that. Seeing new stuff and all.”
“Yeah, that’s it. And…maybe places that bring out memories, too. Nostalgia.”
“Your dad?” Mark asks. He takes Evan’s silence as assent. “It’s tough for me to feel nostalgia much, honestly…maybe I just gotta build it where I am. Least I’ve got the people to do it with now.”
“Aw. Best way I’ve heard it.”
“Bro, you’re the best there is at breaking me down.” Evan once again stays silent, sure that Mark can read the necessary message from it. Satisfied, he begins to drift off. Sleep does not come as easily to Mark; it never does, his mind still racing along at breakneck pace, trying to make sense of his best friend’s simultaneous poise and lingering grief before his mind wanders off to his old girlfriend Emma, his parents’ failed love life, and whether he should play his senior year of high school hockey or run off to juniors once Evan, one year his senior, has graduated and he loses the only person he’s ever felt comfortable telling the full story of his family. In time the drone of the mosquitoes starts to wane, and the loon resumes its mournful lament. Mark shivers and huddles up in his sleeping bag, but the cool night air only invigorates him. The soft wind pouring through the tent door reminds him of the breaths of breeze through the windows in his father’s ridgetop fortress up on the North Shore of Lake Superior, a place that brings him no joy but still carries the air of some simpler time.
“You awake, Evs?”
“I’m awake now I guess. Was having this dream, though…”
“Don’t remember. It was good, though.”
“Nah. Dreams are fun, but they’re not real.”
“Not unless we make them real.”
“Anyone can, it’s you. Go get it, Marks.”
“I will. But man, let’s make sure we keep doing this. Once a summer, once a year, in our backyards or off in some other country when we’ve got the time and the cash…just me and you, getting out and escaping so we can see it all.”
“Just keep the search alive. Ya got yourself a deal, Marky,” Evan mumbles. Within seconds, he’s issuing the deep breaths of sleep. Chagrined, Mark settles back and looks toward the stars. He tries to pick out constellations, but his memory for such trifles isn’t what it should be. What a shame, he thinks. He’ll have to fix that.
Here’s the next piece in this series.