Tag Archives: wilderness

Plying Lonely Waters

6 Jul

Northern Minnesota does the Fourth of July right, with Duluth’s best-in-the-state fireworks display and the magic of Iron Range street dances. This year, though, the only fireworks I saw came in a vivid late-night lightning display, and the only dance was a jig to dodge the swarms of mosquitoes and dislodge an army of ticks. I spent it in the Boundary Waters.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a million-acre wilderness along Minnesota’s border with Canada set aside for seekers of relative solitude on a network of lakes and rivers. Only a handful of lakes allow motorboats; on the rest, it is just canoes, with portage trails set between lakes with primitive campsites featuring a fire pit and a latrine. The efforts of countless conservationists, most notably Sigurd F. Olson, set this region aside in the 1970s as one of those bastions of the earth that display as little human impact as possible, an ethos captured in the BWCA’s three-word catchphrase: Leave No Trace. Those old battles over the status of these lakes long predate my birth but linger in downtown Ely, the BWCA gateway where pro-mining and pro-wilderness signs duel along the main streets. That debate is now part of my daily life, but for five days, I shut all of that out.

I went to the BWCA with some regularity as a child and even during summers in my undergraduate days, though this was my first time in five years. It was, in fact, a Christmas gift for my father, who frequents the BWCA and comparable wilderness areas year round. Those earlier trips are sources of fond memories, or at least memorable ones, as when we paddled across Seagull Lake on a deathly still 95-degree day to get a member of our party with a separated shoulder to the hospital in Grand Marais. But while I enjoy opportunities to camp and exert myself out in the wild, genuine wilderness experiences have been rare lately. I’ve never overcome my struggles to sleep in a tent, an issue compounded this time around by a leak in my air mattress; I’d guess I didn’t get more than 15 hours of sleep across four nights on this trip. But I can still dip my feet in for a while, and the wilderness will forever hold a certain romance for someone who understands their role in human cycles of activity and reflection.

We enter at Moose River South, an entry point that allows just one party per day. It’s a meandering little stream that feeds south from the Echo Trail into a section of the Boundary Waters that sits separate from the rest of its waters, maybe one sixth of its total territory with six access points of varying difficulty, but none exactly designed for rookies. Moose River South is an easy enough paddle around some beaver dams into Big Moose Lake, but a 1.75-mile portage looms between it and Cummings Lake to the south, which seems to stop most traffic at the large, shallow lake named for a creature conspicuous in its absence. Cummings is near the center of this region, reachable from several directions, including a fairly easy jaunt over from Crab Lake, one of the most used entry points in the region. Beyond Crab lies a chain of lakes that we explore on our second and third days, all small and less traveled, maybe featuring a campsite or two and promising a lake to oneself. But even these are still relative wilderness highways: a few other dead-end lakes off this area have campsites so little used that they can melt into the woods, and somewhere south of the Moose River sits one of the BWCA’s Primitive Management Areas (PMAs), a group of lakes with no established portages or campsites that nonetheless allows access for those who seek to get as far off the beaten path as possible. And for a certain class of canoeing purist, the BWCA has nothing on its more remote Canadian counterparts.

This is wilderness enough for me, though, and time moves differently in the BWCA. A trip here means no clocks: nature and instinct decide when we wake and eat meals and go to bed. It means long stretches of moderately strenuous activity, with hard paddling and painstaking portaging, and also long stretches of blissful nothing. My dad isn’t a fisherman, so we just bag up a bunch of dinners for easy preparation and devote our free hours to lounging in hammocks or in canoe chairs on logs or rocks. On most days we make good time—none of that double-portaging nonsense to lighten the load here, or at least not until we’re tired and the portage is really short—we also pause every now and then to just sit and drink in scenes.

Some parties in the BWCA prefer to set up a base camp and make trips from there, but on this trip we move every night, on a constant quest for the perfect campsite. The island site where we spend our first night on Cummings is open and has excellent rocks but shows signs of heavy use. Phantom Lake on night two has a superb view across the small lake and a lovely red pine stand, though no good rocks to sit on. A different site on Cummings on night three is the best of the bunch, with pines and rock and a well-designed kitchen, though the wind dies and forces us into the tent early, only to be rousted when we hear some creature banging around amid our pots and pans. (The culprit: some sort of rabbit or hare, which I guess counts as exotic since I’ve never seen one of those in the BWCA before.) The final night’s site on Big Moose has superb trees and breeze and rocks, but an awful landing and no real good spot to pitch a tent and guarantee comfort for all comers. While some websites provide campsite reviews to help plan routes, no one’s criteria are quite the same, and a search to separate out these seemingly trivial differences can make or break a trip.

As part of the adventure I promised to carry the canoe, which is something I’ve only done sporadically before. There is, of course, a learning curve. BWCA portages are measured in 16.5-foot rods (roughly equal to a canoe length), and most hover somewhere under 200 rods. The 580-rod beast between Big Moose and Cummings has no vicious elevations, and only immediately following heavy rains (as on our first crossing of the portage) do its wetlands pose a real obstacle. It is a slog, though coming down to giant, blue Big Moose on the return journey was one of the most welcome sights of the trip. The portage to Meat Lake, whose name we suspect comes from the amount of flesh consumed by its resident mosquitoes, has become a flowing stream. A portage landing on Hassel Lake requires me to crab walk up and down a steep rock several times just so we can get things into the canoe. Nor is length any guarantee of ease: the 20-rod portage around some rapids on the Korb River is a buggy stretch of slop, whereas the 70-rod cutoff from Cummings Lake is an easy superhighway. My shoulders don’t miss it, nor do my bite-covered legs and arms, but how can a young guy not eat up the opportunity to carry a heavy object a long distance and feel some sense of conquest upon completing it?

By the final day I’m growing a bit stir-crazy, a restlessness not helped by the overnight storm that makes sleep impossible. I’m too social to detach for long periods, and while I certainly welcome my moments of solitude and wilderness, I sometimes seem to suffer from an instrumental relationship with these old friends, not unlike a cell phone with its charger: my time in the woods fills up a drained battery, and then I’m ready to put it away and go do my thing. I unapologetically make relentless pushes to the next destination, so it can be difficult to zone out and enjoy the beauty of a particular moment or sensation. I’ve always been wired for a pace of life faster than most northern Minnesotans, even if I can hide it well, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.

I’m still from here, though, and I know what to do when these moments do come. When I can stare up at the red pine boughs above my hammock set against a few wisps of cloud in the sky, lost in bliss. When we drift down the Korb River and just listen to endless birdsong, its current tugging us gently along. When thoughts flow easily from pen to paper in the hammock on Cummings, thoughts that may or may not ever see the light of day on this blog or elsewhere but mean the world to me. When I’m finally able to find the right train of thought to shut out the endless flashes of lighting to manage a few hours of sleep on the final night. Those are the waters I’ll never cease to seek out, if only for a little while.

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Wilderness

9 Apr

“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.”

—Aldo Leopold

As a native of the North, the wilderness has always enticed me with its immediacy. Some of my most distinct early memories are of Wisconsin State Parks during those pre-Duluth years, and once my family settled in that last great outpost between Minneapolis and the Canadian Border, it was never far away. I have fond memories of canoe trips and hikes with my dad, even if my skills as a woodsman have never come close to his, and as I grew older the woods within walking distance of my childhood home became a retreat, both to share with friends and to have my own little Walden moments from time to time. Without ever really realizing it, I grew up intimately tied to those parts of the map that didn’t have much in the way of detail.

At Georgetown, I began took on a new appreciation for those escapes, even as I dove into Washington. The late Jesuit Fr. Thomas King said it best, counseling us students consumed by fast-paced climbs up the ladder of ambition to seek out escapes into the wilderness from the restless noise of university life. Whether literal or metaphorical, we needed these moments to orient ourselves. I set out to find such spaces for myself, and while D.C. could never quite accommodate the sensibilities of a Northern Minnesotan, I certainly found a few gems during my wanderings there. My thoughts meandered with my steps, and I vacillated between intense commitment and lonely wandering, a duality that now seems extreme.

Other Catholics at Georgetown spoke of a different sort of wilderness; a spiritual and moral wilderness in which they found themselves in a postmodern world, unable to speak the language of the culture around them. I didn’t always agree with the particulars, but they had a point. We’ve lost much in our rush to embrace the newest shiny ideas, too often rushing ahead, unthinking, as we proclaim some lofty ideal that aspires to justice and human greatness. I embraced the greatest teaching of the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of those twin pillars supporting Western thought: we are all in exile, doomed to wander with no hope of permanent peace on earth. Perhaps all we could do was carve out a little spot for ourselves and live in accordance with our conscience, making peace with what we could.

After college I spent two years back in Duluth, still wandering as Athens and Jerusalem waged a silent war in keystrokes on this computer. I was never really a threat to truly go all Into the Wild; I enjoy my creature comforts a bit too much, and take my obligations to family and community a bit too seriously. My cynicism was a bit too meta to take the leap into a “finding myself” journey through the woods or some other country. But a cloistered life of letters had its allure, too, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that sort of future.

In the end, Athens won out. It’s not an unqualified victory, but it is a clear one, and the somewhat more infrequent blog posts here are a sure sign of an increasingly busy life beyond the world of letters. (Very little of my writing happens without some time to think about it beforehand.) I embrace this newfound life in the world, though I will still seek occasional escapes. They’ll come in different degrees, from runs around Minneapolis lakes to returns to the well-trodden parks of my youth to the occasional adventure into genuine backcountry. I need those moments to examine my conscience, to remind myself of my own smallness in the grand scheme of things.  They are reminders of mysteries beyond our grasp, and the falleness of human nature. But mystery gives rise to wonder, and we can still aspire to something in the face of impossibility. This is the great human project in a world beyond the old philosophical absolutes, none of which can reign supreme in this new Rome.

It’s hard to find wilderness anymore in the true sense of the word. Longing for that sort of wilderness can turn into wishes for purity and paradise lost, for a black-and-white worldview that won’t ever quite do its nuance justice. Even pre-Columbian America, we are now learning, was no pristine and untouched paradise, with the natives living in perfect harmony with nature. They certainly respected it more, recognizing the broader connectedness and often believing in a spiritual unity. But they were still very conscious managers, acting as stewards of the world around them, altering landscapes to their will as they saw fit. We have much to learn from them.

Just as we are stewards of the land, we are stewards of our minds. We’ll never have complete control over them; we can’t write off the past or give rise to a new future out of nothing. But we can tend them carefully with moments of retreat from the relentless noise, and with respect for the corners of the world beyond human reason that we will never tame. This takes patience and time, and I won’t begrudge anyone who commits themselves to living in this wilderness fully. For me, though, it is a place to reflect upon everything we do in the public realm, and to make sure that we truly believe whatever it is we’re doing. We must preserve that space with our lives.

Farewell Duluth III: Solitude

10 Aug

You’re a believer in community, you buy all that sentimental stuff you peddle every day, that life is found in intertwining your history with those of the people closest to you. And yet. And yet there are days where it wears you down, where you get too caught up in whatever bubble you inhabit, grow annoyed by the little tics of those around you. Community is one of the greatest sources of life you know, but it is not the only one. You have to get out. Just you, and you alone.

This is another of your town’s triumphs: nowhere is it easier. There are parks at every turn; some packed, some more wild; some well-worn, some neglected. A short drive can take you to places where you won’t meet a soul, if you so desire. You head out to recharge, to find distance; perhaps to cast judgment from afar, perhaps to head for a realm where judgment has no meaning.

You are swift to retreat into these moments; at times you were perhaps too swift, but even now as things come together, you cannot neglect this. This is your cycle inward, necessary before you pull back out. You must go. Back out to some little corner you’ve claimed as your own simply because it cannot be owned. Time is short, so you hurry upward, the jagged rocks in the path turning your feet as you climb. You could stop here or there to admire the view, but not here, this isn’t the place. Across a road, past the spot where you once saw a bear, ever winding upward. A few signs of youthful dalliance, carelessly hidden in the woods; was that you not so very long ago? How the time goes, how much more precious youth now seems.

Out you go, hurrying to time this journey just right. Before long you’re hopping from rock to rock, down a staircase carved in stone. Through the birches, across a boardwalk, the deer far back in the woods flushed, bounding back through the underbrush for only a moment before they’re silent, and then all is silent for you, too. Up a hill, though the view disappoints, back through another stand of wood, a mysterious half-hidden trail, whether from deer or teenagers or something much older you do not know, up to that oak tree near the top of the ridge where you once stood there trying to make sense of what exactly it was you’d done, brandishing a manifesto from an earlier self and proclaiming its wrongness, though now you’ve come full circle and have forgiven yourself. Your younger self deserves more credit than you ever gave him. Who could you have been if you’d gotten over those crippling anxieties, acted on that self you always wanted to be? God only knows now, though that impulse is still inside of you, can still be channeled into something good. Onward, you press, on to the outcropping, site of many a picnic and also your first goodbye to this place, a sunrise at dawn beneath a different oak, this one now as dead as the finality of that goodbye. Take the right fork, you haven’t been that way before. You make your way down the path, looping in and out behind spruces, careening downward so easily you can’t help but run. You bend to pick at a malformed raspberry, sample the latest thimbleberry, scarf the smattered juneberries, a regular forest feast.

Down a field of talus, across the bit that gets muddy when it rains, and you’re nearly there: or maybe you’ve come from the other direction, up from the wider path, past the ruin of an old mill and the side creek that you once waded up for a mile or two, picking crayfish out of the shallows with a couple of people you chose to share this garden with, down the path where one great story reached its peak and another arose; where it led was never entirely clear, but still it has its roots here, high on the bank above the little stream. The destination is always the same. This little patch of woods birthed so many of the convoluted thoughts of the past seven summers, your blessing and your curse, a burden you could not live without. Here is where the last story came to an end, and here too you hope to end the last and worst of the stories you’d rather pretend were not yours.

You reach the gates, push aside those tumbled branches and finally, there it is before you: the cathedral, the dying pines towering up above an open glade, the sun dancing between the trunks, the blinding light of the sinking sun pouring through, setting it all ablaze, and you set out gingerly through the waist-high grass, your hand trailing through it as you go. Perhaps you should drop to your knees, make a show of it all? No, you cannot linger, the mosquitoes nip and the sun sinks. Now, it seems, that time is over, gone without any obvious moment of revelation. It all makes sense now. You complete your duty without any fanfare, and life goes on as if it had never been more than a fleeting thought. Victory.

You head off the path and into the heart of the little stand. Not quite a sacred ground: you’re still in a city, after all, and the reminders of life beyond never quite die. Wilderness is a myth, or perhaps a state of mind. Yes, death comes only to the pines, nearly half of them now just towering empty trunks, lonely pillars supporting a ceiling of fading blue. Et in Arcadia ego. Spruces rise up in their place, and even here before you, a solitary oak tree, fighting above the tangles of thimbleberries and announcing its arrival on the scene. Bring your children here someday, and it might all be gone: just another clump of wood in a forest that buries its past. You could move on to the next hill, where the pines stand a bit more resolutely, but no: yours are these ones, right here, the ones that remind you that you don’t have long. Everything seems more immediate, both the triumphs and the tragedies of life given a vivid edge, and you relish them that much more because you know how much it means to feel all of these things, to live with that joie de vivre that overwhelms all weakness and fear. The more you lay claim to these trees, the more you sense that they are not yours alone, that another set of eyes watches. You’re not quite sure yet where one story begins and another ends; perhaps they all just blend together here; here, in this garden of all your dreams.

You’re free here, though you don’t quite feel it. Gone are the days when every little victory was cause for rejoicing; now you just take it all in stride, natural, the next step along this little chasm through the grass. All is right, all goes on, and as long as you may linger, this is not you: you must share this, come down from your messianic ideal not into a nihilistic doom but into reality where you belong, where you can still be the author of a story that aspires to everything you might desire, even as you know you might not ever quite get there. The pursuit is enough, and with moments like these, you’ll have the wits to make sure the chase never eats you alive.

It’s time to move on. The sun sinks away, and you have far to go before you can rest your feet again. You’ll miss this spot, but you are forever changed by what it’s gifted you, and that is enough: it belongs to you, you belong to it, and whatever shall come will be in the shadows of those towering pines. The light will filter through, blinding but bearing that gift of life all at once, all of those apparent contradictions borne together into something that is, quite simply, you.

Part 4 is here.