[May 2020] My sister recently sent me a picture of the two of us standing in our parents’ Chanhassen driveway with heavy backpacks and hiking boots hanging from our shoulders, wearing ball caps, and smiling so wide our eyes have all but disappeared.
It is June of 1981. I am 27 and Solveig is 19, and we are headed north to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to embark on a five-day camping trip. That’s the “before” picture. The “after” picture shows my sister in a beautiful white flowing nightgown in the same driveway just five days later on the morning after our return from the wilderness. She is majestically posed next to my old brown Honda Civic with all the doors standing open and smelly wet camping gear and clothes strewn all over the place.
I doubt any of us were real Jack Daniels drinkers, but in the spirit of what we presumed to be an authentic wilderness adventure, we had poured the sour mash whiskey into a plastic camping bottle prior to our departure, since glass is not allowed in the BWCA. We must not have consumed very much of it because sometime during the ride home, the cap had come loose and soaked our clothes and sleeping bags which were already ripe with the stench of decomposing mud and sweat and mildew. Everything was so smelly and awful, our mother made us pack it all up and take it to the laundromat to be washed. But there stood Solveig like a victorious Greek goddess on the battleground.
It’s a five-hour drive to Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior and then another hour north to the end of the Gun Flint Trail to Tuscarora Outfitters where we put in. We arrived well after dark to see signs directing us to our cabin and other signs with messages like these:
Be bear aware while camping!
Close and fasten campground waste containers!
Lock food securely in vehicles or metal food backpacks!
Bears have been known to break into pick-up toppers and RV screen doors and can smell food up to 20 miles away.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is over a million acres of wilderness within the Superior National Forest at the very northern edge of Minnesota with over 1,000 pristine lakes and streams, and about 1,500 miles of canoe routes. If you google it you will likely see jaw-dropping photos of stunning sunsets, brilliant northern lights, cozy campfires, mirror blue waters, gentle bubbling rapids, and voyagers portaging canoes and carrying Duluth packs through pine, fir, and spruce trees. You will see photos of loons and lots of other wildlife including deer, moose, gray wolves, black bear, beaver, muskrat, and chipmunks so brave they will grab the granola bar right out of your hand.
This was my third trip to the Boundary Waters in as many years, and each time it was with girls in our 20’s. My first two trips were with high school friends Diane and Cindy. My third trip was with my sister Solveig, along with Patty and Julie who were horse show buddies of mine. The first two times were in sunny July and the weather was perfect. The third time was in chilly June and it rained off and on the whole time.
This wilderness camping trip can be an exhilarating paradise experience if the weather is pretty, and if you are fit enough to carry your own canoe and backpack over a 180-rod portage after paddling against the wind all day, and if you don’t get lost, and if you are not afraid of moose and bear. It can be a miserable experience if it rains the whole time, and all your gear gets soaked and heavy, and the portage trails are muddy and slippery, and your freeze-dried food gets wet, and you have trouble finding a campsite, and its biting fly season, and you can’t get your campfire started with wet kindling as the sun sinks in the west.
It sounds dreadful, right? So why go in the first place? And why on earth go back again? My people were voyagers from Norway and about a thousand years ago they first ventured across the sea, slipped into the Hudson Bay, and following lakes and rivers made it all the way to west-central Minnesota and on to North Dakota, 500 years before Columbus I might add. I think I might be too much of a fraidy cat to cross the ocean in a Viking ship, but paddling a canoe through these pristine waters was right up my alley. I loved so many things about those camping trips, even if the Black Flies were relentless and the Mosquitoes were the size of hummingbirds and the No-see-ums were on a personal mission to drive you insane.
I loved the quiet. It is hard to fathom just how quiet and dark it is up there. There is no light pollution, no humming air conditioners. You honestly cannot see your hand in front of your face after the sun goes down. I remember one evening at dusk the silence was broken by the wail of a loon from way across the glass-like water and we began to call back, mimicking her lonesome cry. Moments later she began to yodel back mimicking us. We carried on that exchange for a long while. It will stick with me for the rest of my life. It was super creepy and really spiritual all at once. That one vocalization punctuated the fall of night and set the mood for what followed: total peacefulness and solitude.
I loved the solitude. Once you leave the outfitters you literally do not see another human being the whole time you are out. Well, usually anyway. On one trip, we ran into a couple of guys who had paddled and portaged all the way from the Hudson Bay and were on their way to Duluth. They had been out for months and all they could talk about was the first thing they were going to do when they got to Duluth. [We held our breath.] “Find an ice cream shop.”
I loved getting off the hamster wheel and the breaking of routine. In 1981 I was in a full sprint to grow up, going to school full time and working full time, always racing from pillar to post, meeting deadline after deadline, all while stuck in traffic. It was so refreshing to have a break from all that pressure for something so completely different, if only for a few days.
I loved soaking up the rhythm of nature and the magic of sunrise and sunset. The summer sun near the Canadian border sets between 10:30 and 11 PM to the lullaby of yodeling loons. The cacophony of blue jays and squirrels revs up between 4 AM and sunrise shoving you into a new morning prompting you to get going before the heat of the day sets in. You begin to feel the cadence of creation. The heartbeat of the Creator and this unspoiled ecosystem begins to resonate within. The fingerprints of God illuminate the beauty and balance of this place. We saw a baby loon riding on the back of her mother. We heard beaver warning their families of our approach with the slap of their flat tails on the water. We spotted a moose swimming near our canoe and were terrified that she might get the idea we were after her baby; moose are so aggressive during calving season. We saw a baby duck narrowly escape the jaws of a walleye pike. We saw a fawn dozing in the camouflage. More than once we were thrilled to see the Aurora Borealis and let me tell you how awesome is THAT experience! Talk about God showing off just for you! I swear you can hear the voice of God speaking through the breeze.
I loved the physicality of a trip like this, the test of it. Some of those lakes were huge and windy and scary. Some of those portages were long and hard. Especially with a canoe balanced on your shoulders and a 40 pound Duluth pack on your back. Sometimes the trail between lakes is flat but sometimes it takes you uphill or even worse, downhill, over tree roots and jagged rocks, and sometimes through marshy areas leaving your boots wet for the day. Sometimes you just have to stop after lunch for a while to rest your aching back and then someone gets the crazy idea to go skinny dipping, diving off granite cliffs into who-knows-how-many feet of water, and somehow everyone agrees this is a great idea. I still have those photos around somewhere.
I love the process of working together figuring out how to survive another day, how to follow the map to find the entrance of the portage that will get you to the next lake or campsite, to rustle up some grub or catch a fish, to find a high dry protected spot to lay down your weary head at night. In the Boundary Waters, you can only set up camp at a designated Forest Service campsite, furnished with a campfire grate and an outhouse without walls off in the woods. The campsites are clearly marked on the map, but to find them in the Where Is Waldo shoreline is another story. And if you wait until too far into the evening you will find them already occupied (you only know this from the thin plume of smoke rising from their campfire) and you are pressed on to the next and the next and before you know it that big red ball is sinking way too fast into the horizon. And your heart sinks along with it because once you find a campsite, you still need enough daylight to set up the tent, gather the firewood, build the fire, prepare dinner, clean up and pack up so tight the bears 20 miles off can’t smell your leftovers. Not that there are ever any leftovers. No gourmet meal has ever tasted as scrumptious as freeze-dried Chicken Noodle Casserole and Peach Cobbler at the end of a long day paddling the sky blue waters in God’s country.
There is a testing of mind and body when everything except eating and resting and surviving and moving forward is stripped away. All those things that had been gobbling up the hours of your days simply fall off the radar. Just the essentials remain.
It’s now May of 2020 and we are in the midst of world-wide COVID-19 pandemic keeping people in isolation and upending their normal routines. Frankly, the last couple of months haven’t really been that hard on me because the same things I love about those canoe trips are the same things I have appreciated about this stay-at-home order. For that I am grateful.
The essentials. It’s amazing what we can pretty easily do without. What we truly need rises to the top and all else fades as a distant memory.
Essentials like food, water, medicine, shelter, and family come to mind. So much of our daily activity was declared non-essential overnight; gatherings large and small, school, sports, parties, movies, meetings, shopping, concerts, haircuts, massages, travel, and more. All gone in a flash. Food and practically everything else we need magically appear on my doorstep and I haven’t been to the grocery store in weeks. The nice man at the sandwich shop, at the liquor store, even the balloon store, comes right out to the curb with my order. What’s not to like? Everyone is especially accommodating to the elderly, you know… those of us 65 and older. Modern technology is the means by which we receive the essentials and for that I am grateful.
The solitude. I’ve had time to catch up on reading and I’ve taken up writing again. I kind of like having a good excuse to stay away from people. Crowds are exhausting for me. I recognize that staying at home for someone living in a four-bedroom house with a big yard and friendly neighbors is quite luxurious compared to inner-city apartment living or standing in the unemployment line. I am truly grateful for my home.
Getting off the hamster wheel. Many of those activities that make me feel like I’m one of the extras in Groundhog Day have been canceled. Since everyone is working from home, I am free to go into the office and stay on top of the day to day business. We are getting some overdue remodeling done at the church which would not have been possible with all our programs running on their normal schedules. Online worship service has taken the place of regular in-person service. It’s like we’ve all pulled off to the side of life to get a little rest. And for that I am grateful.
Working together for a common goal. Most of my world is paying attention to CDC guidelines of social distancing and wearing masks, so it’s easy to go with the flow in the best interest of the greater good. Drive-by birthday party parades. Driveway drinks. Always six feet apart and no hugging! I’m not a hugger anyway so this is somewhat of a relief, and for that I am grateful.
The quiet. Not sure about this one as we have our 8-year-old ricochet rabbit grandson with us and let me tell you, second-grade homeschooling is a bitch. What IS regrouping anyway? But I’m getting special YaYa time with him and I’m getting to know his teachers and classmates during Zoom Morning Meetings. And for that I am grateful.
The magic of sunrise and sunset. The water and air around the globe are self- purifying and wildlife is peeking out. It turns out our planet CAN heal itself if we just get out of the way. I have mallards trying to make their home in my backyard. I see fox trotting down my street at sunrise. My walks in the park (I call it forest-bathing) are rejuvenating. My travel time on normally busy streets is lickety-split because of diminished traffic. And for all that I am grateful.
So back to that image of my little sister in her white flowing nightgown standing next to my muddy Honda Civic with smelly camping gear strewn all over the drive, a look of triumph all over her face.
That third canoe trip was especially hard. It rained 4 of the 5 days we were out. Our stuff was wet and heavy and dirty and stinky the whole time.
Nights were chilly and days were rainy and muggy. And did I mention that it was biting fly season? We longed for the simple comforts of home; a soft bed and a hot shower topped the list.
And now we were back home after a six-hour ride from the wilderness. Back home where our mother greeted us with hot showers and freshly laundered sheets and flowing white nightgowns in the fresh morning breeze. Back home where things were about to get back to normal. Back to school. Back to work. Back to our old routines. But this time with a renewed sense of appreciation for the little things so easily taken for granted.
Perhaps the most long-lasting takeaway, now almost 40 years later, was that we did something really hard and we flourished. We became more self-assured and we came away with a greater awareness of our tested metal.
There was no one to bail us out when it got hard, no one to carry our canoe or even help hoist it onto our shoulders, no one to show us where the elusive campsite was, no one to pull us up to the shoreline when the wind was blowing out into the lake, no one to run to the store for the SPF 50 Zinc Oxide when the Bain de Soleil SPF 4 tanning oil was clearly not cutting it, no one to drive off the bear or wolves that may have been lurking around the bend, no one to go see what that noise was in the middle of the night when the local raccoons got nosy, and no one to paddle harder when our backs and biceps were screaming in pain.
We were just a few girls who were up for an adventure and we used our wits and our strength and our tenacity to overcome the hard stuff and make it to The Trail’s End and all the way back home and out into the rest of our lives.
And for that I am grateful.