Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE SENSE OF SOLITUDE - Healing In the Wilderness

After my second divorce, I was adrift. I’d failed at marriage—again. The fancy suburban home I never wanted in the first place was gone. Bill, one of several friends who were between marriages themselves, was putting me up in a spare bedroom. I wasn’t on very solid footing in my business either, foundering in one of the inevitable downs in the yo-yo fortunes of the freelancer.

On the surface, I was handling all of this pretty well, but I realized I’d never really be able to put such a tough transition behind me without some work. I needed to turn back the layers of anger, shame and grief I’d accumulated and look inside for the little miracles of grace I knew resided in there somewhere. I needed to put myself in a place where I could start that process of self-discovery, feel more competent and seize control of my storm-tossed life.


I had a beautiful, old 13-foot Mansfield canoe I’d bought in New Hampshire back in 1976. It was already old when I got it, but by now its wooden gunwales and decks were rotting, its thin wooden ribs starting to separate from the fiberglass skin. I decided my summer project—and my redemption—would be to repair that canoe and then outfit it and myself for a solo canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

In Bill’s small back yard, I put the canoe up on sawhorses and got to work, keenly aware of the metaphorical significance of what I’d be doing. I removed as much wood rot as I could, stabilized the rest with penetrating resin, and then filled the larger voids with epoxy putty. I removed and replaced the keel, swapping the mixed bag of rusty screws for new ones of shiny brass. I sealed each screw hole and then the entire length of the keel with clear silicone caulk.

        The stakes are high when you're with 
        a group; when you're alone, they could
        be a matter of life and death.

By the middle of July I was done; I had a canoe that, while cosmetically not the prettiest, was solid and functional.

Planning a canoe trip is a demanding exercise. You have to anticipate every need, every situation, every potential hazard. Then you have to balance each of those needs with factors of weight and volume. Both the challenge and the stakes are high when you're with a group; when you're alone, they could be matters of life and death.

Navigation, cooking and eating, shelter, first aid, fending off bugs and bears—it all mattered. What's more, I wanted not just to get from point A to point B; I wanted to move efficiently, quietly, respectfully. I'd make all my portages, with the canoe and everything else on my back, in a single trip. And I'd do it all without leaving a lasting trace of my presence.

I'm not sure I realized it at the time, but, in a way, I was planning the rest of my life. Obviously I had no idea what that grander journey held in store for me, but I sensed I was proving that, whatever it was, I could be ready.

Finally, my departure day arrived and I hit the road early for the five-hour drive north, arriving at my Burntside Lake access point to the BWCAW at about noon.

Setting out on a good-sized body of water at that time of day brought the wind and big waves I’d expected. It would take all the concentration I could muster, as the slightest miscue would put me sideways to a two- or three-foot wave, the perfect recipe for swamping.


I didn’t dare skip even a single stroke, having seen, on earlier trips, the effects hypothermia can have on a person, even in the summer. So, all the way across Burntside’s four-mile width, I had to execute my combination power/steering strokes perfectly. Even harder was not being able to swat the relentless stable flies that drilled my bare ankles.

The idea of getting stuck in this muggy, bug-infested woods was playing with my mind.

My second portage nearly ended my trip. Halfway across, the soggy trail skirted the edge of a bog created by a large, curving beaver dam. Then, as it led back into the thick jack pine and aspen, it gradually just petered out, strangled by thick brush and small trees. The undergrowth had closed in around me to the extent that I could neither move any further ahead nor turn around.

Leaving the canoe propped between two trees, I retraced my steps, looking all around for where I might have missed a turn. The idea of getting stuck in this muggy, bug-infested woods was playing with my mind since by this time I had only a couple hours of daylight left.


After about 20 minutes of scouting and ruling out every promising opening in the trees, I happened to notice a single muddy boot print leading out onto that beaver dam. Venturing, without the canoe, across the slick, wobbly sticks, I could see that this was, indeed, the continuation of my portage.

After a couple more small lakes and two much easier portages, I flipped my canoe into beautiful  Cummings Lake and, fortunately, found one of the campsites I’d counted on unoccupied. So I landed and began the many chores necessary to set up camp.

My fresh steak-and-potatoes dinner that night tasted all the better for the hard work it had cost me. As I savored my cowboy coffee, I thought back on the day with gratitude and pride, realizing I’d already begun uncovering just what I’d set out to find.

The air cooled as the rocks spent the last of their stored warmth. I let the embers die and sat for a while to fully absorb the chill before ducking into my cozy tent. As I nestled into my sleeping bag, my body throbbed with that good kind of pain you feel when you’ve worked hard for a simple goal.

    My fear turned into a prayer, and I knew I was 
    getting reacquainted with my inner strength.

I lay there aware that, for one of the very few times in my life, I was immersed in both total darkness and utter silence. My ears probed, like a sweeping radar scope, for some sound—an insect, a breaking wave, a whisper of air through pine needles, anything. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it, but the depth of that silence caused my brain to invent a sort of roar.

That deafening void, the sense of alone-ness, was so profound, my mind even stumbled into thoughts of possibly not being able to stand it. What would I do with absolutely no one to call on, no one to help me? It took me a few minutes to put these thoughts in their place. My fear turned into a prayer, and I knew I was getting reacquainted with my inner strength.


PHOTO: Wisconsin DNR
I awoke the next morning at first light, not sure what it was that had roused me. As my senses tried to get their bearings, I wondered if the eerie noise I was hearing was another imaginary one. A chill rattled me as I realized it was a pack of wolves, awakening with me and greeting their day on the other side of the bay.

I spent the day exploring the stretch of shoreline on either side of my campsite. I stocked up on some prized “beaver wood,” thoroughly dried on rocky shore by wind and sun. I picked blueberries. I sat on warm rocks. I thought, now and then, about my life and my priorities, but mostly I just did what the rest of the creatures around me were doing—simply sensing, simply being.

      I basked in satisfaction, having compelled 
      the elements to respect the boundaries I’d 
      so cleverly devised.

By late afternoon, blue skies had given way to the unsettled, ten-shades-of-gray clouds so typical of the BWCAW, and soon it felt like rain. I prepared my tent site by trenching around the perimeter, making sure there was a generous outlet at the moat’s down-slope side. I rolled in the edges of my ground cloth so the water running down the tent sides wouldn’t pour in between it and the not-so-waterproof tent floor.

Mercifully, the rain held off long enough for me to down a quick supper. About ten minutes after I crawled into my tent, the rain started and built into a long, heavy downpour. I basked in satisfaction, having compelled the elements to respect the boundaries I’d so cleverly devised.

Still, I couldn’t help but welcome the rain’s company, like, when I was a boy, going to bed with the muffled voices of my parents' well-behaved guests downstairs. I fell deliciously asleep and woke up the next morning dry as a good piece of that beaver wood.

I moved on, made camp on a new lake and spent the rest of my trip feeling as familiar with this new rhythm of life as if I'd been on trail for weeks.

As I sat contemplating the dwindling flames of my last campfire, I was warmed by a deep sense of satisfaction about my little adventure. It was by no means an extreme physical challenge. There had been no single event that radically changed my life—no near-death experience, no epiphany.


    I’d confronted my aloneness and, instead of 
    mourning it as I had for so long, I embraced 
    and celebrated it.

Yet it was exactly what I’d needed it to be, an assertion of my inner strength, a reassurance of my competence and a reaffirmation of what I guess I’ve always known was my deep, spiritual connection with Nature. I’d confronted my aloneness and, instead of mourning it as I had for so long, I embraced and celebrated it.

Necessity has a way of putting things into perspective. It parks the past and future in a compartment that’s unaccustomed for many of us: the “maybe some other time” compartment. And it leaves us, remarkably, with nothing but the present moment.

That, it turned out, was an aspect of my experience I hadn’t expected. It was kind of like breaking an addiction; if I can abstain so happily from my sadness and self-blame for these few days, then maybe they're paddling partners I just don't need.


OneStonedCrow said...

A Great Adventure in every sense - thanks for sharing.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi OSC -- Appreciate the comment, my friend! I realize this post's a bit long for most on-line tastes, but it was just something I had to say in a certain way. Glad you were one of the patient ones!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful - thank you.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Anonymous -- the thanks are all mine! Thanks for stopping by OMW and thanks for the nice comment.

Anonymous said...


Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Anonymous - Many thanks for your nice comment -- quite a compliment! Are you familiar with Katy Farina? She's a talented young illustrator and very nice to work with.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Jeff...
Appreciate being able to come along on your journey. Very well written and struck many familiar chords. One being that the wilderness and solo experience does not have to be a life challenging event that hammers us over the head back into life, as it were. I find most of my solo trips bring far more subtle and graceful revelations from the little moments. I'm not even sure we ever lose the self doubt, or fears we experience as our lives unfold, but these experiences allow us to learn to make them easier burdens to bear. Thank you for the thought provoking share. Kia Kaha e hoa..

Jeffrey Willius said...

It's great to hear from you Robb -- I thought this might resonate with you! You're so right; the experiences that do "hammer us over the head" tend to be the really bad ones, the ones you'd never wish on anyone. Short of that, it's all good, right?

Robin Easton said...

Dear Jeffrey, Oh my gawd, this is SO beautiful, so meaningful to me. I ran across the link to this post yesterday and started reading, then had to lie down and ice my hip. However, I kept the tap open and continued reading this morning. I could not stop reading, I chewed through it, oblivious to any length that you refer to in one of your comments here. In fact, I didn't want it to end. I realize you wrote this in 2012, so you do not need reply to my comment.

I did, however, have to tell you that I didn't want my time in the woods and on the lakes with you to end. I could have kept reading and reading.

I really LOVE how you introduced the more personal aspects of your life. I teared up reading this post, NOT because it made me sad, but because you felt so alive to me. I felt so alive reading it, so kindred to you and all that you experienced. I was moved by the beauty and depth of you, the WHOLE experience on every level, your intimate relationship with nature, with your feelings, loved the your insights, your being so present, as well as your beautifully intimate relationship "with" nature.

Your writing is stunningly beautiful, to the extent that I felt I was there in those woods, on those lakes with you.

I have canoed since I was a tot, as well as done some white water rafting, etc. But I knew it ALL, the bugs at your ankles biting and biting, but you cannot scratch and risk missing a beat with that paddle. I know the roar of rain on a tent, the trench digging, the beaver damns, the whole lot.

I just LOVE this story. I felt I was reading a mix of Walden, or One Man's Wilderness or Muir, or any other of the many wild-stories I've read with such hunger and love.

Thank you, my friend, for sharing more of your beautiful and worthy life, all of it. I feel more real, more human, and more okay. So, so good to experience today. Bless you, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Wow, Robin, a bit belated or not, I'm so glad you read and enjoyed this post! I remember, in writing it, knowing you'd resonate with it like very few people I know. Thanks for your always-encouraging words, my friend! Sounds like you're really on the mend -- and that makes me really happy.

Robin Easton said...

Yes, dear Jeffrey, I AM on the mend. As you said earlier in one of you comments to me. my deep abiding connection to nature and life is the very backbone of who I am and it will NEVER fail me. I may trip, figuratively or literally, but LIFE will always pick me up and be my sole focus. I can't tell you how much I enjoy your posts. I don't comment often, but your wisdom and ability to express your own connection to life is outstanding! I don't know how I missed this post way back then....but am so glad I found it this week, the timing is prefect to reinforce my own commitment to life and nature, my source of healing. You affirm all that is me... Thank you for "seeing" (me) and knowing. I am more grateful than you know.

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.