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).
THE PRETENSE OF CONTROL
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.
FINDING MY WAY
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.
|ILLUSTRATION: Katy Farina|
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.
THE ROAR OF SILENCE
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.
WHEN IT RAINS…
|PHOTO: Wisconsin DNR|
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.
THE COMPANY OF MY ALONENESS
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.