Friday, April 17, 2015

BEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE – Boys Alone In the Wilderness

We were barely old enough to go out on dates. Gangly little brats still getting used to our hairy armpits and manly voices. Yet there we were about to embark on one of the greatest adventures of our lives.

I and a couple of my 15-year-old classmates had attended summer camps whose focus was on canoeing and camping. With that modest experience under our belts—and with our parents’ astonishing faith in our abilities and judgement—we planned and executed an eight-day canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). (They did require us to take an industrial-grade first aid class, learning how to deal with the kind of medical challenges most likely to come up on a trip like ours—think broken limbs, knife or hatchet wounds, hypothermia, etc.)

Back, l. to r.: Charlie McMillan, Gordon Brown, Jeff Willius. Front: John McMahon, Todd Otis, Rob Linsmayer

In fact, we were so young that our parents had to drive us the six hours north to our put-in point, and then come back for us a week and a day later. It was a little like having your parents drive you to a movie with a girlfriend, but somehow we knew that this girlfriend (the wilderness) would make it well worth the embarrassment.

I’ll never forget the mix of exultation and dread I felt as the six of us stood there at that landing, our two canoes and gear piled beside us, and watched those two sensible station wagons drive away.

   While the less-impulsive among us weighed the 
   risks and benefits of such an idea, the decision 
   was made.

There were countless great moments during this, the first of many self-guided, self-outfitted BWCAW canoe trips I would take: lying down after supper on rocks still warm from the afternoon sun and smoking one of my ill-gotten Lucky Strikes; swimming in cold, crystal-clear Kekekabik Lake where we could see fish swimming among the rocks 15 feet below us; providing dinner for the whole crew with a huge pike I caught. But the greatest of the many tales told about this trip is that of our all-night paddle.

One late afternoon, we’d stopped paddling for the day at a wonderful campsite featuring one of the rocky BWCAW’s rare sand beaches. Before tackling the many chores of setting up camp, we took time to let off some steam, staging a mini-“Olympics” along the sandy stretch, with races, broad-jumping, shot-put, discus and javelin events.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but someone pointed out that tomorrow’s leg of our route wouldn’t involve any portages—unusual in the BWCAW’s intricate web of waterways all interconnected by them. What if, he asked, instead of pitching camp that night, we just keep going? Besides the opportunity for portage-free cruising, another boy added, it promised to be a perfect night for paddling since it had been warm, clear and nearly calm all afternoon.

While the less-impulsive among us weighed the risks and benefits of such an idea, the decision was made.

We threw together an easy dinner from one of our pre-packaged bags of dehydrated ingredients. Over cups of cowboy coffee,* we played “Name That Jingle,” one of us humming or whistling one note at a time of a popular product jingle, and seeing who could guess the brand first.

     I got this strange and wonderful feeling, 
     like how a child might feel entering a deep, 
     dark forest alone, without a path.

By nine, after sunset, our exuberance had started to fade with what was left of daylight. In its place a quiet resolve settled over us. We washed our dinnerware and started loading up the canoes. I got this strange and wonderful feeling, like how a child might feel entering a deep, dark forest alone, without a path.

Flashlights in hand, we put our heads together over the map, once again reviewing our route and setting down a few rules—staying together, how to switch paddling positions, what to do if the weather changed. Finally, after drawing straws (actually sticks) for the two duffer positions,** we stepped in and shoved off into the darkness.

As we paddled off, still there was not a cloud in the sky, just a sea of stars and a half moon about to settle into the silhouetted tree line of the far shore.

Once the moon had set, it was is if someone turned up a rheostat on the stars. And the Milky Way—it shone as none of us had ever seen before, stretching across the vast blackness like a shimmering pathway for all those characters conjured in the stars by the Mesopotamians and Greeks 3,000 years ago.

And then, as if that weren’t enough to dazzle a bunch of hot-shot teenage boys, the Northern Lights came on. Like the broad strokes of a cosmic watercolorist, they splashed across the northern half of the night sky, the blues and greens running in vertical streaks before absorbing into the pitch-black canvas.

PHOTO: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer

For nearly half an hour we drifted silently, spellbound by the incredible spectacle. I lay back onto the small stern deck of my canoe and soaked it all in. Never before, and never since, have I witnessed such a display of Aurora Borealis.

The next hour or so settled into the quiet rhythms of paddling. Dip… pull… feather… swing… dip… The liquid sounds, the mild exertion, the gentle surge and glide—all made for a fine meditation. For the rest of the night, as boys will, we told tall tales, sang camp songs, and challenged and ribbed each other at the slightest vulnerability. We also tried to scare the piss out of each other.

I don’t know who started it, but word was that one of the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitives*** had last been seen up here heading into the Boundary Waters. You know how it goes; we all contributed to the absurdity of the fabrication, yet not one of us, even as we upped the ante, could help but tune in to every sound, every shadow, in the deep woods along the shore.

It started getting cold. Those of us paddling managed to keep warm enough, but my buddy, Gordon, duffing just in front of me, had to wrangle his sleeping bag out of his pack and bundled up in the scant space between gunwales, thwarts and stowed gear. (The plan had been to rotate paddlers as the night went on, but, as it turned out, we never saw a place to safely pull into shore for the change.)

As the chill gradually penetrated, Gordon’s blissful snoring just five feet in front of me began to wear thin. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t that I envied his sleeping, all snug as a bug like that—I hate duffing, and was glad I hadn’t drawn the short stick—but that snoring...

By about five AM, shivering wracked my body. I put on all the clothes I could dig out of the nearest pack. I paddled harder, trying to keep my arms pressed to my sides to preserve my core body temperature the best I could. I put a fishing line out, hoping that fighting a fish might warm me up...or at least take my mind off of my misery. And still I shuddered. There was nothing for it but to wait for sunrise…and listen to Gordon.

For what seemed like hours we eyed the spreading glow in the eastern sky. A light fog forming over the relatively warm water, though beautiful, only seemed to deepen the chill. And then, finally, a spark of light ignited the treetops, then grew to a ball of fire. As the mist burned off we felt the full effect of the sun’s blessing percolate through our sweatshirts and reach our anxious, goose-bumped skin.

PHOTO: Chris Huber, Daily Republic
As if in celebration of the moment, the fishing rod I’d been trolling with suddenly bent over to the water. Barely able to feel the handle, I reeled in a gorgeous, two-pound smallmouth bass, its golden-bronze sides lit, as if from within, by that precious early sunlight.

I lifted my rod, swung it around and carefully lowered the dripping fish down right to the cacophonous opening of Gordon’s sleeping bag, where it flopped its wet, slimy way right in next to his head.


A Maryland couple has been charged with child neglect for allowing their ten- and six-year-olds to walk home alone from the neighborhood park.

I hold these memories all the dearer in a world, an era, in which human beings’ connections with Nature seem as endangered as the many rare species disappearing on our generation’s watch. In the six decades since my adventure, the circumference around home within which a child is allowed to roam freely, without parental control, has shrunk from miles, to blocks, to yards. Recently, a Maryland couple has been charged with child neglect for allowing their ten- and six-year-olds to walk home alone from the neighborhood park.

Rewind to 1960, an age when, in general, parents had a pretty good handle on raising kids right. And yet, when it came to the out-of-doors, they understood and valued the positive effects it had on children. They understood that, in light of all the benefits, the risks were relatively small. And today, as hard as the sensationalist media, the video game industry and a legal liability industry gone amok try to convince us otherwise, statistics say those risks (of injury, abduction, even getting lost) are no greater than they were back then. 

Now, all that being said, would I allow my own 15-year-old son or daughter to go on an eight-day, unguided canoe trip into the wilderness, some 300 miles from home and miles from any help? To be honest, I’m not sure.

But I’m immensely grateful for the faith our parents placed in me and my buddies. They trusted us, and they trusted in Nature not to throw more at us than we could handle. I only hope I was effusive enough in thanking them for this while they were alive.


* Cowboy coffee is made by just adding an approximate measure of ground coffee to a pot of boiling water, removing it from the heat, waiting until the grounds settle to the bottom, and then carefully pouring the finished brew so as not to disturb the grounds. Its enjoyment hinges on one’s appreciation of occasionally having to chew one’s coffee.

** Considering the optimal efficiency of portaging canoes and gear from lake to lake in one pass, the ideal numbers for a BWCAW canoe trip are two canoes and six paddlers—four of them paddling at any one time; the other two duffing (sitting in the bottom of the canoe along with the stowed gear).

*** Our point of reference at the time would have been someone like James O’Kasick, who, with his two brothers, had just dominated local news with their murderous exploits and partial demise at the hands of police after a dramatic manhunt. (Two of them were shot and killed by police; James tried to take his own life, but survived.)


jean said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Jeff! More!!! :) Wish I could have seen the Aurora with you guys! What a memory! Thanks for sharing!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Jean -- Thanks! Are you a canoeist? Have a favorite wilderness experience?

jean said...

I have only been in a canoe 2 times in my life and I was the :passenger" both times. My best outdoor times were with fishing with my dad who would fish at the drop of a hat! He had a John boat with an electric motor and we would fish in lots of the lakes within a 50 mile radius. My favorite childhood memories were of Dad, Mom and me going to a magical lake with an old mill on it, Sports Lake, a really wild and beautiful place. In those days, nobody even put on life jackets (and I don't even know if I could swim in the early days, and I don't think Mom could swim, either. But there we were paddling along (long before Dad got the motor) and somehow, nobody drowned and we had wonderful times at the lake. We always had a home-packed picnic and coolers for worms and for food and drinks----thank goodness we didn't get them mixed up. I don't remember fishing then (but I am sure I did) but I loved riding around in the boat and looking at all of the trees, seeing skill pots (turtles) jump into to water. One time we saw a bunch of little baby frogs that I was fascinated with. The good old days! I hope Dad has his little cabin on a Heavenly lake, and that Mom is fishing along with him! :) Thanks for asking, Jeff!

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful story and memory Jeffrey. It's one of those moments in time that creates men out of boys. In a sense, one can not grow unless one is afforded the opportunity for trust where one engages in new points of view, activities, and perspectives. In today's culture, if someone were to grow, others may feel left behind to feed their fears, and therefore people are pecked upon to hold their positions, because people feel safer when they can share in their often unconscious misery. The status quo is so celebrated, that if children did something their parents couldn't do any longer, they could no longer relate or identify with their children. It's as if the adults or parents are less mature than children these days because they never took or understood the rite of passage into a place of conscious freedom where true choice can be felt and seen as the real elixir of life. Therefore, if modern day adults never grew up, then they will keep their children from growing up and will keep them away from that which is foreign, alien, or new so that they can control what they see in their distorted mirrors and in the filtered reflections they have confined and defined themselves within.

Jeffrey Willius said...

That's wonderful, Jean. Thanks for sharing those precious memories. Love your image of your parents still boating and fishing -- heaven, indeed!

Jeffrey Willius said...

You're so right, Bern! Even if this generation of parents are as you describe them -- ESPECIALLY if they're like that -- we have to make sure that this generation of kids will grow up to be parents who won't make the same mistake. As a rule, we take care of the things we love, and we must cultivate that love for Nature in kids so they'll still be able to count on it as guide, mentor and muse.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Jeff..
What a great experience! My first trip to the BWCAW I was told to pack all my gear in the Duluth pack I was given and also bring a bag of zip lock plastic bags. It rained the whole first days paddle and then I realised I was meant to put my stuff in the zip lock bags and not just bring them along! In spite of my sodden gear I had an amazing time.

Jeffrey Willius said...

That's a great story, Robb! What fun it would be to meet you one day and share other BWCAW stories. I feel like we're members of a special brotherhood.

Robin Easton said...

Dear Jeffrey, this is one of THE best adventure stories I've ever read. I am slow reader, bit I chewed through this like a starving women. SO FAST!! However, slower and slower when I realized the story would soon end. I did NOT want this to end. I loved it, felt it, yearned to be there, in that kind of wild freedom, that kind of responsibility, planning, unexpected beauty, hardship followed by warm sunlight, and so much more.

This truly is a MASSIVE Memory or an almost extinct experience, especially for young men and women today. I noted how you, just like me, use the phrase: "connections WITH nature." I too use the word WITH. "Relationship WITH opposed to "relationship TO nature." The WITH is so inclusive, without separation, something we and nature have, are doing and being....'together.'

Your writing is exquisitely beautiful. Reading this arose so much wild yearning in me. Thank you for taking the time to share such a profound, beautiful, and rare experience (rare in today's world). I am so moved by you and what you deeply value. I profoundly resonate. Your friend, "the stern woman." :)

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