On Returning From The Northern Wilderness

We returned to work on Monday with dirt still under our fingernails. The previous week, whiskers turned tame faces rough as sandpaper from days traversing water and forested passageways sans common luxuries. Five men: three uncles and two nephews transformed into a modern expedition that carried the spirit of adventure on our backs and in our souls.

Why did I go? I had my reasons.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness became our home for six days. Entrenched in Superior National Forest, the ruggedness of northeastern Minnesota showcased beauty preserved in wild spaces, the likes of which evaporate from the Earth with every passing generation.

The summer greeted us with the firm embrace of balmy warmth and pervasive sunshine. Clouds became our ceiling, bright green leaves and syrupy pines the columns of shelter beside us at every turn.

The North Woods were alive with creatures and noises large and small, natural as the waters we glided across. Rarely did we hear distant float planes loaded with resort-cabin-bound tourists. Seldom did we see silent jet contrails tens of thousands of feet above our curious eyes. Few other humans did we see, perhaps a dozen at most per day, maybe two.

The character of the wilderness held strong, against the passage of time in an age of increasing accessibility to the masses, who often try to pave roads and invite civilized luxuries where civilization is best kept away. We pieced together theories of 18th and 19th century fur traders, and generations past of Ojibwe tribes living on the same lakes long ago, evidenced by pictographs on rock faces.

Insect bites became red badges of courage, perhaps foolishness or laziness, though DEET and extra layers of clothing curtailed at least some winged assailants. How profound our grumbles during swarms of airborne pestilence, yet hindsight from our current comforts of home prove the love we had for those great lakes and rivers and rocks and mud and birch and evergreens, despite the temporary affliction of mosquitoes and black flies.

We lived the lives of many men, during long days, figurative and literal the same. The northern sun greeted our rugged camps each morning in the moments of 5am. Darkness descended following sunset only after 10pm each night.

When once the expansive lake surface held our gaze and easterly winds tussled our bandanas wrapped ’round our necks, orderly hygiene welcomed us back to desk jobs and the rhythms of life with which we’d been familiar before our trek.

Photographs remind us of miles traveled, waves dashed against the bow of kevlar canoes. Long domestic flights bore us homeward, from the northernmost reaches of the United States to our cities eastward, south. But still our minds and muscles entertained memory of the challenges we faced and feats we accomplished.

Different Things For Different People

My Uncle Mark, seasoned leader of our expedition, prepared us with these words before the trip:

The Boundary Waters Wilderness is different things for different people. I will say this: If you want a “fishing” trip, there are more suitable leaders. If you want to emulate the voyageurs and cover vast amounts of territory quickly, I will disappoint you. If you want an excursion with much exposure to wild animals, I cannot make any such guarantees. I cannot find a corner of earth untouched by humanity, nor will I offer you a huge quest to be conquered. While others seek these and other goals there, Up North has other significance for me.

…I will attempt to show you what has captured me.

Yes, we will fish. We will listen. We will explore. We will paddle and portage. We will learn. We will enjoy camaraderie. We may enjoy solitude. But I also hope we hear silence.

We did, and he was right.

It belongs to no man; it never could. For it is God’s country, and only He could author and sustain such a place.

Knowing In The Stillness

Sigurd F. Olson, 20th century American author and advocate of true wilderness, once wrote:

As I watched and listened, I became conscious of the slow, steady hum of millions of insects and through it the calling of the whitethroats and the violin notes of the hermit thrushes. But it all seemed very vague from that height and very far away, and gradually they merged one with another, blending in a great enveloping softness of sound no louder, it seemed, than my breathing.

The sun was trembling now on the edge of the ridge. It was alive, almost fluid and pulsating, and as I watched it sink I thought that I could feel the earth turning from it, actually feel its rotation. Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. I thought as I sat there of the ancient admonition, “Be still and know that I am God,” and knew that without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from outside influences man cannot know what spirit means.

There, in the Northern wilderness, I think we touched a bit of that inward knowing. And it is in those moments, when we taste something outside our borders of normalcy, that we gain perspective for the rest of our lives. A perspective that we might never have gained if we had not gone where few men tread and the natural world thrives in full chorus.

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Have you traveled to a wilderness area? What was your experience like? What thoughts did you leave with?

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