Some of the happiest times I’ve spent have been in the wilderness, whether in the Boundary Waters or the Grand Canyon, or other back country venues. Those who’ve been with me in these trips will recognize some of the accounts. I wrote several chapters earlier this year, but have broken it down into parts. Here is part 1. Enjoy.
Memories of Wilderness Adventures
Retired from paid employment nearly two years ago, and now having shed my volunteer work on a couple of nonprofit boards, the other day I woke up and said: What next? A friend and a mentor, Sam Miller, rest his soul, once told me he got a Chinese fortune cookie that said: Wisdom is knowing what to do next. So it occurred to me that it might be wise, or at least somewhat interesting, to chronicle some adventures I’ve had over a lifetime of wilderness trips. If nothing else this exercise will fill in some time between answering emails, reading the paper, and watching the latest outrage on the national news.
Disclaimer: Since I am too lazy to do historical research, and am constructing this piece entirely from memory, it is, by nature, a distortion. My accounting likely will not square with my friends and colleague’s memories of events. It may even include some things that didn’t happen. Or, more likely, omit some important things that did happen. I can hear it now: But you forgot to include…fill in the blank. Too bad. Deal with it. Write your own distorted story.
Another disclaimer: Throughout this piece I will refer to individuals primarily by their first name (you know who you are), but in some cases their full names. Why? I don’t know. But if anyone thinks they’ve been defamed, sue me. However, President Trump says the nation’s libel laws need to be tightened up. You might want to wait.
Yet another disclaimer: In no way is this meant to be a comprehensive review of all the wilderness trips and adventures over my lifetime. The chronology is not necessarily linear. Think of it as a series of snapshots, a written photo album if you will. Much has been omitted. Think of it as my mind capturing remembered scenes like clouds floating by. Like capturing dreams.
On a recent trip to the Wild River State Park in Minnesota I mentioned to Jim that I was working on a piece called Canyon Dreams, which was a rather stream of consciousness account of some wilderness adventures. I noted that I was having a hard time parsing out the details and knowing where to stop. He suggested I break it into chapters with numbers. Good suggestion. Side note: You’ll see an account of how Jim almost set the Canyon on fire after his camp stove exploded. He observed that we all commenced to put out the fire in the brush while failing to note that some of the fuel splashed on him and he was on fire as well. I think he is still a little bitter about that and has some questions about our priorities. Good point. Fortunately he was able to put out his fire, and if I recall, not suffer too much of a burn. However, after all these years, he may be harboring some resentment. I can see why.
My experience with wilderness is primarily limited to canoe trips in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota, with forays into Canada, backpack trips in the side canyons of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, boat trips on Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and a variety of trips throughout Utah. And, one backpack trip in Alaska.
So without further ramblings, presented to you, dear reader, my dreams and memories.
THE BOUNDARY WATERS
“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” — Sigurd F. Olson
In June of 1965, and again in July of 1966 I travelled with Explorer Troop 120 from Chillicothe Missouri to the Charles L. Summers Wilderness Canoe Base outside of Ely, Minnesota, close to the Canadian border on Moose Lake. It was a Boy Scout base from which eight-day wilderness trips were launched into the wilds of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico Superior National Forest of Ontario. We were teenagers from a small town in the Midwest, most of whom had never paddled a canoe.
On the way up we stopped in Duluth for lunch. We asked the waitress what was the biggest lake around here? Her answer: Superior.
Many years later a group of us stopped for lunch at a bar and grill in Finland. (Finland, Minnesota, that is). I asked the waitress what kind of beer they had. Her reply: all kinds, in other words, Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Miller, Miller Lite. I asked her for a Surly. Huh? Was the reply. Surly waitresses. (Surly is a famous craft beer from Minneapolis. Minneapolis is in Minnesota, and maybe she’d been to the big city. I don’t know.)
But I digress. (Expect a lot of digressions. This piece is probably one big one.)
What I remember about our scout troop was there were jocks and non-jocks. Several played football, and were, what one would call “strapping”. They thought they were tough, too. The non-jocks (me) stayed quiet and somewhat intimidated wondering how we’d hold up in a group with “strappings”. Our guide, Roy, a skinny guy from South Dakota who had hair and a goatee like General Custer, looked us over and proclaimed:
Guys, there are two kinds of groups that come up here: Tourists and Voyageurs. You can choose to be tourists and we can paddle around and lay back, and maybe catch some fish. Or we can really push it and explore the wilderness into the back country. You guys look like you are pretty fit. So what’s it going to be: tourists or Voyageurs?
Everyone, including the jocks and non-jocks yelled: Voyageurs! Our scout leaders, who had never paddled in the wilderness either, looked at each other with trepidation.
Getting ready for the trip was a process. First we had to learn how to rescue ourselves in case we swamped a canoe. Here was the drill: Two guys get in a canoe fully clothed with boots on—you were expected to wear your boots at all times, not sure why, maybe to prevent foot cuts and infections, or to not lose time going from portages to lakes, or because they were sadists who want you to spend time in wet feet growing foot fungus, whatever. Then you paddled out several yards to a canoe where instructors told you to “roll”. I thought they said “row” and paddled harder. No, you idiot, roll over your canoe. Oh, that’s right, this is a swamp drill and you are supposed to go into the water. Besides, you never row a canoe, only paddle.
I vividly remember hitting the cold water. It was mid-June and the water was still cold. I looked up and saw the bottom of the canoe, felt my boots filling with water, and swam like hell to the surface, grabbing the sides of the canoe. (The sides of a canoe are called gunnels. The front of the canoe is the bow. The rear is the stern. The right side is starboard. The left, port. Pay attention. There will be a test. These descriptions fit for all kinds of water craft.) Did you know a swamped canoe still floats? Hope you never have to find out. They put foam in the bow and stern, I think. Anyway, we crawled back in, canoe full of water, the surface up to our chests. The next maneuver was to take the paddles horizontal and pull our way back to shore. We survived. A dear lesson to avoid swamping a canoe in the middle of nowhere.
Later we went to pack our gear for the trip. Each canoe would carry three men (were we men, boys or persons? Maybe just guys). On portages one would carry the canoe on his shoulders with an oxen like yoke, another the food pack, and the other the personal pack and paddles. Fishing rods would be secured under the gunnels of the canoe. The idea was to trade off the work so that everyone got the experience of canoe carrying, and pack packing. Yippie!
So now we were loading our food packs. They were canvass Duluth packs with a cardboard box stuffed inside. In the box we loaded cans of beans, spam, jars of peanut butter, oatmeal packets, and other food. Yes, cans in the wilderness. Apparently this was before the days of freeze dried meals. Oh, yes, whole rye crackers and Funny Face drink mixes (like Kool-Aide). On the trip we’d cry out to each other: Whole Rye! Funny Face! Not sure why. Finally, believe it or not, Wonder Bread. But we’d squeeze the air out of the bread loafs down to about six inches. Note: Wonder Bread is mostly air. Also note: Chillicothe, Missouri, my home town, is the home of sliced bread. I believe it was Wonder Bread. Imagine that.
We had one Duluth personal pack for three guys. We had to fit our sleeping bags inside the pack. That left very little for anything else for the three of us. Maybe some rain gear and an extra pair of socks and underwear. In addition the group carried canvass tents that were little more than lean-tos without floors. We slept like sardines five to a tent.
Our guide, Roy, was rugged. He was short and wiry, probably weighed no more that a hundred forty pounds wet. He carried a wooden canoe, his own personal pack, and another pack with cooking gear. All told he probably carried his weight over the portages. We huffed and puffed under our lighter weight aluminum canoes and with our heavy food and less heavy personal packs. Voyageurs!
By now I’m sure you appreciate all that detail. My way of impressing you with the preparations. It was serious stuff because, after all, we were going to be away from civilization with no easy means of rescue (no GPS, just map and compass, no cell phones, no other way of getting out of the wilderness except the way you came in—i.e., using your own muscle and grit.) Nowadays you don’t take cans into the back country, you take freeze dried meals from REI. You carry your light weight Kevlar canoe or Kayak over the portages, and your tent has a floor. You probably carry a sleeping pad as well. Not sure a cell phone will work, either. If you get into trouble you still probably have to get yourself out—maybe with help from friends. One thing, however, I think you’ll avoid—smashed Wonder Bread.
After taking off from the canoe base on Moose Lake, our regalia zig-zagged in a frenzy to keep up with Roy who calmly was paddling his canoe in a straight line. We quickly learned the skill of canoe steerage: The canoe is steered from the guy in the stern using “j” strokes to keep the canoe from listing left, and “sweep” stokes to steer left. The guy in the bow sets the stroke pace. Ideally both paddlers stroke in unison and settle into a reasonable pace. The stern guy tries to keep the canoe in a straight line by fixing a point on the horizon, and accounting for any wind. You also learn that it is not good to be out in the middle of a lake in an open canoe in a strong wind, but more on that later.
We went through Canadian customs at Prairie Portage, and officially out of the U.S. into a foreign land. Oh, Canada!
My goal is not to give you a step by step account of all the lakes we paddled and portages we humped. In looking at a map over fifty years later I’m not even sure what route we took. Rather, my goal is to bring back scenes from my ever fading memory, and to comment on the transformation we shared as a result of this rugged wilderness experience.
Over time it became clear that the differences between the jocks and non jocks were minimal. We all shared the same hardships, the physical and mental challenges, and the undercurrent of fear of being in the wilderness. You could get lost, break a leg, be run over by a moose or attacked by a bear, for example. Some longed for the creature comforts of home: a bed, a shower, a hot meal. But working together as a team to travel through the silent wilderness only broken by an occasional loon call, setting up camp, helping with meal preparation and clean up, and building and stoking the fire brought with it satisfactions and transformations that overcame fear and petty differences. We learned that we were all in this together, one for all and all for one. We learned to listen to Roy and respect his information. We learned to breathe in the fresh air, and drink the clear cool water—before the practice of purification to avoid beaver fever as should be practiced nowadays. In retrospect I have empathy for our adult scout leaders and the burden of responsibility they shared. Having been in similar positions of responsibility myself, I respect that burden.
The transformation mentioned is something I have experienced over the years on many other wilderness trips with a variety of groups. Even with unruly delinquent and disturbed teenagers I had charge of who were enrolled in a treatment program I directed. Which is not to say that there are no conflicts. But conflicts that arise in a wilderness group must be addressed openly and collectively. There are no judges, probation officers, or principal’s offices to be sent to. You have to work it out, or at least come to some working consensus. More often than not a consensus happens. The wilderness tends to sand the edges off.
We caught fish—walleyes and Northern pikes mostly—and they tasted great cooked over the open campfire. Fish, pork and beans or whatever else we had in cans, and some cookies for dessert is what I remember. By now you are wondering what we did with the cans. We put them in our canoes and dumped them into the lake. The second year I went they decided that probably wasn’t a good idea to fill up the lakes with old metal cans, so we threw them in the fire to burn off the excess food and labels, then smashed them with rocks and packed them out with us at trip’s end. The beginning of the “pack it in, pack it out” ethic.
While I don’t remember the exact route we ended up somewhere north of Lake Agnes, a long narrow lake running southwest to northeast in the Quetico. One day Roy asked us if we wanted to go to a lake that has been very rarely visited over the years. It would require a long portage, but we could boast that we had been where no white man had been before, or at least for many years. Hell yes, we’ll go! We are Voyageurs!
What did we get into? We all asked as we slogged along carrying canoes and packs through swampy muck (called Loon shit), and winding our way around blow-downed trees that hid the trail. There was barely a trail. Now we appreciated why so few took this course. An added aggravation was mosquitoes and black flies that chewed on any exposed skin. My ears bled, and were scabbed over for days after. We spent the better part of a day just slogging through this long portage. When we finally broke through to the lake Roy looked at the campfire at the lake’s only campsite and declared that no one had been here for thirty years. Looking back at it I’m not sure how he knew this, but we all believed him at the time. We are Voyageurs! We were transforming from guys into men!
That night the Northern Lights came out. I remember white streaks streaming up from the horizon. Nowadays I’ve heard that people pay thousands of dollars to hop on a plane to fly north to see them, a spiritual and transformative experience. We paid a different kind of price, but their display hooked some of us on mother nature’s display.
Later on the trip we observed Roy and the scout leaders huddled together. Furled brows and low voices. Were we lost? We learned later we actually were, but through Roy’s map and compass skills we were able to navigate to the north end of Lake Agnes, miles away from the base. We also realized that we were getting low on food. The fish weren’t biting. Roy killed a snapping turtle. Not sure how, maybe with the camp ax. That night we had some Chef Boy Ar Dee pizza dough mix with some tomato sauce. Roy cut up the turtle meat and we had snapping turtle pizza. Yum!
Having found Lake Agnes, Roy announced we’d really need to push it to get back to the base in time to avoid a search party. We had the winds to our backs. Roy in his inventive manner cut down a couple of aspen poles. He said we were going to sail! So here is what we did: we pulled the canoes together, then tied the canvass kitchen tarp to the poles, and spread the sail out, two guys on the outside of the regalia holding up the poles. It worked! At least for a while until Roy broke his paddle that he was using as a rudder. We then gave up on the sail and began humping as fast as we could paddling our canoes. Fortunately the wind was at our backs and we had no portages.
Here’s some other things I remember from our trip: A black bear fishing at the mouth of a river. An eagle bringing a fish to the nest. A moose in the middle of a stream we were paddling on. Pictographs on the rocks above the water line. Loons calling. Silence only broken by the sound of paddles hitting the water. A rainy night, water running under our tent, and soaked sleeping bags. Wet boots. Whole rye. Funny Face.
At the end of our trip we were camped on the north side of Bailey Bay, and were close to customs and an easy paddle back to base. Unfortunately the wind was howling and there were white caps on the water. Nothing to do but wait. Then we saw a guy paddling solo in his canoe, kneeling in the bottom with a pack on the bow, paddling through the wind and white caps towards, we guessed, the customs station. His canoe was rocking and rolling but he kept on paddling. We thought we might be witnessing a swamping and a drowning. However, I don’t remember seeing him turn over. He either made it or drowned. Either way, he’s probably dead now. My guess is he probably made it on his canoe journey only to be killed later in Vietnam. But that’s just a guess.
Two consecutive summers in the Boundary Waters and the Quetico while I was in high school gave me a taste of the wilderness that whetted my apatite for more. I went on to college, summer jobs, campaigning for Gene McCarthy, arguing with my elders about civil rights and hair length, and the upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s. Then on to service in the U.S. Air Force as a Personnel Specialist at Pease AFB in New Hampshire, living in a walk up apartment on the coast of Maine with wife and child. We would get out occasionally to walk along the sea walk, the beach, or in the woods. We spent some time camping out with friends on Warren Island State Park, where we foraged for beach peas, and collected sea urchins to eat the roe. Picked up a graduate degree on the GI Bill, and we had another child delivered at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard thanks to taxpayers. After discharge and graduation I worked as a school counselor in Rye, NH. Not much time for extended wilderness trips, but did enjoy the beach, and learning to downhill ski in the mountains.
Later, having moved from New Hampshire to Rochester, Minnesota—a long story—I worked at a nonprofit that focused on early childhood education. I remember traveling to Phoenix for a conference, hooking up with some crazy Canadians who invited me to go with them to see the Grand Canyon, and sure why not? The first time I saw the canyon, I looked over the rim in awe, and said to myself: It might be fun to hike down one of those trails some day. Little did I know that someday would be in the not so distant future.
But back to the Boundary Waters. Years later friends and I took several fall trips to the North. We learned that September was a good time of year to go. Fewer crowds, bugs, and usually better weather. Ideally Indian summer with fall colors. However, a roll of the dice could bring storm fronts with constant rain and miserable conditions. Oh well, what do they say? There is no such thing as bad weather, just improper clothing. Proper clothing helps, but it’s still a drag trying to start a fire in the rain.
Speaking of fire, I left my leather army combat boots too close to the fire in order to dry them out. Woke the next day to discover the toes had curled up like the Joker in a Bicycle card deck. Ruined. Fortunately I still had running shoes. I tied the laces together and ceremoniously threw the boots into the lake. Later, one of our guys caught them fishing. We threw them back. I won’t tell you where, but it is someplace close to the Canadian boarder.
There were several of these trips, but I won’t go on about the experiences. Friends who read this will remember. What I do remember is my love for the wilderness started as a teenager in the Boundary Waters. The land of still and raging waters, of loon calls, glorious sunsets, bear, moose, and other wild life. The land and lakes you have to work to get to. The place without motors or low aircraft fly overs. Where, if you are lucky, Northern Lights will shine. A place to fill the soul.
Now onto a completely different environment, but equally soul filling: The Grand Canyon and other canyons of the high desert plateau of Arizona and Utah.