Oct/Nov 1998 Salon

You Can Go Home Again, Sort Of

by Paul J. Sampson

Trying to revisit earlier parts of your life seldom works out. Even trips to the old neighborhood tend to disappoint. Can the old house really have been so small?

But some places are so timeless, so immune to change, that it's safe to go back. The wilderness is like that, provided it's been allowed to stay wild.

Along both sides of the Minnesota-Ontario border is such a wilderness. On the Canadian side, it's Quetico Provincial Park. On the U.S. side, it's the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. On both sides, it's thousands of square miles of roadless wilderness, accessible only by hiking trails and canoe routes. And it's muscle power only. You can't even use an outboard motor.

This is tough terrain. Look at a map of the canoe country. The map alone can make my heart speed up. There are more than a thousand lakes on the U.S. side alone, and at least as many more in the Quetico, the great wild park on the Ontario side of the line. Most of them run roughly parallel, northeast to southwest, suggesting the drag of claws. This is the track left by the scrape of the last glaciers. The same icy scrubbing took most of the topsoil, and the stony bones of the country still stick out: all that anchors the forest is a few inches of dirt, pine straw, and fallen, rotted trees. It's enough: there are jack pines sixty feet tall, white pines nearly as big, and of course an understory of gleaming birch, standing out against the conifers like chalk stripes on a blackboard.

The lakes are so clear that you can see bottom in twenty-five feet of water. Bottom and shoreline are cobbled with boulders. Along the shore, grey-black blocks the size of suitcases, split into their boxy shapes by the explosive action of the ice. Below the surface, older stones, ground down by waves, rounded as eggs.

Until this year, I had made three trips to the region. The last was half my life ago, when I was thirty. This year I took my wife on her first trip there. It was also her first real camping trip, apart from one heavily catered raft trip on the Rio Grande. On that outing, we slept in tents, but all the heavy lifting was done by the young and brawny outfitters, who cheerfully hefted heaps of gear and coolers of wonderful food and drink. We didn't have to tote anything but our cameras.

This time it would be a little different, I told her truthfully, and off she went to the gym for a couple of months, getting ready for paddling and portaging. (I did nothing of the kind, figuring that no short sessions in the gym would undo years of office work anyway. My wife is several years younger than I; there seemed to be more hope of reclamation for her.)

We traveled with another couple, both of them my wife's ageómere kids in their mid-fifties. Cathy and Terry are chronic campers and hikers, but this would be their first canoe trip. At sixty, I was expected to make up in canoe experience what I lacked in youthful vigor. (Well, it makes a good theory.)

As the Wise Old Man, I was expected to know what to bring along, and more importantly, what to leave at home. Luckily this is very easy to figure out. The basic technology of camping is Stone Age to early Iron Age at best. Improvements since then, though welcome, are tiny, mainly involving making the same old things lighter and stronger. Canoes are metal or plastic, not wood and bark; tents are nylon, not skin; we use flashlights instead of tallow torches, and those really neat long-handled butane lighters instead of stealing fire from the gods.

Terry volunteered to select all the food and plan the menus, and I was happy to stand back and let it happen. My camp cooking skills depend pretty heavily on the skillet; he has a broader range. He mentioned a Dutch oven and I backed off, knowing I was in the presence of an artist.

We loaded and launched on a bright September day. First leg was to be a seven mile paddle the length of Clearwater Lake, right into the teeth of a nice brisk breeze. Average speed for average paddlers is about two miles per hour, so we were looking at a three-hour trip to the first portage. Marti, sitting in the bow of our canoe, took her first swings ever with a paddle. I took my first strokes in many years.

We made pretty good progress into the headwind. At first, we traded little bits of talk, pointing out the many beauties of the lakeshore. After half an hour or so, Marti stopped talking. At about the hour mark, she half-turned back toward me and said sweetly, "I forgive you."

Well, there isn't much you can reply to that, so I settled down and paddled in silence. I had brought my trusting wife to the wilderness and made her paddle a heavily laden boat into a headwind, and she had forgiven me. The trip was an hour old, and we still had to do our first portage, and she had forgiven me. I hoped that this pardon had some staying power to it.

The portage to West Pike Lake is marked on the map as 214 rods long. A rod is an obsolescent unit of measure equal to sixteen and a half feet. Coincidentally, that's about the length of a canoe. The map does not note that the path winds up and down hill many times, is strewn with boulders and laced with exposed roots, and is too narrow for its purpose.

Of our suffering on the portage trail I will, heroically and stoically, say nothing. I will mention, though, that when at last we got all the gear and both canoes across it, our original plan to portage to several more lakes had been modified. We would, and did, make a base camp on this very lake, and make little day trips around it.

And it made little difference, really. The lake we were on is enough like the others in that country that we weren't missing anything crucial to our happiness. With so much beauty already at hand, the itch to see around the next headland faded a bit. We did skip a nice waterfall, but it was three portages away, one of them 200 rods long and over the brow of a 300 foot high ridgeline. That was an easy sacrifice to make.

So we settled into camp and poked around the woods, made half-hearted attempts to fish, ate greedily and well (thank you, Terry). I found several comfortable rocks, stumps and ledges to sit on or lean against, and I made my rounds among them, taking my time and renewing my old friendship with the North Woods lake country, its sights and smells and sounds. I sat, off and on throughout the days, watching the water change from smoky morning mist through noonday blue to evening black. The wind, in trees and over water, was the predominant sound. Against it played the little themes of pine-squirrel chatter, duck squawks, and the hair-raising laughter of the loons. Ask any North Woods veteran what sound he remembers and he will tell you: the call of the loon.

Loons were part of the night soundscape, too, and their crazed falsetto laugh can make you shiver if you're not used to it. Actually, a lot of night sounds can make you shiver in the woods. Just what, you ask yourself, does a prowling bear sound like?

I am somewhat double-minded about bears. Like most people, I love to see them, but I'm not fond of the notion of having one stick his snoot in my tent. On my first trip to this country, more than forty years ago and about sixty miles west of this year's route, one of them got into our food and ran me and my partner out of camp. This time, though, we were careful campers, and hung our food packs high in trees. Any bears around our camp went away hungry, and they did so quietly. Still, knowing they're nearby can get you to hearing things at night.

"I bet this brings back all sorts of memories," my wife prompted, hoping, I suppose, to lift some lid and hear great revelations of the man she married late in life. I think she was fishing for details of my last trip to these waters, thirty years ago with a different wife. Oh, I remember that, all right, but older memories are more important to me.

"Yes," I said, and told her truthfully that North Woods tales were my father's bedtime stories to my sister and brother and me. I told her that he started taking me fishing on the Chicago lakefront when I was three; I caught a herring and my mother cooked it and we all ate it. He taught me to catch bluegills and perch before I started school, to use a casting rod by the time I was seven; and I told her that as soon as we children could be trusted not to fall out of a boat, he brought us six hundred miles and more to a Minnesota lake where we learned to catch "real" fish, walleyes and northern pike and bass.

Fishing was nearly sacramental to my father, and he taught me all the rites of his sect. I practice them still. I always spit on my bait, because he taught me to. As Jesus, that friend of fishermen, said in another context: Do this in remembrance of me. And so I do, and will.

(For the record, on this trip I caught a little smallmouth bass, and put him back. He'll be big enough to keep next time.)

Finally we packed up and paddled and portaged and paddled back to the outfitter's lodge and unloaded all the gear. I took a last walk down to the lake just before dark. As I turned to go back to the lodge, I glanced down and saw, a foot from my sneaker, a fresh bear track. Just the one forepaw, about the size of my hand, so fresh that the claw marks looked like knife cuts. I looked all around the dusky shoreline: not a sign of him. But he could see me, I bet. An hour later it started to rain, then storm, and I watched for him from the porch in the lightning flashes. No luck.

I'll see him next trip.


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