We put in at Fall Lake just outside the little town of Ely in the late afternoon. The forecast posted at the ranger station had not looked promising, and clouds were looming, heavy with rain, when we loaded the canoe and pushed off the shore. A faint breath of mist surrounded us as we began to get into a rhythm of paddling, ready for days free of virtual tasks, car travel and commotion. We entered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness shortly after setting out and soon arrived at our first portage. As we approached the sandy shoreline we were greeted by a group of men and their motorized canoe, filled to the brim with gear, rolling down the rocky path on a set of little rubber wheels. They were in a hurry. “Looks like storms are headed this way. Time to get back to reality.” They motored off toward the landing that we had just left. We watched them go and turned back toward the portage. The sound of the falls that led into the next lake rushed around us as we loaded ourselves up for a 100 rod walk in the woods into the next lake.
We reached the portage trail’s end and set out again, navigating through a narrow lake dotted with little treed islands, looking for a place to camp as evening fell over the landscape. The thunderheads that threatened earlier had lost some of their menace, but the dampness remained. After scrutinizing the map and peering at the shore, we spotted the site we sought through a watery field of wild rice. We set up the tent as drizzle began to fall, found a perfect bear bag tree and had a simple dinner of noodles before turning in for the night to the sound of howling wolves.
Like late summer storms, wolves are a mysterious and slightly unsettling part of a Boundary Waters experience. They are not a threat to humans (we are more a threat to them) and are rarely seen, but it is still a little unnerving to hear them howling after the sun goes down. It is quite easy to imagine an entire pack right outside your tent. The first night out in the wilderness sometimes includes a little tossing and turning-it can be challenging to get used to the quality of silence that comes with being surrounded by trees and water instead of front lawn shrubs and roads.
Alongside that silence, there is an energy that blankets wild places that isn’t present in peopled areas. And safety takes on a different meaning when you are away from the usual routine of digital tasks, sitting in an office and sleeping in a bed. It is quite curious how easy it is to imagine all the things that could be out to get us in the woods when – truth be told – we are just as likely to run into adversity inside the confines of a city. But outside the human made realm, there is the undercurrent of the unknown, the unpredictable. It’s untamed. Wild. Often in our culture, “wild” is of the same vein as dangerous. We are taught to avoid danger. But isn’t it more dangerous to live a life devoid of interactions that remind us what truly living in communion with the earth feels like? To use the words of Jack Turner, “It’s safe to stay home and watch reruns of Star Trek and fiddle with Facebook and track digital gossip, but it’s also shallow and lifeless. Whether it’s with sharks or bears [or wolves or storms] experiencing nature shakes your foundations in a way an iPad never will. It has to do with contact.”
Morning came in a dewy haze, and we hashed out our options. Do we just head back since it is supposed to rain pretty much constantly? Or do we keep pressing on into whatever the wilderness might offer up next?
We opted to keep going. We had our rain suits, our common sense and a craving to shake our foundations in a way that going back could never offer. We packed up camp, ate a little trail mix, tossed everything in the canoe and pushed off through wisps of wild rice and lily pads. The morning that had greeted us with a damp embrace was swiftly clearing, and the dreary chill was soon replaced with warm sunlight and calm waters. You just never know what you are going to get when you choose to exist in the wild. But what you do know is that your foundation is somehow more solid after each shaky encounter and you have a clearer view of what reality can look like. As Thoreau writes in The Maine Woods: “Contact! Contact!” Just like Mr. Turner suggests, it has to do with contact.
How will you make contact with something wild today? It’s likely you can’t just take off for a week in the Boundary Waters, but perhaps you can stand barefoot in the grass during your lunch break. Maybe you can listen to the chickadee chattering as the sun fades in the evening. Maybe you can take a young person to explore the patch of woods at the edge of the neighborhood. Or maybe you can take a path previously unknown to you: Plant a seed to tend on your windowsill. Smile at the annoying guy at the office. Go outside in a downpour just to know what it feels like to choose that option. Do something different even if it’s scary.
Contact. There are so many ways to invite it in. Let’s shake those foundations so we have something strong to stand on.
For more information on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, visit http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/canoeing/bwca/index.html