“I Am Back Where I Belong But Still Decelerating.”
I’ve been home for more than a few weeks now—restarting my Y membership, resuming yoga classes, our Wednesday date night. Returning to work. I ended up paddling and portaging more than 150 miles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness immediately following an Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt—and rounding out an indelible six-month journey. Author Michael Perry writes after a recent book tour: “There is a feeling that I am back where I belong but still decelerating. So many miles, so many faces, now I’m back at my desk , going nowhere.”
September 8—23, 2016
This. Trip. Is. So. Different. My self-imposed exile, smack on the heels of a longer separation from civilized society, is a new undertaking—a boundless, yet solitary confinement. With hundreds of lakes and miles of paths connecting waterways, and without towns for resupply, I carry everything I will need for sixteen days in a 16’ canoe. There isn’t a straight line to follow and no place I need to be. I meander through rivers and lakes, passing waterfalls and portaging through boreal forests. I catch myself watching cloud formations and gazing for hours atop primordial bedrock as the sun liquefies into vast expanses of inland seas—sunsets that rival any exotic ocean coastline.
I am far more alone over these last two weeks than on any of the 110 days spent hiking the Appalachian Trail solo. I have to rely on compass and maps in this blaze-less backcountry. I have to pay attention to the wind. A light zephyr might ripple the surface. Gusts whipping through pine trees could mean rolling waves or wind-binding white caps. My eyes strain looking. So far. So hard. At the horizon. At the sky.
This route began at the western-most entry to the wilderness, Little Vermillion Lake, adjacent to Voyager National Park in northern Minnesota. I follow a twenty-five mile section of horseshoe-shaped Lac La Croix, one of a handful of large, narrow border country waters that separate the United States and Canada. I ponder how this permeable aquatic line of demarcation could never support a wall. The lakes here are dotted with islands, their rugged granite shorelines containing hues of greens, pinks and more shades of gray than any cheesy novel could possibly imagine.
This late in the summer, voracious bugs are non-existent and northern birds are beginning their annual fall migrations. Audible flocks of Canadian geese gather each evening amidst neighboring wetlands and during the day I repeatedly paddle beneath swelling V formations. Clusters of Common Goldeneye ducks whistle overhead. Emerging from a reedy creek outlet, I disturb a pair of Tundra swans, the first time I’ve seen any here in the BWCAW. A day later, a second pair surprise me as I round a bend along the Beartrap River, tufts of white feathers festoon the marshy shoreline in their haste to put distance between us. Loons are still present, but quieter. One day I passively sit watching a parent feeding a juvenile only a boat length away. On my last morning back on the serendipitously named “Loon Lake,” eight of them together take flight.
I find myself chatting it up to everyone on the portage trails or if passing by close enough to initiate a conversation. I ask the still familiar thru-hiker trail questions: Where are you from? (Oklahoma, Kansas City, Idaho, New Mexico, Maine, Washington, Colorado!) Where did you put in? How long are you out for? And, unique to this trip, how’s the fishing?
At the end of day four, I had stumbled upon a five-star campsite after paddling for hours against headwinds. There were only a handful of campsites scattered between several islands, all occupied. At the last, I asked if there might be room for me in what looked to be a large site. Unlike the designated shelters and tent sites located all along the Appalachian Trail, where hikers gather nightly forming small villages, campsites in the BWCAW typically are occupied only by a single party. Turns out there were four women—three sisters and a close friend—who were out for a few days. This campsite had been a favorite childhood destination, nestled among towering pine trees, with not one, but two, sandy beaches, a west-facing, wind-washed granite outcrop and a protected “kitchen” area surrounding the fire grate. In over 25 years of visiting the Boundary Waters, I rarely cross paths with all female groups. Sharing this—coincidentally spectacular—site for the night, with these friends from Minnesota, was especially welcoming. Plus their food bag held more than lightweight dinners. A chocolate cake materialized from a Dutch oven and shared as Venus rose low over the horizon and glowing embers turned to ash.
But mostly, I’m alone.
At night, I still have to convince myself that a tree won’t suddenly fall on me while I’m asleep or that the noise I hear by my head is only a mouse and not a bear. Or an alien. Okay, it’s mostly concerns about trees. But on this trip there have been a surprisingly high number of mice rivaling the numbers appropriating the shelters and campsites in Maine. Perhaps it has something to do with being in the same latitude—or the time of year? With the exception of a stealth camp I had to pitch after a 20-mile day and no nearby campsites, all of the established Boundary Water campsites have been overrun with mice. These northern mice are equally as fearless as their eastern cousins. I’ve been awoken by their ramblings and watched them run up and over my tent through the mosquito netting. Cheeky bastards. I’ve long ago realized that bears aren’t a threat. Or aliens—at least yet. But mice? Absolutely.
A week later, I return to find the same rock-star island campsite I shared with the women unoccupied. Tonight, mice are my only companions. And there is no fresh-baked cake for dessert. I had hoped to spend the afternoon drying out gear while hanging out on one of the sandy beaches, but instead I watch curtains of isolated showers roll across the lake from the vestibule of my heavy two-person tent. I arose uncharacteristically early the next morning—well before the red squirrels and crow alarm clocks. Thick fog blurred the spaces between air, rock and water. The quiet was absolute. In that moment, only a rhythmic swish of pinion feathers broke the stillness. A solitary bald eagle aimlessly wafts overhead. Slowly landmasses begin to emerge as diffused sunlight penetrates the mists. I hear the conversations of my closest neighbors more than a quarter mile away camped on another island. Blue grey gives way to yellow grey. Individual clouds become defined as the fog lifts from the lake to reveal sky the color of a robin’s egg. Now I can see not one faint island, but four.
Sacrilegiously, I fire up the canister stove for coffee. The sound cuts through the silence as piercingly as a welder’s acetylene torch.
Despite the geography and time, the differences between these two trips, hiking and paddling, are few but notable.
My gear is heavier—I packed a larger tent, more clothes and thick neoprene boots that keep my feet warm while plodding through watery and muddy autumnal portages. But, they never completely dry out. Instead of the locker room ammonia smell emanating from my backpack and sweat-soaked hiker clothes, there is a pervasive mildew, musty smell associated with constantly immersed footwear and socks.
As a communications device, my phone is completely useless in this part of the world, but it still functions as my camera and carries my iTunes and podcast libraries. It lasts for the duration without electricity thanks to energy saving tips I picked up while hiking and because I carry a small charger. But listening to my playlist is very different this time around. During the day hiking the Appalachian Trail, music helped keep me motivated. Or perhaps more to the point—distracted. But listening to the same music in the tent at night alone here in the Boundary Waters makes me feel melancholy and missing all things home. Like hiking, I still observe hiker’s midnight—especially now that the days are getting shorter and the nights cooler. But nights are now especially long.
The time of year and the lack of elevation changes also means I am less sweaty. Of course the proximity of buoyant waters ensure I am able to get in my beloved daily dips and swims—especially in campsites with actual beaches. Well, that was, until the temperature inversion. My trip started with daytime highs still reaching the seventies. The water was warm and at times, warmer than the air. But each fall, as air cools the upper layer of water, and as it reaches it’s most dense state, it then sinks to the bottom—a semi-annual phenomenon commonly referred to as a lake rollover. After several nights where I found myself needing my puffy jacket and wool long underwear, the water temperature turned decidedly colder. Still, I could splash my face without worrying about dipping into precious liters of a survival reserve.
By the end of the fifteen days, I have consumed all my pre-made hiking dinners and my feet are no longer as painful despite traversing more than forty portages, all of which had to be hiked twice. On the first trip, I carried the 70-liter rubberized dry bag and loose gear (paddles, thwart bag and that insanely heavy tent) and on the second, the canoe and food barrel. Most of the portages were an eighth of a mile or less in duration, but three of the forty were sneaking up to a mile long. Soreness in my back and shoulders have replaced the foot pain, but it’s only a sign of muscles being rediscovered, not a harbinger of injury.
I observe things that fill my time, but miss sharing these moments with other people in the spaces in between. Bald eagles make daily appearances. Two adults fight on a rocky profuse while a juvenile or two shrieked from towering white pines near a campsite on Boot Lake. Another day I shadow three otters as we all wind through a narrow passage on Lac La Croix. Beaver become nightly entertainment—private performances for an audience of one. I paddle past two displays of pictoglyphs—ancient paintings of moose and pelicans and even handprints—visible from the canoe upon granite faces of Lac La Croix and Basswood Lake vertical cliffs.
One night I fall asleep to the sound of rain and later awake to discover the full moon brilliantly illuminating the clouds. I think it is dawn. It was only 1:30 a.m.
Another night a bear spooks me on Agnes Lake. I really would have preferred to share that particular experience with another person. I wish I could report I had been pleased to see it. In broad daylight. From the seat of my canoe. But no, the bear appeared just as I was ready to go to bed, not fifteen feet away from my tent. I later learned it had visited two other campsites in the area. A sleepless night was spent needlessly worrying about the food barrel hung from the only practical tree branch—much too close to the tent and looking for all the world like a big blue plastic piñata it could easily have become.
By the twelfth night and craving company, I wanted to call out to passing canoes that it would be okay to camp with me—a feeling probably not shared by people who likely had been immersed within this wilderness only a short time. I catch myself starting to count the days down.
On one hand I need to appreciate this rare opportunity to travel so far, propelled only by my physical endurance and desire, while divorced from the constraints of “real” life. How often does one receive this gift of time, this gift of solitude? On the other hand, I look forward to once again using soap.
As weeks turn into months, sometimes it seems like I never hiked 1300 miles. Although as of this post, I am reminded that yes, indeed I did. I still have thousands of photos to sort. I still feel the occasional ache in my left foot and both big toes still go numb from time to time. Despite the fact that I had an equally awesome post-AT canoe trip, I may even be suffering from a little post-trail blues. I jealously follow hikers—friends and strangers alike—still out on the trail finishing up their flip-flops or SOBOs, yet knowing I wouldn’t have been able to finish with the pain I was experiencing and in the time I had left. Regardless, there is joy to be found living in the moment while at the same time constantly planning for the future. I am back where I belong—wherever that may be.
Until the next adventure…
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