I first traveled to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the seventies, shortly after the government named the place in an attempt to preserve the landscape while still encouraging tourism. Mine was the experience of practically all Minnesota Lutheran children of the era: we piled into huge wooden canoes in July or August and paddled over the rainy lakes on the way to campfire singalongs (I still remember the entire descant to "Pass It On" - hey, world!), pancakes, fish cleaning, unsuccessful firestarting, and hideous swarms of insects. The sheer discomfort of the bug bites and the damp clothing and the hard labor did their work and broke down our complacent little souls, if only for that week. We were temporarily free of our schoolyard reputations. We helped. We complained less. We had moments, sometimes breathtakingly long moments, of living with a new understanding of our place on the planet. We were awed and terrified by the raw, ancient beauty of the place.
I came home and forgot all about it.
Truly, I didn't think of northern Minnesota for decades. The Mountain Man and I have been avid hikers together, but I always required a place with a shower, a bed, and someone else's cooking at the end of the day. Certainly nothing about any other majestic location brought the BWCWA experience back to the surface of my memory; I looked on a whole host of overwhelming peaks and valleys and never revisited that locked-away place. Then I turned forty, and the challenge of it all reasserted itself, as ridiculously typical as my pink cell phone.
MtMn prepared for our first sojourn with wary enthusiasm, and thanks be to God he had plenty of wilderness experience. I didn't know what I was in for, and that first trip was both harder and easier than anything I imagined. My body ached but was stronger and smarter than I had ever believed - my mind, too. The world was big and beautiful and I was just a small, joyful part of it, and I saw the mad perfection of giving myself over to its every move. Life could be all hard work, patient acceptance, no plans. I can still smell the air that rushed past us as we paddled back up the river at the end of the week.
I can also remember forgetting all about it. Same thing the next summer, learning and unlearning. Clearly one needs to keep returning.
It's too far away to be easily accessed, which keeps the place pristine but keeps the local economy hanging by a thread. We borrowed and rented all our equipment this time, our camping gear all in Houston storage, and promptly encountered all the glorious hardships and rewards of this remarkable place: mosquitoes like fighter pilots, thunderstorms that forced us off the lakes, muddy portages, stiff wind, bright sunshine, calm waters, blue skies, bright stars, big fish. We took naps on the granite cliffs and pumped lake water through filters, swam in the still-icy water and played cribbage in the tent with our headlamps on.
In three days, it's still possible to forget (or at least smile at) all the controls we (I) try to place upon this wild existence. As we walked the last portage out, we passed a group of high school campers, possibly Lutheran and definitely Minnesotan, all blond hair, misery in their blue eyes as they strained under their Duluth packs and swatted at the swarms.
Oh, children, you are saved by grace alone. Look around you, plan to come back, try to remember.