The introduction to Volume 2 of The Firegrate Review, the Friends’ canoe country chapbook, published this month and available for purchase here.
In my introduction to Volume 1 of The Firegrate Review, I wrote that “every canoe trip is a story.” That held true for me in 2011, as I managed to paddle into Lake Insula just as the Pagami Creek Fire was set to explode into the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of Minnesota.
My friend Stephen Wilbers, who has shared excerpts from his latest Boundary Waters book in this publication, told me recently that he could not have written his books without keeping a detailed journal of every trip he has taken to the wilderness over the past several decades. It made me think about how I can recall each trip I have been on, but it is usually just one or two highlights: A night at a terrific campsite, a day with a bad headwind, a moose or the northern lights or a long, hard portage. I have to consult my own logs to remember the minutia.
A good story is about the details, and that is why Stephen’s journals are essential to his books. If you read his work, you inevitably feel like you were there with him, his dad, his son and the other companions that joined him in the wilderness. That is because he includes details like breaking a fishing rod, a conversation around the campfire, a solo paddle after dinner on a perfectly still lake.
Even though my experience with the Pagami Creek Fire is a story I will probably tell for the rest of my life, I hold fast to parts of that trip that had nothing to do with the fire.
One afternoon while we were camped on Insula, there was not a breath of wind, the water was perfectly calm, and the air was hazy with smoke from the fire, which was several miles away. A quarter-mile across the lake, a group of young men landed their canoe on an island and took turns jumping off a 15-foot cliff into the water.
We watched them from our campsite, and we would see the splash when they hit the water, but only a second later would we hear it. That sense of the empty expanse of water between us and the island was powerful – it amplified the vastness of the wilderness we were in, and how empty it was of humans.
That was my most recent Boundary Waters trip. I went without in 2012, as my wife Katie and I welcomed our daughter Annika into the world in March. When Katie and I were 18 and certainly not thinking about marriage or children, we took our first canoe trip together. We spent the last night on a little lake near Saganaga, with a short portage into it but no other route out of it. A dead-end lake, with just one campsite – my favorite kind.
It was late August. As dusk fell, silence settled over the lake. We sat at the water’s edge enjoying the quiet and the flat water reflecting the silver light of evening. We spoke in whispers and drank tea. Finally, we sat without talking, lost in the wild world. After a while, I decided to dump the rest of the tea on the ground, and that little sound was enough to startle a beaver which was swimming nearby so that it slapped its tail and dove underwater, which startled some ducks so that they started up quacking, and in general bedlam seemed to erupt in our corner of the lake. We laughed with the loons.
These moments are powerful yet typical wilderness experiences, and probably resonate with more paddlers than having a front seat to a raging wildfire.
A sense of familiarity in the Boundary Waters is what brings many of us back to it again and again. It is a feeling often described as being at home. Sigurd Olson believed humans had sat around campfires for so long that it had deep psychological effects on us; it can make us feel more content than sitting in front of a television or a computer ever could.
In a recent conversation with Stephen and another wilderness writer, Larry Christianson, a poet who helped edit this edition of the chapbook, we talked about where else we felt at home. I told them how I had recently been driving around my hometown on a Friday night and felt like I had formative stories to tell on nearly every block of the old neighborhood. It is as if my life is written on that landscape.
The Boundary Waters is the same way. It is where some of our most profound stories live: we go there with close friends or make them on the trail, or with family to strengthen our bond, or with our girlfriends or husbands to learn what it is to work as a pair while paddling a tandem canoe. A campsite stands out in memory not just because it has a good view, or a lake is not only remembered for the fish it has provided, but because of the specific stories shared there. Our lives are written on ancient rocks, stands of cedar, and the water that forever weaves it all together.
One day on Insula last year, two of our party went off looking for walleye, and two of us stayed at the campsite, more interested in leisure than fishing. Jake had good reason – he was home for two weeks on leave from serving as an Army helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. We passed the afternoon peacefully, talking and wandering around our spacious site.
Toward the end of the afternoon, Jake and I got in the canoe and paddled down a bay near the campsite to look around and wet a line. A family was fishing and they asked us to look out for a big northern pike with their lure in its mouth; we rescued a dragonfly from the water; and we set our paddles down and let the silence roar in our ears as the evening sunlight shone through the trees and everything was still.
We paddled back out and saw that the family was cleaning a fish on shore – they had managed to catch the big pike again, the lure it had snapped off earlier still hooked in its lip. When we got back to camp, our companions were back too, with four walleye ready for dinner.
The story of that trip includes watching our best fisherman and cook prepare those fillets over a stove he wouldn’t stop complaining about, laughing at his antics and eating chunks of fish that were too hot but delicious in only the way a fish which was swimming in the lake a few hours before can be. It includes the northern lights which we watched with full bellies later, and the 100 geese which flew high overhead in the pink morning sky, a distant but sure sign of autumn on the way.
The story also includes the plume of smoke on the horizon, the urgency of the Forest Service rangers who escorted us out of the woods, the near tragedy as some of those rangers, a couple of them friends, were nearly consumed by the blaze just a day after we left and only a mile from where we had camped. The trip’s small details make the story whole.
Several writers have shared their stories in this publication, and on behalf of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, I’m grateful. The story is always more important than its telling, though, so I urge you to make as many of your own as you can.