by Gary Clements
I was 22 then. She was 20. Now I’m 72. She’s 70.
Here’s how it happened.
Like a sentinel pine, it takes time to grow…
Through the early and mid 1960s, I was a counselor at St. Paul YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, located near Ely, and led small groups of teenagers into the amazing country that would become BWCA with the Wilderness Act of 1964. I had known the canoe routes as a camper there from 1957 to 1961, and the magic of two week wilderness trips, of deep forest and clean, drinkable water immediately pulled my heart from the great plains of Nebraska.
“I’ll never know exactly how much my overture was aided by the mellow evening air, the scent of pine, or the glow of the rising moon…”
During those years of counseling, the camp ran sessions for both boys and girls, but they were never in camp at the same time. Thus the men’s staff and women’s staff seldom had much time together. But we were always keenly aware of each other, as college age youth are wont to do, and through stories and occasional opportunities to interact, we came to know about each other, for better or for worse.
Summer romances were not uncommon, where opportunity existed, and both my future wife and I experienced our share, though not with each other. We did know of each other, and had a good appreciation for each other’s work as counselors and wilderness explorers. It wasn’t until the summer of 1966, when we were both working as in-camp staff during the month of August, that we had a more regular opportunity to interact. When summer came to a close and it was time to return to city life, she and I sat on the steps of the path below the dining hall, looking at the full moon rise over Burntside Lake. It was just before Labor Day, and my simple query was whether I might call on her when we were both back in St. Paul, where I was beginning a teaching job and she was in her last year at the University of Minnesota.
How quaint it seems now, to have been a suitor with that approach. But she said yes, and gave me her contact information. I’ll never know exactly how much my overture was aided by the mellow evening air, the scent of pine, or the glow of the rising moon, but I have no doubt that our common experiences over those years of paddling and portaging had already created a subconscious foundation for a relationship, and we were married a year later. I know this because there have been very few summers in the 48 years since then that we have not loaded our wood/canvas (and now kevlar) canoe, and slid into the quiet waters of the BWCA and Quetico. Sometimes we have traveled with another couple, sometimes by ourselves, and sometimes with our children and grandchildren, who have also developed a firm love for the wilderness.
It takes a long time to grow a sentinel pine. You can still see them along some of the border routes, standing tall above the hillsides, beckoning the way as their ancestors did for the Ojibwe and the Voyageurs centuries ago. And it takes some time for a couple to move beyond the romantic buzz, maturing into a relationship with a foundation as solid as the granite walls that line the Basswood River. I will be ever grateful for the role the wilderness has played in that development for Jane and me, where we could teach our children the value of solitude, self-reliance, self-examination and reflection in a land where the spirit emerges, and reaches out for a kindred soul.