I am walking out of the Boundary Waters. The day has been windy and the heat level from the sun comes in just under blazing. Surprisingly, the BW Canoe Area Wilderness is less humid than Iowa, so the heat isn’t too bad, especially as I pass into and out of little pockets of shade on the portage trail.
I am wearing a fancy walking sandal and the springy mud and springy sole of the shoe create a kind of soft carpet walk of the trail. It is very different from the hard clay and granite strewn mountain paths I grew up on. The only real footing decision I have to make is whether or not to plunge through sudden puddles or try to balance my way past on the marginally drier verge. The slow way wins out, and I settle into breathing and noticing.
The Boundary Waters is a good place for noticing. There are berries and flowers everywhere. Loons and tiny woodpeckers quietly slip in and out of sight, flickering past my awareness almost before I have a chance to see them there. A large turtle moseys into the canoe landing, just another rock until you notice that she is moving.
In terms of wilderness areas, this place seems more sympathetic to life than some. Pillowy moss and gentle pools full of reeds meet tired feet, and most forms of life we encounter aren’t big on the poison, size, or pointy bits scale, mosquitos and biting flies being the exceptions. Even the spiders seem benign, and though I am sure that one encounters fierceness out here, on this occasion, we do a lot of floating, swimming, munching, and snoozing with just enough effort going into foraging wood and water to feel like we are roughing it.
I look down and see a cigarette butt on the ground. I feel a minor twinge of outrage and a deeper sense of sadness. I become guiltily aware of all the wrapped goodies I have packed in and wonder briefly whether any of them have slipped my mind. What will some crow make of the shiny insides of that granola bar wrapper I stuffed in a pocket while out fishing, and which a stray wind may have set loose when I wasn’t paying attention?
The sadness grows and swells: a bit of sorrow at the impact of my clunky feet on this fragile, beautiful place; a sense of loss at how far I live from gratitude and reliance, protected and sheltered as I am with all my electronic devices and the luxury of having packed in too much freeze-dried camp food.
I don’t know what I mean by this, but somewhere on the trail, about a third of the way across, I offer a promise out to the forest, to the ground beneath me, to the mosquitos and bees and wild strawberries: I will find a better balance. I will live into something that requires less resource, and I will ask less of my precious, fragile planet. I will be vigilant in my simplicity that it not become merely another expression of material wealth. I will choose life practices of celebration, reliance and sustenance over convenience and ease of use.
There is something else in my promise that I am not sure I understand. It is something about considering conservation of the wild by staying out of it. It is something about respecting the value of spaces like the Boundary Waters such that I question my right to exercise any kind of personal privilege in even visiting them; a sense of contrition at the burden my human preferences place on the world; the weight of conscience I feel for all the plastic bags and fancy, lightweight gear that will never decompose that I brought in with me so I could complain about the food and lack of soft places to sleep.
As I am walking, I start to cry because I think of my friend Jeanne Robinson who died of cancer. She never walked here. She will never get to walk here. I am not sure why I am so blessed that I get to walk here, paddle here, contend with the wind, the rain, and the waves. I flashback on my experiment in fly fishing: the spotted sides of a great northern pike flaring up out of the dark water, a violent, vigorous thrash as it taste-tested my fly, only to decide not to commit, a descendent species in a genus that is 43 million years old.
I am stinky, damp, sunburned, and tired. I don’t want to go home.
*Featured Image By R27182818 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3069673