Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BWCA : Elemental

It was supposed to be an easy trip … and for the most part, it was. We camped at Trail’s End campground after the long drive north and headed south on Seagull the next morning, intending to camp for a few days at the south end of the lake at a favorite spot.

The weather was iffy, however, and that first night at Trail’s End we ate our dinner (sandwiches from the Coho Cafe) in a drizzle while sitting in the steamy confines of the car. A hawk was perched above our heads on a dead tree a few feet away and he continued to keen the entire evening—a single, sharp, mournful, high-pitched note with a slight rise at the end of it, repeated again and again.

A half-hour after dinner the sky had cleared and we walked out onto the cliffs above the lake, half-wooded and half-burnt to a crisp, as is most of the landscape in that region nowadays. Evening sun glancing off the straw-colored grasses, raspberries and blueberries everywhere.

The stars that night were brighter than I’d seen them in years. The gas clouds in the midst of the Milky Way were plainly visible, and minute stars were twinkling everywhere with a strange intensity against the jet-black enormities of space.

We awoke the next morning to the sound of wind. It wasn’t so bad on the back channels at the north end of Seagull Lake, but once we’d past the Palisades things got pretty fierce. I got down on my knees—to paddle, not to pray—and we both donned our life-jackets. There were squalls on top of whitecaps, and we struggled to pass the open reaches between islands, knowing full well that half way down the lake the islands give out, with several miles of open water still lying ahead.

When we reached a little sand bar at the south end of the last island, it was obvious that the open lake was too rough to traverse, so we headed down the back-side of Three-Mile Island and found a ragged but sheltered campsite which (as is invariably the case) became more attractive and even cozy once we’d set up camp and spent some time there. I cleared a few trees that had fallen across the path to the privy, Hilary scooped up some of the assorted twigs and branches that were littering the site, and we settled in for a long afternoon of reading, swimming, berry-picking, and aimless staring off across the bay at the cliffs and hills on the far side. It was what we’d intended to do all along, and the fact that we were doing it in an unfamiliar place merely added to the fun.

At one point two Canada jays paid us a visit. One of them spotted a stray peanut and found it to his liking. He then hopped over to the zip-lock plastic bag full of Chinese cracker snacks lying nearby. He had difficulty puncturing the bag, however, and made an attempt to fly off with the whole thing, at which point I found it necessary to intervene.

We listened to the call of the white-throated sparrows—a simple but not quite monotonous series of notes that was repeated endlessly from every part of the woods behind our camp. The sputtering chuck-chuck song of the song sparrow, less frequent but still seemingly ever-present, offered a pleasant point of contrast, while the occasional twardle and cluck of the cheery robin sounded down-right suburban. At long intervals a winter wren would start in on his extremely long and rapid-fire sequence of notes and squawks, which might be rendered typographically as follows: x!ptew#utut?+?+slewphew* .

As usual, I found that the books I’d brought didn’t really hold my interest in the face of the elements all around me—their density, their immediacy. Opening The Temptation to Exist by E.M. Cioran, I read, “At whatever level our life is lived, it will be truly our own only in proportion to our efforts to break its apparent forms. Ennui, despair, abulia, will help us here, on condition, of course, that we make our experience of them complete, that we live them through to the moment when, risking surrender, we rise up and transform them into auxiliaries of our vitality…”

But in the north woods the forms are few, simple, and impossible to break. Paddle, observe, eat, listen, sleep…. The wind continued to rise, disquieting in its gustiness, though when it stopped for more than a few seconds, the flies and the heat began to reassert themselves.

Every now and again, as I sat in my Thermo-rest camp chair (which is merely a couple of plastic braces with webbing into which you strap your air mattress, making a sort of back support while sitting on the ground) trying to digest Cioran, I would hear a low-pitched, hollow clank as the canoe, bobbing in the cove at the far side of the camp, brushed against the shore or the dead tree to which it was hitched. If it blew off with the wind we’d be in real trouble—we’d never catch it by swimming—though unless the metal clasp actually ripped off the bow, I was confident it wasn’t going anywhere. On the other hand, if it did break free... I went over to check it about fifteen times in the course of the afternoon. No harm in taking a little stroll from time to time.

In the evening we watched a family of red-breasted mergansers—a mother and six or seven fluffy chicks—pull themselves up on a flat rock twenty feet off shore and settle in for the night. The cedar fire burned easily—plenty of dry, light cedar trunks everywhere, just waiting to be cut up and burned—and the scent in the air reminded me of the many piñon fires we’d enjoyed in the Southwest. The sky was always changing—one half might be utterly blue while the other was covered with a blanket of ominous gray clouds. In each passing phase we tried to read our fortune for the coming day. The moon? A little short of a quarter full, with a line of craters half-covered in shadow along the curving edge.

This is simple, elemental stuff, I realize, and it doesn’t make much of a story, but it’s what occupies your attention when you’re in the north woods. It puts you in an entirely different frame of mind, like a weekend love affair with plants and sky and wind and birds and danger, that doesn’t relate to anything in your normal life … but shifts everything into a slightly different perspective.

No comments: