Thursday, August 21, 2014

Three Days in a Leaky Canoe

I had always attributed the water than collects in the bottom of the canoe to my wet shoes. But on our recent trip to the BWCAW, it seemed to be accumulating more rapidly than any pair of shoes could account for…and because we’d loaded off the dock at the landing, my shoes happened to be dry. Strange.

By the time we reached the north end of Sawbill Lake, after an hour and more of paddling into a stiff wind, it was an inch and a half deep under my seat, though the water hadn’t made its way to the front half of the canoe. 

After an additional half hour of searching for a campsite, we secured the only one left within reach, on a back bay on the lake’s northwest corner.

When we set out for an evening paddle an hour later, I noticed a more severe leak near the center of the canoe—a slit in the aluminum through which water was gurgling at an alarming rate. That leak had just “sprung.” We returned to camp immediately and applied duct tape both inside and out. After standing around for ten minutes wondering what to do, Hilary said, "Why don't we try it out?" And so we set out again, just to see what would happen.

The tape held. Nevertheless, the hairline crack was at precisely the spot in the hull that buckles every time I hoist the 80-pound vessel onto my knee, before heaving it up onto my shoulders with a trick of leverage I mastered 45 years ago and still (just barely) command. I was well aware that if that two-inch crack became a six-inch crack, four or five portages further into the bush, we’d be in big trouble.

So it happened that we spent three nights camping on the same spot on Sawbill Lake.

As Hilary’s brother Paul matter-of-factly put it when I described the situation to him later, “So, you had a good excuse not to do so much work.”

Right On, Brother. 

 But it was a good spot. Out of the way. Only two parties came near in two days, one of which was looking for the portage in a different bay a mile away. (Lord, have mercy.)

The view was somewhat enclosed, though without much effort you could see several miles of lake spread out to the south. And a creek feeds into the bay from the north. The last time we camped here, I walked down to the creek to see if a moose was anywhere nearby—only to see a moose climb down the opposite bank that very instant to feed in the stream for twenty minutes!

We saw no moose during out recent visit, but we did make a different discovery. If you follow a little trail to the south along the shore, climb over a few fallen trees, and shimmy up a rock face, you come to a little island easily reached by a short hop over the gap in the rocks.  

This island has several rock shelves that look west, and they're shady and cool during those morning hours when the campsite itself in scorched by the sun.

Thus we found ourselves occupying a multi-room suite.

In the morning, we sat on the rock shelves, reading or sketching.

We spent the afternoons back at camp, doing the same.

Each day we went out on two or three paddles around various nearby islands and up the creeks on the north end of the lake. (The tape was leaking more than at first—but not as much as the leaky keel.)

The woods behind the campsite was open, and if I happened to hear an interesting bird call, I might spend half an hour finding out what it was. Waves of warblers would sometimes pass through, already on their way to Central America. We saw myrtle warblers, Nashville warblers, black-and-white warblers, and quite a few pine warblers, too.

Our first evening Hilary spotted a beaver swimming past the campsite on his way up the creek. The next evening, he reappeared from the opposite direction as we were eating dinner, swimming directly over to where we sat to get a better look at who the intruders were.

Waking up before dawn and emerging from a tent is always glorious. I made it through the night, you say to yourself. Yes, I slept well (though you’ll be wondering in a few hours why you’re dog tired.) You look around, happy to be alive, happy for the clear skies, though the temperature is 42 degrees, and fog is racing down the creek and out into the bay in the morning shadows, obscuring the opposite bank to a height of thirty feet. No, happy isn’t the word for it. Indescribably joyous.

Three loons are cavorting in the bay fifty yards away. “I wish Hilary was up,” you say, though you know sleep is more important than loons.

You start a fire. Bang a few pots making the coffee on the butane stove. The sleeper wakes.

Two of the loons come back, fishing not more than ten feet off shore. They linger for fifteen minutes, appearing and disappearing, following the west shore of the bay out into the larger lake. Sublime.

After a cold breakfast—granola, instant milk, figs, banana chips, turkey  jerky—it’s time to head out to the “island.”

Though you’re several miles from a road, you’re hardly alone. Two teenage boys camping with their parents a half-mile up the lake are fishing in your private bay.

“Our canoe sprung a leak,” you shout.

“We have some resin and fabric patches,” they offer.

“It’s an aluminum canoe,” you counter. “But thanks.”

“Do you want us to go fish someplace else?” one of them asks.

“Um, that would be nice.”

And so they do.

I don’t like to get immersed in a novel when I’m already immersed I the landscape all around me, so I often end up at the two extremes—German philosophy or Japanese poetry. (Shades of WWII?)

Thus, Ernst Cassirer: “Universality is not a term which designates a certain field of thought; it is an expression of the very character, of the function of thought.”

Or Basho:

Birth of art -
Song of rice planters,
Chorus from nowhere. 

Time passes. The deer flies grow tired of buzzing around my head. The sun drops and the shadows swing across the campsite. Yet here I sit, caught in the sun’s rays again. Should I move? Or should I wait for the shadows to return? Already, it’s getting cooler again. And if I moved, those Chinese wasabi snack crackers sitting in the grass in a zip-lock bag would be farther away than ever.

An afternoon swim is refreshing.

Cassirer cogently dismisses the aesthetic positions  of Bergson, Nietzsche, Santayana, and even Croce in a few choice paragraphs, insisting on a theory that acknowledges the inseparability of beauty and form.
Meanwhile, I turn to poetry, not bothering to count the syllables:

The haze departs,
Sunlight bathes the far shore.
Relax, it’s summer.
Hunting the pack for banana chips,
I find smoked almonds!
Unexpected delight.
Cool evening breeze
assuages the sunburn –
How long before I dash for another shirt?
Carpenter ant in the tree all day,
Gnawing, gnawing—
“I want to get out!”
The super-moon rises
Later each evening—
Water waits to shine.
Waterbugs dart across trees and clouds,
Unsure what line to take:
When they meet, they hop!
Iridescent loons
drift by the canoe—
regal, they think only of fish.
The eagle’s high-pitched cry
Disturbs my sleep—
Brother, I was up there with you!

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