A Wilderness Love Story
by Suez Jacobson
It was a “win” in the Broads’ online auction that took me to the Boundary Waters in May 2017 with Peta Barret and Women’s Wilderness Discovery. I’d waited almost 50 years. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), remote and wild, stretches out over a million acres on the border of Minnesota and Ontario, Canada—more than 1,500 canoe routes and some of the cleanest water on the planet, water that people still drink from bottles filled with a lean over the gunwales (even though the advice is not to). More people visit the Boundary Waters than any other designated wilderness in the US. Still, there’s space to be apart, to listen quietly to a loon, a moose, a wolf and to find solace and wonder.
Right now, amid this pandemic, this magical place is under threat from sulfide-ore copper mining by a Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta. Though the Obama administration denied the renewal of the mining leases in December of 2016, the Trump administration reinstated those leases in September of 2018, a decision being challenged in court. Memories of this place feed my hope that those who have shared her wonders and her stories can save this magnificent wild place. Now we need the Biden administration to take action to save the Boundary Waters. To learn more about how you can help, go to savetheboundarywaters.org. The pristine, wild waters of the Boundary Waters deserve protection.
Now the love story.
When I was 16, I read about the Boundary Waters in a Sierra Club publication. I wanted to go. But distance, expense, eventual motherhood, and aggressive career goals meant postponing those longings.
My journey, nearly 50 years hence, began with a soggy drive from Denver, Colorado to Ely, Minnesota. Three watery days, rain for miles and hours beating on the car’s hood and roof, the monotonous wipers and endless wet highway threatening to swamp my joyful anticipation. But, finally, I was there, ready to paddle into the wilderness, in the eternal rain.
Six other women, three of them in their 60s, as was I, set out into a meandering stream through the brilliant first-growth, spring-green rushes. A soft female rain closed in like a shroud as we paddled. Around the first wide bend, we left the cars, people, and cell-service behind. Time dissolved, leaving only the sounds of paddles and water, wild bird calls and tinkling of rain. In the reeds we saw turtles sunning on logs and sailing swans—green against brown, white against green. By the time we reached open water, the rain had all but stopped and the brilliant shine of still black water, finally free of the patterns of dancing drops, stretched out before us. The delicious heat of the first sun in more than four days dried our faces. But the welcome burst of light would disappear into more clouds as we paddled into the open water, searching for our first portage—that’s where you carry all your gear and canoes across land to the next body of water.
I had vowed to do push ups every day for six months before the trip. But I hadn’t. I anguished, “Could I carry a canoe, alone, be a responsible trip mate?” On the first portage, I watched. The guide showed us a solo flip—not just carrying a canoe but launching it onto her shoulders by herself in a swift flowing movement. I was awed. At the second portage I decided to take on the test. I needed help hoisting it onto my shoulders and getting my footing. A little tippy at first, once I settled the canoe on my shoulders with my goal-post arms stretched wide to the gunwales, I became a delighted captive of place. Walking deliberately amongst the rain-shined greenery, my neoprene-shoed feet squishing in the mud, I felt as though I was meant to carry canoes.
Three portages, and another canoe carry for me, brought us to our first night’s camp, a granite outcropping on Tin Can Mike Lake. Lined with pines and edged with delicate shrubs decorated with translucent white blooms, the opportunity for remote beauty and silence opened. I wrote in my journal, “Here I am sitting on the edge of Tin Can Mike Lake having done three portages, two with a canoe on my shoulders.” I was elated that I had overcome the fear of carrying a canoe. And my second biggest fear—the bugs— had also slipped away. It was my first experience with a bug net. Coming from the arid west, I had never had to contend with even one black fly. Now, well, they took to swarming me while my hands were glued to an upside-down canoe. No one else had worn a bug net that day, but for me, it was a much better option than discovering later that I had a dozen black fly bites driving me crazy. As it turned out, I was the black-fly magnet in the group. In the evenings I would sit near the fire with my bug net on, a cloud of black flies swirling, while everyone else enjoyed no-net, bugless evenings.
Despite the name, Tin Can Mike Lake was magnificent. I sat in awe, and wrote, “Beautiful, a little wind, almost sun, an outline of sun among shades of gray and blue defining the greens of birch, aspen, fir, and lichen-covered rock. The water laps at the bubbly edges of the lake while the birds come and go in the background. The weather is the best it has been since we left Denver. My mind is settling into another state of being—that state of immediacy. Sore gluts and that tired feeling from more physical exertion than is my common routine.”
My busy mind quieted, melting into the water and the sky, the crisp air, the patterns in the granite, the lush spring beginnings and the seasonless pines. I wandered off to my tent, away from the chatter around the fire. First one to bed, I read, wrote, and sat with the stillness.
Tuesday morning, I was up early. Alone, sitting by the water immersed in the opportunity to do nothing but absorb the sounds and feel the magic of this wild place. Again, it was cloudy, and rain felt near.
After breakfast and breaking camp, we were back in our canoes, paddling to Horse Lake where we would camp for the next three nights.
Late in the afternoon, after I wrote in my journal that we had “lazed away the afternoon with far too much time sitting and not enough time on the water,” I went for a paddle. The thrum of doing was vibrating in my mind and body. But once on the water, the rhythmic strokes, gurgling paddles, and the feeling of buoyed propulsion through the dark still waters took me back into the place of wonder and solace.
Wednesday brought a new morning. My journal entry sings, “Amazing beginning to a transformative day. The sun dominates a cloudless sky like a benevolent god bringing warmth, a kind of warmth that has eluded us for five days. The lake is perfectly still, but a flick of droplets starts a myriad of circles which unite into one series of waves.” The many into the one. I sat amazed that I had never noticed this before. Maybe I had never been still by calm water, preferring to skip rocks. Or maybe a long life of being stuck in a philosophy of individual liberty taught with great verve by my powerful mother had clouded my eyes to the simple truth the ripples in the water were teaching me—the unity of all beings with the land.
The night before, the loons shared a variety of startling, urgent calls—“super loony,” I wrote. I lay on the rock in the sun. Quietly alone again in the early morning, “The cold hard rock absorbed my body and soul into a state of pure bliss, the quiet, punctuated only by the many chatters of birds and squirrels.”
After breakfast, we paddled to Lower Basswood Falls near the Canadian border. When we arrived, the number of people there felt like a crowd. Gawking at the shared grandeur of the falls, everyone, for the first time on the trip, donned head nets to survive the mosquitoes. We lunched to the roar of the falls, deftly slipping pieces of food under bug nets. Then we paddled back to camp. It had taken 12 portages to get there and back. I carried a canoe on all but two of them. Most were short; thankfully, the gear was back in camp, and the sun shone all day, so I didn’t complain to my journal.
We returned tired, grateful for a campfire and dinner. After dinner, I slipped away to my hammock to read and sleep until it was dark enough to see the stars. Finally, a clear sky offered a view of the Milky Way. Darkness and silence, two things I have come to crave living in Denver, seeped smoothly into my soul.
Thursday morning, I woke to “another still, warm, bugless morning with a big bright sun dominating the sky.” It was so quiet that when a red squirrel dropped things into the lake, it sounded like boulders heaved into a swimming pool. Again, I sat on the granite sheet, alone, journaling, listening, and watching. After the long paddle yesterday, we opted for a day without an objective. I was delighted that my canoeing partner wanted to paddle to the neighboring lake, Fourtown. Fourtown was huge, with big vistas over open water and lots of campsites filled with large groups, mostly men, supplied lavishly with gear and beer.
We asked them about the fishing, but there was not much to tell—no good fish stories. Clearly disappointed, they were glad to have beer. They queried us about our fishing and were incredulous to find out that we didn’t even have one pole. In the Boundary Waters without fishing? Was this allowed? We watched a seagull tending its nest, a turtle sunning on a rock, loons in their mating regalia, and mallards of all sizes dashing around. I had just learned that the striking black and white patterns of stripes and dots on loons were only for mating show, that when they headed south for the winter, they would become dowdy gray.
Clear blue skies and windless paddling made this, our last full day in the Boundary Waters, an incredibly good day, the only day that I didn’t have to wear a bug net.
Back in camp, as the sun was on the verge of departing, I decided this was my chance to get into the water. I am a swimmer, and so even though winter’s chill clung to the water, I floated out into the icy calm staring into the crystal blue sky. This was the defining moment of the trip for me. I was one with the Boundary Waters if only for a few minutes.
Friday morning, we woke to soft rain, singing birds, and humming mosquitoes. Except for our lunch at Lower Basswood Falls, we hadn’t had to deal with mosquitoes. Now, they were emerging from the long winter just as we were leaving.
I wondered what I had learned in these few short days in a landscape so different from any I had journeyed through before. On the last portage, I tried to do the solo flip, the macho move that sets people apart in the BWCAW. But as it turned out, when I tried it in earnest, I still needed help getting the canoe onto my shoulders. Failure at the solo-flip was a marker for a trip that taught me that the journey had not been about achievement. It wasn’t important. Rather, I learned was that focusing on the magic of the place had quieted the chatter inside my head. I learned, as a person who is always in a hurry, that I could carry a canoe and walk slowly, carefully. I learned that loons really are loony and wonderful—the variety of calls, the diving and dipping, the magnificent take-offs and splattering water landings. I learned to watch for swans and eagles, for turtles and mink, for squirrels and hawks. I learned that the serene beauty of this landscape had taken me in—that this place, had completely captured the soul of a mountain girl through the love offered.
I had been only a brief-moment journeyer. I realized that it takes time to put down deep roots and become one with a place. My final entry in my journal asks, “Wouldn’t I have to work this land, coexist with this place for survival in order to know the kind of respect and reciprocal relationship with this place that would enable true love?” I would.
The Boundary Waters is still with me. My phone rings to the call of loons. My home page on my computer is a view from Tin Can Mike . And I long to return. Just the other day I checked out this summer’s adventures with Women’s Wilderness Discovery. The dates won’t work this year, but I will never stop thinking about returning.
Suez Jacobson leads The Broads Story Project. She is the executive producer of Wild Hope and a writer who is awed by wilderness and understands its power as a catalyst to think differently about our world.