Sunset on Winchell Lake, BWCA Photo Credit: 123RF.com
Paul Sutton, a Baylor chaplain colleague of almost seventeen years, and I spent most of a day in the air and in a taxi making our way to the wild and lonely Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the adjacent Quetico Provincial Park.
It was our first time to the BWCA, which sits on the northern border of Minnesota.
We spent an hour or so on the first evening at the outfitter’s lodge talking to the manager, a guy I will call Pete.
I don’t think we impressed Pete at all. Not one bit. “What sort of fish are you looking to catch?” Pete asked.
There was an awkward silence as Paul and I looked at each other. “I don’t plan on fishing,” I said attempting to sound casual, “I’m just here for the experience of nature.” Paul nodded his head in agreement. Pete looked incredulously at the two of us, then ducked his head to the map, instructing us in earnest about his recommended route for two guys who were just up sight-seeing.
Next morning one of Pete’s coworkers met us on the dock with a worried look on his face and the news, phrased as diplomatically as possible, that he wanted to see us handle the seventeen foot kevlar Wenonah canoe. You read that right. Paul and I had to test-paddle the canoe before they would let us take it out. To add insult to injury I had to be shown how to use a bent paddle. We managed to satisfy our instructor, and we were off. I swear I could see a panicked look on the face of the fellow as he stood on the dock watching us balance a heavily loaded seventeen foot canoe.
Before we had paddled very far on Moose Lake, we were greeted by a Bald Eagle who silently glided above us and down the length of our boat. We gasped in wonder and rocked the Wenonah as we craned our necks to see him float by.
Our first campsite was picture-perfect. The sunset was grander than any sunset I had known. The lake was still, reflecting the shifting hues of peach and gold, then deep blues and finally purples as the sun set. The September air became palpably colder and heavier.
As if queued by a conductor, a chorus of unearthly whinnying calls of Common Loons drifted into our camp from across the water. We listened, enthralled by the purity of music they made. We had difficulty getting to sleep as we reveled in each new sound. Later it also occurred to us to worry about whether we had hung our food cache high enough to keep it away from bears, then worried if that might enrage the bears.
We spent the next five days canoeing through six lakes, straining to translate two-dimensional map symbols into three dimensions of dense, unfamiliar landscapes that changed according to time of day, amount of light and the kind of weather.
Paul must have heard me say “Just keep paddling,” often enough to want to throw me out of the boat. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to stop to consult the map so often. Later- much later- we would joke about it and informally label the experience, “In the Middle of Nowhere: Two Angry Guys Alone In A Canoe.”
We managed to stay on track and on time, paddling from one end of each lake to the other, skirting islands on the big waters and tree falls and underwater obstacles on the smaller. We learned to unpack the canoe and portage supplies and canoe from one lake to the next with a certain efficiency.
We adjusted to an entirely new rhythm. For long stretches we endured boredom. Often we were overcome with awe as we witnessed creation at its wildest and most beautiful. On several occasions our hearts were in our throats as we encountered unexpected risks. The worst day for fear happened when we battled high winds and choppy waves on Knife Lake. I paddled in desperation, terrified as the waves bounced the bow of the boat so high that Paul’s paddle barely touched water. Somehow we figured out the line we would need to paddle in order to advance toward our goal down the length of Knife’s long narrow gorge without broaching and so tipping ourselves and our supplies into September’s chill waters.
A calm Knife Lake, Quetico Provincial Park
Photo Credit: 123RF.com
On the very last portage, Paul cracked his ankle. He had sprained it during an earlier portage. The BWCA seemed determined to exact some sort of toll for letting two tender feet through safely.
For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since then we have talked about how each of us arrived on the BWCA struggling with personal pain and anguish. We weren’t looking to catch any fish; each of us seemed to be looking for a way to leave a load of anguish up there in the wilderness.
One night we camped out on a tiny island of ancient precambrian rock thrust up from the lake bed. The stony island was clothed in a thin coat of ferns, white and red pine and a few spruce trees. Paul and I leaned against boulders that had witnessed the beginning of earth’s creation and stared silently into the night sky. The heavens were so black and the stars were so near that it felt as though I might extinguish them if I breathed too heavily.
Paul began to sing a hymn. After a moment I joined him. As I recall, the hymn was “It Is Well with My Soul.”
And it was.
And so it is on this Monday morning, whether we know it or not. To quote Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
What memories keep your soul well? How do they call you back from the brink of anxiety and fear? Leave a comment to tell us about the memory that keeps you well.
Photo Credit: www.crosscards.com