Waves splash on bare backs and burnt forearms. Navigating a tipsy canoe across wind-stirred lakes. Splitting wood. Fart jokes. Sawing logs for the fire. Cooking under the stars. Carrying 500lbs (it felt like it) on your back through muddy, mile-long portages. Catching, butchering, and eating your catch for dinner.
I just got back from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
A wilderness it is indeed: expansive lakes and thick forests with zero human development: no houses, no electricity, not even motor boats. Nuttin’. You go out there in a canoe, land somewhere, and survive. The real great outdoors.
The trek into the wilderness was the most difficult physical thing I’ve ever endured.
Paddle an hour and half across a giant lake, against the wind, waves crashing against the canoe. A slow, grueling way to exhaust your endurance. You reach the end, only to portage. That is, pack up your few hundred pounds of gear, yoke-mounted canoe onto your shoulders, and you trudge through a mile of muddy, swampy valleys and rocky hills onto the next lake.
Repeat that four or five times until you reach the deep woods of northern Minnesota.
“I’m not cut out for this!”
After a few hours of this torturous boot camp/death march, my legs rebelled against my mind, my paddling motions resembled claymation, and I entertained the possibility that I was stuck in some sort of lake-portage-lake-portage infinite loop.
7 hours later, we approached a suitable campsite. I thanked my Maker for bringing my suffering to an end.
Upon arrival, the mosquitos greeted us – and never ceased their greeting even until our departure one week later – and over the following days, invited more of their long-billed, vampirous friends to our party.
It was only the heat of midday that drove the damned things from our midst. But taking over their shift were the flies: the biting-through-your-clothes variety that seemed to have developed both a resistance to deet and superfly speed abilities which make them impervious to swatting.
Wake up at 5am, saw up some wood, chop it into pieces with an axe, start a fire, boil some lake water, make breakfast of some sort if you were a masochist who enjoyed carrying pack-mule sized goods in with you. Were were such masochists, and we did so while enduring the sun, flies, and mosquitos.
With all this digital complaining (I complained in real life, too, don’t worry), you might think I’d swear off ever returning to such a place.
Yet, the experience was worth all the pain and more. I’ll go again next year, and I’ll bring my son.
The Boundary Waters are both harsh and majestic.
At one point, I climbed up to the highest point on our little island, looked around, and all I could see was vast forest and pristine, untouched lakes. In my head, I thought, “Wow. Lord, you made this. And it’s magnificent. I’m blown away.”
Nature has a way of connecting you with God unlike any human-created thing. For a technologist who works with computers and software everyday, that was huge.
Hanging out with other dudes was fun. There were 5 of us, plus an eleven year-old. All dudes. And we did dude stuff. Let it all hang out there, spoke our mind, ripped ass and didn’t apologize for it. Cracked jokes (some stale and retold a few times!). Talked theology, politics, life, women, jobs, the future, remembered old times, beatboxed, made up lyrics to imaginary Metallica songs – all of it – around a campfire under the open sky in the deep north woods.
As we set to depart, I stood up on a small cliff and looked over the waters. I realized I was a better man having gone through all this. And when we, after repeating the grueling paddling-portage loop, finally left the wilderness and posed for a picture with the whole gang, I felt victorious, as if I had battled nature and came out alive.
The Boundary Waters of the Minnesota north woods is something you experience. Writing a blog post about it doesn’t do it full service. Experiences like that last a lifetime. I’ll be bringing my son next year.
Up next: Israel. I’m headed to the Holy Land next week. I’m thinking that experience will blow away even the majesty of the Minnesota Boundary Waters.