Canoeing to sanity?

More and more do we realize that quiet is important to our happiness. In our cities the constant beat of strange and foreign wave lengths on our primal sense beats us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise which destroys sanity and equilibrium. –The Singing Wilderness, 1956, by Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson was an author who sparked the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s. It is now 60 years since he wrote The Singing Wilderness, where he talked how wilderness helps us become “aware with our entire beings rather than our senses.” Even then, he realized how modern life can destroy our “sanity and equilibrium.’

Olson spent most of his life in the Ely, MN area. For more than thirty years, he worked as a canoe guide during the summer months in the Quetico-Superior country, then taught and wrote about natural history, ecology, and outdoor life. He helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as to establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

As a culmination of his half century of effort, full wilderness status was granted to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in 1978. The combined region of contiguous lakes and forests comprising the BWCAW, Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park and Ontario’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks is called the “Quetico-Superior country”, or simply the “Boundary Waters.”

Picture rocks on Crooked Lake

Picture rocks on Crooked Lake

Is it crazy to do something crazy in order to become less crazy, to seek to restore that sanity and equilibrium? Susan and I are about to set out on an adventure that should be fun, enlightening, challenging, even joyful, but which I question in my saner moments.

Back in 1963, I found that quiet beauty on a two-week trip to Quetico Provincial Park in the southern part of NW Ontario. As I wrote,

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires.

However, the trip ended in disaster, as you can read in the post linked above. Coincidentally, Olson wrote about the area in a National Geographic article, “Relics from the rapids,” which appeared the very month we returned from that trip. Although I’ve canoed nearby, I’ve never been back to Quetico itself and certainly not to the Picture Rocks where the disaster occurred, until now.

Quetico Provincial Park, with 2000 lakes

Quetico Provincial Park, with 2000 lakes

There are several reasons to advise against a return to Quetico at this time. As I get closer to the day I wonder whether it’s wise to revisit the site of the disaster. Beyond that, I find that I’ve somehow grown older over the past 53 years. I hear that lakes can take longer to paddle across, that portage trails are steeper, and that nights are colder than when one is 16. On a messageboard I saw this about one of our planned portages from someone probably much younger:

The Side Lake to Sarah one known as “Heart Attack Hill” did me in but it was hot, I was low on water, and I had too much gear. I remember laying down at the top and seriously thinking that I could die. It’s rough.

The quiet beauty of Quetico derives in part from the fact that there are no trucks to move your gear. There’s also no wifi, no cell phone signal, no motorized boat craft, no flights overhead, no buildings or pavement, and no prepared campsites. Those features are 99% heavenly, and only worrisome if you choose to worry.

The major concern we have is that we’re going at the start of the season. Guidebooks suggest that June and July are uncrowded, but have more mosquitoes; August and September are warmer with fewer bugs, but more competition for good campsites. No one talks about May, because it’s too cold and the ice may not be out. Even the Canadian ranger stations are closed.

Minnesota II kevlar canoe

Minnesota II kevlar canoe

In their April 19 “dispatch” from BWCAW, Amy Freeman and Dave Freeman show photos of sled dogs, a snowman, and frozen lakes. This is from the year they’re spending there, which is south of Quetico and possibly a degree or two warmer. We’ve been told that the ice should be out on most lakes by the time we start and the day that this post should appear (May 4). I’m too charitable to think that that optimism on the ice forecast reflects the outfitter’s desire not to have to return our deposit!

Nevertheless, we’re committed to the trip. We’ll be renting new equipment, including a Wenonah Minnesota II kevlar canoe. We’re relying on a good outfitter in Ely (Piragis). We have maps, long underwear, extra socks, compass, signal mirror, and poison ivy lotion. Could anything go wrong?

Stay tuned for Part 2, when we return.


2 thoughts on “Canoeing to sanity?

  1. Pingback: Quetico again – Chip's journey

  2. Chip, this is a wonderful posting — taking the measure of one’s self and coming to terms with a past event of profound meaning. (A sixteen-year old’s dramatic encounter with death.) I salute you two.

    I did something similar, although much less dangerous, a couple of years ago in returning to Puerto Rico after 40 years to make peace with a lot of very sad memories and failures of various kinds. I was so thankful that I was able to do that (i.e. still alive) because a curtain was lifted and many beautiful memories were recovered that had been subsumed by whatever had caused such sadness. Also a lot of self-revelation, not all of it charming, from the long view.

    You probably won’t get this message until your return, but we both wish you a wonderful, magical journey to discovery. Stay safe, come home soon. Love to you both from us both. Rachel and Daniel


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