Two weeks before my senior year in high school, I went with an Explorer Post group on a wilderness canoe trip in the Quetico Provincial Park, just north of Minnesota. We paddled all day, carried canoes between the lakes, enjoyed the Aurora Borealis at night, and discussed the big questions of life around the campfire.
Near the end of the planned trip, a sudden storm came up. To escape the waves, we pulled into a cave on the side of the lake. Lightning struck a tree at the top of the cliff, ran down the rock, and shattered our guide’s canoe. He was killed instantly, and two boys were severely injured. If I hadn’t released my hold on the cave rock just before the lightning, all 12 of us might have died.
The tragedy seems fresh in my mind, even today. It was, of course, frightening and sobering. However, the trip as a whole, also held beauty, adventure, and insights about nature, religion, politics, and friendships. It shaped who I am today.
Two years ago, Susan and I retraced that earlier trip, taking much the same route that I had done 53 years before. This time, we did it earlier in the season when there was still ice on the smaller lakes. We had some challenges with wind, cold, and sore muscles, but fortunately we didn’t experience any lightning. I wrote about the two trips in Outpost magazine.
On my first canoe trip to Quetico, I was too young to grow a beard. If I’d been able to do so, it would have been dark brown, almost black. On my second trip, just completed, I managed to grow a thick beard, this time all white.
In the intervening 53 years Quetico has remained at the heart of one of the most popular wilderness areas in the world, one that includes five major jurisdictions across the US/Canadian boundary. It’s still a place with no traffic, no roads, no plane flights, and no motorboats. There aren’t even marked campsites or portage trails.
At the time of our recent trip there were instead, moose, wolves, eagles, loons, beavers, frogs, turtles, and abundant plant life, but no humans or much sign of humans for nearly the entire trip.
I can now feel every joint and every muscle in my body, from my toes to my fingers. There were times on portage trails where dead trees blocked the path and rocks seemed impossibly high and slick, when I wondered what we could have been thinking to plan such a trip.
But there were other times when we could hear wolves howl or watch loons play, when we could see waterfalls, follow meandering streams, or just connect with nature in a way that rarely happens, even on Cape Cod. At those times, I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity go on both Quetico trips, and was reminded how fortunate we all are that such (semi-)wilderness places still exist.
Great fun! Thanks for sharing!