The idea behind Sigurd F. Olson’s The Lonely Land is very simple: six men head out into the Canadian wilderness to travel the Churchill River, paddling five hundred miles over the course that the Hudson’s Bay Company voyageurs would have taken to transport beaver pelts through what is today Saskatchewan. There is no major drama — everyone survives, everyone gets along. Nobody gets mauled by a bear; nobody has to hack their arms off with a pocketknife. The men run rapids, meet the men and women who live along the river, and settle in at night for a little rum, a little bannock, and the aurora borealis. It is not what today’s audiences would consider high adventure.
But it is beautiful in its simplicity. Olson, a seasoned outdoorsman with a gift for words, describes the lichen on a cliff or the rush of the rapids in such a way that you breathe in the mist or the aroma of damp spruce. As the group’s bourgeois (the title the voyageurs gave to the leader of their expedition), Olson leads his band of men and the reader through calm lakes, nasty headwinds, fierce storms, and spruce-bough beds at the end of the day.
At the end of the book, when the crew reaches “civilization” again, the newspaper reporters who have come to meet them seem disappointed that their trip seems so ordinary. Nobody lost a canoe or nearly drowned, so while the expedition was a success, it wasn’t inherently remarkable. The men can’t find a way to describe their experiences that accurately conveys the feeling they’ve brought away from the wilderness. One sums it up in a way that resonates strongly with me: “I went along to iron out the wrinkles in my soul.”
When I describe my own trips into the wilderness to friends, there’s often a certain skepticism, a lingering, unasked question of “Why?” I suppose it doesn’t make sense in a modern setting to head off into a world without toilets where you willingly drink lake water and don’t wash your hair for days at a time. There’s a certain feeling of accomplishment, though, when you look across a lake you just crossed under your own power. There’s a certain self-sufficiency to eating a fish you yourself caught, knowing that had you not caught that fish, you’d be eating some very lonely macaroni. There’s a certain ache where your pack cut into your shoulders as you walked the portage trail; there’s a different ache in a different part of your shoulders from paddling into a headwind.
I haven’t been in a canoe for years. Teenaged me would be surprised at this, as every summer from 1995 to 2002, my dad, my brother, my grandpa and I (sometimes guests, but always this core group) spent four or five days in August paddling the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota. We didn’t always go to the same places, but normally we would carry our packs and canoes across a 200-rod portage (approximately 2/3 of a mile), paddle across a wide lake and either camp there or move on. We would spend the next few days camping, fishing, swimming, exploring, eating gorp and drinking lake water the color of cream soda, and generally having a great time.
I was a rather bookish and not terribly athletic kid, so making these trips made me feel hardy and capable in ways nothing else did. These trips meant time spent in the canoe trying to out-fish my grandpa, a seasoned fisherman with a jukebox of songs and a thousand and one stories in his memory. They meant cutting up with my brother, my strong and serious opposite, six years younger than me. They meant cooking over a campfire with my dad, a light-hearted, caring man who always listens, always has time, and leads by example. We looked forward to the trip all year long, and grew giddy as the day neared and our pile of gear took over the living room.
Traveling to the wilderness of my youth is a journey of 786 miles one way, so while my dad and my brother have been back a few times, my recent experience with roughing it has been a few state park camping trips. In the last nine years, I have been in a canoe once, on a float trip, which mostly drove home the difference in how people use canoes. To me, canoe travel is just that: travel. It’s a way to get somewhere. It’s an enjoyable way, yes, but the point is to get to across the lake to the fishing hole, the swimming beach, the next portage, the next campsite.
Float trips, on the other hand, are lazy meanderings down well-traveled rivers, where the point is all about stopping on the sand bar to go swimming and making small talk with the other sunburned travelers who happen to be passing you by. On a float trip, you bring your picnic and a bag for your trash, a lifejacket and some sunscreen, and off you go. If you forgot something, ehh, what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll be back at the car in three hours. Float trips have no portages, no heavy-laden canoes that hold food for five days and tents in the middle and Grandpa in the stern. Float trips are about having a good time and making sure you don’t wreck your rented canoe.
But I tell you this: I had to work harder at enjoying myself for three hours on the float trip than I ever did in five days on a Boundary Waters trip. There’s something about the solitude, the self-sufficiency, the simplicity that rings true for me, that makes my wrinkled soul sing.
If you add it up, I have spent over a year of my life waking up in a tent in all weather. When it rains, I think of camping – the damp sheen of humidity over my sleeping bag, the stark blackness of rain-soaked bark against the vivid popping green of wet leaves, water pooling under the canoe. When there’s a cold snap in the summer, I think of camping. When I chance to see a particularly starry night – when the mosquitoes howl and get fierce – when I eat a bowl of oatmeal or mix Kool-Aid in my Nalgene bottle, I think of doing the same while sitting on a rock in the literal middle of nowhere with my brother, my grandpa, and my dad, our bourgeois. There are few adventure stories that go with these memories — Olson’s newspapermen would be just as disappointed with me as they were with his band of voyageurs — but they are memories that I cherish among my fondest.