Archive for February, 2012

The Lonely Land

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.


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I fight the girlie-girl culture. It’s not easy. I feel sometimes like a one-woman crusade against Cosmopolitan and inane chick-lit and spoiled entitlement and the idea that there’s something wrong with being smart and a woman. And now I have a daughter, and I’m fighting the good fight on her behalf.

While I was pregnant, I chanced to hear Peggy Orenstein on NPR discussing her latest book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Her concerns revolve around the growing up younger, staying young older culture that we send our women through. When eight-year-olds wear mascara and Disney starts their princess marketing to girls the moment they’re born, some people (myself included) would say it’s time to take a step back and look at just what it is you’re creating.

This book is very interesting — alternately horrifying and enlightening. I never noticed before reading it that the Disney Princesses never interact with one another. I never felt the need to watch Toddlers and Tiaras, and after reading this book, I certainly never will. This book made me feel as though I am not the only one who has tried to dress a baby girl in something that’s not pink, and made me feel a little better about not being sure where we’re going to draw the “girlie” line. But the slight disappointment with this book is Orenstein doesn’t know what to do either. I didn’t think she would have all the answers, but she’s in the same place I am, trying to raise a daughter who is well-rounded, confident, interesting and all-around wonderful while avoiding the pitfalls of entitledness or three-going-on-thirteen-going-on-thirty.

This is something I struggle with — is a tiara now and then going to permanently damage my daughter? Will the one and only “daddy’s princess” tee she got as a newborn change her psyche (especially seeing as how we dressed her in it a couple of times)? Is it less about the material culture and more about the attitudes it influences? Can you grow up to be a balanced, strong, feminist woman who was once Cinderella for Halloween? I would hope the answer is no, no, yes and yes, but the hard thing of it is: how do you know?

Is it going to damage our daughters if we let them play princess? Probably not. The damage comes, I think, in buying into a consumer culture… a culture that says that your birthday party has to be at Libby Lu in the first place, not just a culture that says that six-year-olds should get makeovers and shake it on a runway. It’s the culture that says that you can’t just play with your American Girl doll, but she needs the four-poster bed and the dog and the horse and the wardrobe and the steamer trunk in which you store the wardrobe.

You only get one shot at raising your kid, and you have to do it the way you think is best. I’m not sure anyone has it figured out — and those who claim to are probably still kept up at night wondering if saying no to the Happy Meal but yes to the My Little Pony will come back to bite them. In our case, we’re going to try to let our kid be herself, offer her lots of opportunities from dress-up clothes and tea parties to dump trucks and model rockets, and see what sticks. We’ll probably change our minds a couple of times, lose a few battles, rethink our entire philosophy here and there. Our daughter can’t even speak in sentences yet, so the theories we have are largely untested (aside from the insistence that she does not need pastel duplo blocks — what ever happened to the primary colors?).

But the one thing where I’m standing firm: she only gets one “daddy’s princess” tee, and she already outgrew it.

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