Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bliss in the Wilderness

Stepping over rocks.
Feeling the weight of a canoe over my head, rising up and down.
Feeling the tension in my shoulders.
Breathing. Stepping.
Finding a rhythm.
Feeling the stretch of my arms above me steadying the canoe.
Lightly stepping to the music in my head:
“I’ll dance, dance, dance with my hands, hands, hands above my head, head, head, like Jesus said…”
Hidden in a private world under the canoe.

It was a rush to portage the canoe in the Boundary Waters. It was scary and challenging and ultimately a secret pleasure. I am so fortunate that there are canoes now made of such light Kevlar material that a person 5’2”, 105 pounds, 37 years old, and only in moderately good physical shape - can actually carry one successfully and with relative ease. Twenty years or so ago I never would have considered even trying to carry a canoe. Twenty years ago I don’t think my Dad would have considered letting me try.

Every year, like clockwork, my Dad would go on a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with all his buddies. I had sheepishly told him long ago that he should take me sometime, but I never pressed the issue. I was not crazy about the idea of having to carry stuff over portages. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up. Didn’t think I could carry my weight. Didn’t think I could paddle well. Didn’t think I could cut it. I certainly was not interested in hanging out with a bunch of old men. My Dad and I could have gone on a trip on our own, but I wasn’t sure what I thought of that idea. What would we talk about? Both of us such introverted people. By the time I realized that it was ok for us to just hang out without much talking, he would be leaving the world in just a few short years thanks to pancreatic cancer…

My recent trip to the BWCA was a sort of pilgrimage. The woods and water were my Dad’s chapel. This is the place that he honored and longed for always. This is the place where God is. God’s Nature Creation, he called it.

Here is his list of “tips” that inspired me to take a trip to the BWCA at Sawbill:

How to Succeed at Fishing – by John Thielen

1. Stay dry and warm. Layer your outer gear.
2. Always have a back up rod & reel ready to go.
3. Have a “Lighter Side” attitude at all times.
4. Keep your Fillet Knife sharp.
5. Bring a propane torch to light fires in
any weather condition.
6. Getting “Skunked” doesn't
mean the fishing was not fun.
7. Make sure someone is
taking pictures.
8. Enjoy Gods Nature Creation
to the fullest.
9. Leave no trace.
10. Enjoy friends around the campfire time
11. Plan a trip via Sawbill to fish and camp
On Burnt Lake.
12. Cut out and eat the Walleye Cheeks.
13. Pack as light as you can, not like this...

A few months ago I decided I wanted to take this trip because my Dad had just done it in May of 2010, right before the cancer started to get the better of him. I figured if he could do it with cancer brewing inside his body at age 57, certainly a young woman of 37 in good health would have no trouble taking the same path that he did. This would be my first time paddling and portaging in the Boundary Waters. I decided to invite some companions for the four day excursion. I sent an email out to my friends in my meditation circle, a group called Dharma Friends, and the response was overwhelming. Only 9 are allowed in one group for a BWCA permit and there were several people that expressed interest but couldn’t go. So we had a solid group of nine people signed up to go. Some with BWCA experience and some without. All of us with a common aspiration of mindful living. Several of us would be meeting for the first time.

We started out at Sawbill Outfitters and picked up our rented canoes. The young guy working there showed us how to lift and carry them. He demonstrated it several times and made it look incredibly easy. After what seemed like a long time, we finally had everything packed up and put in the canoes. We didn’t do a very good job following my Dad’s advice about packing light. Several of my companions were excited about eating well on the trip and that made for some heavy packs. Ultimately though, it was SO nice to have such good food along with us. It was a good eating weekend!

We had about four miles between the outfitters and our destination, Burnt Lake. Three lakes and two portages. We started out on Sawbill lake, the longest distance of the three lakes. We were fortunate to have some folks with us skilled with map and compass and finding the portages went smoothly. Our plan was flexible since I didn’t know how long it would take us to get to Burnt Lake. We had all spent about six hours in the car to get up north so there was only a portion of the day left for paddling. I wanted to get to Burnt Lake before sunset, but we would be cutting it close. I didn’t want anyone to feel pushed if it turned out to take longer than expected. The back-up plan was to do just one portage and camp on the middle lake, Smoke Lake.

The first portage was tricky. For several of us, this was our very first attempt at portaging. The distance on land from Sawbill to Smoke was 100 rods, which is approximately 100 canoe lengths or 1/3 mile. That sure didn’t seem like much when I was planning the trip (I did a 24 mile hiking trip over 3 days last year so 1/3 mile seemed like nothing), but when we were actually there, unloading the canoes, putting packs on and picking up canoes, the short hike over rocks and hills seemed a bit treacherous. We had enough gear to make two trips back and forth. My canoe mate carried the canoe first. I followed her and picked it up half-way. She held up the canoe while I ducked underneath it. I still had my pack on and would be attempting to carry the 50 pound boat along with my 30 pound pack – a good 75% of my body weight! And I don’t work out or anything so this was a bit crazy. It was unbelievably heavy, but I gave it a shot. I walked slowly and was mindful of my breathing. I think I made it at least a good 10 rods and had to put the boat down to take my pack off. I put the boat back on my shoulders and it was much more manageable. I had over-exerted myself with both the pack and the canoe though so I took it easy and reached Smoke Lake with much relief. My face was red from the heat and physical exertion. Most of us had to go back to Sawbill Lake to get the rest of our gear. Going back I felt so light! I practically skipped back to get my pack. I felt a sense of accomplishment at having carried the canoe for the first time.

It was an awkward and clumsy re-loading of gear into the canoes. It seemed to take forever and I thought, “Oh my God, we are going to have to do this again several times there and back! So much work!!” Everyone looked a bit pained and tired already. But Smoke Lake was a small lake. It was was a quick paddle to the next portage and we were doing good on time. When we all finally got back on the water, people seemed to be in pretty good spirits as they paddled so I decided we were going to go for the next portage and make it to Burnt Lake.

Our scouts found the portage between Smoke and Burnt quickly and easily. This portage was 90 rods. I decided to carry the canoe right off the bat. My canoe mate lifted it up for me and I walked underneath, this time without my pack. I balanced it and started off on a nice pace. I was pretty tired at that point, but a second wind kicked in and I made it to the end of the portage all on my own. Those that didn’t carry canoes made the trip back for more gear. Loading the canoes again went much more smoothly this time. We were already starting to get a groove on with loading and unloading. And we were so close to our destination. I was getting excited! I was so proud of my friends for all their hard work over the portages. Our trip time from the Outfitters to camp was about four hours. We did a great job.

The first campsites were fairly close to the portage. The one on the south end of the bay was occupied. We headed off to check out the one on the north side of the bay. I had thought about checking out the island site, but it was already 6:00 pm. I knew it would take time to set up camp, get supper cooking and hang the food. We were all pretty exhausted from a long day of traveling, paddling and portaging. I got off the boat to scope out the site. It had four good tent pads with one that could fit two tents. There was a nice rocky shore for us to pull the canoes up to unload.

I had no idea which site my Dad and his buddies used to go to on Burnt Lake. I know that they went to the same one every year and I had seen pictures a long time ago but had no memory of what the site looked like. Since I was exhausted and not confident we would find the island site quickly, I decided we should go ahead and set up camp on the northern peninsula. A week after our trip, I looked through my Dad’s old BWCA pictures and the site they used looked a bit like the one we stayed at. Afterwards I found out that my Dad's group usually camped on the southern peninsula, but had also camped before at the island and at the northern peninsula which we stayed at this trip.

We got the gear unloaded over the rocky shore and pulled up the canoes. People looked pretty wiped out. I could feel myself becoming very irritated and frazzled. I suggested to everyone that before we start unpacking, we take a few minutes to re-center ourselves. The majority agreed. We sat on the logs that were set up around the fire grate and on the grass. I set the timer for 10 minutes and all was silent. It was unbelievably silent. I’m not sure I have ever experienced such silence. There was not even the remotest sound of traffic, planes, wind, not even any sparrows chirping at each other. There were very few mosquitoes or flies around us at that moment. I sat with a scattered mind and a migraine brewing, breathing in and out. This is how it is now… Near the end of our 10 minutes, some loons called and flew over us. I could hear the very loud swishing of wings directly above our heads. I opened my eyes and smiled. The bell rang and then we all went back to the chaos of camp set-up.

Even with our common aspiration of mindfulness, we were people with different personalities, backgrounds, and preferences. At the start of the trip, things were a bit chaotic and disorganized. Packing, portaging and setting up camp was a little complicated and tense. But mindfulness helped us get along most peacefully and establish beautiful new friendships among us. I loved being with a group of such mature and mindful people. Rather than seethe about conflicts that arose, we were able to re-group and talk about it. We worked through it and made sure everyone’s needs were cared for. Once camp was set-up and our duties assigned, the days that followed were easy and just lovely.

We had perfect weather and did day canoe trips, swimming, eating lots of good food, laughing, singing and drumming around the fire. We only had a few hours of rain one evening but got the tarp up just in time to huddle under and cook dinner. One of my afternoons was spent lounging in a hammock alone on the peninsula looking out at the trees and sun-sparkling water. It was blissful Samadhi (concentration, one-pointedness of mind, peace). At the bonfire, I thought of my Dad and felt like he was there with us. I took out the paper with his picture and biography and tossed it into the fire during a moment of silence and remembrance. Then we had fun turning the canoe upside down and using that and other items such as an aluminum water bottle as percussion, pounding out beats with hands and sticks around the fire as the moon rose.

By the end of the trip, we were a well-oiled machine. Monday morning pack-up went smoothly and easily. We already had the canoe-packing down and the portages on the trip back to Sawbill went so much more smoothly and easily than on the way out. I carried the canoe again for half of one of the portages and all of the final portage. The final portage I didn’t even have help lifting the canoe or setting it down. I got into a blissful zone under the canoe and it was easeful. I know Dad would have been proud of me.

We tried to take our time paddling back. We sang songs as we paddled. The scent of the water over the breeze was intoxicating. The sun reflected brightly on the water and we paddled joyfully. It seemed all too soon when we reached the shore at Sawbill Outfitters. But as we unloaded our gear and brought the canoes up on land, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, for myself and for all of us. We had a group picture taken, all of us dirty and stinky with proud smiles on our faces. We loaded up our cars and started the long drive home. We stopped at the famous Betty’s Pies for our celebratory lunch, then parted ways. Later in an email, one of my companions summed up the awesomeness of our trip perfectly: “The bliss of being in that wilderness and being with good friends is so amazing!” Until next time, my dear Dharma Friends!