Paul Gruchow series continues with an excerpt from Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild
I grew up in tallgrass prairie country. There the sky predominates, the soils are deep and black, the few stones heaved up by the frost are destined to become fencepost ornaments (or were in the days when there were still fences), and the surface waters run in languid, silty streams, or collect in shallow, fetid marshes rimmed with cattails. It is, to most eyes, a forbidding landscape, ugly, boring, and faintly sinister, like all unbounded places. But because I knew it long before I considered any other, I still feel most at home there. Many landscapes, I suppose, are more beautiful than mine, but beauty is not everything in a landscape, any more than it is in a face. So it took me nearly forty years to venture into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, although I am a Minnesotan by birth and conviction and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion.
The BWCA, as it is locally known, was the first national forest to be set aside as wilderness. It remains the largest roadless area east of the Rocky Mountains in the continental United States. Extending from Minnesota into Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, this island of wilderness encompasses five million acres along the Canadian Shield, where lies exposed some of the Earth’s primal bedrock. It is a land of dense forests and thick bogs, of rocky ridges and deep, clear lakes, home to moose and black bears, timber wolves and loons, pine martens and flying squirrels, lynx and beavers. Its lakes number in the thousands, closely spaced and interconnected, a great lacework sheet of moving water.
Although readily accessible by canoe, it is not easily navigable. When I venture into it alone, I carry my compass on a string around my neck. I need to consult it often, given my disastrously faulty sense of direction, and I fear losing it. Without the compass, I would be a danger to myself, commitable to some institution. I assumed that was an individual failing until I read Calvin Rustrum, a fine, now neglected canoe country writer. “Even most Indians and white woodsmen, who seem to have an uncanny ability to find their way in their own region,” he writes in North American Canoe Country, “often fare badly in complex water areas, once they are beyond their own particular, familiar territory . . . . Considerable research has gone into the study of man’s sense of direction, and the results have been quite conclusive: He has no innate sense of direction.”
There are few signs and trail markers in the canoe country to point the way, a policy I wish were followed in all of the nation’s wilderness preserves. The possibility of getting lost is among those that define the wilderness experience. Everyone who has spent much time in the wilderness has been lost at least once, although few have admitted it, just as few confess the fear, loneliness, and misery that are equally inherent in the experience. Being in wilderness is never deliriously, ceaselessly epiphanic. Perhaps more people who feel inadequate to the test would be encouraged to try the wild if we who advocate it were more honest about our own blunders and tremblings.
At the same time, most guidebook writers, with one eye, perhaps, on the liability lawyers, solemnly sermonize against going into a wilderness alone, quite correctly pointing out all the horrible misfortunes that might befall you if you do, but never admitting the incomparable pleasure (and fear, and loneliness, and misery) that they have gained from their own solo travels. Of course one doesn’t venture alone into a wilderness stupidly: ill-prepared, inexperienced, inadequately equipped. But if one cares deeply about wilderness, one eventually does go alone, and finds that every subsequent journey, alone or in company, has been enriched by it.
I have twice, while alone, come close to serious harm, perhaps to death, but in neither instance would a companion have prevented the danger, and in one—a fall from a cliff high above treeline, burdened with a fully loaded and securely fastened backpack, into an icy tarn—I could not, I think, have been saved either, except by the bit of luck that got me through: I landed not in the depths of the lake but on a slightly submerged ledge jutting into it, all my bones intact, and did not lose my footing.
What I have risked, I have also gained: The silence deep in the wilderness and the one at the center of the human heart are sublime and serene, and they cannot be heard except when alone, and over a broad margin of time and distance. There are some communications, such as those from the stars, that require a greater darkness than can be found at the edges of society.
Canoe country lakes are often small, and it is surprisingly easy to forget how many of them you have crossed in a day of paddling. The most detailed topographical maps are, at best, approximately helpful. Only the biggest of the numerous islands show on them. In a day’s journey you will pass many confusing bays and inlets that look much more substantial than anything appearing on your maps. And you travel these lakes seated, or kneeling, in a canoe, scarcely a yard above the waterline; your angle of vision obscures the whole pattern of even a single small lake. Unless you, unlike me, are adept at climbing tall trees or scaling sheer cliffs, there are few vantages from which to view the landscape at a clarifying distance. Traveling in this country is like making your way through a vast maze.
A prairie person covets horizons, long views, openness. The closed and canopied spaces of dense forest feel, in contrast, confining and vaguely sinister. The peculiar terror of prairies is that there is no place to hide; in forests it is that so much is concealed.
The prairie world abounds in light. During much of the day it is direct and mercilessly harsh; there is an awful frankness about it, hard to accept, but, in the end, bracing. A person accustomed to such light finds the shadowy world of the forest at first subduing, then funereal, and only after long acquaintance peaceful.
Neither forest nor prairie, actually, much suits the human eye. We began in the trees, but it was on the savannas that we first came into our own as a species. Our lawns and gardens, our cemeteries, our college campuses, our city parks, our golf courses: those places where we recreate nature in idealized form are built on the model, carried by our ancestors from Africa to Europe and from Europe to North America, of the savanna: widely spaced trees, underplanted with short grasses and flowering plants, interspersed with gentle streams or quiet pools of water: places with both long views and discrete edges, where there is both strong light and shade, where land and water converge.
From the perspective of the paddler, the canoe country, although forested, recapitulates the pattern of the savanna: it is a landscape of open spaces bounded by edges that offer hiding places. One landscape feature of nearly universal appeal is the path that curves or moves through a series of constrictions, affording always the prospect of a fresh view just around the bend or beyond the next obstruction. This, too, is an attribute of savannas, and a feature of every satisfying garden. The best gardens organize these changes in prospect to coincide with contrasting patterns of light and shade.
The canoe country is, in this respect, classically compelling. Every lake makes a bright opening in the shadowy forest. The lakes, formed by glacial striations or fault lines, may stretch for miles, narrow and wider in the middle than at either end. Many of them, from the seat of a canoe, appear to curve gently, so that when you launch out upon one, the portage that lies at the far end remains long obscured. When you reach it, you find a narrow trail, a shaded opening in the forest, which usually climbs a ridge, or a succession of them, and descends again to another sunlit sliver of translucent water.
So you are led on, as down a garden path, from light to shade and back again into the light, from open place to narrows or bend, and back into the open; from the clamor of darkness toward the silence of light; from the ambiguity of shadow toward the purity of light; obsessed to discover what lies ahead, just out of sight. One mystery unfolds into the next. The journey is, in the American tradition, the transcendental one, from meanness toward the sublime, from sound toward silence, above all toward the silence of the soul, which is a kind of light, a luminescence, mirrored in the eye, in the sky, in the stillness of waters.
There is a rhythm in the pattern of paddles and portages as hypnotic, once your body is attuned to it, as the beating of drums. Both paddling and portaging are, in themselves, matters of rhythm, the former a rhythm of the upper body, the latter a rhythm of the feet, both of ancient origin, the rhythms of the drumbeats on the long-ago savannas. They are wonderfully complementary. After a few days of breaking in, it is possible to sustain either without great strain from dawn until dusk. You have achieved, when this happens, a kind of bodily fluency, an incarnation of grace.
The canoe itself is such an incarnation, one of the inspired human designs, elegant, efficient, simple, adaptable, perfectly fitted to its purpose. It is sleek enough to slip through the water, even when it bears heavy loads; stable in turbulence; capable of tracking a straight line in a wind, but maneuverable through a rapids; light enough to be carried, but tough enough to withstand collisions and scrapes; stealthy in an environment where silence rules and every sound carries enormous distances; and it can be built—although it seldom is anymore—from materials abundantly at hand locally. It is a tool supremely suited to its place, a work of indigenous genius.
I set out this morning intent upon making my passage from one lake to the next by way of a narrow, slow-moving river. The route will carry me to a widening of it where there are rock paintings, one minor site among scores of them in this country. I want to see the paintings because, obscure though the intentions now are of the people who created them, who are also unknown, I hope that they might tell me something about what is means to be indigenous.
To be inherent to the place: this is a feeling that, despite our long habitation here, we Americans have yet fully to experience. Our presence on this continent still seems somehow tentative, our roots still underdeveloped, our claim to ownership still fraught with moral doubt. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws us to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests,” Ralph Waldo Emerson boldly declared in 1837, electrifying his Harvard audience. But more than a century and a half since, we still perceive that ours remains a Western rather than an American culture, and when we speak of native Americans, it is not the founders of our republic or their descendants to whom we refer, but an older race of discoverers, who probably followed the ice south from Siberia. “We may have colonized this continent,” the geneticist Wes Jackson says, “but we have not yet discovered it.”
My own voyage of discovery carries me this morning across the shallows of the lake over bottom boulders that look so near in the refracted light of the crystalline waters and so mysteriously alive in the ripples of my wake that I think they might at any moment rise up and seize me. If anything can claim to possess this place surely it is they, who have lain here for centuries, receptive to the great turnings of the seasons, in times of ice and thaw, of pollen and ash. I wish for them the power of speech, that they might tell me what I am in search of, for I do not know whether it it myself I seek, or the land, or if, in fact, there is any difference.
This excerpt is taken from “Tierce,” one of nine sections in Paul Gruchow’s “Grace of the Wild” essay, as published in his book Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1997). Copyright © 1997 Paul Gruchow. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.
Special thanks to Patrick Thomas and Aoife Roberts at Milkweed; to contributing photographers Anne Wedge Solberg, John Wartman, Doug Schauwitzer and Gerald Epp; to Betsy Daub and Cori Mattke at Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness; and to Lou Martinelli of the Paul Gruchow Foundation.