“The potential for salvation lies where there is danger.”
At least, so says the Geman romantic poet Hölderin. When I head to the BWCA, however, I’m not looking for salvation or danger. Yet perhaps Hölderin’s remark explains why Seagull Lake is among my favorites. It offers danger of the most serene and attractive kind.
Its broad expanse of open water, three or four miles across, is rendered even more beautiful on a calm sunny morning in July by the numerous islands sitting at odd distances both along the shore and out in the middle. An island you take to be large and distant turns out to be rather small and close by, and vice versa. It’s impossible to tell when you’re halfway across the lake, but when you’re out in the middle there is an enormous amount of water around and underneath you, powerful and threatening if you can wrap your head around it, like a clutch of distant galaxies on a clear dark night, yet also clear and clean and shimmering silvery blue. Seagull Lake offers an enormous space into which the heart can expand, and it comes with a soundtrack: ten or fifteen gulls squawking and screeching as they twirl in the cool morning air around the lump of bare rock well out in the lake where they nest.
Paddling across such immensity for an hour or two, watching the configuration of islands shift and the far end of the lake take on body by infinitesimal degrees, gives you a truly joyous feeling.
When the wind comes up, not so much. Therein lies the danger. On a windy day the lake can be impossible to traverse. This is especially troublesome when you’re at the southwest end and need to get back to the landing.
One of the many great things about the computer age is that you can sit at home, call up the hour-by-hour weather forecast for Seagull Lake, and see how strong the wind will be blowing, and in what direction, ten days from now. I wouldn’t put too much stock in such a forecast, but it gives you slightly more confidence, having booked an entry permit, that you’ll have a good time once you get there.
On our recent visit, we did. The weather was mild the entire trip, with a thunderstorm each afternoon to add some spice and cool the air.
On our first morning we hit the water at 8 a.m., having camped at Trail’s End the night before, and we negotiated the labyrinth of islands at the north end of the lake without difficulty.
After passing those massive cliffs they call the Palisades, we decided to cut behind Miles Island, which would make it easier to move down the west side of the lake. In the back of my mind, I was also thinking about a campsite on a rock shelf down around that corner. I’d passed it many times; it always looked fabulous from a distance but I’d never seen it close up because it had always been occupied.
This time it was vacant. It was fabulous. We took it. (What? You’ve only been on the water for half an hour!)
Once we’d set up camp, we headed back out down the lake for a mile or two, just to be out on that glorious expanse in the freshness of the morning: recreational paddling. We examined a few vacant campsites for future reference and arrived back at camp at 10:30. Perfect.
Camp life is often simple. When you think of something to do, you usually go off and do it, without a great deal of logistical analysis. For example: “I think I’ll go out and get some water.” So you paddle well out into the bay, beyond the beaver thoroughfares, throw the plastic bucket over the side of the canoe, and haul up some water. Or: “I think I’ll go get some firewood.” And off you go into the woods with your collapsible aluminum saw. But you haven’t actually assembled the saw. There’s precious little firewood to be found in the BWCA these days. You probably won’t need it.
In any case, it doesn’t matter. You do your cooking on a stove, and staring into a campfire tends to be less interesting during the long days of midsummer than watching night descend.
Such chores having been completed, you’re free to immerse yourself in the changing patterns of color on the surface of the water, or go in for a swim, or pick a few blueberries—one of Hilary’s specialties.
Sitting on coarse rock,
I splash my body with water.
They’ve known each other forever.
The clouds are a source of continual fascination. A pair of eagles is hanging around a large nest in a dead tree on the island just across the channel. Usually they’re doing nothing, just like you. But they might do something soon. Just like you.
But camp life isn’t quite so simple as it seems. As the sun moves across the sky, parts of the campsite that were in shade become bathed in sunlight. If you happen to be sitting in such a spot, you’re going to have to move. Thus the day becomes a pageant of shifting locales and perspectives.
Bright sun trying
to penetrate the white pine boughs
gentle breeze lends a hand
Two rangers stopped by to check our permit.
“Hey, we passed you two going the other way early this morning amid the islands,” I said.
“Yup. That was us.” Discerning that we’re experienced campers (or just old) one of them inquired if we’d been on the lake before.
“The first time I was on Seagull was 1964,” I said.
“I was born in 1989, so you got me on that one,” he replied with a smile. He had a long sandy beard that didn’t look quite so Millennial out here in the brush.
“We like to ask people with experience how things have changed over the years,” he said.
“Not much, really,” I said. “It’s as beautiful as ever. Maybe a little more crowded. Hence the need to make camp early.” I might have mentioned that fifty years ago there was a big wooden forest service sign at every portage with letters carved into it, painted yellow: Gillis Lake, 44 rods. And there seem to be fewer Canada jays lurking around the campsites than there used to be. And fewer moose, of course.
“About the same? That’s good to hear,” he said. “Er, do you mind if I go out and measure the depth of the latrine?”
“By all means. Be my guest.”
* * *
After a simple lunch of freeze-dried peanuts, some obscure hard Spanish goat cheese on coarse WasabrÖt crackers, and Kool-Aid, we settle in to do some reading. In Ernst Cassirer’s An Essay on Man I almost immediately hit upon a passage about memory that seemed relevant to the day.
In man we cannot describe recollection as a simple return of an event, as a faint image or copy of a former impression. It is not simply a repetition but a rebirth of the past; it implies a creative and a constructive process. It is not enough to pick up isolated data of our past experiences, we must really recollect them, we must organize and synthesize them, and assemble them into a focus of thought.
But this is a bit backward, don’t you think? We don’t assemble memories into a focus of thought willfully, or at random. Rather, we begin with a problem or issue or focus of thought, and then comb our memories in an effort to illuminate or come to terms with it. That may explain why our humiliations, which we remain concerned about and wish we could erase, tend to be more vivid in memory than our triumphs.
Often the constructive process Cassirer refers to results in a narrative—a story leading to a moral or an exclamation of wonderment or horror. If only we had time to tell that story! If only we could make it sound good. If only anyone would listen! These stories enter our “recall holding tank” as tape loops that we can retrieve as soon as some interlocutor’s reference “reminds us” of them. Then off we go with a sequential replay.
The ranger mentioned that campsites had filled up early the previous night on Ogishkemuncie Lake, discomfitting four or five parties that had arrived at 5 p.m. hoping to camp there. The remark recalled to my mind that once-beautiful lake. When I was just a kid our Scout troop camped there for a week. One day a few of us “discovered” Mueller Falls. I remember a shake-jar half-full of blueberries and the ominous, distant roar of we knew not what. Earlier in the afternoon, we had waded up the river, dragging our canoe brutally over a short wide waterfall, and paddled around in the pool above it. Intrigued by the growing rumble, we continued upstream. We rounded a corner and there it was: an impressive and hitherto unknown waterfall. I was old enough at the time to be reading Edgar Rice Borroughs, and this experience fit right in.
When we got back to camp, we told the adults excitedly about our discovery. “Oh, you found Mueller Falls,” one of them said with a chuckle. They were amused, but hardly astounded. As a result, they became less godlike in my eyes.
Cassirer remarks that impressions have to be “ordered and located” and “referred to different points in time.” That isn’t exactly true, either. The older we get, the less solid the chronology of our memories becomes. Whether something happened three years ago or eight years ago is hard to recall. The memories have become narratives, then myths. Pleasant myths, if all has gone well.
Hilary and I have camped on Seagull Lake at least eight times, maybe more. How do I know? By counting up the campsites we’ve occupied. The little red dots on the map help, though one small island we camped on is no longer marked as a site. Several of the sites are associated in my mind with an event—the supernova site, the high wind site, the small island site, the Canada jay site, the spruce grouse site, and the loon line site, among others. When did we camp at these places, scattered here and there across the lake? I couldn’t tell you. Does it matter?
Shared memories have a value beyond the ordinary. We bring them up to revive personal connections, though the person we’re sharing them with might be thinking, “That’s not what happened.” Criminal investigators are well aware that eye-witness accounts are among the least reliable forms of evidence. And people invariably remember different details about the same event, after all, and read different things into them.
* * *
Monday morning. Not a cloud in the sky. We were on the water at eight once again, having said goodbye to the pesky chipmunks, the local robin, and the chipping sparrow who’s raising a family on the far side of the bushes near shore. The eagles were nowhere to be seen.
There was a gentle breeze out on the lake, where we soon met up with our eagle family, engaged in an airborne feud with a dozen gulls near the bare rock island that the gulls, if they could talk, would probably call home. The gulls, screeching and keening, were attacking the eagles high above the surface of the water. The eagles would make an occasional turnabout, but no one seemed to be making contact. The battle lasted for fifteen minutes and was still going on as we paddled beyond earshot. It’s probably been going on for eons.
We were hoping to get the crescent-shaped campsite at the south east corner of the open lake, where we’ve camped at least three times in previous years. As we approached, we both pulled our binoculars out and combed the site for the flash of bright color that would indicate a tent, a tarp, or a life preserver hung thoughtfully in a tree. Closer and closer, but everything looked green and gray and natural.
I’m sitting at that campsite right now. Hilary has gone in for a swim, we’ve broken into a bag of gorp, and now she’s headed off up the hill looking for blueberries.
We arrived here at 10:30—a more respectable time to quit paddling, but only slightly.
* * *
It’s seldom commented on in rhapsodic books about the BWCA how much time visitors spend in a mental stupor. Or maybe it’s just me. In larger groups people always seem to be shouting back and forth between canoes. They’re out paddling while Hilary and I are sitting on the rocks in our camp chairs, constructed by slipping our Thermo-rest pads into small light-weight webbed frames designed for that purpose. I look out across the lake or follow every move of some bird or rodent in an effort to figure out what he or she is up to. I read a few lines from a book, stare at a passing ant, or admire the lichen covering the rock under my left knee.
Yesterday the afternoon was enlivened by a few thunderheads. They drifted southeast before the rain commenced, though we got enough of the downpour to send us scurrying into the tent briefly. Thunderbolts were isolated and abrupt, full-bodied, sonorous, Zeus-like. I saw only a single bolt of lightning: thin, a long way off in the gray sheet of sky to the south where it was raining hard. Once the storm moved past we returned to our rock shelf where, above our heads, swirling strands of hair-like clouds, a pure bluish white, were trailing off the back of the passing thunderhead into the clear blue sky behind it. A few minutes later a feeble half-rainbow appeared to the east.
The chipmunks, usually tireless and tenacious, had vanished, spooked by the thunder, perhaps.
* * *
While we’re on the subject of yesterday—I neglected to mention the beautiful magnolia warbler we saw, or the red-breasted nuthatch, more of a sleek slate gray than I’m used to seeing. And the flat-headed robin who nabbed little dragonflies in his beak repeatedly, hopped around on the rocks for a few seconds, then flew off across the channel to the island where his offspring were no doubt creating a racket in their nest.
* * *
I have noticed that sometimes the waterbugs cluster together, as if they’re exchanging information, experiences, memories. At other times they skim across the water seemingly at random, widely dispersed.
* * *
Once again a mild clear morning produces a mid-afternoon thunderstorm. Once again I notice that as the clouds pass overhead, the wind rises and reverses direction, though the clouds above continue on their original course. Today the rain was more severe and the fetch across the lake was much greater. Soon whitecaps were coming in our direction from the east. As we lay in the tent, I said, almost idly, “I wonder if I should go out and tie up the canoe?”
That’s always a good idea, though our canoe was drawn up on shore in a natural harbor on the leeward side of the peninsula, shallow and virtually surrounded by swamp laurel bushes. All the same, I put on my sandals and raincoat and headed out into the wind and rain. When I sighted the canoe it was ten feet from shore, bobbing out to sea at a surprising clip. I was dumbstruck. I splashed out into the water and grabbed it, dragged it into the harbor again, and flipped it over with an emphatic thud, as if to say, “And don’t you try anything like that again!”
* * *
Sky clears. Back to my camp chair, avoiding the puddles, I turn once again to Cassirer, and read:
He who lives in harmony with his own self, his daemon, lives in harmony with the universe; for both the universal order and the personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle. Man proves his inherent power of criticism, of judgment, and discernment, by conceiving that in this correlation the Self, not the Universe, has the leading part.
Cassirer is talking here about a concept that runs from Socrates to Marcus Aurelius, namely, human judgment regarding beauty, truth, and goodness. A reader might easily move on from these remarks to whatever comes next, oblivious to its import, but when you copy out a paragraph long-hand, phrase by phrase, it’s hard to avoid pausing to consider whether what’s being said is true. The word that catches my eye here is “principle.” The reality and importance of harmony between inner and outer I can accept, because I’ve felt it. Whether that harmony rests on a mere principle I very much doubt. Rather, that harmony must rely on a force. Philosophers have been struggling for millennia to come up with a principle to describe that force, but the two are not the same thing, any more than the force of gravity is the same thing as the formula that describes it.
What is the force binding inner and outer life? It’s the love force, of course. Thus philosophy is reduced to a Beatles song. Well, why not?
I’m feeling the force right now. The air has grown much clearer since the storm. A gorgeous clarity. Hilary is sitting here beside me with her watercolors, and three gulls are circling overhead, shrieking pleasantly. Each passing moment is a nugget of delight about which I can do nothing except jot a few feeble notes in a journal. Or draw a picture.
A second issue presents itself, however. Does the Self really play the leading part in what Cassirer describes as a “correlation” between it and the Universe? Or do the two inform one another mutually, or even dialectically? Perhaps all Cassirer is trying to say is that the Self is not a product or derivative or miniature of the universe, but a being that can envision forms of beauty and truth that have never before been given substance, and not only envision them, but bring them to life. Hence the significance of incarnation, in all its forms.
* * *
Dawn is great, though after three nights in a tent, maybe the Self is not so great. The Universe is getting the upper hand, I’m afraid. Still, the elements exude that harmony we never cease to love. A glow in the east across two miles of open water. It’s the dawn of creation…with granola and prunes and a second cup of coffee, very strong. It takes fifteen minutes to make the coffee through a hand-held Melitta filter, but we’ve got time. The wind is gentle, and it’s at our back.
We’ll cross the lake alright.
About the Author
Minnesota-based John Toren has been involved in many aspects of the publishing world over the course of his career as a writer, editor and book designer. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of regional and national publications, including the History Channel Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, Rain Taxi, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is author of 8 books, including his travel guide, The Seven States of Minnesota, now in its third printing. The essay BWCA Idyll is from his new book, Cabin in the City, published by Nodin Press and available through Itasca Distribution (and your local independent bookstore). Tune in for a reading and discussion of the book on August 12, 7 p.m., when SubText Books will host a virtual event featuring John Toren along with Matt Schuth, author of Nature at Your Doorstep.