I recently took my 58th canoe trip into the Boundary Waters, having spent more than 1 month of my life camped on one lake and more than 1 year camped in the lovely country on both sides of the international border.  I’ve paddled on more than 300 different lakes, traveled 3000 miles, cleaned 500 campsites, and even dug 16 latrines in the 30 years I’ve been going there.  I’ve done half as much traveling in Ontario’s Algonquin Park back in the spring and early summer of my life.  I started 50 years ago and feel more comfortable in a canoe than in a car.  Safer, too.

I don’t travel hard any more.  I used to love to do so, glorying in 20 mile days with 15 portages, carrying a pack under a canoe for up to a mile at regular walking pace through the woods.  Oh, I was good in the summer of my life.  I could reach shore, unload and be portaging in under a minute.  When I reached the other side, I would be loaded and on the water in 30 seconds.  I could make camp at night in 30 minutes, break it the following morning in 45.  Now, however, I am happy to base camp with my wife and do short day trips around a lake we can truly say we know better than anybody else alive.  We have been on every one of the 47 campsites (the maps were in error and the Forest Service didn’t know that), and we now spend 5 nights a year on one campsite so remote that we don’t see any other human being during that time.

While I am not as strong as I once was, I am much more savvy in the wilderness.  I don’t waste effort on portages.  I am a superb weatherman in the wilderness, predicting storm onset and ending accurately with nothing more than a barometer on my wrist, reading the sky, and knowing the wind.  I thoroughly enjoy doing that.

Oh, I could do more if I HAD to.  Maybe.  But I don’t want to any more.  It’s been 9 years since I carried a pack and a canoe together.  I have nothing to prove and a lot I could hurt.  As I have gotten older, my desires have changed.  Do I miss the strength I once had, propelling me miles and miles to the next campsite?  A bit.  Do I need to do it again?  No.  For some reason, I revel in the fact that I once could do it but comfortable I don’t need to any more.  I know now that I probably took my last trip into Kawnipi Lake in 2005.  At the time I thought it would be.  Then I figured…maybe one more time.  Now, I’m not so sure I either need to, or more importantly, want to. I still want to see the northern sweep of Agnes Lake again, and a fellow teacher, who desperately wants to go, may be my partner on that trip.  The two of us could do it.  Gee, maybe Kawnipi, too, but nature may have other plans.

I have nothing to prove in the canoe country, although occasionally I still enjoy doing so.  My wife and I paddled 12 miles into our destination lake in 6 hours, with 7 carries, when several people we met, 20 years younger, were unable to get there in 3 days of work.  Neither of us is strong, but our experience, organization and leveraging of our skills, working together, enables us to still accomplish a good day’s work in a few hours.  Neither of us thought it was a difficult day.

Do I miss “roughing it”?  Not really.  I once liked sleeping under the canoe and paddling in a driving rain, but I don’t need to do it any more.  The way we camp is comfortable.  We eat well, stay clean and dry, and sleep better than we do at home.  The midnight bathroom breaks are a chance to look at one of the darkest skies in America and perhaps see an aurora, which we did a few years ago.

I find it interesting that as I have gotten older, my needs have changed, and I get pleasure doing different sorts of trips I once wouldn’t have enjoyed.  The trips I used to do no longer appeal to me.  I am at peace with that.  I expect more changes, and hope I still can paddle and portage for many years to come.  But I expect I will be doing so in a different fashion, and I believe that I will be enjoying it just as much.

We were in the canoe country in autumn, present when the colors peaked. In the autumn of my life, the colors are starting to peak.  I don’t have the strength and growth I had in the spring and summer of my life, but I have found my own inner beauty that mirrors the external beauty around me.  I still see new country, but I enjoy visiting familiar country the way some like meeting new people but enjoy old friends.

I tell myself I won’t be able to do this forever, but I am glad for the now.  I hope in ten years, in my seventies, I will be still be able to canoe and set up camp.  The gear is getting better, and my knees and shoulders are strong.  Whether my neck holds up is another matter, but I bet I could figure out a way to get a canoe on my head without stressing my neck, should that come to pass.  If not, I can paddle lakes where I don’t portage, because there are many of them, too.  In short, my body is like a well-used Old Town.  It won’t last forever, and it is showing use.  The paint is scraped, there are a few cracked ribs, but it is still sound and seaworthy.

I hope that as the winter of my life approaches, the white in my hair will mirror the brilliance of new fallen snow, untouched, in those areas of Alaska’s Brooks Range that I have been so fortunate to have explored four different times.  Could I canoe into my eighties or even nineties?  I can dream, for this year two very special people, different sex, different countries, different professions, and different beliefs had a profound influence upon me.  From each, and quite by accident, I learned that while I am a scientist and statistician, consider myself a practical person, not far below the surface lies a kid–a deeply emotional, spiritual dreamer.  I’m not planning to mentally ever grow up.  When I arrived in Fairbanks, many my age or younger went to the Princess Cruises sign.  I picked up my backpack.  In Minneapolis, I feel a bit unusual at 61, walking through the airport with my canoe pack on.  The white I want to see is not a golf ball but an eagle’s head.  With luck, I have just started autumn.  May it continue to be as brilliant inside as it was along the Fernberg east of Ely, Minnesota.  May the winter that follows it be as brilliant as the snow that made Mt. Igikpak so beautiful over the Noatak last August, up in Gates of the Arctic.

Eventually, of course, my eyes will finally close forever.  I hope at the end I feel the same as Sig Olson, the famous North Country writer, who still had written, in his typewriter, the day he died, snowshoeing, “I am ready for the next stage.  I know it will be a great adventure.”


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