Muddy and wet, I reached the end of the portage to Little Saganaga Lake an hour before sunset on a dreary October day.  I pushed the canoe off my shoulders, flipped it over, caught it on my knees and gently lowered it to the ground, pushing the bow into the water.  Wearily, I removed my pack and dropped it in the bow compartment, the sound echoing from the woods across the small bay.  I picked up the wooden paddle, grasped both gunwales, and carefully stepped in, pushing off from the rocky landing.

The rain had finally stopped, but once clear of a nearby point, the cold northwest wind caught me full force, as if to say winter had nearly arrived in northern Minnesota and canoeists were no longer welcome.  For perhaps the tenth time that day, I asked myself aloud why I was out here instead of back in town.  The previous day I had spent in the tent, rain-bound.  After eighteen grueling miles of solo travel through a dozen lakes and as many portages, I was back on schedule but needed to find camp soon, pitch the tent, put on some warm clothes and eat.

The lake, dotted with islands, was undoubtedly pretty in summer, but my mood matched the dark water and low nimbus clouds.  Only with difficulty was I able to keep the canoe on course as I crossed the quartering waves, the splash further chilling my mitten-covered hands.  I was therefore satisfied to land in the lee of a half acre rocky island containing a few groves of cedar and scraggly jack pine.  The campsite would have to do; it was too late and I too tired to continue looking for another one.

I carried the pack thirty feet uphill from the shore to a flat spot, then pulled the canoe up and turned it over, tying the bow to a nearby root.  I unpacked, placing food, tent and personal gear into three piles.  Grabbing a pot, I slid down the gravel bank to the lake to scoop up some water.

I lit the stove and started heating the water as I erected the tent under a small group of cedars.  With a half hour, I had changed into dry clothes, stowed my gear and had a few handfuls of trail mix with hot chocolate.  Marginally warmer, I obtained more water and started preparing my usual macaroni and rice dinner.  As I worked, a change in light heralded sunset, but clouds were too thick to show either color or detail.  The night would again be cold, but I hoped to sleep warm.  Eleven lakes and fifteen miles awaited me the next day.

Eating my rapidly cooling meal, I looked at the gray and rapidly darkening scene, wondering yet again why I had come out here.  At least I was dry and my tent sheltered from the persistent wind.  Had anyone been near to ask, I would have said there was a Hunter’s Moon that evening.  But I hadn’t seen anybody in four days, and seeing the Moon was far from my mind.  Under skies that threatened snow, I retired early, quickly falling asleep in my cedar hollow.

The geese awoke me.

I didn’t know the time, but I immediately recognized the sound.  I hadn’t heard geese since my childhood in upstate New York.  Their honking triggered fond memories when I was a young boy, looking up, fascinated by the formations, wondering how and why they did it and where they were going.  Realizing I still didn’t know those answers made me smile, as I listened to the different calls high over the island, heading south, away from the frozen waters of Ontario and Manitoba.  From the light on the roof of the tent, I realized something else as well.  It was clear.

I unzipped the tent door and slowly crawled outside, stiffly standing, barefoot, on the hard soil.  It was cold, but I was barely aware of the temperature.  I saw a brilliant Hunter’s Moon above the darkly forested south shore, its light rippling towards me across the nearly calm water of a wilderness lake.  Overhead, heading towards the Moon, were scores of geese, honking.  It was magical.  Knowing at last why I had come out here, I watched and listened, silent, until the geese were no longer visible and their calls blended with the light wind that just stirred the trees.

This appeared in the first edition of Firegrate Reviews, put out in 2010 by The Friends of the Boundary Waters


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