For well over a decade, my wife and I have taken an annual canoe trip into the Boundary Waters.  We have everything planned.  Day 1, we stay north of  Minneapolis, where we have drinks at a country bar, dinner, and ice cream afterward.  The next day, we hit the shopping center in Cloquet, get our food, and drive up to Ely.  We pack that night, and the third morning, go across the street to a coffee shop that opens early and serves good scones, too. We drive out to the jumping off point and head in to the woods for a week.

My wife wants a picture of me in that coffee shop this year.  She won’t be there with me.

I knew at some point, circumstances would prevent our going up there.  I just hoped it wouldn’t be “this year”, but “this year” always comes.  Always.  I was under orders to go.  My wife knows the clock in my head.  In 2004, on the river into LaCroix, we saw an old guy paddling and floating downstream, mostly floating.  Mind you, he was about 75, but he was in the woods.  I don’t see many 75 year-olds in the woods.  My wife said, “That’s you in 20 years.”

Nine have now passed.

In 2005, I soloed into Kawnipi Lake for one more look.  I have thought about going back to it, perhaps the most beautiful lake in the Quetico-Superior.  I’ve seen Kawnipi six times, however, I am turning 65 in 9 weeks, and seeing Kawnipi again with high mile days is no longer as important to me as it once was.  Damn, I loved those high mile days.  I can still see myself powering into a nasty headwind on the west side of Agnes, trying to make it to the Silence Lake inlet.  Oh yeah, it was raining like stink, too.

We used to go into Lake Insula, but in 2011, the Pagami Creek Fire burned the whole route in. We could have done it last year, because with decent weather, we can paddle the 7 portage route in as many hours, get to our favorite campsite, not burned, for a late lunch.  Neither of us, however, wanted to see the fire scars.  We both know fire is necessary, and that the area will heal, but we want to remember Insula the way it was, not the way it is now.

We started camping on Basswood Lake, looking for the ideal spot.  The first two years, we found good sites, but they weren’t what we wanted.  Last year, on a day trip, we found one, a little further in.  This was going to be our destination this year.

Except illness and bad crap happen.

I’m going to try to go there solo. I say try, because the intervening nine years at my age is a lot different from intervening nine years thirty years ago.  Last April, I solo hiked into the BW.  I couldn’t make it safely to Angleworm Lake because of deep snow, and the concern that I would get too fatigued or hurt.  I turned back and found a place to camp.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was nice enough.  I was in the woods, alone, and winter camped, which I had not done in 30 years.  Not only was it a good trip, it was the smartest I had camped.  Oh, I got cold at night, and I didn’t do everything right.  But the big decisions were sound–I turned around, I found a good spot, I stayed warm enough, and I ate well.

I’m going in solo again, by canoe.  It will be familiar….  I have soloed more than 20 times.  I talk to myself.  I give myself pep talks, the most important one at the jumping off point, where I tell myself not only to be careful, but to go with the flow.  “It’s just physics,” is one phrase I use, so when I drop food or trip over a root I don’t complain.  I don’t run.  I never deviate from my route that both my wife and outfitter know.  If I am late, I want people to know where I am….and where I am NOT.

I once published an article in a magazine about solo trips.  It was accepted, but the editor added a picture of a waterfall with the caption, “While solo tripping can be good, these sights can’t be shared with one you love.”  That annoyed me.  I wrote that solo trips aren’t for everyone; indeed, only a few of us seek out this solitude.  We do it because we have to.  Maybe we’re selfish, but there are times we want to see things alone and be by ourself.  In society today, that may be strange; I find it nearly sacred.

I won’t go in solo to think about the course of my life, the state of the world, or the next article I will write.  Nope, I will say that, but in the end, I will spend a few hours contemplating a campfire, trying to find that loon that is calling, walking along the shore and see what’s growing on land or in the water, follow a path from the site until it deadends, wondering why it deadends.  I will watch caterpillars, ants, mergansers, not analyzing anything.  If it is nice, I’ll lie on my back and look up at the sky.  I’ll usually watch an eagle soaring and wonder what he’s seeing.

I will return in 4 days to the same place I started.  The canoe, paddles, and PFD will be the same.  The person, however, will be different.  Oh, he will look the same, other than being cut up in a few places, a little stiffer, blisters on his hands, sunburn where he should have been more careful.  But the real difference lies deeper.  He’s been out in the woods and saw whatever it was he needed to see.   He won’t be able to explain it, but those who seek out wilderness and make it part of their life understand.  So will his wife, who will see him and immediately know he went where he needed to.


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