DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS  AND THE KID WITH A SNOW COASTER


Thirty years ago, my wife and I camped out under the stars in Sonoita, Arizona, far from Tucson, Sierra Vista, and Nogales, when the nights were incredibly dark.  At 10 p.m., a large cloud appeared in the east.  At least, that is what it looked like, until we realized it was a different type of cloud, one of stars.  We were watching the Milky Way rise, and I never forgot that sight or the rest of that special night, wakening a few times, seeing the Milky Way further across the sky.

Just the other day, I received an email from a friend asking me to check out a picture she had posted on Instagram.  I usually don’t like these requests, believing that going into nature as I do gives me far better appreciation of the world.  The picture from a National Geographic photographer showed the southern Milky Way, from the Southern Hemisphere, with a time lapsed wind turbine in the foreground.

There were many of comments praising the picture.  I wrote, before erasing, “The wind turbine ruined it.” It did, by greatly detracting from the beauty of the Milky Way.  No picture can show the Milky Way as well as I have seen it, from the high grasslands of Arizona, deep in the Grand Canyon, or from the wilderness of the the borderland canoe country.  I didn’t have Instagram then, only a working occipital lobe and hippocampus, so those sights became part of me in a way that a picture cannot.  The beauty of The Great Rift, Vega, Altair, and Sagittarius is sufficient, not enhanced by a wind turbine in the foreground.

While I don’t look at many videos on social media, one about how different generations viewed free time was enlightening.  A man my age said he once used a stop sign for a toboggan.  I can relate to that.  Using a snow coaster as a sail, I once blasted alone on skates down the middle of frozen Honeoye Lake in upstate New York, doing 25.  That’s being a kid.  Parents nearby?  Nah.

Today?  A 6 year-old says she doesn’t know what she would do without her iPad.  Another kid bragged about watching 23 episodes of a TV show in 4 days. I wasn’t surprised.  One wouldn’t eat wild blueberries, because they weren’t wrapped in plastic.  Amazing. I love blueberries, and it reminds me some summer I’ve got to go back to Minnesota just to pick them.

I once posted a picture from northern California’s Redwood National Park,

I didn't lift this from the Internet. Redwood National Park, June 2012

I didn’t lift this from the Internet. Redwood National Park, June 2012

and saw a comment, “Where did you find that on the Internet?”  It never occurred to the writer that there are average folks like me who actually go to these places, where we can point a lens at a tree 120 meters tall and take a picture of its dwarfing a car.  The canopy of a redwood contains an ecosystem with plants and animals found nowhere else. I read it in The New Yorker; nobody sent me a link to “educate” me.  Sahalie Falls, Oregon, got a “Wow, who took that photo?” I replied, “I DID.”

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Sahalie Falls, Oregon, near Santiam Junction.

In the days of posting and sharing, I post rarely, usually views of special places in nature that I have seen, often having had to work hard to get there, an essential part of the picture. It is disheartening to me that so many see nature from a screen, rather than immersing themselves in it.  While I have had good fortune to see these lovely places, I made it happen, too.

I changed the picture on my profile today to show a 2005 view of Kawnipi Lake in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park,

"Bowling Alley," Kawnipi Lake, 2005.

“Bowling Alley,” Kawnipi Lake, 2005.

my last trip there.  Some like these pictures, amazed that such places not only exist but can only be reached by canoe, not by car, sailboat, or even hiking.  I was originally going to do that trip with a good friend from Ottawa, who introduced me to Sig Olson’s “Pays d’en haut,” in the Far North, 30 years ago.  We hiked the Chilkoot Trail (Klondike fame) together twice, and paddled the Nahanni, Liard, and Yukon Rivers.  We’ve portaged around Virginia Falls, twice as high as Niagara, and canoe sailed on Lake Laberge.

We had planned to see Kawnipi one last time.  Unfortunately, he had an animal emergency and had to cancel.  He was apologetic but knew I would understand. I did, deciding to do the trip solo.  It was difficult, even though I was a lot younger then, 56. I wanted to go further than 10 miles the first day, but my arms were dead.  The next day, I paddled to the north end of huge Agnes Lake, which was like glass.

Agnes Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005.

Agnes Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005.

On the portage out of it, where I hadn’t been for several years, I met two men, telling them I remembered the carry as a mess, with water and blowdowns. Good memory; there were fallen trees everywhere. It’s canoe tripping.

I spent the night on Kawnipi, content sitting on the ledge rock called the Canadian Shield, then the next morning, under threatening skies, headed south, taking the picture I posted today.  As I left Kawnipi, I turned around one last time and looked. In the back of my mind I thought maybe I could return, but I knew realistically I wouldn’t.  I don’t have to.  I’ve been there six times.  I’ve been on all the major bays of the lake. I’ve caught fish, found trails that cut through narrow peninsulas, had a cow moose charge into the water to protect her calf from me, and camped in lovely places.  That’s not on Instagram.  But wow, it’s in my brain.

I was lucky to have calm water back on Agnes.  I’ve paddled tandem on it in pouring rain and a headwind.  I soloed Agnes to Kawnipi in early ’92, when it snowed, and dealt with headwinds alone.  Nobody was out there.  It was great.  I’ve got print pictures somewhere, but no matter.  The memories are in my brain, where it matters, not on Instagram, where somebody might ask what Web site I found them.

There are many special places in wild country.  Getting there only by pack or paddle is a key ingredient.  I seldom give advice, because people neither want mine nor follow it.  I will simply state that for me the physical effort to go to these beautiful places beats looking on Instagram any day of the week.

Then again, it helped to have been raised a kid, free to rocket down the middle of a lake in mid-winter, using a snow coaster as a sail.  Or to be out in the middle of Agnes, on a beautiful day, looking at the huge sweep to the north.  Or doing the work needed to get to Kawnipi, blowdowns and all.

Because it was Kawnipi.

Heading to the campsite, Kawnipi Lake

Heading to the campsite, Kawnipi Lake

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Kawnipi Lake on the map. It is big enough to be seen on road maps, although there is no road within 40 miles of it.

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One of the last pictures I took of Kawnipi, 2005.

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