“I HAD THE BEST OF IT”


We woke at 1 a.m., perhaps because it was so quiet on Horse Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).  When we unzipped the tent and crawled outside on the dewy grass, we saw Orion’s stunning reflection on the water.  I looked overhead, the only time in my life seeing all 7 of the Pleiades visible to the unaided eye.  Oh my, there was absolutely no sound.  Wilderness, dark skies, and quiet:  My outdoor triad.  We had the best of it.

Yeah, we had the best of it one night on the North Tonto Platform down in the Grand Canyon, west of Clear Creek, where we had left the prior afternoon, so we could get part way back to Phantom Ranch rather than doing the whole hike the following day.  We dry camped, maybe where nobody had camped before.  We saw dark skies and heard nothing, not even the Colorado.  We whispered.  The Canyon is noisier today, and I don’t know whether that experience is possible, along with our hearing the echo of a raven’s wings off the Redwall, in a deep southern curve called The Abyss, back in ’86, unforgettable.

We had the best of it just last year in the BWCA, awakening to the sound of wolves not far from our campsite.  We got up, went out and saw an aurora, not just that night but the next, too.  Beavers felled trees in a swamp nearby, not knowing or caring about us as they swam by with leafy branches in their mouths.  A moose walked through the swamp, an hour after the thought had occurred to me the only thing we had missed was a moose.

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Oh, the best of it could have been a number of places, one of which was from a small site on Lake Insula, where we saw the Harvest Moon’s rising over the trees at the far east end, trees now burned, but some day, not in my lifetime, will grow back.  We had the best of Insula.  I spent 40 nights there.  Camped twice for 5 nights each on one site and didn’t see a soul. That’s wilderness.  We had sunny days; we had sleet and snow.  We knew the whole lake.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Author standing on

Author standing on “The Rock,” Lake Insula, 2005

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

We had the best of it the day we hiked the upper Aichilik in Alaska, under heavy packs, where lunch was a sit down affair with Caribou walking right by us, and afternoon was walking below Dall Sheep, who weren’t the least bothered by us.  Doesn’t get much better.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

We had the best of it in the Gunflint when we finished the 15th portage of the day, and I took the canoe off my head, tired but knowing we had finished the Frost River.  What a great decision to camp early the day before and start the river in the morning.  Saw a moose, too. That day some people asked what lake they were on and the weather forecast.  I told them Cherokee Lake and that it would rain the next day.  Mind you, I hadn’t heard a weather forecast in a week.  New south winds up north, however, mean rain.  Poured the next day, planned day of rest.  Great trip.

I had the best of Crooked Lake the day I soloed in from Mudro Lake.  I had an otter surface next to the canoe and hiss at me, as the south wind pushed me north. I crossed a rough stretch, later watching the Sun set, knowing my tired arms could take me the last mile of 20 to a campsite on the border.  I was awakened the next morning by wolves.  I got up, but it was too dark to see them.  I did see clouds moving up through Orion’s belt.  South wind. I broke camp and launched, and it poured all the way to Fourtown Lake. Didn’t see anybody the whole trip.

It’d be 14 more years before I actually saw a wolf— on Isle Royale— 10 trail miles from the nearest person. Told that to a friend, and he wrote back, “God Damn!  That’s what it’s all about.”  Never heard him swear before or since.  But he nailed it.  So did I.  He has had the best of it, too, in a different style.

Or ’92 in Canada’s Quetico, on Kawnipi Lake, alone, a quiet late spring night, after a hard push through snow and wind up Agnes.  The work involved in canoe travel matters as much as the destination.  Kawnipi is special, difficult to reach, and I went there six times, the last time solo, at 56. Wow, am I blessed.  I go to Kawnipi in my mind sometimes.  I had the best of it.

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

I had the best of Alice Lake, mid-October 23 years ago, 6 days without seeing anybody, alone in perhaps 200 square miles, with a morning blizzard and a headwind.  Crazy?  No, it was one of the most memorable days I’ve canoed, and I’ve been lucky to have camped five hundred nights Up North.  Last night out, I fell asleep to rain and then heard it stop, knowing I would wake up to a white landscape.

I’ve been alone at the top of Texas, on Guadalupe Peak, calm, despite gale predictions, looking down on the salt flats and watching the low sun cast the shadow of the mountain miles to the east.  I made it down that evening just as it got dark. Great hike.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Same in Wind Cave National Park, in South Dakota, on a hike out somewhere where you could see forever except for a few copses of trees, and an elk herd galloped right in front of me, a drop your jaw and stare moment.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

I had the best of it on a cold February evening in the viewing blind at Rowe Sanctuary, alone, when a flock of ten thousand Sandhill Cranes displaced a large flock of Snow Geese.  There were birds coming right at me, birds everywhere.  On my video I say, “I have never seen anything like this in my whole life.”

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

It could have been the best along the Lady Evelyn River in Temagami, up in Canada, fifty-one years ago, when we camped by a long set of rapids on one of the most difficult canoe trips I ever did.  It was marvelous country to see, in my sixteenth year.

Or splashing down the Tim River, pack on my back and canoe on my head, because one of the campers was unable to carry the pack, and as head man, I had to do it.  I still remember on the Bulletin Board at Camp Pathfinder, where they listed trips, the words, “Mike Smith in charge.”  I was eighteen.

Oh, the best close to home might have been back in ’89, hiking up to 9000 feet in rain/snow mix, camping on Baldy Saddle in the Santa Ritas.  Snowed that night, but I was warm, listening to snow gradually accumulate and slide down the tent.

We had the best of the grasslands of Sonoita, before it got crowded, when we slept out under the stars, watched the Milky Way rise, and shortly thereafter the waning gibbous Moon.  A decade ago, I hiked up the Santa Catalinas from my then house, walking three miles to the trailhead and climbing 4000 feet, so I could fulfill a dream I had to spend one night—just one—sleeping up there.  Nearly a million people were below me, but I didn’t hear a sound.  I had the best of the Catalinas that night.

A letter in High Country News prompted these musings.  A prior issue was devoted to the overcrowding, cycling in the wilderness, and the loss of wild country, through privatization and destruction.  The writer, 63, if I remember correctly, wrote simply:  “I had the best of it.”  He did.  And so have I.

It’s still possible to have the best of it, but far more difficult because of more people, less wild country, many years behind me and few ahead.

My hearing is fading, my strength less, but I still hear the call of wild country.  I’ll answer as long as I can.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.

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