I began to hear a gentle tapping on the tent fly.  Then it stopped for a minute or so but began again and increased.  It was raining, and judging by the way the clouds had looked all day and this evening, it was probably going to rain for some time.

Fine by me.  Great, even.  I was in my tent, warm, had a book, a light, no place to go, and nobody knew where I was, other than on some lake in the Boundary Waters. The tent wasn’t going to leak, water wasn’t going to soak the floor, and I was at total peace with the world.  I’m not sure what that is worth, but in the woods, where puddings are currency, tundra swans on the wing are news, loon calls are music, and I can turn my full attention to a single leaf with interesting drops of water on it, a rainy night after the day’s work is done ranks high on my list of good things.

It was a gift, I concluded, a wonderful night in the woods.  I turned off the solar charged light I had and just lay in the dark.  I would later drop off to sleep, awakening some time after midnight to no sound.  When I went outside, there was a dense mist just this side of rain, but not so dense as to let me hear it on the tent.  

That night brought back memory of a similar experience–“gift”–on the Nahanni River, a beautiful wild river in the Northwest Territories, west of Great Slave Lake, that I ran with a Canadian group back in 1985.  I said several times I’d go back but knew I probably wouldn’t and never did.  It wouldn’t be the same anyway, now having been “discovered.”  We had camped above the 96 m high Virginia Falls one evening, after having had time to view it in bright sunshine. I still see myself as a strong 36 year-old, shirtless, standing near the falls at the top and in rain gear at the bottom, because of the heavy spray.  We would portage 3/4 mile around the falls the next day and shoot the rapids, camping on an island well downstream from Fourth Canyon.  After dinner, the canoes were pulled well up on shore and tied, for losing one would have been death out there.  Cleanup complete, we settled in our separate tents, rain starting, barely audible over the roaring rapids nearby.  It is one of the nicest memories I have of the trip from Rabbitkettle Hot Springs to the Liard River.

To be a “gift,” the rain can’t start before dinner.  Heavens, not that.  I can think of trips where heavy rain did occur early, and we dined on a granola bar. One memorable rainy night followed a day where a friend and I left Kahshahpiwi Lake in the west central Quetico, which has no easy way in or out, and after negotiating a nasty swamp that was too wet to walk over but not wet enough to paddle, found our exhausted, sweaty selves in the pouring rain on Silence Lake lucky enough to have a place to pitch our small two man tent, neither of us with either the energy or the initiative to make dinner. 

Another time was a decade ago with my wife, when a thunderstorm brewed up in the afternoon over our sand beach camp on Lake Insula, a beautiful spot, but with the fireworks starting just as we boiled some water.  We retreated to the tent while the storm continued for several hours, one lightning strike within probably 100 m of the tent. I finally had to go out once to get a water bottle and to leave behind my own water, and I didn’t feel a bit safe doing it. True, the odds were against my being struck by lightning, but luck and hope as a safety plan are considered bad form by accident investigators, coroners, and other such parties.

Rain’s beginning just before one awakens doesn’t qualify, either, because a major day’s decision needs to be made quickly while one is still half asleep:  “Do I get up, dressed, rolled, packed and get the tent down now before everything gets wet, or do I take a chance, sleep in, and end up both being wet and packing wet?”  “Or do I stay put until it stops?” An hour before, I had heard wolves howling out on Crooked Lake. I remembered the strong south wind the day before that pushed me 20 miles north, and noted, when I was trying to find the wolves, clouds moving up through Orion’s belt, showing a continued southerly flow in the upper atmosphere. That meant rain.  At least I had the good fortune to already be awake, but still had to decide on a plan.  Sometimes, like that day, I made the wrong decision: I packed and moved on, and neither my gear nor I remained dry.  It was about the only time on a lake I had to pull into an island to empty rain water out of the canoe.  

Thunderstorms are another matter.  From a sheltered, safe place, I love watching them.  It is one of the things I miss about Arizona.  When I was a volunteer ranger patrolling with the late Mike Manlove, I would spend the first night outside of Ely in the “Belfry,” a wood shack that Mike built predating his marriage, and where he and Becca first lived.  They then built a log cabin, leaving the Belfry for their kids, and later a for a guy like me who was headed out the next day with Mike to patrol. One night, I could hear the roll of a line of thunderstorms, a menacing celestial growl, counting seconds after each bolt of lightning, tracking the progressively decreasing number associated with progressively louder thunder. I love being in bed in a nice shack listening to that.  Two nights later, on Ima Lake, a flash of light entered a dream I was having, and the loud CRACK made sure I was awake, so that we could rescue our canoe–without needing a flashlight– that had been blown into the lake.

A thunderstorm when it is still dark, and one is solo, brings a sense of foreboding, especially if the boomer is part of a squall line coming through.  I awoke on my Oyster Lake site one September, far from anywhere or anybody, to a thunderstorm in the pre-dawn hours.  It’s primal. We feel we can control our environment, but a thunderstorm shakes me to my core. With another person, one can at least discuss it, even if holding the tent poles to keep the tent from being blown down, which my father and I had to do in one storm when I guided him and my brother into Canada. 

I listened to the patter of the rain, thought back over dozens of canoe trips, hundreds of days out in the woods, thousands of miles under pack and paddle.  I sometimes wonder what I did with my life, and then I realize how fortunate I have been to have spent so much of it out in the back and beyond.  Nearly sixty years ago, I was told that one remembers the difficult days on the trail, and I do remember those hard days in Temagami, Algonquin, Boundary Waters-Quetico, Gates of the Arctic; I have fond memories of difficult days on Lady Evelyn, White Partridge, Agnes, This Man, and Takahula lakes. These places, that weather, those who came along were all part of my experience.

I would have two more “gifts” on this solo trip, which was worth all the work, all the wind, all the rain, all the difficulties of being an old man soloing in the woods, to have more memories to cherish.  

2 Responses to “A “GIFT” OF RAIN”

  1. Steve Nash Says:

    Absolutely perfect

  2. Mike Says:

    Thanks. I wasn’t even sure I was going to get into Basswood, given the absolute downpour on the drive up (2.2 inches in Ely). Much as I wanted to get out of the motor zone, it was the right decision to stay where I did.

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