Passing the Wilderness Torch

I had the great pleasure of paying back my father in a very small way for something he did for me almost 45 years ago. The payback was a weekend canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW, or BWCA for short). What he did for me 45 years ago was pass on the legacy of love and respect for the wild outdoors that had been passed to him by his father and grandparents when he was young.

The beginning of this torch-passing started with him building a canoe in our garage in 1966, when I was 10 years old. Not just any canoe, but a canoe made with long narrow strips of redwood. Built on an inverted template suspended on saw horses,the quarter-inch-thick, half-inch-wide, 18-foot-long strips of wood were glued from bow to stern over the template pieces, then stapled to allow the glue to dry and secure the strips together. After the glue dried, the staples were removed, the wood was sanded to remove any excess glue or ridges, and a layer of fiberglass fabric was sealed to the inside and outside of the shell with polyurethane resin (nowadays epoxy resin is used.)

After the shell was completed, seats, a yoke (for portaging) and trim work was installed. Once that was done, a final coat of marine varnish was applied to give the boat a nice shine and extra protection from the elements. And there you have it. In about four months of nights, weekends and any spare time he could find, my dad had fashioned the most beautiful canoe I’ve ever seen. Not that I had seen many, but even after I had seen dozens of wood strip canoes, I thought his had nicer lines and a beautiful pattern of light and dark wood strips that makes each wood strip canoe unique. And he did it with mostly hand tools. Back in the 60s, power tools were not very common, and those that were available were expensive. He might have had a power sander, but even a lot of the sanding was done by hand.

Finishing the canoe literally the morning of our scheduled family vacation, we hauled it up to a campground on the edge of the newly created BWCA (1964) at Sawbill Lake and took the maiden voyage. Dad’s parent’s were present and we even had a christening, using something like Andre’s Cold Duck or sparkling grape juice to spray over the bow. I don’t think breaking the glass bottle on the wood hull would have been a smart idea.

Either that trip or the next year, Dad took me on my first overnight canoe trip, starting at that Sawbill and visiting three other lakes to fish, portage and camp primitively. The only indications of a campsite were a fire grate and a box latrine back in the woods some distance from the water.

To a ten-year-old, this was high adventure on the order of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi or Jim Hawkins sailing with Long John Silver in “Treasure Island”! I developed skills on those trips that have served me well: conservation of supplies and equipment, being prepared for all contingencies (you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a raging thunderstorm/near tornado from the inside of a flimsy tent), fire-building, fishing, map-reading, compass-reading, packing light for a trip (the first rule of portaging is, if you want to bring along extras, you gotta carry them!), coping with mother nature and the elements, and most importantly, persevering under hardship. Mosquitos, biting flies, muddy, slippery, rocky portages, oppressive heat in the summer, chilly, wet fall and spring nights (it can snow in northern Minnesota in the summer and often does in May or September!)

Best of all, more so than the physical pleasure and sense of achievement came the bonding between father and son. A canoe trip was 100 percent one-on-one time since there were no distractions such as radio or tv. It was just two males co-existing and depending on each other for survival..okay, more like me depending on him for my survival, since there was no way I’d be able to portage a canoe at that young an age. But we each pulled our appropriate weight and had to deal with bad moods, sore backs, bumped knees, twisted ankles, or a head cold that came on at the beginning of the second day. A lot of time was spent doing things, but in the canoe and at camp, sitting around a campfire, there was plenty of time for talking about all topics, great and small.

Even though we had done our last canoe trip almost ten years ago, Dad and I got into a familiar rhythm with each other immediately. It was a little different this time, because I was the organizer and leader of the trip, plus I took the stern for the first time on a permanent basis, because I think Dad doubted he was strong enough to paddle consistently for long hours. Not five minutes into the first paddle, we found our stroke rhythm and were cruising down the Kawishiwi River, breathing deep the clean air, watching for wildlife, studying the patterns left on the water by the wind and our paddles, and thinking about nothing related to civilization.

I like to call wilderness canoeing in the BWCA ‘creative deprivation’ because condensing one’s life down to food, clothing, shelter and basic transportation helps one focus on what is most important in life, with no extraneous garbage to muddle one’s thinking such as personal finances, politics, media, family problems, current events, computers, jobs.

Food is freeze-dried and basic. Clothes are what’s on your back plus a dry set. Shelter is a nylon tent. Transportation is a canoe, and manpowered. Walking back to civilization is not usually possible in the BWCA, although there are some primitive hiking trails that one could use if they were near enough, so preserving the canoe is priority one. No running dangerous rapids, no ramming into shoreline rocks at full speed, no dropping of the canoe on top of a steep portage and having it crash to the bottom, broken into dozens of pieces.

You merely survive, and are transported back to ancient days, when survival was what it was all about. Depriving oneself of luxuries, extras, and comforts reduces your focus to what is really important, and forces you to appreciate what you are fortunate to have over and above survival, when you return to your normal life. You concentrate on the four basics, and your thoughts at the end of the day lean toward what is most important– family, friends, activities you love to do, what really matters in your life. The creativity comes from getting recharged, refreshed and energized to see problems in a new light, put life into perspective, and being allowed to and becoming able to think outside the box. Creative deprivation.

Anyway, the trip finished well. We had typical BWCA weather for a three-day trip: rain most of one day, perfect weather another day, hot, cloudy, buggy part of the time. We caught some fish, ate some passable freeze-dried food, talked for hours about what mattered most at a given moment, and enjoyed the supreme silence when that was the most important thing to do at other given moments.

I don’t have children of my own to whom I can pass down my love of nature and the BWCA , but I am a volunteer Big Brother, and have taken my little camping, hiking, fishing and exploring in many wild places, including a trip into the BWCA and two other camping trips up to that perfect campground at Sawbill Lake on the edge of the BWCA, so I feel I have at least attempted to pass on my father’s legacy. Time will tell if I’ve succeeded.

Have you passed on any legacies to young people you know and love? I’d love to hear about it.

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