Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Importance Of Wilderness

'We must speak loudly for this silent place' -Amy Freeman

If my body had a low battery light it would have been blinking…we had just finished the unofficial first half of the WNBA season, condensed due to an extended Olympic break right in the middle of the season.  My wedding was 12 days away, but I had a few free days to recharge before everyone descended upon the Twin Cities.
After talking things over with Ali, we decided we were in a good spot regarding the wedding details and I could bounce to the Gunflint Trail.
Our family has had a cabin on Hungry Jack Lake, just off the Gunflint Trail in Northern Minnesota for many decades.  Originally purchased by my Great Grandpa, I have made it up there every year of my life but one (shoulder surgery knocked me out in 2000)
There are two cabins, a big cabin and a little cabin, and we are just a short paddle across Bearskin Lake to the BWCA the ‘Crown jewel of Minnesota’ as Governor Dayton called it recently.
There’s running water and electricity, but no cell phone access, TV or internet, the perfect place to unplug and charge up.
I loaded my kayak on the roof of the car and hit the road at 6am on Wednesday morning, light rain was falling as I pulled on to 35 and headed north, sipping coffee from my Gunflint Trail mug that I use daily.
The rain hung around until north of Temperance River before tapering off as I pulled in to Grand Marais.
Stopping at the store I loaded up on food, spend a little time hanging by the water listening to a guy play guitar but I was itching to get up the trail and out on the lakes in my yak.
Turning on the dirt road off the trail there is always butterflies of excitement in my stomach even to this day, the anticipation of getting to spend time up here puts a lopsided, goofy grin on my face every time.  This was my first trip back since a winter stop over the year prior, and I couldn’t wait to get there.
After unloading the car, I took the kayak down to the lake and immediately hopped in, the clouds were low and gray, no wind moved as I glided across the glassy surface of the lake.  The silence wraps itself around you up here.  I paddled to the far end of the lake into a bay and just drifted, leaning back I closed my eyes and felt totally at peace, just a small speck floating in a big lake, mind drifting but not thinking of anything, finally letting go. 

Later that night as I sat on the dock eating dinner the sun peeked out for a moment and in that instant I heard the sound of kids, flying from the neighboring cabins down to their docks and SPLASH, in they went.
It reminded me of all the years we came up as kids, my brothers and I spending all day on the dock.  Swimming, eating lunch, fishing, swimming in the afternoon, sailing, canoeing.  Dock days we called them, lunch was summer sausage with cheese, crackers and apples on paper plates held down by rocks so they didn’t blow away.  Nights were spent playing cards against Mom and Grandma, losing money to Grandma and her refusing to play the next hand until you paid up…having to take that walk from the big cabin to the little to get your wallet and make good.
For a few years, all the kids we grew up with playing at the Cabin had grown up and you didn’t hear those sounds as much, but now there was a new crop of kids.  I heard shouts of kids playing king of raft, laughing, splashing, saw them canoeing in the little bay in front of their dock.  It put a smile on my face to see these kids playing in nature, not playing Poke Mon Go, or staring at a screen.
The next day I put the kayak in early with a plan to head into the BWCA, for the past few years I had been supporting efforts to Save the BWCA from mining operations that could pollute the watershed that flowed right into this Wilderness Area.
It scared me to think of this place being contaminated, not being able to float in the middle of the lake and drink the water, not being able to peer deep down on a sunny day and see the big fish that populate these lakes, not being able to take my kids to these areas and jump in for a swim after a hot day of paddling.
The sun was shining this morning as I hopped in the kayak, even though it was early I could already hear the kids down the lake splashing and paddling around.  I paddled down to the first portage, one I have done a million times.  Shouldering the kayak, I crossed the trail into Bearskin Lake.  From there I had to cross the lake to the Daniels Portage, there was little more chop on Bearskin as there always seems to be. 

Looking to my left you could see the rocky top of Caribou Trail, to my right several canoes headed out from Menogyn, and others crossing the lake towards the Duncan portage.
As I slid into Daniels Lake I paddled along the bluffs on the left side, remembering as kids coming here and fishing off those big rocks, the water so clear you could see down to the even bigger rocks below and the shadows of fishing swimming around.  I remembered lunching on those rocks, the way the sun warmed your skin as we reclined on the rocks, each of us finding our own little ‘easy chair’ to relax in.
I paddled further into the lake, debating on making the link up from here to Rose Lake but not feeling the effort of that seriously long portage.
The sun was high, not a cloud in the sky, just a deep blue with a light wind, I paused at the far end of the lake, drifting, watching the shoreline reflect on the surface of the lake.  Our wedding was a little over a week away, the hay was in the barn as my brother liked to say, I was excited to welcome everyone in town and more excited to pledge my love and my life to Ali.  She loved coming to this place too, and the thought of one day bringing our family to follow some of the same trails that I trod as a kid was a great vision.
Heading back to the portage I ran into a guy and his brother, about my age with their two kids climbing into their canoe.  The guy mentioned it was the kids first trip the BWCA, he had been coming up for years but finally they were old enough to handle the canoeing and camping and they were headed out for a few days.  It was so great to see, another generation of kids heading into the Wilderness, learning to love it as their parents did, that’s what this area needs, defenders of all ages, people who understand the importance of preserving it for the next generation and the one after that and so on. 

I portaged over to Duncan Lake, remembering the time my Dad, brother and I were on this lake, the wind was driving hard, the waves crashing against the side of our big old Grumman canoe, Paul was in the front, Dad in the back, me on the bottom of the boat in the middle hanging on to the sides as waves splashed over, praying we would make it to shore safe.  Little different today in my kayak with very little wind.  
Knifing through the water I headed towards the Rose Lake portage, looking at the shore recalling all the hiking trips we’ve taken over the years along the Border Route trail that connects through here.  It’s amazing how certain trees remind you of things, there was a spot where for some reason Alex started singing Sugar Ray and how every time I see that spot that song pops in my head, the part where my body was wrecked with cramps while running back here and I had to gut it out to the road with my brother and cousin, skiing through here during a winter trip to the frozen falls.  So many memories.

I left my boat at the portage, walking down the stairway portage to Rose, laughing at the thought of last summer here with my uncle, cousins and brothers and the laughs we shared over lunch by the lake.  

Crossing the stream, I headed to my favorite spot, but this time it looked totally different, a few weeks’ prior a huge storm had ripped through the area uprooting trees and changing the landscape.
Making my way to the bluff I saw my usual spot was gone but in its place, was a new ‘easy chair’ I reclined on the rock, sheltered from the sun by the root base of a tree that had been uprooted by the storm.  I settled back, wrapping myself in the silence, gazing off towards Canada and Arrow Lake, feeling a light breeze blow through occasionally, and eventually drifted off to sleep.  The kind of naps you dream about at work sometimes. 
I woke slowly as the sound of people drifting over the roots to my sheltered little spot.  A family was taking in the views too, we chatted for a while before I headed out, paddling across Duncan to the Moss Lake portage.
Dropping into Moss the sun was arching towards the west, I thought of the times I have camped on this lake, the epic sunsets, eagles soaring overhead, the time spent just sitting on the big log at the portage shooting the bull with whoever I was with.  The laughter, one of the best parts of canoe trips, the silly little things that make you crack up.  How easy it is to open up to your paddling partners, the conversations that span the absurd to the serious. 
I paddled into the lake letting my thoughts drift over to my vows, how do you tell the woman of your dreams how much she means to you?  How do you put into words how much you love and care about her?  Is it possible to take all those feelings and compress them into a few sentences?  The thing about Ali that I knew right from the start, was how right it felt.  How comfortable I was, how I could be myself without judgement, how all I wanted to do was make her laugh, spend time with her.
As I floated thinking about all those things, I thought about this land too.  How do you put in to words how special this area is?  How can someone who has never put a paddle in the water and floated through a crystal-clear lake understand why we shouldn’t allow a mining operation on the edge of this Wilderness?
It can be hard to put into words what this place means to people, it’s a silent place that can’t speak for itself, you need to show people what it means that’s why I thought the Freeman’s year in the Wilderness was so important.  To shine a light on this area, bring it to the public mind, make people understand we don’t have many spaces like this left and how important it is to keep it wild.
I relaxed on the dock that evening, listening to the sounds of the loons as the sky faded to black and the stars began to come out.  The sound of the kids playing in the lake slowly quieted as it began to get dark and the silence was total.  It was a quick trip, but amazing what it did to recharge my battery and fill my soul.  I closed my eyes, imaging for a moment sitting here in the future with my wife and family, soaking in the beauty of this place and hoping that it would stay as it is for that to happen. 

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