Canoe, canoe? Can you? I can. I can paddle a canoe. I can portage a canoe. I can paddle and portage a canoe.
I learned how to paddle a canoe when I was a little girl and we started going up north every summer to go camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It was a magical experience to be fully immersed in true wilderness for a week every summer.
We would park our car at a certain lake that leads to several more, and then paddle across it. That's when we would portage, carrying the duluth packs filled with our clothes and sleeping bags and tent and tarp and string hammocks and cook stove and food, and carry the canoe and paddles, and then paddle again across the lake on the other side. We could go across a few lakes in a day until we would find our campsite, make camp, set up the tent, the tarp, the hammocks. Tired, sore, and exhilarated we would watch the first sunset that night and hear the loons calling each other across the lakes.
This yearly retreat from civilization that took us away from all the worries and stresses of elementary school for me, and the worries and stresses of corporate America for my executive father, and pre-teen cliques and jealousies and judgment for my on-the-cusp-of-teenage sister also brought us all closer to ourselves. My mom didn't really have a break from anything. She was now doing dishes in the woods. Doesn't that sound awful? And it was often cold, and often rainy...I can see how it wouldn't necessarily appeal to everyone. However, I felt challenged and enveloped by Nature. I became one with it. And I learned to work with it.
It was us against the wind when there were white caps tipping the tops of the waves and we had to paddle all the way across the lake against that?! I learned to whittle with a big knife. I learned to build a fire from one match. I learned to maintain a fire all day. I learned how to catch a fish, clean it , fillet it, cook it, and clean up afterwards (sand works great to scour out a pan). I learned that you have a choice when you are cold and miserable--you can play cards in the tent with your sister, you can put on your rain poncho and go sit under the tarp and see and hear how the rain falls on the lake, on the tarp, on the needles of the giant white pine next to you. You can sit there with your instant cocoa trying to stay warm in your multiple layers of clothes and think about how you got to that campsite the previous day, and what you will do when the rain stops, and what you will do the next day. You can have a conversation with your family. You can see ducks on the lake gently paddling in the rain and shaking out wings and preening. And then the rain does stop. See--you're OK. It's OK.
In the BWCA I've seen: loons, ducks, gulls, bald eagles, hummingbirds, hawks circling overhead, great blue heron fishing at water's edge, mice, ground squirrels, rabbits, mink, beaver slowly swimming low in the water and then with a slap of their tails submerging, deer, bear, snakes ribboning their way across calm water, frogs, toads, turtles, bluegills, perch, big mouth bass, small mouth bass, northern pike and I've smelled a moose--I didn't see it. I don't know if moose tastes like chicken, but I can tell you that it does smell like horse. I've seen: lichen, moss, ferns, wildflowers, blueberry bushes, jack pines, red pines, white pines, aspens, birches. I've seen woody, loamy soil only a few inches deep. I've seen rotting, decaying logs, mushrooms, fungus growing on logs and on the side of tree trunks. I've seen: dragonflies, maiden flies, flies, horse flies, mosquitoes, spiders, beetles, ants. I've seen: mist hovering above the lake at dawn, and sunsets painted with purples and pinks and oranges, and northern lights. I've felt the sun on my face, on my arms, on my hair, on my legs. I've shivered after jumping in for a very cold swim.
I learned that Nature is messy. Dirt gets in your instant lemonade. Mosquitoes bite your bum when you're on the wooden throne that's up the path away from the campsite going to the bathroom. (The wooden thrones, not enclosed latrines, are only on the U.S. side. On the Canadian side you can use a shovel--go to it!!) Gulls eat the fish heads and guts that you put close to lake shore on the shallow rock ledges that surround the land. Snapping turtles inch closer to get to the fish you have on a stringer in the water. Little birds furiously chase eagles who've stolen their chicks away. Bears get into your food pack that you didn't string up in the trees first thing when you made camp. And from then on, at that campsite you sing, "You must never scare a bear! No!! You must never scare a bear when you go to the throne!! No Way!! You must never scare a bear!!" And you remind yourself that you never get between a bear and her young.
I learned that I am strong. I learned that Nature is beautiful. I learned that I am a part of Nature, not apart from it. I learned that I am an animal connected to all of the other animals. As an adult, when it was time to have my babies, I knew I could do it. I knew I could do it at home, naturally, with my husband holding my hands through each contraction. I knew I would breastfeed as my Mom had and all the generations before her.
I'm hoping that I can help my children learn all of these things. When they are old enough, we will go to the BWCA, and I will do dishes in the woods, and we will talk under a tarp while the rain falls down in little rivulets making a path down to the pine needle covered ground. They will whittle and build fires and eat blueberries and see birch trees with white trunks and feel the wind in their hair and fight white caps on the lake.