Carrying a canoe across a rocky portage, paddling into a stiff breeze, stepping into the muck while traversing a beaver flowage, and sleeping on a rocky point with rain pattering on your tent can give you stiff muscles and wet feet.
But those experiences in canoe country also bring a sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of meeting physical and mental challenges we seldom experience in our everyday lives.
Just back from four days in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) – needing a shower, clothes smelling of wood smoke, and ready for a night in my own bed – my only regret was waiting so long to get back to the wild country I’d visited periodically since 1965. The maze of rivers and lakes, bordered by pines, spruces, birches, and cedars, comprise an ecosystem that lures adventurers from around the world.
Is it because we long to relive the historic fur trade, when voyageurs paddled these waters carrying prized beaver pelts? Or is it a more spiritual attempt to learn about our inner selves? Or maybe just an escape from the electronic world of cell phones and computers and TV . . .
Perhaps it’s longing to return “home,” which is what Native Americans called the pristine country that gave them life and livelihoods.
But will my grandkids be able to experience that get-away? What lies ahead for the BWCAW – and for other tracts of the 100-million-plus acres of wilderness we’ve set aside since the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964?
The threats never seem to end. There’s been pressure to keep more areas open to motorboats and snowmobiles; proposals to erect cell phone towers almost on the wilderness boundaries; new demands for mining and logging keep popping up. And what about the popularity of wilderness areas, with so many visitors that some sites are in jeopardy of losing the solitude and serenity that should define “wilderness?”
We must introduce the next generation to the wild country – while instilling in them an ethic to protect it. We try to tread lightly on those portage trails, not build campfires so large that we deplete all the dry wood, and keep only enough fish for a meal or two. As visitors in the homes of others – moose, loons, wolves, bears, otter, eagles – we should show respect for our hosts and not defile their habitat.