I have a confession to make: I’m always in a rush.
It is not something to be proud of. Most folks would not recognize that tendency in themselves, but I do. And it is often a hindrance to having a fulfilling outdoor experience.
A couple weeks ago, I had another solo adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Because of the overcrowding we experienced in 2021 on our kids’ first trip there, I was on edge for days ahead of time. On the water, my anxieties about finding an open campsite propelled the canoe at an unnatural pace.
That concern turned out to be unwarranted. Few people could be seen, and I had my pick of several fine campsites.
Still, anxiety followed me. It took a few days to discern why.
After two nights camped on Horseshoe Lake, I moved over to Gaskin on a still morning. Without wind from any direction, it was a slow paddle. The pace was frustrating. But when I realized I was doing exactly what I needed to do in that moment and nothing more, my outlook changed. I absorbed the scenery along the glassy lake and reflected on things I otherwise might not.
The dent in my paddle’s shaft reminded me of that frenzied trip two years back. I treasured some of the moments from that week my wife and I shared with the kids, which brought the realization that I missed them more than I typically would.
I began to question what I was even doing there.
Normally, there is a clear mission on a solo trip, with objectives that involve fishing. But this one was simply for the sake of it, something I hadn’t yet come to terms with. Restlessness had consumed me needlessly. With days left in the wilderness, I resolved to slow down and allow a more passive experience.
After twilight mosquitoes chased me into my hammock that evening, I put my book down and closed my eyes. Bird calls that had been background noise became vivid. Blue jays, ovenbirds, robins, thrushes, white throated sparrows, and others became like instruments. Their timbres and musical gestures transformed into a postmodern symphony just for me, their lone audience member. It had been a long time since their songs resonated in my consciousness that way.
The next morning, I left on a long day trip. Wind was still painfully absent. But my attitude had been transformed, and my gaze was anywhere but on the destination.
Gaskin’s south end is shallow, and without waves the bottom was clearly visible. New green shoots emerged from the muck. Unfurling lily pads stretched toward the surface. Every so often, I crossed the tracks of moose that had recently waded through. It all felt very intimate, especially considering how easy it would have been to miss.
The dramatic hills that flanked Winchell Lake stymied the eastern breeze I’d hoped to ride. No matter, I thought, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my shoulders while I jigged for open-water predators.
It took hours to drift halfway down the lake, where a well-known waterfall awaited. A little farther down the shore I disembarked in the shadow of an imposing cliff, and clambered up the side with lunch in hand.
The breeze up there was steady and refreshing. It also carried the perfume of blooming pin cherries and juneberries.
I thought to check the availability of a cell signal. Pleasantly surprised at the result, I sent a few messages to confirm my continued survival.
Then I sat.
Clouds cast creeping shadows over the forest, and a thunderstorm erupted directly north, over Canada. Wind gusts stroked the surface of the lake in patterns that can’t be seen from a canoe. Vultures circled on updrafts above, and tiny people paddled around below. All the while, songbirds peeped in the trees and bushes.
Almonds and dried fruit never tasted so good.
It took several hours to loop back through Omega and Henson and arrive in camp on Gaskin. A more impatient version of myself wouldn’t have enjoyed it much. But I was in a better place. My thoughts were at one with the passing trees and the rhythm of the paddle. Portages passed almost without notice.
As I cooled myself in the lake that night, I lingered an extra long time, taking pleasure in the way the water felt on my skin as I massaged my shoulders and arms. Leaning back with my ears near the water, I lifted my feet and admired how the day’s last light fell golden on my glistening toes. The cares of life were as far away as they have ever been. My sense of peace was all-encompassing. In that moment, there was nothing on earth I wanted.
It was then I knew why I had come. And it was then I knew exactly what I had accomplished.