Cypress Lake, Boundary Waters Wilderness, MN – July 6, 2012
They looked too fresh to have been out for long, but unlike a weather-beaten man at one of the portages, I kept my mouth shut long enough to watch them work. Even in the falling rain, on a day easily turned cold and miserable with a thought, they moved with rhythm, like a machine, like they’d done it a hundred times before.
They didn’t fight against the wild, they didn’t push it away, they embraced it. Rain rolled off them, they stepped over rocks and trees in stride, they went into the water without thought. Even their voices were tuned low but clear, not piercing shouts or yells. They seemed part of the wilderness, their edges smeared into the rocks, trees, and rain.
I knew they’d been out for longer than their smiles revealed.
We met at the beginning of what felt like an endless series of portages to reach Knife Lake. Eight young women (two guides and six students from Outward Bound) in four canoes. In teams, they lifted canoes and packs that were too heavy to lift alone, the kind that cause grown men to invent new words. They put them on each other’s backs and walked.
On the first portage, I ran into one of them resting for a moment with the canoe on her shoulders. It probably weighed half as much as she did.
“Need any help?” I asked.
“No, I’m fine,” she said. “Thank you.”
By the next portage one of them asked if she could help me carry anything. She had a pack on her back and a paddle in one hand. If I hadn’t been on my last load, I would have taken her up on the offer.
On we went, portage after portage, splashing through mud and climbing over rocks. The Looksha’s weight battered my shoulder, the rain drained my spirit, but their constant smiles brought me back to life. They made it all seem possible, like I’d find a way somehow, just like they had.
People always tell me that they can’t do a trip like this. “Can’t” flows off their tongue without a thought, as if it’s programmed in. I bet it flew off these girls’ tongues too, on those first days, when none of them knew each other, when they were just names from different parts of the country, when they looked at the packs and canoes and thought it was impossible. I bet “can’t” was all around them.
But they worked and worked to figure it out. I know they did. No one gets their smoothness, their ease with it all, for free. This is hard country and hard work. They fought and struggled and earned their grace just like I am earning mine.
“So what do you think of the trip so far?” I asked one of them as we neared the last portage.
“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s the first time I ever slept outside.”
It was the same for most of them. They’d never been in the wild before and now they were eleven days in with ten to go. There are so few people who can say they’ve spent twenty-one straight days in the wild. I can’t and I’ve hiked 9,000 miles.
I looked in her eyes. Even on a rainy day, even after hauling packs and canoes for miles, even after eleven days of doing what seemed impossible, her eyes glowed. I wondered how many days it had been since she said “can’t” to anything.
“Did you just come out today?” the weather-beaten man asked, ready to stroke his beard and dispense wisdom learned after a week in the Boundary Waters.
“This is day eleven,” one of them answered, “of twenty-one.”
I fiddled with a strap on the Looksha, trying to hide my smile under the brim of my hat.