Basswood Lake, Boundary Waters Wilderness – July 2, 2012
I held a single match between my fingers. It felt like my world hung on that match. I felt frail and beaten thin. I needed it to light. I needed to see the flame.
Three hours earlier, the Looksha lay on her side, her tail hung up on a boulder, the portage cart collapsed and twisted under her. I pulled anyway, frustration venting out of me with the scream of metal and plastic grinding against rock.
I was done trying to figure out how to carry the boat, how to shove it over rocks, how to move 17 feet of plastic that was never meant to be on land. I just screamed and pulled and listened to the grind like a five-year-old throwing a tantrum.
I dumped the boat into the water above Basswood Falls. Fresh gashes scared her side, but I just stared out at the sinking sun. Portages and rapids had cut up the day. The tiny stretches of flat water between felt like gasps of air to a drowning man. Hours of work and we’d barely moved across the map. Now we’d made it to a big, open lake and the day felt over.
The Looksha isn’t made to portage. She’s heavy, long, and made for open water. I knew this going in. I knew I’d pay upfront for Lake Superior, the Mississippi, and the Gulf. I knew how difficult the Boundary Waters would be, but I did not understand. It was all theory then.
Now, now I understand.
I stared out and just wanted to go, to fly across Basswood Lake and never stop. Forget camping, forget the setting sun, forget it all. I dug my paddle into the water and pulled, my arms possessed by the need to move. Even as the sky darkened with a line of clouds piled toward heaven, I pulled. As thunder broke to the south and rain began to pour, I pulled. As waves rose with the wind, I pulled, furious and angry, refusing to yield the open water to anything. It was mine. No storm would take it from me.
The Looksha came alive underneath me as if she felt it too, as if she thirsted for this, needed to feel the movement. With or against the waves, it did not matter, she cut through them all and we danced and spun between islands and around points until the storm conceded the water to us and fled, leaving the sky to turn pink, then dark blue, then black with night.
I paddled until I couldn’t see anymore, until I could barely lift my arms, until I’d spilled all my frustrations, fears, and doubts over miles of water. When I slid to shore near midnight, I felt hollow, ready to collapse in on myself.
I fumbled in the darkness for my stove and flicked my lighter but got only sparks, then nothing. What was left of my mind screamed out for food. I knew I needed to eat, to calm down, to catch myself, but my second lighter copied the first. They just sparked and disappeared in the darkness of the night.
I slumped against a tree and felt alone and lost. I didn’t have the answers anymore. I didn’t know what to do. This whole thing felt suddenly overwhelming, my mind scattered across pieces of a thousand thoughts. It felt like the world had fallen apart around me and I couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe.
I just needed to eat so I could think straight.
Then I remembered a box of matches my friend Yingxue had given me a few days before I left. She’d wrapped them beautifully in a bright bag stuffed with tissue paper and told me she had no idea what to get me because she doesn’t spend nights in the woods.
I’d laughed because I had two lighters and had never needed a match before, but I decided to take them with me because she is like a sister to me and they’d remind me of her and make me smile when I felt alone.
I took out the box, slid it open, and held a single match between my fingers. I stared at the white wood and red tip then pressed it against the strip and pulled.
The rush of air and fire glowed in the darkness, settling into a thin flame that lit my way back from the edge of sanity.