Key West, FL – March 10, 2013
Sad the trip is almost over? Me too, but I’m sure the next adventure is coming soon. If you want to keep up to date, follow the blog via email (look for the link on the right hand side or bottom of every page), facebook, or twitter and you’ll know as soon as I’m lost again.
The route overwhelms me when I think about it. I remember how big Lake of the Woods felt when I started and how much water it held. Water is everywhere in the Boundary Waters, water separated by granite rock and evergreens, water that flows and sinks from lake to lake, water connected by portages miles long. It’s the oldest highway in the North Country, older than any road, a highway made of lakes, rivers, and footpaths. It feels endless until the last steps of the last portage when you look out on Lake Superior and know what endless looks like.
The biggest lake in the world stretches from horizon to horizon between two countries. It’s cold and deep, so cold that it feels like a punch to the head when it touches your skin. It’s an inland sea with storms that sink seven-hundred foot ships before they send a distress call. It’s rocky cliffs and waterfalls pouring down its sides.
There are few escapes, but the Savanna Portage will take you away, only no one’s been across it in years. It’s a swamp backed by a five miles of trail if you can find it. Beaver dams and fallen trees clog the water, mud sinks to your hip on false land. The voyageurs hated it so much that they called it the toughest portage in the west, but they haven’t been around to maintain it for two-hundred years.
Cross it and you’ll find the Mississippi waiting, a giant sheet of brown water draining a continent into the Gulf of Mexico. It cuts through rock and earth, slices of chunks of land, follows gravity and flows. It’s floods wipe out entire towns. There are barges bigger than six football fields moving goods in and out of the heartland. Twenty-nine locks control the northern-half, will and concrete levees control the south. Salt-water freighters fill the last hundred miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans like floating skyscrapers.
A water bottle thrown into the Mississippi in Minnesota, flows into the Gulf of Mexico ninety days later along with everything else swirling in those muddy waters. The Gulf sits between five states and three countries. Oil rigs crowd the open sea. Waves churn from distant storms. Hurricanes build in monsters across the warm water.
But this trip never felt impossible to me, even in the beginning, even as portages crushed my shoulders and Superior stretched like an ocean, because I never thought of Key West. That isn’t how a trip like this is done. I can’t paddle to Key West, that is impossible, but maybe I can paddle to the Gulf. No, that is too far, perhaps I will just reach the Mississippi River or just Lake Superior. Still too far. Perhaps I will make it to the Rainy River or just across Lake of the Woods or maybe just to that island I can see on the horizon. Perhaps just the next tree, the next stroke, the next foot.
I can’t paddle from the Northwest Angle to Key West. No one can. It is too far, but I can paddle the pieces bit by bit, pieces stacked together, pieces that make the impossible real.
That’s what matters. All those little pieces, those little efforts, those moments that come together into something greater.
So you want to save the Mississippi River or keep the Boundary Waters as beautiful as they have always been? You want to restore the Gulf of Mexico or make sure panthers have space to roam in the Everglades and manatees aren’t extinct? It all sounds hopeless sometimes. These are big places with complex problems and we’re just people, you and me, single individuals, we can’t change anything that matters.
I hate that word. Impossible is a lie we tell ourselves. It’s a costume for difficult. It’s an escape.
What you do matters. When you pick up a piece of trash in a park or teach a kid to love nature, it matters. When you donate what you can to protect a place you love or take five minutes to call a politician’s office, it matters. When you vote for people who care or refuse to buy products from those that don’t, it matters. Those are the little pieces, the little efforts, the bends in the river, the next island to paddle to, the moments that come together into something greater.
Look around you and do something, do it now, no matter how small, that helps make the impossible real.
I’ve been lucky to work with four fantastic organizations who help protect the route I traveled. The work done by Friends of the Boundary Waters, American Rivers, Gulf Restoration Network, and Florida Wildlife Federation make this trip possible. I urge you to go to their webpages and learn more about how you can help protect the route I have traveled so that it will continue to be a wild and amazing place for generations of adventures. I also urge you to check out organizations who work to protect the places you love, on this route or off, but do something, anything, no matter how small.