Unnamed Lake on Prairie Portage, now named Wally’s Folly – September 26, 2013
Think, think where would the trail be. Where would you put it. Not there in the stream bed. It’s too messy. It doesn’t feel right. They wouldn’t follow a spring. No. They want to go west. They want an easy route. There, there in that hollow, that low gap where the hill sags. There.
I splashed across the mouth of the icy creek and plunged into a lattice of branches on the far side, bending them underneath me, snapping them with my weight, pushing myself through. The first thirty feet felt more like swimming than walking, my hands pulling and shoving branches aside, my feet fumbling for footing in soft mud and fallen, rotting trees. Then the ground shifted and began to rise up a hill. I went with it, searching for the low gap between ridges, hoping to find some sort of trail.
I crawled over rotting logs, through thickets of new growth, and under fallen trees, searching for some hint of a path. The forest checked my steps in every direction, suffocating me with branches, pulling at my clothes, scratching my skin. I ducked under a half fallen giant, its branches speared into the earth and stopped.
The ground looked off. It was worn down, not far, just a few thin inches, but down, packed down. I stared it. I felt it with my feet.
Solid. Just wide enough for a man.
I followed the thin depression with my eyes and saw it stretch away, hidden under fallen branches and trunks of young trees, but there, certain and defined, marching up the hill.
The trail. It had to be the trail.
The forest had all but swallowed it whole. Nothing was left but that line of packed earth, that hint of what once was, the dirt worn down by the weight of thousands of moccasins.
I bent low, crouching under branches, following the path like a bloodhound, tracing it for a few hundred yards until I was certain it shot straight through the low gap on the hill toward a small, unnamed lake a quarter mile away. All doubt faded when I saw an old log, rotted to mush, covered in moss, but sawed off at one end with a clean, straight cut.
I put my fingers to it, imagining the blade, wondering how long it had been. Someone was here. Someone tried to save this trail once. Years and years ago. I found another old cut, this one on a stump with a new tree growing on it ten feet tall.
I followed the trail back to my boat. I’d slept thirty feet away from it and never knew in the thick bushes growing along the shore. I grabbed Ruth’s saw and began to work into the forest, dragging the boat and gear behind me as I cleared the path one foot at a time.
I broke off every branch stretched across the trail. I bent back limbs. I sawed away bushes. I ripped out out entire trees.
Foot by foot I moved up the hill, through the gap, along the plateau always following that faint depression in the earth. The sun rose and dropped in the sky. Sweat stung my eyes. Sawdust and leaves stuck to my skin. But I kept at it, each old cut on a moss covered stump, each rotting deadfall sawed in half, fueling me forward, beckoning like a ghost.
I bulldozed forward, pressing back the forest, carving away, cutting until the saw handle blistered my palms. Cutting more. Hundreds, thousands of branches more. They all broke under my feet, in my hands, across the teeth of the saw.
Seven hours for two-thousand feet. Fighting for every inch. Rampaging through to keep that thin line alive, to steal it back from the forest, to break enough branches, to cut enough trunks, to saw enough trees to give the next fool who sets foot on this trail a chance of finding it, a chance to follow the old paths, a chance to find one of the thousand sawed branches I left in my wake, covered in moss and rotting apart, but there to beckon them on.