Shore of Lac du Milieu – September 27, 2013
This is what I’ve traveled seven thousand miles for. This moment on a lake without a name. No trail. Locked in by trees. Me, a seventeen-foot boat, eighty pounds of gear, and fifteen hundred feet of north woods.
The trail out of Coldwater Lake died when it reached this pond. It died or I lost it. Dead to me either way. So there’s fifteen hundred feet to an old timber road.
It doesn’t sound like much, fifteen hundred feet. It sounds like a city block, like five minutes on a sidewalk, but I’d take thirty miles of sidewalk over fifteen hundred feet of north woods with a kayak. March me from one side of San Francisco to the other and back five times, I’d only smile and say I got off easy.
I watched the sun come up from my hammock. I watched the golden light snag crowns of trees and slide down their trunks. It moved too fast. I wanted dawn to last forever because I knew that as soon as I woke up I had to face that fifteen hundred feet.
No paddling. No warm up. Right into it, jumping into a sea of branches. That is why I traveled seven thousand miles. So I could will myself into that sea.
North woods are thick. Even the oldest are dense. Fallen giants and rising stars crowd the under stories. But they’re walkable.
This one is young. Burnt or cut down ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, it hasn’t risen high, it doesn’t hang above your head. Only a handful of trees stand above the fray. The rest, the masses, they weave together at eye level, locked in a battle for sunlight. They stare at you, rip at you, seize your throat, your chest, your hips, your legs. There’s no space because every living thing is fighting for space and space right at your head.
So I watched the sunlight work down the tips of trees and hated it because I knew it meant I had to get up and fight for space like every other thing out there.
It’s not walking. You don’t take steps. You crash. Slowly. You fall through the branches, leaning into them, using your body, your weight to push arms and legs like battering rams.
Thorns, branches, and fallen limbs claw at your shins and forearms. They wrap around your legs. They rip off little pieces of skin, leave beads of blood to smear away. They make you pay for crushing them, for stealing their space, for leaving them flattened out behind you like a frozen wake.
I found the top of the hill. I stood there breathing. Hands on my knees. Sweat dripping down my nose. My chest heaving for air. A bag of gear dropped next to me in the brush. Five hundred feet, five hundred feet, five hundred feet, beat in my mind.
I looked at an old birch with three trunks. I studied it. I memorized it. Where it stood on the hill. What it looked like. The yellow color of its leaves. I needed to recognize it before I turned and crashed back down to the lake.
The boat was waiting.
Will. Dragging a boat through the north woods is all will. It’s not strength, not muscle, blood, or bones. It’s not cracked limbs or splintered branches. Not bruised hands or ripped clothes. Not sweat, curses, or pain. There is no elegance to it. There is no trick, no secret, no shortcut. It is all will.
Brutal, violent will.
The birch with three trunks waited an hour, but I came. I came with the boat behind me and waited for my chest to stop heaving before I picked up the bag of gear.
Space. Freedom. The forest road. It was a thousand feet away. It felt so close. I punched through walls of branches with the gear, smashing toward the road, my legs churning in the brush.
Don’t stop, I said, don’t stop. Taste it. Believe. If you stop you won’t move again. It’s right there. Just keep moving. Keep lifting your legs. A few more steps and you’re free.
Then I found it, past a thicket of young spruce, but it wasn’t a road and I wasn’t free and no matter how much you want it, you can’t walk on an old aerial photo.
The road was flat ground filled with trees.
I stood, staring at it, hating it, fighting to swallow it down. I walked a hundred feet on either side, pushing through the sea of branches, sure I’d just missed it somewhere, sure that if I just looked a bit harder I would find it, sure that I was only feeding myself lies. It was the road, I knew it as soon as it touched my feet.
Get the boat, I thought. The road is better than nothing. Better than wild forest. Go back and get the boat.
Will is a wire pulled tight. You can’t let it snap. You can’t let it slacken. You have to keep pulling it. Keep moving. I got the boat. I dragged it from that three-trunked birch to the road filled with trees, then I stacked the gear on top of it, and dragged it almost a mile, sometimes on wheels for thirty foot stretches, like gasps of air, sometimes on the broken branches of trees, but always forward, always pulling that wire tight.
A mile from the lake with no name, from where I watched the sunlight slide down the treetops, I spilled out on a gravel road, a real one, cutting through the young forest. A thin line of old trees ran across it to the north, left standing by some timber company years ago. I’d stared at them on maps for days and knew that if the portage trail still existed, if any of it were left, it would be there. If it wasn’t, I could walk the road seven miles to the Savanne River and be done with it.
I almost didn’t look. I almost didn’t want to find it. But it was there, a faint depression in the earth, sliding away behind a sign that read “Prairie Portage.” It went twenty feet, right into a tangled deadfall and spit out the other side into the forest.
I stared at it for a long time. It was nothing but a hint of trail, more imagination than real. I wanted to walk the road. Seven miles is simple. It’s known. It used to be too far to imagine, the idea of walking seven miles with a boat, but that was long ago, before the St. Louis River out of Duluth, before either side of the Savanna Portage, before walking across New Orleans, before the Richelieu to Montreal, before Muskrat Lake on the Ottawa. Seven miles is nothing now. It is an afternoon.
But there was the path in the forest, faint as the beat of a dying heart, but there. I had to try.
I traced it a quarter mile. I crawled over deadfalls. Slid under limbs. Pushed through thickets after that faint depression. It grew thinner, sputtered, then disappeared. I searched. I walked back and forth in long arcs. I followed every game trail I found, running them out, trying to convince myself I hadn’t lost it. But it was gone, flatlined into history.
I’d fought so hard trying to find the path, trying to follow it as close as I could, to keep pulling my will tight. Then that wire snapped, the weight of the day falling with it. I felt lost and tired. I wanted to stop, to lie down and sleep, to give my body a chance to recover.
But I’d run out of water. Sweat hadn’t beaded on my skin for hours. I could feel my body grinding to a halt. I grabbed the boat, dragged it back to the road, and started walking.
The pain came then. The bones in my feet ached with every step. My legs felt used up. My back sore and twisted. Blisters swelled across my palms and fingers, the layers of skin pulled apart, loose like an oversized glove.
I strapped the boat to my wrists, letting them take the brunt of the weight, finding some new muscle to torment, and kept walking down the road.
A truck pulled to a slow stop.
“You following the old portage?” the man asked.
I tried to smile.
“As best I can,” I said. “But I lost it, then I found it, then I lost it again.”
The man looked at me and the boat.
“I’ve been driving this road for thirty years and never saw anything like this,” he said. “You going try the pipeline?”
“The pipeline?” I said.
He got out a map and ran his finger down a line that cut straight across the land between Lac du Milieu and Height of Land Lake, right through whatever was left of the old du Milieu portage, the second of the three between Coldwater and the Savanne River.
I’d seen the line on my map. I knew where it was before he said anything, but I thought it would be just another road turned into a forest, a wall I couldn’t climb without water.
“There’s a pretty good track running down it,” he said. “Take a look at anyway.”
I nodded. The wire tightened. He glanced back at the boat one last time, shook his head, wished me luck, and disappeared down the road.
Five minutes later I turned down the pipeline on a packed dirt track. I found an old hunting camp and a man who’d walked the pipeline since he was tall enough to see over the grass. He pointed to the crest of a hill.
“The trails still there,” he said. “It will get you to Lac du Milieu anyway.”
He looked at me and the boat.
“From there,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I don’t know.”
I found the trail, now a muddy ATV track, and followed it down to the lake, racing the sunset, racing dehydration, racing exhaustion to crash on the shore, to rip open the summer sausage Wim gave me and slice hunks of it off for dinner, to feel my friends close, to stare at Lac du Milieu in the twilight, to pull that wire of will tight again, to know there is only one leap left, the Savanne, the last of the three portages.