This canoe trip was a gift from the three men in my life. My husband, Rich, graciously supported me in venturing off with our son for four days in the BWCA – a place he also adores and would much rather have been than staying home and putting in long, grueling days on a big project approaching its go-live at work. I’m not sure I could have buried my envy as well as he did. Our youngest son, Erik, generously offered up his new hiking equipment, the latest in backpacking technology. I clearly benefited from his warm yet compact down sleeping bag and sleep mat, and we relished the way his lightweight tent practically assembled itself each night. And finally, our oldest son Carl, who shared four days with me in his favorite wilderness and made the whole trip possible.
Despite the fact that I am passionate about exercise and religiously run, cycle, swim or ski significant distances nearly every day, my fitness level does not necessarily translate to physical strength. And size has to figure into this as well – at 5’1″ I was no match for Carl’s over 6′ frame. So when it came time to divide up our carefully selected gear, Carl stacked the deck by strategically placing all the heavier equipment and food in his large “Duluth Pack,” leaving me the clothing and lighter weight fill for my backpack. Add to that the fact that he portaged the canoe as well, he really carried a load – nearly 100 lb. he figures, which probably compares to about 25 lb. for me. It amazed me how he could swing that canoe overhead in a single motion to rest on his shoulders which already bore the weight of his pack. Ah, youth! Down the portage trail he would hike, at a rigorous pace which left me following at a much slower and deliberate speed.
Balance has never been a strong point for me, and at first the added weight distribution of the backpack left me teetering over rocks and clumsily choosing my footing among the frequent roots crossing the trail. But Carl showed infinite patience, waiting for me at the next lake with a cheery greeting for my efforts. But it didn’t end there. He loaded and unloaded my pack from the canoe at each juncture, and held it out for me to slip into, just like he was helping me into a mink coat. And he always positioned the canoe so I had the best vantage point for getting in and out without slipping. While I longed for the days when that was not necessary, I chose to relish being pampered and so well looked after.
We canoed long miles and tackled numerous portages, one as long as 425 rods. I was amazed to learn after the fact that we paddled 18 miles on our first day out! It helped that we had calm waters and traveled through large lakes with few portages to interrupt our progress. Another day was the opposite – it felt like hiking with a bit of canoeing to tie the bits of land together. But we were both eager to go the distance. To explore. To see new lakes and forests. To just be in the Boundary Waters. Energy and endurance were never an issue. We always had capacity to do more. Even if I knew Carl’s paddling strokes were doing more to carry us forward than mine, I was still eager to do my part and earn my keep in the canoe.
Camp time was equally important as that spent on the water. Carl displayed his prowess in building fires, creative cooking over the camp stove, and carving out time to relax and read in beautiful surroundings with views of the water. Mornings, while I packed our gear in the tent, Carl would start a fire and announce “Hot water is ready for coffee.” What great service! One afternoon he proposed a “remote dinner” which took us across the lake to an enormous rock rising out of the lake. We scaled up the back to perch on the edge towering over the water – a glorious site for our dinner and nightly sunset.
And speaking of sunsets, they were both prolific and memorable. Each night was different. Each night was special. And we never grew tired of watching the sun paint colors in the sky that reflected in the pure waters below. The brilliance of the sun was matched only by the campfires that followed. We spent hours staring into the coals, watching them glow, flicker and spark. I think evenings were our favorite part of the day.
When I thought about it, Carl probably carried as much and worked as hard as he would on one of his solo canoe trips. So perhaps from that perspective it was like doing a solo trip with a companion. But the shared experiences and resulting memories can’t be measured. The mutual enthusiasm over the trip, the wonder in admiring our surroundings, the camaraderie when faced with challenges, the unspoken agreement over the division of chores, the prevailing positive attitudes, the companionable silences, the good company – they will remain with me forever.