Summer of 1970. Minnesota Outward Bound. Up at dawn to “wild walk”—jogging through woods, wading through swamps, crossing rapids in a human chain. We ran two miles every morning, clambered over obstacle courses, kayaked, rock climbed above the shores of Lake Superior, learned what was edible in the woods, canoed and laughed each other to sleep as we bullshitted in our tent at night.
For our Long Expedition we canoed north across the Canadian border through the great network of lakes and streams that had sustained Indians, trappers, voyageurs in their enormous trading canoes, and missionaries for centuries. It was beautiful, rolling country, filled with evergreens and birch trees, wild animals and the calls of birds.
As we paddled farther from American waters the portage trails narrowed and were merely marked by a single blaze made by a ranger with his hatchet on the trunk of a tree. The Canadian water was clean and pure for swimming and drinking. We shared it with only the trees, beavers, deer, hawk, bear and jays who crossed our paths, and the loons we heard uttering their many voiced, fantastic cries late into the northern nights.
We came up Moose Lake to Birch Lake, through Knife Lake and across the Sangemon into Ross Lake. Then came the climactic Outward Bound experience, the Solo. You had a cup for sipping water, a fishhook and string, a book of matches, and a tarpaulin in case it rained. I was left on a small point that commanded a wide view of the water. By four in the morning the mosquitoes were so thick and noisy I restarted the fire. When I awoke in the dawn it was to find a family of partridge munching breakfast no more than twenty feet away. The day broke gusty and clear, and I spent hours fishing with my hand line without ever coming close to a strike.
Four days of absolute solitude, a diet of six blueberries picked each day, two swims and unlimited water. I remember beautiful golden sunsets and singing many almost forgotten songs, living a life apart.
When, after the fourth day, our instructors canoed us back to our island camp site, we ate a big pot of spaghetti, very slowly. The next day we struggled on obscure Canadian streams, often missing even more obscure landmarks, overgrown portage trails and unmarked short cuts. But we persevered until we reached Kashipiwi Lake, farther north than any human settlement between us and the Yukon.
On the homeward leg of our journey, a great black storm rose up on Basswood Lake. Waves broke against the canoe, we shipped water and nearly capsized twice, but made it to the Ranger station on the Canadian-American border as the sun broke through the clouds. The Ranger’s wife rewarded our return with brownies fresh from her oven. That night, we established camp in time to dry our clothes, eat a hot meal, sleep beneath the stars, and remember the majesty of all we had paddled through.
“I am glad,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
Then you tugged on your shorts and dry socks and sneakers, and pretty soon the chicken noodle soup was served, and then you filled the bowl with tuna casserole and peas, and you sat down next to a bunch of friends you had only met three weeks before but now seemed as close as the closest friends you had ever had, feeling warm from the fire and the food and the talk of the day gone by, and by and by began talking about tomorrow and next week until you were telling someone you had never met a month ago what it was you hoped to be doing for the rest of your life, and there you were somewhere way up in Canada leading as simple a life as you could imagine as the fire crackled and the loons began to cry, and the sun set and you took a last look at the sky all lit up gold and helped yourself to a cup of cocoa which warmed you all over again, and you climbed into a pair of baggy dry trousers and put on your turtleneck and began to sing with the rest of the brigade, sitting around the campfire, when the wind came up and the air turned crisp and the mosquitoes were too cold to bite, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” or “Folsom Prison,” or “There But For Fortune,” and you could not measure the great feeling of warmth in degrees so much as in the shared fellowship of a hard day, and the prospect of doing it all over again tomorrow…
Then, as the fire died, you notice that the sky is clear, and if you look closely, you can catch a glimmer of the northern lights. So you drag your sleeping bag from your tent and lay it out on a bed of pine needles overlooking the lake, and strip down naked and climb into it and feel the softness and the warmth and relish the comfort more than any mattress in any room at home and say goodnight to all the others, and busy yourself with your own thoughts—and soon you begin to think of home and a pretty girl whose brown eyes are so soft and whose lips are warm and wet to kiss, and whose body curls into your body, and you think about her and you look into the star-filled sky, and you feel the cool breeze blowing on your forehead and your cheeks, and as you fall to sleep you wish that she were with you here, because then you know you’d never come back.
The difference between social distancing in the north woods in the summer of 1970 and in Gotham in the Spring of 2020 was that this time around I had the girl of my dreams close beside me, whether hunkered down at home or on occasional walks in the park and on the shore, and that made all the difference. Thank you, M!