By Austin Smith
A few weekends ago I went to the Boundary Waters with my dad and my brother. It was a journey getting there from where I live in northwestern Illinois. First I drove up to my parents’ house near Spring Green, Wisconsin. Then, in the morning, my dad and I drove to my brother’s in the Twin Cities. The next morning we drove to Ely, Minnesota, where we picked up the canoe and, in a hotel that felt creepily empty, packed our waterproof bags while watching the first game of the NFL season, played out in an empty stadium. We woke up at 4:30 and drove through the dark to the put-in. I shut my phone off, put it in the glovebox. There was a thick mist rising off the water. We would remember that moment of embarkation more vividly than the paddle trip itself, as if the whole point of the trip was to begin it. We got lost immediately, but somehow it didn’t matter. We weren’t anxious to get anywhere in particular. In the canoe, we were where we had been trying to get to all along.
They call it the Boundary Waters. They should call it the Boundless Waters. There were no boundaries to be seen. Sky and water were equivalencies. They met in pines, the reflections of which were at least as real as the pines themselves. We got lost often, ending up in dead-end inlets we thought opened into channels. It was as if the waters had grown resentful of the maps’ claims to know them and had shifted about underneath them like sleepers under sheets. Or maybe it was just our poor sense of where we were, devoid of the usual orienting points. We set up camp and quoted something my grandpa used to say upon arriving at some place of recreation in order to make my grandma mad (he was a dairy farmer) – “Now what?”
Now what indeed. There was nothing in particular to do. The sun took forever to set that first evening. We practically willed it to go down. I felt uneasy – there were too many pines, too much water, too much silence, too much time. We’d just come from a world where news is always breaking. The breaking news out there was a crow flying from one side of the lake to the other, or the antics of the camp chipmunk we started out cursing and ended up loving, to where we still talk about him today, wondering what he’s up to up there.
I asked my brother to paddle me out into the middle of the lake so I could fish. Almost accidentally, I caught a pike. It felt like I’d hooked a log but we were in the middle of depthless water. Out of its secret, dark, pikey world I pulled it into our boat, writhing in inconceivable agony. I fish a lot, mostly for trout in the streams around Viroqua. I don’t get too queasy about extracting a hook from a fish’s jaw, but catching the pike, I felt, for lack of a better word, bad. I simply felt bad about it. How I felt about catching the pike mirrored what I felt about being out there in general. It wasn’t a place that had come to know us yet. It still had all the innocence of a human-less place. The portages that were beaten down to well-worn trails and the firepits at the campsites were the only signs of human presence. We all remarked on how easily voices carried across the waters, as if the waters were naïve in delivering them so easily, like unknowing travelers tricked into transporting contraband. It wasn’t enough to assiduously leave no trace. One’s presence was a trace.
The next day was gray and we were thankful for the change in weather. We paddled a few hours only to get out and walk a trail, as if to get away from all that trackless water. On the paddle back, we got lost again, but we were used to that by then. Getting lost out there wasn’t as much of a problem as getting lost in the world is. I tried to fish again that evening, but when I touched the hook to the nightcrawler, I winced as it writhed and stopped shy of impaling it. I couldn’t bear to cause any more pain, even to a creature who, like me, had come from the world, me in a Kevlar canoe, the earthworm in a Styrofoam container. I let the worms go, to certain death, surely, but it felt good to pardon them.
That night the clouds cleared, the stars burned through. It wasn’t so much their number as their clarity, as if they were insisting, insisting. Then they’d fade a little, only to brighten again. I can’t speak for my dad or my brother, but it got to where I couldn’t really stand them anymore. I thought of a favorite haiku – “The passing clouds / give rest / to the moon-viewers.”
The paddle out was into the wind. We had to work to leave the place. But how easy it was, ultimately, to return to the world. My phone was still in the glovebox, full of all the news it thought I so desperately needed to know. Even the outfitters took back the canoe and the gear we’d rented brusquely, as if fearing that we might change our minds and refuse to return it.
How long would one have to stay out there to really wash the world out of one’s system? Or is the world not so much a corrupting presence as we are the thing that does the corrupting? And if that’s the way it works, not the world acting upon us, but us acting upon the world, couldn’t we decide to carry something boundless into what we’ve been taught is finite? Instead of asking, “Now what?” maybe we could ask, “What now?”