The World Away
Nor are we tempted to sing praises of the beauty of portages, like the long one along the Basswood River called The Horse Portage. According to our outfitter, before the Boundary Waters and Quetico were the large wilderness parks they are today, loggers did indeed use horses to haul equipment on this mile-and-a-quarter-long trail. You feel like a horse—or a Spartan slave—doing the horse portage. And if, like us, you’re not hefty enough to carry both a pack and a canoe in the same trip, you cross each portage three times, there and back and there again. So a mile-and-a-quarter portage like this one becomes nearly a four mile walk, two thirds of it under the weight of what you foolishly thought you had to bring on your canoe trip. I start such portages feeling fresh and confident; finish them feeling thirsty, sore, and overmatched. It always seems to be raining on a portage. Or it has rained and the trail is slick rock and deep puddles.
Being young or in outstanding physical condition should not be allowed in this wilderness. Those who fit that description can never know how good a cold swim feels in the evening after such work that you’re not in shape for. They can’t know the numbing taste of the first sip of rum at night, or how much more silent silence is when you’ve been humbled by your middle-aged body. Consider the different varieties of silence this far back in the woods: the water caught in your ears after a cold swim, the sky when you’re the first one out of the tent in the morning, the bits of time between cries of loons on opposite ends of the lake. And those times on the water or around a late fire when no one talks because no one needs to talk. There is so much sacred here that it’s hard to keep a list short enough to read.
Portaging should also keep you from being too proud. Too ambitious. Keep you from thinking that trees and water forty miles in look a lot different from trees and water twenty miles in. They’re different, but are they different enough to be worth all the misery? My wife ventured with me and my pal Arnie and his wife to the Quetico on a brief summer trip one year. Linda found the setting as beautiful as I did, but wondered—with one lake seemingly as good as the next—why we bothered to portage at all. It’s a fair question.
The answer may be that we’re all on some kind of portage, in the Quetico and beyond. This is an idea so corny, so obviously symbolic as to almost have to be true. We all schlep things: packs, the food we need to eat, the shelter we need to stay out of the rain. We also bear crosses. In between the varied experiences of our excursions, the scenery we see going by in life, there has to be this drudgery that turns muscles and tendons to salty twine. Drudgery looking at its own feet. I have all the character I need, thanks, and this won’t build any more.
We’re always walking between two lakes: the known lake of the present and the unknown lake that’s next and which is always more beautiful because you haven’t seen it yet. That is the world away from the known world, the next world that awaits.
Only in life, we don’t know what portage we’re on, do we? Doubt is natural, meaning it’s part of nature, stupid. From the canoe, we look for and find the lowest spot in the treeline that marks the beginning of the portage trail. We pull up to a beach or rocky inlet. Maybe a stream or marsh is off to one side, flowing or draining from this lake to the next. We unstrap our gear from the boats and pile it off the trailhead, in case someone else should traverse by in the other direction. We wouldn’t want to obstruct or delay the other party’s leaving us alone. We strap the packs on our backs, grab paddles, life preservers (excuse me, I date myself: “personal flotation devices”), and set off.
There’s usually just one path, so we simply get out of the boat and start our routine. We might begin to count our steps, and could be forgiven for that. We don’t know how long before we can set all this stuff down and just look at the trees. Someone else, many people have made this trail, this trial. Maybe a parent with a child, or maybe the whole of human history, but probably nothing that dramatic. We just trust that finally we’ll find ourselves on another lake.
My childhood, as I choose to remember it, was spent in the outdoors, and it resides happily there now. The lost promise that was made to me and to all North Americans was made there, too—what Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby called the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” If we can set aside Fitzgerald’s biased coloring of landscape as female inviolate, we’re left with the idea that there is something that precedes humanity and is far greater than what humans are and what humans do, even though we don’t know exactly what that something is.
Arnie is having a smoke and taking a few casts at the shore once we’ve set up camp, and I join him down there for a respite. He says the minute before I came down the path, a family of ducks came out of the water, the mother and the line of ducklings heading off into the woods. Where the hell were they going, he wonders.
“Maybe,” I say, “they were just trying to get away from you.”
“Maybe,” he answers, and then a pause like a sigh. We stare at the water and the air. Tree pollen is floating all directions in the breeze, the trees backlit by long sun.
“Sometimes I think of all this beauty here and how ninety-five per cent of the time, there’s no one here to see it,” Arnie says.
“Exactly as it should be,” I answer.
Richard Terrill is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Tampa Press: Almost Dark and Coming Late to Rachmaninoff, winner of the Minnesota Book Award. He is also the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Fakebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz and Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir, winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Nonfiction. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wisconsin and Minnesota State Arts Boards, the Jerome Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony, as well as three Fulbright Fellowships. He works as a jazz saxophonist.