We are pleased to share an excerpt from Shelter, a memoir by Sarah Stonich that will soon be reissued in paperback by the University of Minnesota Press. Sarah Stonich is an American writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is the author of Vacationland, The Ice Chorus and These Granite Islands. Under the pen name Ava Finch, she is writing Reeling, the sequel to Fishing With RayAnne. Meanwhile, Sarah is also working on Laurentian Divide, the sequel to Vacationland.
Sometimes the draw feels like the tug of a compass needle, an unseen force. Maybe the north is imprinted on me genetically, or perhaps it's been one of the few constants in life. Friends, lovers, relatives weave in and out, come and go, die. Marriages fail, life tumbles, my son grows up, leave homes, leaves the country. Interests wane, directions shift. One thing doesn’t change, it just hunkers a couple hundred miles away, whether life is being gently rocked or swamped, the lakes are there.
In and out of thrall with the north most of my life, I know when it began, can think of one moment - too young to be able to describe with words, being only seven or eight. I was barefoot and tripping from the cabin to the shore. Mist still skirted the surface of the lake and I registered that the mist made a corresponding line to the dew dragging the hem of my nightie. The wet grass felt oddly distinct under underfoot and I imagined each blade of it, the textures of shiny side/dull side. I could smell it, and knew what it would taste like – I was all in chlorophylly tune with the grass, imagining the woof and warp of roots even as my own toes were digging in. Some other eye in my brain opened to map how the roots dipped into the soil for nourishment, weaving turf below while blades above pulled light from the sun to make itself grow, to make itself be, to make itself grass.
In this oddly comforting moment came the realization that I could feel safe outside the tight spaces of childhood – which could be frightening. The natural world at last made sense – it was all utterly connected, one thing essential to the other – the trees needed the water needed the air needed the wind needed the sun, and the clouds needed all and vice versa and so on. All somehow pitched in with time to make now, and I knew I was most alive at that moment, and that one either is, or isn’t. The piece of driftwood knocking itself in the surf wasn’t. The living tree next to me was. I was.
For a long time I connected that moment as specific to the north, though I know now it can happen anywhere, because it has: on a rainy street of yellow taxis reflecting their drunken twins over wet pavement; during a frost while walking furrows in a southern field; staring out an airplane at the glow of a city a mile below. It happens only when the mind is so empty it drops its tether to consciousness, when clarity springs up to bite the present on its arse.
Places look better from far away. Except they aren’t, and I’m not the only person drawn by the perceived romance of this place, taken in by it, thrilled by it, disillusioned by it, or even spat out by it. It’s tough here. One arrives having dreamt of the trip, planned, and anticipated. Subscribed to Outside, read the Sigurd Olson books, mooned over the Brandenberg photographs, shopped REI or Patagonia for clothing made of engineered feather-light fabrics that if sold by weight would cost $700 a kilo. Canoes are translucent Kevlar. The trip will be soul-crackingly beautiful.
Start the day wriggling from the cocoon of a sleeping bag that is separated from the hardest stone on earth by a half-inch pad. First order of the day is beating ones limbs to get blood circulating. The sudden exposure to cold air prompts the next immediacy – to pee. Puppet-leg it into the boreal dim to the camp pit toilet and bare your nether bits in the same brush where carnivorous mammals are eager for their own breakfasts, where deer ticks are cocked and aimed.
That accomplished, a fire is built and vacuum-packed shards of food are reconstituted with water that hopefully has had the Giardia boiled out of it. Coffee is so essential one may have scrimped on a few other essentials like extra socks and batteries in favor of the 2.5 pound Tomiko K2 espresso kit. Perched on a picturesque rock in morning light, one might enjoy an espresso better than any from the cafes of Montmartre. It hardly matters that the creamer is powdered, the cup is lip-scorching aluminum; you very well might, in the lull before the insects du jour converge, experience a true coffee moment. A fellow camper might capture such a moment in a photograph of the sort seen on glossy ads for the aforementioned espresso maker. Such satisfying moments invariably lead to other, less romantic post-coffee moments that involve trekking back to the latrine with scant squares of toilet paper, muttering a prayer for brevity.
After calamine lotion is applied and ticks tweezed and DEET sprayed, every item in camp is tediously re-packed and loaded into canoes, and the adventure begins. The paddle in yet-unblistered hands feels light. You set off under either a soft sun with calm waters, or under a punishing sun, or eerie fog, or rain, or a wind that either blasts, gusts or blows. Snow in May is not uncommon. This is real paddling – and will be the reason that by end of day your shoulders and forearms howl. The first day may be easy, with a single portage. When strapping on the pack over sunburnt shoulders there might be some regret over the espresso maker and its carrying case – surely the 1.5 pound model would have sufficed.
Portages are serenaded by buzzing, slaps, grunts, obscenities and sighs, trudging alongside in fellowship with someone who would paddle-throttle you if they suspected you were hoarding a Mars Bar. By nightfall, should it ever come, you’re thrilled to eat a half-cooked, unidentifiable meal charred over butane. Pitch sideways onto a ledge of Canadian Shield, too tired to wish for an Oxycontin. After five or six such days emerge with stories to tell using childbirth analogies, the only other experience to rival such exquisite misery. Memories warp in the backward lens of time and one forgets, and goes on to birth more babies or make return visits to canoe country during the heat of July or the snows of June. If an episiotomy requiring 26 stitches can be forgotten, so too might a 260 rod portage in a downpour. Highlights and details of the trip grow more florid with each telling. The length of portages exaggerated; a fondly recalled sunset glows every bit as fiery and colorful as the pass of an obstetric scalpel.
Amnesia aside, when packing for the next trip, practicality might prevail and the espresso kit left behind, knowing full well that next time, freeze-dried Folgers or a steaming cup of spit would suffice if it contained caffeine.
Sarah Stonich was born in northern Minnesota, northwest of Duluth. She moved to the Twin Cities in 1986, where she has worked in the literary community as a columnist, editor and freelance writer. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Zyzzyva, Columbia Journal and Minnesota Monthly. Stonich has been an instructor and lecturer at writing conferences and workshops at The Loft, San Miguel Allende Literary Conference and the Aspen Writers Institute. She is also an editor at WordStalkers.