Often we describe the tranquil times, silence, sunset and countless beautiful moments that one encounters when they are immersed in Wilderness. Wilderness has many moods: blizzards that chill you to the bone and drenching rains that fill the canoe and leave you soggy, wondering if you will ever see the sun again. Then there are bugs, blisters and giant portage packs that send you wobbling down the portage trail. These uncontrollable factors are often the fuel for our most memorable and transformational Wilderness experiences.
Several days ago we packed up camp on Gun Lake, expecting an easy day traveling on a packed trail to Sandpit Lake where we would meet a resupply team. We took our time packing up camp. The temperature had dropped to -12 overnight and a stiff south wind was blowing, so we were in no hurry. We leisurely packed the toboggans and harnessed the dogs. As expected, we rocketed along on a hard-packed trail with the dogs pulling me and and our toboggans.
After 5 minutes a 50-yard-wide pocket of deep slush appeared where our hard packed trail had been the night before. We took off our skis and searched to the right and left, looking for a way around the slush. The dogs barked and lunged, unhappy about our sudden stop. Diverting to the right seemed better so we turned the team and headed toward the right-hand shore through the deep untracked snow. After 10 minutes we had negotiated the slush pocket. Despite our best attempts to avoid the slush, our skis and toboggans were coated in ice. We pulled out our scrapers and spent 10 minutes removing the ice cemented to our gear. A few minutes later we encountered another large pocket of slush and repeated the process. While we were scraping after the second slush pocket, a Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge advanced camping group passed us. We followed their trail through and around the slush for the rest of the day. The slush made traveling slow and hard.
As it was getting dark, we caught up to the Wintergreen group near the end of a mile-and-a-half long winter portage into Tin Can Mike Lake. Two men had fallen in up to their waists while crossing an unfrozen patch of bog. They were obviously exhausted and way past their comfort zone. Their young guide, Peter Schurke, has been tromping through the Wilderness in every season with his family since he took his first steps and cheerfully encouraged them to keep moving. They would camp “just around the corner.” This was just another day in the Wilderness for Peter; a day full of challenges, but nothing he hadn't seen before. If fact, I am sure Peter came into the Wilderness looking for these challenges because he knew they would leave a lasting impression on his companions in ways that go beyond the sunsets and silence that Wilderness affords.
Amy and I were looking forward to setting up our own camp soon as well. We scraped ice off our skis and toboggans for what we hoped would be the last time as Peter and his campers slowly trudged around the corner. At that moment I doubt that they noticed the raw beauty of a raven flying overhead or the emerging stars creeping across the sky as the sun's final glow disappeared beyond the rugged pine-studded ridge across the lake. I also doubt they came to the Wilderness in search of slush, partially frozen bogs, and setting up camp in the dark. But after a warm shower and a hot meal, those challenges become the glue that adheres the Wilderness to your soul, allows you to take a part of the Wilderness with you, and changes you in a way that only those difficult moments can.
Those experiences are one of Wilderness's greatest (but often overlooked) assets, and are an important reason to protect Wilderness for future generations.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in the Wilderness? How did it affect you? It is important to share those moments with others. Tell your elected officials about how those challenges have shaped you. The changes Wilderness imparts on us ripple through our lives and our communities long after we leave the Wilderness, which is one important reason we need to save the Boundary Waters.
[PHOTOS: Top, Peter Schurke and Bottom, Marc Sadeghi (2)]
Dave and Amy Freeman, 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, are dedicated to protecting the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed on its wilderness edge. In 2014, they paddled and sailed 101 days and 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, on the Paddle to DC. They are now spending a year in the Boundary Waters on A Year in the Wilderness. Follow their journey on social media (#WildernessYear) and by tracking the trip on their map. More A Year in the Wilderness blog posts.