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From This Perch: Nature's peace

"Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

"The winds will blow their own freshness into you,

"and the storms their energy,

while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

-- John Muir

Oddly, fresh from an annual visit to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I find myself wondering about its acronym—BWCAW.

It's usually nice to be able to pronounce an acronym, but I've never met anyone who could actually form a word around BWCAW.

So it's usually just referred to as "The Boundary Waters."

Over one million acres of protected wilderness, this precious resource is located within an easy five or six-hour drive from western Wisconsin. Well, five if you push it a little, six if you get behind a series of slow-moving vehicles.

My wife and I visit the Boundary Waters during September, when people and mosquitos are few and far between.

You have to get an entry permit from people with badges (in this case, the U.S. Forest Service) to visit this paradise, and we usually stop at the Gunflint Ranger Station in Grand Marais to get ours.

There is a quota system for permits and it's on a first-come, first-serve basis. It's a good idea to reserve a permit for the warmer months, but for our fall visit we've always been able to get one by just showing up at the Station on our entry day.

On this trip, a very nice agent at the Station asked where we wanted to enter. We told her, she checked and as we expected, there were available permits for that entry point.

So the agent wrote up the permit. But hold on—it isn't handed over to you just yet. Instead, you are directed to a nearby bench, where you are made to watch a ten-minute movie on a little TV perched up on the wall.

The movie contains pleasant footage of the wilderness and a pretty much constant recitation of the regulations you're subject to if you enter the Boundary Waters. As much as I understand this need to talk about regulations, I tend to drift off when talks remind me of high school lectures.

After the movie is over we go back to the counter, where the agent is holding our now-coveted entry permit. But before she hands it over, there's more: a test.

I'm not good on tests and especially ones like this, where there's no room for nuance. Your answer is either going to be right or wrong.

So for me, the previously-friendly agent now took on the regulations of every teacher I've ever had, and little beads of sweat form on my brow.

Her first question: "Is it okay to cut, peel, or deface a tree or shrub or pick flowers?" Anyone paying attention to the film would know that there's only one correct answer, and it's obviously "No."

Actually, most people could answer that one accurately without having to watch a film.

But because I don't like tests and because my ego is screaming "I know the rules already, OK?" this scenario can trigger my inner smart-ass, which would have me answer by saying something like this to the agent: "Yeah - like, cutting down all that stuff keeps the forest neat!"

And of course if I actually had said that to the agent, I can imagine her smiling at me, slowly ripping up the permit she's been holding and saying "Have a nice trip to wherever you're going ... other than the BWCAW," perfectly pronouncing that clumsy acronym to boot.

But because my wife is familiar with my inner smart-ass, she beats me to the punch and answers most of the questions herself before I can get a word out.

And just like that, with entry-permit in hand, we head into the wild.

We each have a kayak, mainly because of the independence they offer but also because kayaks are pretty good when dealing with a strong headwind.

But it's mainly about the independence.

Once we enter the Boundary Waters, my wife likes to hug the shoreline and study things like the lichen growing on rock cliffs. For the first day or two, I'm more likely to be found drifting aimlessly nearby, lost in thoughts like "I wonder how the Twins are doing" or "Gee, I should have mowed the lawn before we left." Or I might ponder whether in our absence our president and Kim Jong-un have gotten tired of their childish name-calling and gone on to more deadly ways of demonstrating their manhood.

Thankfully, that's just at the beginning of the trip. By day three or so, the solitude and peace of the Boundary Waters starts having a transformative way.

The author Kent Nerburn describes this process as the grinding of gears—going from hurried to quiet to still to peaceful.

After a week in this holy place we're at the peaceful part of Nerburn's formula, and we head home. The drive home is different than the drive up. There's more silence—a good silence.

And without having decided to do so, we find ourselves driving at a much slower speed than on the way up.

Now we're the ones holding up the traffic.

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