By Mark Oshinskie
In early June, 2003, I was invited to speak at a national public sector environmental law conference in Duluth, Minnesota. Private sector law conferences are typically conducted in places like New York City, London, San Francisco, or at least Chicago. Public sector attorneys convene in places like Duluth.
I told a friend who had visited Duluth about the invitation and he advised me to go, calling Duluth “sublime,” at least in the summer. Intrigued, I accepted the invitation. My friend was right. Duluth was unique: a picturesque small city on the side of a steep hill on the western shore of Lake Superior.
When one flies the twenty seven minutes from Minneapolis to Duluth, one immediately leaves a small metropolitan area and sees almost no buildings. Before long, the area below becomes deep evergreen woods. Not long after, Duluth appears as a notch of civilization in this boreal surrounding. Even in early June, one thinks of timberwolves and snowshoes.
Lake Superior is so big that it looks like an ocean. The lake looks bigger than the ocean because one never views the ocean from heights such as those on Duluth’s steep, broad hillside. Viewed from this hillside, the vast body of water also makes less sound than does the ocean, which is typically experienced seen close up. The lake is steely and silent, mysterious and forbidding.
From Duluth’s crest, one sees freight ships coming and going from its ports. There used to be more ships there in prior decades taking wheat and taconite ore from Duluth and bringing it through the lakes to granaries and steel mills. During that time, Duluth was very prosperous. Consequently, at the top of its slope, Duluth has many older, large and elegant houses.
Several well-spaced streams slice through, and down, Duluth’s steep, tree-intensive hillside into the lake. Footbridges traverse these streams. There are many modest, quaint houses on both sides of each stream. These houses must be nice to live in, at least during the summer.
I assume these houses are well-insulated. Though I like some cold weather, I don’t think I would enjoy Duluth in the winter. When I was there, I asked a Duluth native how the winter is: really cold! Above-ground tunnels connect the newer buildings in Duluth’s downtown so people don’t have to walk outside. While walking near the top of Duluth’s hillside, I saw a park with an outdoor ice rink tucked into a neighborhood. The rink’s bench area was covered by cozy enclosures made of slat wood. Having played some ice hockey, I imagined how it must feel, on some of those early mornings or at night, to skate to “warm up,” the sound of blades scraping ice and sticks “smacking the biscuit” in the frigid air. I also imagined the wall-like force of the cold and wind on your face and in your nose; and then playing a game, alternating between vigorous ice time, which makes you sweat heavily, and the bench’s refuge.
That dreary Gordon Lightfoot folk/pop (?!) song about the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck says Superior never gives up her dead. In part, that’s because the lake has an average depth of 500 feet; much of the lake is 2000 feet deep. Its water would cover all of the land in North America to a depth of two feet. Take a bus across the United States and think about how much water is in Lake Superior.
Superior doesn’t yield sunken sailors because their bodies don’t ever decompose and float to the top of that deep, cold water. Remember the end of Deliverance when that hand floats to the surface of that man-made Georgia lake? That wouldn’t happen in Lake Superior.
By early June, the lake ice in Northern Minnesota has only recently melted. They say that the thorough chill left in Lake Superior from the frigid winter acts as a natural air conditioner that cools Duluth for much of the summer.
When I spoke at conferences, such as the one in Duluth, I tried to extend each trip by a few days in order to see places near the conference that I might not be likely to otherwise see.More than a hundred miles north of Duluth is a National Wilderness area called The Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters comprise thousands of lakes along the northern edge of Minnesota and the southern edge of Western Ontario. Many of these lakes are interconnected, or nearly so, so that canoeists can pass from one lake to another. The Boundary Waters space seems infinite: the length of a canoe trip there is limited only by time, supplies and stamina. The Boundary Waters are roughly the same size of New Jersey. New Jersey is a small state but if you had to travel across a series of lakes as big as New Jersey, you could get lost.
Remember I said that.
Before I left for Minnesota, I did some rudimentary research. I had a ten year old copy of the USA edition of the old Let’s Go travel books series. This book contained a small entry about the Boundary Waters. It listed a fishing camp with a few log cabins that you could rent or you could take a canoe from there into the lakes for a multi-day fishing trip.
There is a chapter in Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, about a 19 year old Minnesotan who goes to a small, closed- for-the-season Boundary Waters fishing camp just before he is scheduled to report for duty during the Vietnam War. He and the laconic camp owner are the only ones there in the shortening days of early autumn. At the camp, there is time for reading and quiet reflection. In the afternoon of the last day of the protagonist’s stay, the owner takes him out in a rowboat. After some fishing, the owner steers the boat to a cove within swimming distance of the isolated Canadian shore. They sit there silently in the still water. O’Brien understands that the man is trying to save his life by letting him jump out of the boat to swim, and flee, to Canada. Thoughts and emotions rush through O’Brien’s head and his gut. After about ten minutes, the fishing camp owner accepts that O’Brien is not going to jump in the water. The owner wordlessly dips his oars in the water and rows back to American soil. And O’Brien goes to Vietnam. It’s a gripping portrayal.
With that story ringing in my head, I called the phone number listed in Let’s Go. Whether it was the connection, or my imagination conjuring this remote location, the man answering the phone sounded very far away. He identified himself as “Tim.” Not Tim O’Brien. Just Tim.
I told Tim I had seen his camp listed in a book and asked him if I could stay there. Tim told me the camp was no longer owned by the man who owned it when the book was printed. It was now a camp for Christian youths. He said the camp’s summer season was about to start and that he would have college student counselors there during the time I mentioned, preparing the camp for the summer. I interpreted this as a rejection of my request and briefly expressed my disappointment.
Then Tim spontaneously asked me to tell him a little about myself. I thought, “This place is different. They suss you out before they decide whether they like you enough to let you stay.” I liked the place’s apparent informality and, consequently wanted to stay there even more than when I picked up the phone. I told Tim that I had heard the area was very remote and beautiful and that I wanted to canoe there, taking day trips and using the camp as a base.
I guess I sounded OK because Tim surprised me and said, “Well, we have cabins that you can sleep in and we serve breakfast and dinner in our dining hall. Sounding like he was making up a price, he asked, “Does $25 a night sound OK?”
When the three day conference ended, I rented a car and drove more than a hundred miles further up the western side of Lake Superior. I reached a small lakeshore town called Grand Marais where I ate a lakeside lunch on a restaurant dock. Thereafter, I made a left onto a two lane road called “Gunflint Trail.” Gunflint Trail had almost no buildings along it; a trip along its length is a trip even further into the woods. After about an hour on Gunflint, I reached a dirt road with small sign for Tim’s camp. It was way out there: 150 miles beyond out-there Duluth.
When I arrived, it was twilight and the counselors’ dinner was winding down. I met Tim. He was quietly friendly and welcoming. After we had talked for a while, Tim asked me about my plans for the next day. I told him that I would like to take a canoe out for the day by myself. Tim asked me if I had canoed before. I assured him that I had done so about ten times. I didn’t tell him that all of these trips were in situations like parks where you could see one side of the lake from the other, plus maybe a river or two where they dropped you off at one location and picked you up down river several hours later. I wasn’t hiding anything. I just didn’t think that level of detail was significant. Or that canoeing on lakes was difficult or even remotely dangerous.
The land around the lakes in the Boundary Waters contains no obvious landmarks. The lakes vary from a hundred feet, to several miles, wide or long. Evergreens and white rock cliffs no higher than ten feet surround the lakes on all sides. There are few noticeable changes in the horizon’s elevation. Moreover, development is strictly limited. There were, at least at that time, almost no cabins or other buildings on the lakeshores. It was just water and woods in every direction.
To add to the solitude, I reached the camp in the middle of the week. Minnesota schools were still in session and there were no families on the lake. And no motorized boats are allowed there. Quiet.
The morning after I arrived at the camp, I walked down to the lakeside. It was cloudy and chilly — probably in the high forties. It wasn’t the best day for a canoe trip but I had traveled far to be where I wanted to be and I wanted to get started. I carried the canoe to the water, stepped in, shoved off and began paddling. I told Tim I’d be back by mid-afternoon.
As I got away from the shore and into open water, a steady wind started blowing the unmanned front of the canoe off center. In order to keep the front pointing toward where I wanted to go, I had to continually move the paddle from one side of the canoe to the other and to use J-strokes. Good thing I had been to those parks with small lakes.
After about a half hour, I passed out of the lake where I had started and entered a small channel. I paddled through that narrow channel into a second lake. Once I reached the second lake, the first lake was no longer visible. The second lake was longer and narrower than the first. For another twenty minutes, I propelled myself through it with the same extra effort required to keep the canoe moving forward.
And so forth, through a series of additional lakes. Three, four, five… I had lost count. No problem, I thought. It’s probably still before noon. Although I can’t always see the sun, it will reappear often enough that I can orient myself and I’ll see other canoeists who can guide me.
After about another hour, clouds filled the sky. I decided to rest from paddling against the wind. I pulled the canoe alongside a shore. I stepped sideways out of the canoe and onto a broad log. To my surprise, the log gave way under me. I slipped and fell into the water. I am slightly over six feet tall. To my dismay, the water at lake’s edge was slightly over slightly over six feet deep. Shocking cold immersion.
I grasped a rock on the shore and pulled myself out. But I was soaked from head to cotton long sleeve shirt and jeans to cotton undershorts and socks and sneakers. With water that had lake ice just two weeks prior.
I had to get these wet, cold clothes off. I wrung out my garments one by one and hung them on the branches of a fallen tree and began my clothes drying vigil. I heard, but did not see, various small mammals running nearby among the trees. It seemed that they sensed my presence and were uncomfortable with it.
As it was gloomy and still under fifty degrees and my clothes were sheltered from the wind, my stuff was not drying. After about a half hour, things worsened. It started to rain. Realizing that being naked is not always enjoyable, I decided I should head the ten yards back to the shore, get back in my canoe and head back toward the camp.
While my clothes were too wet to wear, it seemed weird to me to paddle a canoe completely bare. And while I hadn’t seen any humans on the water in my first two hours, I thought I might eventually cross paths with people on my return trip. So I put on my boxers, dropped my wet clothes in the canoe, stepped carefully back into the canoe and shoved off again. I paddled in the direction I had come from. No shirt, no shoes, no pants. Just me in boxers and 50 degrees and cold rain.
In about a half hour, I came to a lake junction and I had to choose whether to go left or right. It was a head scratcher. While the lakes vary in size and shape, they otherwise resemble each other very closely. My wife tells me I have a excellent sense of direction; if I go somewhere once, I never forget how to find it. But the things one uses to find one’s way in civilization: street signs, parks, schools, restaurants and any number of other landmarks, are absent in the Boundary Waters. Most importantly, my primary navigational tool, the sun, was also invisible. The cold rain continued. I headed left.
I hoped things might begin to look familiar in reverse sequence. But familiarity is based on being able to distinguish some things from other things. Without “the other,” there is nothing to set the familiar apart. And there was no other. Thus, the familiar looked the same as the unfamiliar.
I paddled on, in and out of numerous lakes. A few times, I had to lift the canoe over some small pieces of land from one lake to another. Other than that, I just pushed forward, or sideways, via water. I didn’t know where I was going. I could have been going further away from my destination with each stroke. But I knew I wouldn’t benefit from staying still.
I don’t ever carry a watch or a phone. And without the sun, it was hard to tell how much time was passing. My internal clock told me it was three hours. Then, four. Maybe five. I was was just guessing.
I also didn’t bring any food because I thought I would be back at the camp in the middle of the afternoon. At least water was abundant, including the rainwater on the canoe’s floor.
Hours later, even without seeing the sun, I could tell it was getting low on the horizon. The sky was turning a darker shade of gray. I was getting impatient and thinking of what I might do when the sun set.
I didn’t have great options. I figured that the night time temp would get into the thirties and that, with no dry clothes, I would develop hypothermia. I had seen one cabin along one of the lakes and figured that if I saw another one before dark, I could break the window and hope they had blankets stored inside. But I didn’t know if I would see another cabin.
As it was getting darker, I saw up ahead of me what looked like the end of the narrow lake I was in. I paddled toward it.
I passed through the narrow and veered right. Directly in front of me, I saw a vast, almost circular lake, by far the biggest lake I had seen all day. It’s hard to judge distance over water but it seemed about a mile wide. The rain intensified. So did the wind. The open span of water that stretched in front of me was distinctly choppy. I thought, you can’t stay close to the rounded shore; if you do, the trip through this lake will take so long that it will be dark by the time you get to what might be the passage on the other side. I would not survive if I was in these woods all night, wet, with no clothes and no fire. But I simultaneously thought, even though I swim well, that if I went through the choppy center of the lake and tipped, I would certainly die in that cold water before I could reach the shore. Two bad alternatives.
I paused there. It was the first time I had ceased paddling since getting back in the canoe after I had dunked many hours earlier.
Looking at the lake’s dark, rising and falling water, I was strangely calm. I thought, “This could be where it all ends.” I thought of my wife and children, then 13, 10 and 5. I said to myself, “You’re 45. You’ve lived longer than millions of others people have — kids in the Third World and centuries worth of soldiers, for example. And you got to experience a deep love for the people around you. You’ve been blessed. And if it’s time for the next life, you knew you were going there sooner or later.”
I have a friend who is a substance abuse counselor. One of his guiding principles is that a person’s self-sovereignty is the thing that is most important to them; no addict wants to stop using until he decides it was his idea, not that of people he knows. This is a very big idea that extends far beyond addiction treatment. It explains much human behavior and emotion.
And yet, acceptance that one is not always the master of one’s life can bestow deep peace. At that moment, I felt deeply peaceful.
I stayed motionless for another minute. I said a short prayer, both wishful and thankful. Then, I got as low as I could in the canoe and began to paddle into the vast water’s rocking, cold center.
After about twenty minutes, I was about half way across. Looking through the rainy air toward the lake’s horizon, I saw what looked like a tiny yellow patch on the black water. I dipped my paddle in again and advanced. I saw that the yellow was a person in a raincoat in a canoe and that there was another person with him.
I continued toward them and shouted across the lake. At first, they didn’t hear me. I paddled on and shouted again. This time, they did hear me. I could see the person in the yellow raincoat raise binoculars and point toward me. We paddled toward each other.
When they got within 20 yards, the guy in the yellow raincoat called out to me, “What are you doing…in a canoe… in this weather…with no clothes on?!”
I told them I was wearing boxer shorts, that I had been paddling since before 9:00 in the morning and that I had dunked before noon. I asked them what time it was. It was 7:40. I also asked them if they knew the way back to any place where I could get warm before it got dark and if they could guide me there.
They said they thought they knew where I was describing. But the guy in the dark raincoat told me that they had only two days off of work and that they had just paddled out in the past hour and planned on fishing overnight so that they couldn’t show me the way back to where they started. They thought I could make it back there on my own. They began to give me directions unlike any I had heard before, something like “Go to the end of this lake, make a left, go to the next lake, make a right….”
I didn’t remember much of their guidance and there was nothing to write it down on. But we parted and I headed in the general direction that they indicated. It seemed to me that if they had only left shore an hour ago, I should be able to find my destination just by moving forward.
After about another half hour, I still didn’t see anyone or any buildings. Nearly all of the light was gone. I was again envisioning a cold, dangerous night.
I came around a bend into another very wide lake. After paddling in that wide lake for about 10 minutes, I saw a beam of artificial light on the black water. I rowed toward it. As I did, the light came toward me. I could barely make out the silhouette of a small motorboat with two people in it. A voice called out, “Mark?”
It was Tim. Relieved, I paddled toward him.
Tim said, “We’ve been looking for you since 6 o’clock. Where are your clothes?”
I told him what had happened. He replied, “You know what they call cotton? The preferred fabric of corpses.”
I asked him what time it was.
“It’s almost nine thirty.”
I was out for over twelve hours, lost, wet, nearly naked and cold for most of it. I said to Tim, “Thanks for looking. I didn’t think they allowed motorboats here.”
He said they didn’t, except for rescues.
I paused and asked Tim, “Do you sometimes lose people out here? He calmly replied, “Yes, some die every summer. In the same way that just happened to you.”
Tim handed me a dry sweatshirt, a blanket and a large thermos and told me to drink it right away. He called it “Russian Tea” and said it would help me warm up. It was hot, spicy and a little sweet. It tasted great. Then he tied my canoe to the back of the boat and towed me back to the camp in about ten minutes.
He told me to take a hot shower for a half hour. I don’t like to waste water but I did what Tim said. It was good to have an excuse to stay in the shower for a long time. During the shower, I felt light-headed. But that shower felt unlike any I had ever taken. When it ended, I felt somewhat better, albeit still woozy.
I put on the heavy, right-out-of-the-dryer clothes they gave me. Then, I ate warmed up comfort food leftovers in the dim and near empty dining hall. The food was deeply satisfying. I ate three large helpings of everything.
I went to my bunkbed and slept deeply for twelve straight hours. I never come close to doing that.
The next morning, because I woke up later than everyone else, the dining room and the camp, generally, were already empty. The counselors were out working already. After finishing my late breakfast, I walked the short distance down to the lake. The water was dark blue and sparkled under a clear blue sky. It was about seventy degrees. Much different than the day before.
One of the guys I had met on my first night at the camp — I think his name was Jeremiah — had just pushed his canoe off the shore. He was wearing a boonie hat, said he was going fishing for a few hours and asked me if I wanted to join him. I was tempted but called to him, “I think I got enough canoe time yesterday.”
I didn’t regret the day before. In this excessively controlled, monitored, 24-hour connected world, I was grateful for a place like this where a person could be on his own, and could get lost, even at the risk of death. These experiences confer perspective. Without the night, there’s no day.
And sometimes it’s good to need other people and to have them come through for you. I’ve experienced many blessings since that long day and evening on, and in, that cold water. I think of Tim sometimes. I hope he’s OK.