A Canoe, a GPS, and My Quest for the Ultimate Social Distancing
By Matt Crossman
Seven vultures squawked from atop trees lining the shore. Their black bodies stood stark against the deep blue sky. As my guide, Ryan Fagan, and I paddled our canoe toward them, they loped from treetop to treetop, vying for the best seats, an avian version of musical chairs.
I dug my paddle into Boze Lake and pulled. The sheathed machete latched to my belt rustled against my hip. We were deep in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The slightest misstep — a flipped canoe, a twisted ankle, a kidney stone — would turn this exciting adventure into a dangerous disaster, a thought I couldn’t unthink beneath those vultures. Did the birds know something I didn’t?
For two days, Fagan and I had canoed and portaged toward the spot I was calling the Middle of Nowhere. Now we were within a mile of arriving at the center of a 90-square-mile section of the Boundary Waters that remains as untouched by development as nearly any piece of land on Earth.
I had spent weeks planning this trip, eager to exult as remoteness washed over me, and to shed the weight of too much connectivity, too much noise, too much coronavirus, too much everything.
We were 7.4 miles from the nearest paved road, based on measurements calculated by Northeastern University Library’s Research Data Services, using coordinates I gave them, inserted onto a state road map. But we felt exponentially farther from civilization. In the last several hours of canoeing and portaging that day, Fagan and I had seen no evidence of humanity, to say nothing of other humans.
During this past spring’s COVID-19 shutdown, people across the world placed a premium on distance. We stopped hugging and handshaking and even seeing each other in person. We sought alone time as if our lives depended on it. And with coronavirus infections and deaths climbing, maybe they did.
As the shutdown wore on, we groused about being alone. We lamented lost connections. We mourned fractured relationships. We yearned to be together again. Then the shutdown ended, but the pandemic did not, and many of us celebrated our relative return to freedom by staying just as far away from each other as we had been during the shutdown — and sometimes, getting even farther apart.
This intrigued me. What if I took the directive to get away from other people to its logical extreme? How far away from you, and you, and you, and you, with your covidy hands and your coronavirus breath, could I get?
As it turns out, pretty far.
But it wasn’t easy.
Wild, unexplored, and remote places are easier than ever to look for, but harder than ever to find. Anyone with Internet access can examine any parcel of land anywhere on Earth. When you zoom in, far too often you find a subdivision, a McDonald’s, two mattress stores, and zero trees.
Nobody knows that better than Ryan and Rebecca Means. Married scientists who live in Florida, the Meanses created Project Remote, in which they identify and visit each state’s most remote location, which they define as farthest from a road.
The Meanses post passionate, educational, and entertaining journal entries at projectremote.com about each state visit. They plan to write a book when they are done. In 11 years, they have visited the most remote spots in 38 American states and have been disappointed — angered, even — by what they have discovered: signs of humanity at all but a handful. Those signs have been small (a glass jar filled with leaves in Kentucky), large (boats and towers in Rhode Island), and loud (hammering from a nearby dock in Illinois).
Those results would be worse if the Meanses had started the project now instead of in 2009. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the United States built more than 120,000 more miles of roads since then and has 4,176,915 miles overall, as of 2018.
The non-stop road-building has made the Meanses’ quest difficult. To pinpoint each state’s remote spot, Rebecca uses the most up-to-date state maps to calculate the coordinates farthest from a road, then double-checks them by layering satellite imagery on top. In every state but one, she has had to redo the calculation because the satellite reveals roads that aren’t yet in the maps.
When she checked satellite photos of what she thought would be New Jersey’s most remote location, she found a subdivision. In Kentucky, she called up what she expected to be a remote mountaintop and found dump trucks hauling away dirt.
Humans are designed for personal interaction. We’ll go nuts without each other. Yet technology has made us too connected. We overshare, overstate, and overbloviate. The death of subtlety has made us insufferable. We need breaks from each other or we’ll also go nuts.
Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It’s only gotten worse since Pascal died in 1662. There’s almost nowhere to go where the noise can’t find us.
For help understanding the mindset of getting away — and for reassurance I could do it — I called Brian Helmuth, a marine and environmental sciences professor at Northeastern University with impressive credentials in remote exploration. He has twice spent 10 days living in the Aquarius Reef Lab, 5.4 miles off the coast of Key Largo and 62 feet underwater.
To study coral reefs, Helmuth worked outside of the facility, at the bottom of the ocean. The seclusion became almost normal for him. “I can fall asleep under water if I’m not careful,” Helmuth told me. “It’s only the holy crap moments that you realize you’re not back in your office.” (“ Holy crap moments” is a scientific term for awe-inspiring, goose-bump-inducing moments of transcendence in which what is happening right then is so different than your normal life that you blurt out “holy crap” before you can think of something eloquent.)
Helmuth reassured me I could find a wild, unexplored, and remote place, but said it wouldn’t be easy. “If you’re not going looking for it, you can’t find it,” he said.
To search for The Middle of Nowhere, I considered several definitions of remote, including farthest from a road (the standard the Meanses use) and farthest from cell phone coverage. In the end, I turned to the Global Human Footprint map, produced by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Columbia University Center for International Earth Science Information Network.
The map uses nine data sets, including population density, land use, infrastructure, and human access to determine human impact in the environment. On the map, eight colors represent levels of wild. Black covers “least wild,” where the human footprint is strongest. Think New York City, Mumbai, and other major cities. Dark green is “most wild,” or where there is essentially no human impact. Think Alaska, Australia’s Outback, Siberia.
If the vultures were the doormen welcoming me to the Middle of Nowhere, the eagle was the bartender shouting last call.
The Global Human Footprint map shows a smattering of dark green blobs in the lower 48 states, most of them very small. I decided to go to a dark green blob in the Boundary Waters, a publicly owned wilderness I’d always wanted to visit.
Formed when the Laurentide Ice Sheet receded starting 18,000 years ago, the area now known as the Boundary Waters — because it straddles the border between the U.S. and Canada — looks like creation’s junkyard. God threw rivers here, lakes there, islands over there, and didn’t know what to do with all those cliffs, crags, and canyons that were laying around, so the Almighty plopped them willy-nilly just west of Lake Superior.
Encroaching development would not be an issue on my trip. As The New York Times put it, “the 1964 Wilderness Act reversed time and returned the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to pristine backcountry.” Across the Boundary Waters’ 1.1 million acres — it’s bigger than Rhode Island — roads were abandoned, residents and businesses forced to move, buildings demolished.
My Middle of Nowhere identified, I had to figure out how to get there. I lack the canoeing skills to do it on my own. My guide, Ryan Fagan, who chiefly works as a baseball writer at Sporting News, has been my wilderness mentor for years and my friend for even longer. This was his fifth Boundary Waters trip.
We drew up an itinerary with giddiness equivalent to my 10-year-old planning a sleepover. “Can we leave today?” we asked each other daily for a week.
We met at Bass Pro Shops to gear up. Near the door, we had that awkward pandemic-era “should we wear these?” conversation about masks. “We’re going to be in a canoe together for four days, so it probably doesn’t matter,” he said.
Finally, on a Sunday in June, we piled into a rental car in St. Louis and drove… and drove… and drove. The Boundary Waters are so far north that we got to Minneapolis and still had four hours left.
Early the next morning, we put our rented canoe into Kawishiwi Lake, at the southern tip of the dark green blob. A light rain fell. A group of men hauled their canoe out of the water, their adventure ending as ours began. One man’s right arm had a bright pink line of sunburn right below his sleeve. Closer to his elbow, he had another pink line, this one dull and comprised, as far as I could tell, entirely of mosquito bites.
Fagan and I paddled, fished, and portaged — lugging our canoe, tents, and backpacks containing the anvils Fagan apparently brought because his fishing gear wasn’t heavy enough — as the rain gave way to a warm summer sun. I sweated through my long sleeve wicking shirt as I carried our 42-pound Kevlar canoe through the remnants of a forest fire. Long-dead trees, scorched of their bark and branches, surrounded us. The far-off world sparkled with color — rich blue, brilliant white, and an ombre of greens. The up-close world mourned in black and white, the bleak trees reaching for the sky, as if they could drink from hope there.
We found our campsite on Malberg Lake, set up our tents, and collapsed into them while it was still light out. Before dawn, an orchestra of bird calls reached my ears, nature’s alarm clock, for which there is no snooze button. I drifted back to sleep. I bolted awake at 5 a.m. to the sound of tires humming on concrete.
After all that work to get away, had I misidentified the Middle of Nowhere? Expletives gathered in the back of my throat.
Then I realized that I wasn’t hearing traffic noise. It was rapids.
In four days in the Boundary Waters, Fagan and I spent hours fishing. We paddled by a campsite and greeted the man and woman there while we put our lines in the water. This was a COVID-safe conversation — they shout-talked to us from a line of evergreens on the shore of a peninsula. It was the longest I talked to anybody who wasn’t Fagan on the four-day trip.
“Sir,” I said to the man, “check out your 9 o’clock.” He looked over his right shoulder. High above the tree line, a bald eagle turned circles.
Gratitude washed over me, that I could see such a bird and point it out to others. Meanwhile, the biggest fish of the trip (to that point) chomped on my lure. The hook ripped into its cheek and found purchase there. As we talked to that couple, I reeled in an 18-inch smallmouth bass.
I don’t know if the eagle was still circling when I plopped Moby Dick into the net. It’s my story, so I say it was. Fagan says it wasn’t, but screw him. He’s just jealous. Later, I caught another one like it and a third even bigger. Indeed, I caught the top three fish, a fact I reminded Fagan of every 37 seconds. But he caught more than twice as many as I did.
Mine were better. His were more. I tell this big-fish story to talk about qualitative and quantitative analysis, key issues in studying remoteness. One is definable, one is not, and both are important.
One reason the Meanses get frustrated when they see unexpected signs of humanity is that they spend hours quantifying and traveling to remote spots, and those signs ruin their sense of quality. It’s hard to feel remote if traffic noise wakes you up.
But when they reach a spot where qualitative and quantitative remoteness match, the Meanses say, they feel most alive. “My brain clears up,” Ryan Means says. “I become spiritually connected out there. It’s not as if all forms of fear and anxiety shed me. It’s that everything around me makes sense. It’s natural, it’s wild, it’s free, it’s exhilarating. And it’s pure.”
I expected I would have that feeling when I reached the Middle of Nowhere, but I didn’t have to wait that long. I found it when I climbed out of my tent after mistaking the rapids for traffic.
As I lowered our bear bag from high in a tree, it hit me how far from humanity I was. Sipping my instant Starbucks Via and munching on Quaker Oats maple and brown sugar oatmeal on the shore of Malberg Lake, I had nothing to do but sit there. It was glorious. To borrow Helmuth’s phrase, it was one “holy crap” moment after another.
Malberg Lake, 200 yards across, shined like a mirror along the shore. One merganser — a black duck with a white armband — swam by, then another and another. One suddenly zipped back where it came, flying inches above the water.
I was struck by the sheer volume of life around me. I wish I knew what this bug was: It had a three-segmented body, with pincers growing out of its face and claws at the end of its appendages. Its exoskeleton was pale green. I watched it walk long enough to sear it in my memory… and then flicked that thing the hell away.
To paraphrase John Calvin, if that mini-monster of my darkest nightmares could ravish and amaze me, what would the rest of the Boundary Waters do? I tried to count bug species. I stopped at 47 trillion (approximately). So many tiny flying things dotted otherwise still water that I thought it was raining. I even gave grudging respect to whatever razor-toothed bug bit me a dozen times through my shirt. (Pro tip: Don’t swat at bugs when you’re carrying a canoe.)
Second to the tiny flying things were the feathered flying things: vultures, ducks, geese, loons, swans, and more. A park ranger told us that someone had spotted a bear on a portage trail on the day we used it. Beaver dams clogged every creek. Nightly wolf howls were binge-listen-worthy.
I knew the Boundary Waters would be wild. I was delighted at how expansive that wild was. “It puts you in your place,” Helmuth said. “You get used to manicured lawns and straight edges, evidence everywhere of human control. Someplace like that, you realize you have no control.”
When Helmuth goes to work under water, he puts his finger on one thing — a rock, a piece of equipment — to orient himself. If he doesn’t, he might lose track of which way is up. In the same way, I needed to know where I was going.
To find the Middle of Nowhere, I had downloaded an app called Gaia GPS. Its tracking program works in airplane mode, which I needed because my cell phone provider covered only a tiny fraction of the Boundary Waters. I uploaded a Boundary Waters map and dropped a pin at the Middle of Nowhere.
When I zoomed in, I found no subdivisions, no McDonald’s, no mattress stores, plenty of trees. I got lucky: the spot was close to a portage trail.
More than half of the Meanses’ remote spots have had cell phone coverage, and that bums them out. If you can call someone to tell them you’ve gotten away from it all, you haven’t.
Besides, with connectivity come distractions. Looking at their phones, travelers might miss the sublime: the rattlesnake Ryan Means picked up in New Mexico (he’s a herpetologist), their daughter Skyla’s joyful singing on a trail in Colorado, a pod of grey seals in Massachusetts.
Ryan and Rebecca are not anti-technology. They see the irony in using sophisticated machines to get far away from sophisticated machines. But they push back against the cultural expectation of uninterrupted connectivity. “People say that the loss of a cell phone can ‘feel like a death,’” writes Sherry Turkle in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. “Whether or not our devices are in use, without them we feel disconnected, adrift.”
The Meanses crave that disconnection. “The introspecting potential is off the charts,” Ryan Means says. “You have only yourself, your own mind, and the people with you. The quality of time spent with your thoughts or your conversation is always sky-high.”
The Meanses’ views are so counter-cultural that their friends sometimes don’t understand. “We’ve had so many people telling us, ‘Oh, you need to tweet while you’re on an expedition,’ or, ‘You need to post on Facebook while you’re doing this,’” Rebecca says. “We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to make a podcast while we’re out there. We’re out there for a reason. And while we may get more followers or supporters or whatever if we did that, it defeats the whole purpose of what we’re doing.”
They believe in telling stories about exploring. But the stories don’t have to be livestreamed.
Each night in my tent, I read a paperback copy of Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica. Chapter 5 opens like this: “In all the world, there is no desolation more complete than the polar night. It is a return to the Ice Age — no warmth, no life, no movement,” Lansing wrote. “It has driven some men mad.”
I didn’t want desolation or isolation. I wanted remoteness, but not forever. Before long, at breakfast, I wanted to throw rocks onto Fagan’s tent to wake him up. I was itching to get to The Middle of Nowhere.
Soon we were paddling north on Malberg Lake. We turned right into an unnamed stream that we christened Pike Creek (because we pulled several northern pike out of it), traversed Frond Lake and Boze Lake, and headed for the portage trail.
Of 15 portage sites we landed on across four days, this was the only one we struggled to find. We cruised back and forth, looking, before parking our canoe where the map said it should be. I climbed up a small embankment… and there was the portage trail.
We followed it through thick woods parallel to the Louse River. The trail was overgrown. The quantitative remoteness was inarguable, the qualitative remoteness high.
To my right, the trail fell off steeply. My right foot slipped on loose dirt and I landed by thumping my left knee on a rock. The split-second shock of pain lit me up with adrenaline. A foul stank reached my nose, and a second later I stepped in ankle-deep muck. All 47 trillion bug species converged at once in my mouth, eyes, and ears.
For the first and only time, I wondered what I was doing way out there. I half-ran for 20 yards. I got away from the stank, which was good. The trail ended, which wasn’t. Fagan and I walked toward 9 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 3 o’clock trying to find the trail. Zero, zip, zilch, nada.
We had reached the road so less traveled that it ceased being a road. Our paper map was now useless. I pulled my phone out and clicked on the Gaia app. The Middle of Nowhere was south of us.
My shoes thick with muck, my hair soaked with sweat, I turned right and climbed a small hill, pushing through branches, trying not to whack Fagan with them as they thwacked back into position. We emerged in an opening, not much bigger than a parking spot.
Eight or 10 feet below us ran the Louse River, its banks lined with spruce and fir trees. To my left, dark water tumbled over rocks, creating hypnotic white noise. To my right, a fallen spruce lay across the river, a bank-to-bank bridge.
This is beautiful, I thought. I wish this was the Middle of Nowhere.
I checked Gaia again.
I had arrived in the Middle of Nowhere without realizing it.
I thought of Helmuth describing his time on the ocean floor. “You’re seeing things that 99.9 percent of the people on the planet are never going to see,” he said. “It’s a cool feeling, And you feel an obligation to share the story.”
I spun around, absorbing as much as I could. I took notes. I took pictures. I walked down to the water, hopscotched across the rocks to the river’s other bank, and looked at the Middle of Nowhere from down there.
I was relieved, sweaty, covered in bites, and most of all, grateful that the Middle of Nowhere, while deep in the woods and difficult to get to, was also open, observable, and gorgeous, as if it knew I was coming.
After a third remote breakfast by the lake, I was ready to go home. We packed up the canoe and headed south, retracing our route in, paddling again by the burned-out trees. A bald eagle stood atop one of them. I sensed I should soak this in because I wouldn’t get much more of it.
If the vultures were the doormen welcoming me to the Middle of Nowhere, that eagle was the bartender shouting last call.
I could almost feel the quality of remoteness wearing off. Time became important again. We had promised our wives we would call by late afternoon. We didn’t have time to dawdle.
We encountered a half dozen people at a portage site, and it felt like a Manhattan sidewalk during lunch hour. My abs and rear tensed up as I tried to stay far from them, and not just because none of us had showered for days.
On a long portage trail, I carried the canoe on my shoulders. I could see only a few feet in front of me and nothing to the right or left. Suddenly I saw a pair of legs coming toward me. “I’m carrying a canoe,” I shouted. “All I can see is your legs.”
“I’m carrying a canoe, too,” a man’s voice replied. I stepped aside to let him pass. We were a canoe apart, social distancing on steroids.
Early that afternoon, Fagan and I got back to the launching site. We tied the canoe to the top of the car and headed for the outfitter to return it.
As I drove on dirt roads, I thought about the circle of cell phone coverage at the outfitter’s building, maybe 50 feet across, the only access to the outside world for miles and miles.
Cars twinkled and shined in the outfitter’s parking lot. We returned the canoe and hustled to that cell-coverage spot. I turned on my phone. It beeped a dozen times with texts I had missed. My unread email count climbed. Not a single one was important.
I called home. My daughter answered. She put my wife on. “Did I miss anything?” I asked.
Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis.
Images by Matt Crossman
Originally published at https://expmag.com on August 19, 2020.