My husband and I corralled our three grown sons for a last hurrah before school and jobs claimed them for the year, and paddled for five days through the forest-lined lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters, between Minnesota and Canada. The fall colors were just beginning to flame, yellow and red torches against the dark green. Every half mile or so, we spotted boundary markers, letting us know where the US territory ended, and Canada began.
Bald eagles, beavers, otters, and loons greeted us each day. Paddling further and further out of cell service had unexpected advantages: in-person conversation became the regular way to communicate once again.
After long days of paddling and setting up camp, Joel, Jon and Luke hauled in stringers of Northern Pike and Walleye for fish-fries. Barry and I read, sketched and collected firewood for the campfire. Quiet days, peaceful nights, cooking together, and sharing long stretches of time in nature—these are my ideas of bliss.
There were bumps and bruises involved, too. I came home with a bruised cheekbone, and banged up knees, from getting out of a tippy canoe on slippery rocks. Joel cracked a few ribs while portaging with a heavy pack and a heavy boat, upending on slick rocks. I capsized one just-packed canoe, and wonder my pride, Luke and Barry another, trying to rescue a camera (to no avail.) We were rookies, but we were learning. All in all, it was an adventure I’ll long remember.
Our last full day out, heading homeward, the wind came up on Horse Lake. We tried to make it to a camp we’d seen earlier, but found it taken. In fact, every camp was taken. Our lack of experience was a hindrance; we needed to get off the lake before we ended up at the bottom of it. We took refuge on a thin ribbon of sand between the choppy waves and dense, Canadian forest.
Tired, hungry, bruised, bug-bitten, and illegally on the Canadian side of the lake, I felt like when the music stops in Musical Chairs and you’re stuck with nowhere to sit. Most canoeists on the lake were making dinner and happily sipping cocktails. We considered trying to cross the lake, hoping for a legal camp site, but didn’t fancy drowning-- so, we just sat.
I could see a boundary marker from a distance. I’d been contemplating the concept of boundaries all week, both geographic and personal. My nearest-and-dearest would happily tell you about my ridiculous optimism when it comes to boundaries. I don’t have much in the way of walls or fences around my personal life. I guess I have hedges. Not even rosehedges, which at least have thorns; mine would look like peonies, or those big fluffy, blue, hydrangeas.
In the musical chairs of life, if I got a seat-- and you didn’t--I’d offer up not only my chair, but also a pot of soup, and my grandma’s heirloom quilts. Which sounds lovely, except, as my beloveds remind me, there are those out there who will trespass, and trample undefended boundaries. I’m lucky, I guess--I’ve met so few of those. But there is one that’s made a mash of my hedges and my good nature. Trampling is generous word. More like stomped through and munched to the ground. I get that this is my problem. The story that I tell myself is, really, just a story. I like to dramatize it, with villains and saints, but it's not that dramatic, and there aren't any villains or saints. There's a whole lot of me not being in another's shoes, I guess. Whatever. In my story, I have hoof-tracks across my forehead deeper than my considerable laugh-lines.
Stranded on the Canadian shore, I contemplate boundaries again, and consider reinforcing mine: What will it take? Growing thorns, stringing up barbed-words, firing shots over the wall? I resolve to let the Boundary Waters teach me a thing or two, even if it makes me depressed.
“You wouldn’t have a sandwich, would you?” a voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Our friends went off to find a camp, and now we’ve lost them.”
Two canoeists sailed in to our strip of sand, looking dog-tired.
“A sandwich!” I thought, incredulously. “How could a sandwich survive all the dunkings and tumbles I’ve had? If I’d had a sandwich, my kids would have polished it off long ago.
“Sorry,” I said. “We have one freeze-dried dinner left. Uncooked."
A second canoe, a search party, paddled in about the same time, reuniting the friends. There was a happy reunion between them, all part of a Minnesota Curling Team, all much better canoeists than our California Rookie Team.
“We have a great camp,” the rescue-party said. “We’ll lead you there.”
“We found a camp too,” said the Sandwich guy.
“Ours is better. We’re already cooking dinner. We’ll lead you there.”
“We left our tent across the lake to save the camp. We’ll have to get it. “
The Sandwich man turned to retrieve his tent. The wind was calming a bit, but these guys didn't mind the waves. As happy as we were for the reunited friends, things still looked bleak for us.
Clearly, the Curling Team dudes were vastly better paddlers. Maybe we could follow behind and learn something.
“Hey! Can we follow you?”
“Yah, sure,” the guy called over his shoulder, paddling away. “You can have the camp we reserved. You don’t have a sandwich, do you?”
Didn’t we just go through this? I really wished I had a sandwich for this guy.
“Sorry,” I said, as we paddled to catch up.
The wind calmed down; spirits rose up. We had guides and we had a camp-- all in one paddle stroke. The Sandwich canoeists ducked in and out of bays, seeking the narrowest crossing, canoes pointed into the wind, paddling in synchrony. We watched and learned.
Finally we arrived on the U.S. side at their reserved camp. Their tent had a note dangling from it, reading: “Looking for our friends. If you need a place to camp, you’re welcome to share.”
I was thunderstruck. Share a camp… with strangers? As polite as I think of myself, this would never occur to me. Where were the Boundaries here? This seemed a whole lot higher-level kind of boundary lesson than I expected.
We helped take down their tent, and learned this was probably the last fishing trip the Minnesota Curling Team would share as a complete team. One member just finished his second round of radiation treatment. His wish was one last paddle on the Boundary Waters with his mates. Right, our sandwich dude, the guy who was willing to share his camp with strangers. The boundary buster.
As they paddled away, I felt humbled. I had so much to learn about the graciousness of Midwestern Manners, the nuanced nature of boundaries, of relief and gratitude felt from unearned grace. We were gifted not only a camp, but a tour guide as well. Also, a map, (a metaphorical map, but still) disguised as a note, for the territory ahead, by a man paddling his way out of this world. I’ve never wished more that I had a sandwich to share.
We set up camp, cooked up our Cuban Rice and Beans, and sat by the fire. A fox ran through camp. A crescent moon set in the west My family was warm, fed, and had a safe place to sleep.
I can’t stop thinking about the sandwich man. Is there something here I am meant to learn? All my self-rightous-ness, my indignation about what is fair and not fair, my certainty of the “right” way to behave, and my fury about those who don't play by my rules, came into question.
Whatever boundaries I construct, whatever walls I build, these also wall me IN, and there I will sit, with all those grim, self-righteous traits. Plus, it takes time away from tending my garden. And who knows what wild, beautiful things I may wall out, in the process? I think I'll just muddle along, try to open my heart's rusty door just a bit. I'd like to follow the example of a guy busting boundaries, instead of building them up, paddling his way towards grace.
All this pondering is making me hungry. I think I could use a sandwich, as well.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.