Details in a Wilderness

(Rejected by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, August 1995.)

By Ross Collins

If you picture a wilderness as an unpopulated, unexplored, unknown expanse of mysterious woods, then perhaps the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness doesn't measure up. The old Indian and voyageur trade routes in northeastern Minnesota have become nationally famous, not only for their beauty, but for their controversy. It's hard to picture a wilderness that people would get angry about, shouting angry, with pickets and slogans like, "Not L.L. Beans, pork and beans." The BWCAW is a celebrity under careful management and constant press exposure.

The battle is not between those who love the wilderness and those who'd love to strip mine there. Instead, both sides love the BWCAW. But how should we love it? Should we propeller in by outboard, set up in cabins wired and plumbed, or ought we to paddle in with planks, set up tents among trees? And how many of us ought to go in at once, before we love to disintegration the delicate crust of Precambrian shield?

From the news, you know the U.S. Forest Service has won most battles so far, opting for close control and no motors. But those who call themselves the pork and bean'ers still bang away at the rules, especially when in recent years the government's control has become more and more strict. Critics point out that without motorized help, the area is unfairly closed to many less able Americans.

As it is now, the 180,000 annual visitors to most of the 1,200 miles of canoe routes can't put in without a permit, can't be more than nine in a party, can't take a motor, can't camp outside designated sites, can't tote tin cans, and please, walk softly and burn only small sticks.

Does this assure a genuine wilderness experience? To find out, you have to try a trip.

Paddling away from a knot of civilization in canoes at the entry point, you soon realize that you're moving into an area with no roads, no resorts, no cabins, no telephones, no Hardees--in fact, almost nothing you'd see walking down a street in Fargo. Except trees, and even most of them are different, pine, birch, cedar clinging to stony bedrock. A few canoes pass by the first day. After that, you are alone. The deeper you go toward the remote interior lakes, the less likely you'll encounter anyone, perhaps for days.

Five thousand years of civilization have conspired to insulate us from just this experience, you versus the wind and the rain and the wolves. Help is not just a phone call away. Your canoe partner probably cannot make the lakes and portages without you.

"You know, I've been coming to this lodge for maybe 20 years," said a fisherman at Jack Pine Lodge on Snowbank Lake, a common ending point for canoeists leaving the wilderness. "I've seen a lot of people who you wouldn't think could do this kind of trip. But they make it. I guess when you're out there, you realize you have no one to rely on but yourself."

Stop and listen. The wind. A creaking cedar. Gulls calling. Daily life for most of us is filled with the motorized hums of climate control, the distant drone of traffic, airplanes and sirens, radio and television, and the buzz of countless human interactions. In the BWCAW, regulations even require pilots to fly high over the area. At night your ears may ring from the silence.

Preoccupations that seemed important slough away as you focus on the universal human essentials: protecting and preparing your food, keeping your clothes whole and dry, and erecting an adequate shelter. A mistake could be more than a nuisance--it could be dangerous. Bears will attack a poorly-protected food pack. Wet or damaged clothes could leave you hypothermic against a bitter storm, even in mid-summer. If your canoe, your only vehicle, accidentally floats away, you won't be buying another. Here, Money is useless.

When the signs and sounds of human industry vanish, when your focus is left to the simple needs of survival that link you to primitive human ancestors, your focus seems to change. Little details you'd ignore in your human world now attract attention. A lacy white moth on a birch leaf. Water lapping at weedy stones along a sunlit shoreline. The bleached shell of a turtle, more than two feet long. Are these quiet sights as stimulating as "Seinfeld" or the mall? They seem to be now, perhaps because your eyes and ears probe without noisy distractions.

A few days later, having journeyed through several morning rain showers, the whitecaps of an afternoon wind, clouds of evening blackflies, the glistening sun on a loon's back, a bald eagle soaring after fish and a moose feeding among lilypads, and having made it through without major mishap, you glide back to civilization at a take-out. You made it. And for just a little while, you were again part of an ancient natural order.

Is this politically embattled gathering of lakes a true wilderness, then? Perhaps not. But it does seem that, without the close control of the U.S. Forest Service, the experience couldn't be the same. It is more than another chain of good fishing, or a place to swim and watch birds. A wilderness experience is an emotional experience, a rare opportunity to feel a different world in which humanity still does not dominate.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>