The Sky Is My Salvation

Every trip into the canoe country leaves me with lasting memories of the skies. Venturing into the watery lands on the Minnesota-Ontario border has left me with countless vivid images of clouds stretching across broad expanses. Brilliant or hazy blues, bold or stained whites, aquariums of every shape of cloud or vacant voids that leave you looking up into whatever is beyond. The skies are large and alive.

But I’ve found myself asking why is that? What exactly is it about those skies that stays with the traveler? I think the answer is tangled up in much of what is so special about the place.

I remember particularly crossing east across a large bay on Lake Three on our latest trip. Katie observed that we could see three distinct weather systems in the sky. As we paddled on it felt like we were sneaking underneath a giant military weather convoy marching east, off to bigger battles. The tall white clouds to the south were the infantry, bristling with potential; the big, smooth, gray clouds above us were convoys of heavy weaponry; the silver streaks across the northern sky were the air support. Thankfully, we were so insignificant in our little craft that they saved their ammunition and sped past to whatever lay ahead (when you’re traveling 2 mph in a canoe, clouds traveling at 20-30 mph do indeed speed past).

A few years ago on Gillis Lake, off the Gunflint Trail, we got camp set up early on the north shore and sat on a huge, flat red sandstone rock (a freak in that granite land of the Canadian Shield) protruding out into the lake. The weather that day had so far been clear and uneventful. But as we sat there, we watched a storm come in from the west. We knew that it was coming at least an hour before we heard the thunder or felt the rain. Clouds appeared on the horizon and then filled the sky, followed by wave after wave of bigger, mightier clouds. That night the thunder echoed around the lake and the rain beat on the tent until morning.

On our first trip to the canoe country, on our first night, we were lost. Sort of. We’d been lost. We thought we knew where we were now. In any case, we sat on a rock overlooking the lake after dinner and watched as thunderstorms passed by to the north and south of us. They were dark and heavy and dangerous. Our little piece of the wilderness remained untouched by wind, rain or thunder. It’s a good thing too, because a few months later, when we were much closer to our car, we discovered that the tent we’d been using was not the slightest bit waterproof.

In what is common to those memories lies a big part of the answer to why those skies are so important to the experience: the slowness of travel and the tendency to stay put. It seems very obvious — maybe too obvious to fully appreciate. When you travel by canoe you travel much slower than you do anywhere else in the world. With a good tailwind, you’re probably going as fast as walking. When you stop traveling, you pretty much stay put. In the city, stillness is rare, if it exists at all. And only stillness lets you see the movement.

It was a revelation for me during the nine days we just spent in the Boundary Waters that everything is indeed moving up there. Animals mate, eat, die, are born. Plants bloom, flower, seed, grow, die. And the sky is always changing. Clouds come and go, the wind changes direction, storms blow in and blow out. It’s easy to miss all this movement because it requires more than a glance to perceive and a glance is all that city-dwellers are accustomed to giving anything.

The dependence on that movement makes it interesting and memorable. You not only watch the skies because you have the time to see them changing, but because those changes have a real impact. Do we have time to eat a liesurely dinner or should we wolf down a dehydrated meal and be ready to hide out in the tent? Do we take the next open campsite we see or do we keep going? Does it seem like these overcast skies are going to stick around all day or should I put on sunscreen in the morning?

When you look at the sky in the canoe country, you see the sky. The only other thing in view is water, rock, and tree. When you look at the sky in the city, you also see apartment buildings, streets, yards, alleys, houses, garages, cars, people. You hear music, the freeway a mile away, voices. Because of this, you don’t look at the sky for long. You don’t see that at the horizon there are some ominous rain clouds or that as the sun sets in the west, the clouds to the east are clearing out.

Here is what I think you should do: go find a spot with a good view of the sky. A rock at the edge of a lake is a good place. Sit down and stay there for at least a few hours. Read a book or something, but look up frequently. I guarantee you, something will happen. Up there. Inside.

15 thoughts on “The Sky Is My Salvation

  1. the dharma bum Post author

    Randy, I can’t say I wasn’t thinking about your blog and your passion for weather just a little bit while I was working on this one.

    Note that there isn’t one use of a word like “cumulus” in the piece, because even though I tried to study up a bit on clouds, weather patterns, some basic stuff for predicting the weather for the next 24 hours based on current conditions kind of things, I promptly forgot EVERYTHING as soon as we got out there.

  2. Erich

    That was beautifully written! I can’t believe some of your analogies, “it felt like we were sneaking underneath a giant military weather convoy marching east.”

    I hope you write more about your trip. It was worth the wait.

  3. Deb

    I agree, beautiful writing! I was watching the skies on Sunday as we took a late afternoon drive to a nearby lake. It was very similar to what you described so eloquently–tall white clouds, lead-gray clouds, and puffs and streaks higher in the sky, all touched in different ways by sunlight. It made me feel so alive, so in the moment.

    By the way, thanks for stopping by my blog!

  4. lene

    I especially appreciate your focus on movement–both of the canoe and of the sky–and, how the rate of our movement influences our experience and perception. Really nice piece and great photos!

  5. Dave

    Dude. Great piece. Photos are spectacular. The writing so clear.

    Point 1: ” tendency to stay put”

    I took a workshop with Gary Snyder once and his main point was that we should stay put. Not that we should not travel but theat we should not move from place to place because it takes time to fall in love and only people that fall in love with a place will protect it.

    Point 2: About the gazing out at the sky. I spend 2 weeks a year out on the west coast in santa cruz mountains. What do I do? Climb the cliffs to a point where I can gaze out at the ocean and sky. A world of peace there.

    Thanks again


  6. the dharma bum Post author

    well I just don’t know what to say. the compliments on the writing are certainly generous and the insightful comments are really exciting.

    i am having the damndest time writing about this trip, and in fact, writing in general. once i forged my way through this piece, i feel like i sapped the last of the creative energy i got out of the trip and all i have left is a bunch of really jumbled thoughts that i can’t figure out how to pull together into any sort of cohesive piece. it’s a really unpleasant feeling.

    i think the thing about movement is one of the most important things i began to understand on the recent trip, and i’m only understanding it more now that we’ve been back for over a week. the first night back, i complained to katie that i was feeling restless, something i realized i hadn’t felt at all on the trip. the consciousness of that feeling passed, but it’s the lifestyle here, the constant chaotic movement, that makes concentration and passion nearly impossible.

    i’m probably just making excuses.

    but really, being still for long periods of time (on a rock lakeside for hours, in a house for decades, in a watershed for a lifetime) is more important than i’ve ever understood. there is a spiritual vaccuum that comes with restlessness, and i feel like i’m close to discovering an important new aspect of that, but all this busy buzzing bullshit is frustrating that.

    dave, i wonder how snyder felt about kerouac’s constant ramblings. maybe he wasn’t at the stage of feeling that one should “stay put” when he and jack became friends, heck, snyder went and lived in japan for more than a decade, but there’s something to be learned by the dichotomy of two friends like gary snyder and jack kerouac and everything they represent.

    i’m rambling, mostly because it’s better than work on a monday morning.

    thanks again for all the thoughts, everybody. i’m going to try to post something decent in the next day or two.

    happy monday!

  7. Erich

    I can identify with your restlessness, and the inability to write. It seems like the best stories, which are inherently good, are the most difficult to write because there is pressure in the expectation that they should be good.

  8. lene

    Great point, Erich.

    I was going to suggest writing statements–not necessarily even complete sentences–about the sensual moments of the trip.

    Make the footprints so that the story has a place to weave between. I’ve found that when I want to write about an entire trip, it can be overwhelming. That’s when I pull out the smallest journal I’ve got (takes the pressure off) and jot down moments from each day rather than details. No story–maybe a quote or two–but just those things like the way the scent of honeysuckle caught along the ridge of an island or the moment you saw your whole life in the eyes of your wife.

    Good luck and happy writing. :)

  9. Deb

    Good points, Erich and lene. I recently read part of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, “Bird by Bird”, and she discusses how your own expectations can make the writing effort seem insurmountable. What she suggests is like what lene said, just write words, thoughts, scenes, that don’t have to be coherent or complete, and go from there. I find that I’m a better editor than a writer, so the key for me is to give myself something to edit.

  10. the dharma bum Post author

    thanks for the sound advice across-the-board everybody. all of it very helpful.

    It seems like the best stories, which are inherently good, are the most difficult to write because there is pressure in the expectation that they should be good.

    erich, there’s nothing worse than my own expectations. that’s for sure. I like the piece that is hosting this discussion (Sky is My Salvation), and I like it for the same reason I like everything that I write that is any good (confused?): because I managed to express some truth. that’s what’s rewarding about writing for me… conveying my perceptions, memories, thoughts completely and truthfully. as I’ve been trying to write, I’ve been self-critical of every sentence saying “is that truth?” etc etc…

    That’s when I pull out the smallest journal I’ve got (takes the pressure off)

    Lene, I started as a writer in the Natalie Goldberg school (meaning my parents bought me “Wild Mind” when I was about 16) and she says you should always buy the cheapest notebook you can because, like you said, it takes the pressure off. I’ve been enjoying using the blog software to compose much of my writing lately (though I’ve still been journalling with pen and ink some) but you’re right that there’s too much pressure… It’s even worse probably to compose directly in the blog because it’s just one click away from putting it all out there, for better or for worse, in front of my millions and millions of loyal readers. :) I think I should forget about writing another big essay for a few days at least and do like you said, just jot down in my journal some more of the littlest memories, half-sentences, etc.

    I find that I’m a better editor than a writer, so the key for me is to give myself something to edit.

    In a way, I’ve always known the same to be true about myself. I love writing, but I feel most productive when I’m editing my own stuff. i often get bogged down in editing when I know I should still be putting my ideas out there. I need to refocus on that part of the effort, getting my ideas down in whatever form, and only then start going back and making some sense. I did some of that, between the daily journal I wrote in while on the trip, and some of the brain dumping that I’ve done since I’ve been back, but it obviously hasn’t been enough yet.

    again, thanks for the encouragement everybody! happy hump-day!

  11. kate

    [quote]It’s even worse probably to compose directly in the blog because it’s just one click away from putting it all out there, for better or for worse, in front of my millions and millions of loyal readers.[/quote]

    Writing directly to the computer is also dangerous because it’s one click away from the delete button. With pen and ink, you can turn the page, cross out, or scribble over words, but they’re still there, embedded in the paper. Keep up the good writing, no matter what form it takes.

  12. sue

    Wow, as owner of Voyageur Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail, I couldn’t ever begin to describe the Boundary Waters like that. What a great story and awesome photos. I get to look at the wilderness sky everyday and I’m so happy for that.

  13. the dharma bum Post author

    sue, thanks. i’m glad you got something out of the piece. i’m pretty envious of anybody who gets to live in such an incredible area (are you interested in hiring an on-staff writer?)

  14. crystal

    i love your blog! i have to say, i got distracted by your photos. that’s a great thing–i just had to gaze at them for a while. it was nice to see that i’m not the only one who takes pics of just clouds. have you considered or do you print and sell your photos? they are fab-u-lous!

    your writing is always beautiful and insightful, i love reading it. i find that often it’s most difficult to put wordless moments to pen or computer (i guess that’s the gift of a great writer like you!). sometimes for me the spirit of the moment, is disarmed with each word i write, but when i read your blog i’m inspired to learn how. thank you for your struggles to share your experiences and thoughts with us. your labors produce phenomenal work!

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