The alarm on my cell phone — far from any hope of reception — beeped at me from where it lay by my head. I extricated an arm from the confines of my mummy bag and swatted it quiet. A minute or more passed without further movement on my part, motionlessly fighting the idea of exiting the accumulated warmth of a night in the sleeping bag for the cold of the early May morning. But of course such a transition was unavoidable.
I zipped down the side of my bag and began to move very quickly, pulling on all the clothes that were in reach. It couldn’t have been more than 30 degrees and I knew about the white stuff that was blanketing the ground outside, weighing down the tent walls. I had crawled into the tent the night before seeking refuge from a steady rain. When I woke in the pre-dawn hours to pee, I no longer heard it beating against the tent. Only on opening the door did I realize why: the precipitation was still coming down. It had only turned to snow.
Bundled in clothes that would never substitute for the comforts of my zero degree bag, I unzipped the door and stepped into the world, almost every surface concealed behind a white film of the wet, sticky snow.
I was all alone in this campsite at the end of the Gunflint Trail, some 50 or more miles from the nearest town, Grand Marais. Standing by the tent, I could look west and see the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Only the narrow corridor of the Trail — winding through the woods east toward Lake Superior — prevented me from being surrounded by the wild.
And I was twenty-eight years old this morning.
I walked up the short trail to the parking area and got my cook kit out of the cab of Brian’s truck. He was sleeping in the back. As soon as I opened the door, his dog, Cookie, made sure that was no longer the case. Heading back to the campsite to make coffee, dodging slushy puddles on the trail, fighting painfully cold fingers, I couldn’t help being enthralled by the white scene of winter and spring in open conflict everywhere I looked.
We had driven north the day before via a long wandering detour along the back roads of the Superior National Forest. I have always loved remote roads and for once got to dedicate some time to exploring them. No matter how remote the road I am on might be, glimpses of other roads that dive into the woods — often no more than two-lane tracks — intrigue me as I drive by. I always wonder what is around that first curve. On Friday, we frequently stopped the truck and got out to walk down some of those trails. Around that first curve, we usually just found more woods.
It rained almost the whole day. A cold rain that blew sideways and drove us back into the truck as soon as we had seen whatever had lured us out of it. It was still early spring in these northern woods, even though it was May. Any body of water big enough to be called a lake was still frozen solid, but the rivers were running high and fast, out of their banks and moving ever forcefully to their destinations.
For some four hours we navigated the backroads. I was buried under maps of varying descriptions and detail, all useful for their own purposes. We didn’t see another vehicle the entire time.
By mid-morning on Saturday we were standing with 25 others at the Seagull Guard Station, receiving instructions on moving across the land — charred by last year’s massive Ham Lake Fire — as a team, planting red and white pine seedlings as we went.
The view from the forest road where we parked our cars and commenced planting was unbelievable. From on top of this ridge, one could see solid square miles to the south and east, all of it barren and treeless, just the spires of burned trees against the horizon. The thin layer of snow on the ground only made the landscape more alien and lifeless.
Our team leader organized us into a line of pairs along the road, spaced eight feet apart, and we set out across the rocky ground, planting the little seedlings wherever we could find the necessary mineral soil.
By lunchtime, most of the snow had melted off the ground, blue skies prevailed, and there were already a lot of trees in the ground. And we were all a little tired.
When we were done eating, it was back into the woods. Or what once was and would someday again be the woods. Just a tangle of blackened limbs and logs now, though when one looked closely, there was life and color present, mostly within a foot of the ground.
We planted our way over a ridge and then filled in another area, ending up a good distance from the vehicles. Another woman and two young guys were nearby but no one else was. We had a few seedlings left but struggled to find somewhere to put them. We had stumbled into an area that had already been planted earlier in the day. It was amazing to realize how many acres were now blanketed by the bright green seedlings at eight foot intervals.
We got back to the campsite about 9:00 that night. In contrast to the previous evening, the skies were perfectly clear. No rain or snow to drive us into shelter. I retrieved 12 beer bottles that I had stashed in a nook in the river below us, finding that only 11 still contained beer. Someone must have come across them while we were away, helped themselves to one, and then recapped it and placed it back amongst the others. We admired that funny little act of class and didn’t begrudge someone what must have been a pleasant surprise.
We had a ridiculous pile of firewood and, both of us tired, proceeded to burn it as quick as we could. A clear night like that in the north woods means cold and this night was no exception. Where the previous night brought snow, this one was considerably colder. The big fire was not just an expedient way to burn wood, but a necessity for comfort.
One of the guys who had been planting near us earlier and who was camped nearby stopped by and we three enjoyed an hour or two of quiet campfire conversation of rivers and lakes and conservation and stone masonry.
It was still cold in the morning. The water jug was half-frozen and every puddle too. I was breaking down camp and making coffee when Brian walked up and said there were a couple moose on the campground road nearby.
I grabbed the camera and followed him. And there they were. What appeared to be a cow and her yearling, though I’m no expert on such things. They stood by the side of the road, by turns grazing on a cedar tree, nibbling roadside grass, and staring blankly in our direction. They certainly gave me plenty of time to admire them and take some photos and only finally disappeared back into the woods as a car drove up the road.
Driving back down the Gunflint, we stopped at a side road and set off on foot to see where it went. Further than we expected, ultimately. At a clearing in the woods, it seemed to dead-end, except for one unused spur heading deeper into the woods. Brian headed up the first hill and around the first bend and I paced around the clearing. Eventually I sat on a rock in the sun and remembered how good it is to do so. I laid back with my hat over my eyes and listened, then sat up and continued to listen to the scattered bird songs and other sounds of the morning forest. And I remembered how listening is one of the best things you can do in the woods.
When Brian got back, we hiked back out a bit and then up another spur, this one a long sandy road that went over several hills. Having been walking longer than planned already, we maintained a good pace up, whether going up or down. It felt good to be reminded of the distance one’s legs can take you.
The road was frequently cleaved by moose tracks and accented by their droppings. Then we noticed paw prints in the road far larger than those of Cookie, Brian’s dog, and realized they were those of a wolf. You could even see where the claws had indented the sand.
The night around the campfire, it wasn’t long before sleep tempted Brian and our other companion to their beds, leaving me alone beneath a sky full of stars as brilliant as I’ve ever seen. There was no moon and above me was pure vast blackness punctuated by infinite clouds of light. Though tired, I resolved to spend just a bit longer by the fire.
I sat staring down into the flames and coals, hypnotized as so many have been by their flickering, illuminating paths deeper into my mind and the world and the woods. The night was silent except for the muffled rushing of the rapids of the river. Again, I felt every mile of the distance between me and the world of my day-to-day life, that land of concrete and steel, but also of my wife, my family, my friends, my dog. And my comfortable bed.
And all I could think was, “So this is how I start my twenty-eighth year on this amazing planet.”
And I looked up at the stars and down at the fire and listened again to whatever there was to hear.