Tag Archives: the woods

A wild birthday

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.

My tent on a snowy morning at Trail's End Campground on the Gunflint Trail near the Boundary Waters.

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.

The Sea Gull River on a snowy May morning.


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.

A pond in the Superior National Forest.

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.

A river in the Superior National Forest.

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.

Driving along roads in the Superior National Forest.


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.

Tree planting headquarters near the Seagull Guard Station on the Gunflint Trail.

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.

Lunch break during tree planting on the Gunflint Trail.

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.

A pine seedling in a burned area along the Gunflint Trail.


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.

Pine and rock and shadow and needles.

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.

Two moose at Trail's End Campground on the Gunflint Trail.

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.

“Not just dream about it. Do it.”

Though it’s not really this blog’s style to just post content found around the Web (though it’s good fun and something I would maybe like to do with another blog someday), I can’t resist posting this. It’s the entire “Alone in the Wilderness” documentary, frequently seen on PBS, chronicling Richard Proenneke‘s life in the Alaskan bush.

For those unfamiliar with the film or the man, upon retirement at age 51 in 1968, Proenneke headed to Alaska. He proceeded to build himself a cabin deep in the wilderness, using only hand tools, and filming the whole thing.

The combination of Proenneke’s incredible skills at carpentry and woodcraft, his steady and patient hand with his 16 mm camera, and his enlightened, lyrical narration has made this film a classic.

edit: unfortunately, the video’s no longer available. But, you can (and should?) buy it here.

Make It Better

From Patagonia‘s infant blog The Cleanest Line comes a parable of leading a group of 15-year-olds into the Grand Tetons. The kids do not know silence, do not respect the grandeur. At least, when they enter the woods.

I stay outside of their circle, the old guy who doles out advice, corrections, and bad jokes. Then, one day, leading the pack on our ascent of a remote peak in the Tetons, Jack guides us into a small sea of ripe wild fruit. Leaves like large, green, luminous plates shroud dense, luscious clusters of fat, wild huckleberries. Waist deep and wading through this abundance, Jack turns a glance over his shoulder, and with a quick, empurpled smile states simply, “God loves us.” I’m not religious, but I feel a current moving in his words: he knows already the blessings of wild places.

If we are worried about losing the next generation (and, hell, my generation) to the Internet and text messaging and MySpace, perhaps we needn’t be. Because those things can embellish lives, but they can’t give them meaning. And whether or not they think they need it, anyone can discover just how wondrous it is.

I’ve been guilty of pessimism, of giving up and thinking that maybe the best we can do is hold out hope that somehow people will find the Earth to be enough again someday, but this little tale reminds me that making the effort to drag some kids out there, to introduce them to the beauty of the real world, might be worth it.

“What did you hear?”

Creek. Trout leap. Rustle of leaves. Elk bugle. Screech of hawk.

The circle comes around. It’s Jack’s turn.

In the midst of these yet-unfolding sounds, Jack closes his eyes again to find his own.

“Simple,” Jack says. “I hear simple.”

He opens his eyes again and smiles, the stain of wild huckleberries on his teeth.


Birches in winter at William O' Brien State ParkAll my moments of stillness have coincided with stillness in the world.

For example, a wooded hillside one winter afternoon. I’d been wandering around the park for an hour or so and I veered off the marked trail and onto this hillside, where I sat in the snow at the base of a tree and looked out and did not move for a while.

And nothing else moved either. No wind set the leafless trees creaking or rustled their few remaining leaves. No distant whine of a highway. No voices or dogs barking. Not a bird or a squirrel. After I sat for a minute, there was not even the sound of my own breath filling and emptying my lungs.

The quiet seemed tangible in the atmosphere amidst the tree trunks and I could breathe it in. As I inhaled, stillness entered me. As I exhaled, so went nervousness and agitation.

I have had similar moments since then on trout streams and wilderness lakes, on the rocky shores of the St. Croix River and in the mountains of Montana, and they have all been moments just as wonderful, but they have also all been moments shaped on that original form, that wooded hillside, that winter afternoon.

[tags]stillness, hiking, quiet, outdoors[/tags]

To Be Free

I stood on the very end of the dock and looked up at the night sky above. It was thick with the northern stars, the sky so black that I could make out the distinct glow of light around each of the countless specks. The lake before me was utterly calm. The little island a couple hundred yards out and the shoreline of the big island behind it were black sillouhettes between the shimmering blackness of the lake and the deep black of the sky.

My neck was sore from looking up and it was late and I was all alone while everyone else in the fish camp slept or prepared to do so but I couldn’t yet turn my back on the sky and the lake and go up the hill to my bunk. The sky reached down into my heart and found a peace I had forgotten was there. It is such a sky that forces you to measure yourself not against any other man or any other standards except your own. To judge yourself by your own ideals. Self-reckoning as pure as the lake and sky.

Not Far

Three days before, I had come north with my father- and brother-in-law for a long fishing weekend with some of my father-in-law’s friends as they have done every year for the past 15 or so. I was a young pup compared to most of the other guys and different in many other ways, but we had still united to some degree based on shared appreciation of a few days fishing on a beautiful lake.

Earlier that day the lake had been a bright, windblown expanse. After two perfect days of blue skies and calm waters, we had been forced to huddle in our jackets and seek refuge in small bays. Our anchor wouldn’t hold us in any open water. We were compelled to repeat over and over, “At least it’s not raining.” My hands had been made raw from the wind and the cold water, it became difficult to open my tackleboxes, painful to even think about dipping my hand into the minnow bucket.

Now, it was the last night before we would head home. There had been the fish fry earlier; walleye and some northern accompanied by tater tots, salad and corn. We all crowded into one cabin and ate. A few off-color jokes and stories were told and a fair amount of beer was drunk.

After dinner, my brother-in-law and I went out to have a last Backwoods on the deck and everyone left to their beds except Jonesy, a funny carpenter with a red nose who talked to us longer than I think either of us cared about fishing down on Mille Lacs and whatever else popped into his inebriated mind. I finally excused myself by saying it was time to hit the hay and we parted ways. It had been a lie, but I just wanted a minute down on the dock before I turned in.


So, there I was. I had my last can of Leinie’s in my jacket pocket but I didn’t drink it. I was fairly well bundled against the cool night, which was probably in the 30s. The stars gave the sky a texture I’ve only seen at those latitudes far from city lights. I told myself I had seen better on trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (the western edge of which was only 10 or 15 miles away). Hell, I could faintly see the sweeping searchlight from the casino resort on a bay of the lake eight or 10 miles off. But, even if I’d seen them brighter and clearer, it hadn’t been often and it would be a while before I saw it again.

Tomorrow morning, we would go home. I couldn’t forget that. It was good, I missed my wife and needed a break from trying to fit in with these guys, but the night sky drew me in. It was so peaceful and perfectly quiet. The dying wind of earlier that day still rustled through the tree tops, the water was glassy and reflected the starlight. I wanted to take it with me. I moved to leave but then turned back and stood a little longer on the dock, staring up at the stars.



I got an axe. It’s an axe I’ve wanted for a long time and Rosie got it for me for my birthday. It’s a nice axe, handmade in Sweden. Longer than a hatchet, shorter than the average axe. It’s made for camping and canoeing. It feels good in the hand, and it’s good to look at. The head is well balanced for the length of the handle.


My friend Fisherman lives at his mom’s place. Her small farmhouse sits on an edenic piece of land on the north edge of my hometown. The deed for the property begins with its purchase by a famous local pioneer who’s name is taught to every child in the town’s schools. He bought the land from the federal government in 1862. She has a big yard with a chicken coop and a goat pen and a table situated in the middle of the lawn which is good to sit at on summer evenings. There’s an unused pasture stretching back from the house.

A little creek runs through her land. There’s trout in it, but it’s not really a stream that’s meant to be fished. It’s very small and the trout are small and wary. An old arched stone bridge on her land spans the creek, the bridge was built to help mobilize Union troops for the Civil War.

The creek rises from an alder swamp a mile or two northeast. It flows through some pastures and then a golf course. Railroad tracks join it. At the back of her land it flows flat and calm, but then it starts to angle downward toward the St. Croix River not two miles away. When I first started sitting around campfires with my friends, we often did so by a bend in the creek just before where it began to drop and the land rose to either side. After a summer or two there, the campsite was moved down into the small valley the creek formed a hundred yards or so downstream.

Here, the fire pit was just three or four feet from the creek. And the water, now being pulled down toward the river a little faster, provided constant background noise as it rushed over the rocks. The site was in what had long ago been a pasture-like bottom area of the valley. Behind the circle where we sat around the fire was a grassy area where we would sometimes pitch tents.

Directly across the stream was a giant willow tree. It had two main trunks and one had fallen so it laid directly across the stream. It was the bridge which you had to cross to come to the fire. Where it laid on shore by the campsite it provided seating on several levels, from a limb maybe six feet above the ground where we would frequently sit and look down at the fire, to even higher limbs where some would climb up to and yell down to us from. It was kind of like having bleacher seats around the fire. The trunk of the tree that was still standing on the other bank often had hammocks strung in its limbs some 30 feet up. Fisherman and a couple others frequently slept way up there.


My brother lives in New York, he has off-and-on for the past nine years or so. These days, he lives in the East Village and works at a coffee shop. Living in Manhattan doesn’t seem to afford you a great number of chances to stand around a campfire. He came home recently, a surprise to my mom for her birthday, and we wanted to get together Friday night and hang out. After talking on the phone several times that evening, I finally realized a bonfire would be just the ticket.


I called Fisherman and asked him if he and Honey, his girlfriend, were interested. He thought it sounded great. I left our new apartment with half a case of PBR – duct-taped shut — and my new axe in hand. I picked up my brother and we rendezvoused over at Fisherman’s mom’s. After the usual putzing around the house for a few minutes, we set off across the pasture – with a quick stop at the brushpile for whatever wood we could grab – and then down the steep slope of the valley to the creek.

Nothing has changed about crossing the log. It is always at once a little precarious and uneventful. I’ve never seen anyone slip off it trying to cross (sitting on it drunk is another story), and the stream is only a few feet below and the water only a few inches deep. Nonetheless, it always feels good to set foot on the other side.

We got the fire going pretty quick and then got to the usual sort of talk you get to around a campfire. It is not the kind of talk that translates well to the written word. It is just talk, but with a fire burning before you, you talk a little different. There are more opportunities to pause in the conversation, and when you do, it is a comfortable pause because everyone enjoys looking down into a fire.

The big willow was sinking into the ground. The still-standing trunk on the other side was leaning dramatically away from the river like I’d never seen it. The hammock branches were much closer to the ground. On the campsite side, the bleacher seating was all but gone. The limb that had been six feet up had now collapsed down so it was nearly on the ground.

We talked at great length about the old tree, how it had used to stand, how it had been at different times in our lives. Its state, sinking toward the ground where it would inevitably rest and rot, served as a yardstick for memories. The year it had fallen, the year it had sunk down so that Fisherman had made a boxelder brace for it. We remembered the friends who had sat up there, who had crossed over to here on it and had stumbled back across it at the end of the night. I remembered all the people I had seen cross the log on various missions back up to the house, the cars, into town maybe. I remembered waking up one sunny morning down there, four of us laying shoulder to shoulder (two guys and two girls, though I never dated any of the girls that were sometimes there), damp from the dew.

There wasn’t much in the way of firewood so we also spent a lot of time roaming around the surrounding woods collecting fallen branches. Some of the high limbs reaching up from the willow had snapped off and now hung down, still suspended by the dead vines which wove through the tree. We yanked them down, the tree reluctantly giving them up, and broke them into pieces and threw them on the fire. My new axe still had not bitten into wood and toward the end of the evening, with the wood supply nearly exhausted, I asked Fisherman if it would be all right if I chopped off a limb at the end of the main branch near the ground. He said that was fine. The axe made quick work of the limb and it went on the fire.

My brother caught a ride home with Honey around midnight. At the same time they were leaving, another friend who just moved back to town from Chicago arrived. We told some stories, I especially liked the one Fisherman told about the black bear he had heard about up in northern Minnesota. This bear had a radio collar on it and they tracked it as it went a good 200 miles west out of its normal range one summer. Then, one day in the early fall, it set of at a dead run, heading east. It ran and ran and the guys tracking it followed it via radio signal for all the miles. The bear ran relentlessly east. The guys tracking it finally got near it on a logging road as it neared its home woods. They saw it far off running down one road and it disappeared around a corner. When they got there, it had disappeared. They used the radio signal to track it off the road and found it in its den, fast asleep.

It’s hard to leave a fire. Friends faces illuminated orange by the flames on a quiet, cool night in May are a comfort like nothing else. When I finally thought to ask the time, it was almost two o’ clock (bar close time in Minnesota) and I told myself and the others that even though I really should get going, there was no worse time to be on the road. If the cops didn’t pull you over for going two miles per hour over the limit, they’d pull you over for going two under. And if they didn’t get you, some drunk would take you out. So I stayed another half hour or so, heard some more stories and told some more stories, and then left, reluctantly. The walk back across the moonlit pasture alone is a familiar walk, and one that always comes to an end too quickly. Perhaps that is what we get when we die if we’re good in this life: a campfire on a cool night and enough time to soak it all in before leaving.