Empty Nests and Loaded Canoes

by Dale Goodner

Graduation Trip
By any measure, it had already been a year to remember. We had not one, not two, but three graduations: daughter, Sarah, from college; son, Chris, from high school; and Mary and I from “kids living at home.” Our nest was now empty for the first time in 22 years.

Sunrise at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo by Chris Goodner)
Some families might travel to an exotic locale, visit Disney World, or buy something significant. But, we thought, what better way to mark this passage than by camping in one of the world's most beautiful and pristine places? So, we obtained the permit for an August trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and headed for Minnesota.

Our kids are both familiar with canoes and camping. Chris was looking forward to it, but for Sarah it had been several years since she had last camped with us, and it sounded a bit intense to her. Although a veteran paddler, she's the only one of the family who hadn't been to the Boundary Waters. We were considering alternatives when, despite misgivings, she announced that she would give it a shot. On the eve of our trip, though, she was stressed. “Why am I doing this? I don't even like camping!” Who would have thought that just one week later she would be asking if we could do this again next summer?

What causes hesitation in some would-be campers is that rustic camping adventures may appear somewhat less than relaxing, as a sort of self-imposed exile from the comforts of home. Wilderness travel, like sending kids away to college, is all about letting go. It will effectively pull your plug, severing your connection to electrical outlets. You are without a roof, electricity, running water, air conditioning, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, cell phones, Internet, or any other amenities of civilization. On the plus side, you rather quickly come to appreciate how adaptable you can be.

Against the Wind
We loaded the canoes and set out to appropriately named Lake One, leaving our blue Dodge Caravan far behind. After a couple of portages, we began to encounter a strong persistent headwind, which provided a workout and made for slow going.

The two grads paddled the lead canoe, Sarah in the bow and Chris in the stern. It was (indeed) gratifying to see how skillfully they worked as a team. I thought of how both of them had ridden in that canoe as toddlers.

Sarah and Chris at home in the wilderness. Covering about 14 miles in one day, exploring by canoe, made the following day in the campsite a welcome respite. (Photo by Mary Goodner)

Because of the wind, I had cautioned the kids to wait for us before venturing onto Lake Three. A good amount of fetch there causes a south wind to raise sizable waves. But apparently I had not come across as adequately adamant. As we approached the exit from Lake Two, their green canoe was nowhere to be seen. We passed the large rocks that line the Lake Three entrance, the bow rising and falling over steep waves. There they were, off to the left, a quarter mile distant, heading east without a care. They were moving right along sideways to the waves. We had little choice but to follow.

We managed to rendezvous on the lee side of an island where the water was calm. I asked why they hadn't waited before entering Lake Three, and both of them looked surprised. Sarah said, “Why?” “Because the water is so rough,” I offered. Sarah said she thought it seemed fine, and, besides, Chris wanted to show her a campsite we had used last year, so they just kept going and didn't give it much thought. Only we parents seemed to think the waves were large, rather than just fun.

The Tonic of Wildness
After a long afternoon of wind and waves, we finally found an excellent campsite. Tents were erected, sleeping bags spread, chairs arranged, and supper prepared. Chairs? This was a first for us. An advantage of canoe camping is that you can carry a limited number of luxuries. Even though some wilderness travelers regard this as sacrilege, for us older folks, after a day of paddling and portaging, to sit back in a comfortable camp chair and soak up serenity is what I would call blissful, if not downright decadent.

The campsite provides opportunities to connect with adult children as "friends." (Photo by Mary Goodner)
Part of what's called the “wilderness experience” is a serene sense of solitude. It's an opportunity to tune in to a reality that is timeless and increasingly rare. To reinforce the illusion of being completely alone and isolated, the best campsites tend to be those located off the beaten path.

Wild is a paradoxical word. It can connote crazed, out of control, or savage. But the true “call of the wild” can be heard in absolute silence, broken only by the wind or echoing cries of loons. As a breeze whispers through pines, quiet works to lower not just voices, but stress and blood pressure. Maybe that's part of what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, “We need the tonic of wildness.” Silence is a palpable presence that shares the campsite. In the currency of camping, quiet is among the highest denominations.

Before basking in the boundless beauty of the Boundary Waters, however, we took a few common sense precautions.

Some of us remember the good old days when you could dip your cup in the lake for a drink or, better yet, dip your paddle completely under the water, raise the blade high, and let the water run down the handle and into your mouth. But even on these pristine “paddle only” lakes, drinking water isn't what it used to be. The ritual of water filtration has become a consistent camp routine. Ever since the arrival of the microscopic menace known as Giardia, filtration is an obligation. Why? The threat of memorably severe diarrhea does make cowards of us all. This now widely distributed protozoan, associated with domestic animals infects both humans and wildlife. Water filters may not be cheap, but they are effective. You could boil your water, but this is a tedious and fuel-consumptive task. All in all, we were happy to have a fine, effective filter.

Meals, Housekeeping, and Hygiene
Wilderness is populated by animals who are adept at finding food. Those not so adept were long ago weeded from the gene pool, particularly during times of stress (droughts, winter, etc.). We have to haul food with us into this territory of food-finding critters. A good rule of thumb to follow is that the more interesting the food, the more interested the animals will be. It's been suggested, for example, that a bear's keen sense of smell will detect your stick of summer sausage from 3 miles away or more. A simple solution is not to bring smelly stuff such as sausages or cheeses.

Less interesting foods are preferable, at least while in the wild. What little cooking we did consisted of heating water. Breakfast was instant oatmeal and peanut butter on a flour tortilla, with coffee. Lunch often consisted of more peanut butter, granola bars, and trail mix. Supper was a vacuum packed, freeze-dried “gourmet” delight, thanks to that “best of all spices,” hunger.

Cooling off. (Photo by Mary Goodner)

As we packed up wrappers and various refuse, I thought about my father, who used to take us kids camping back during the 1950s. He always insisted that we leave the campsite better than we found it. This is not just a tip for wilderness travel, but a worthy way of life.

In several decades of camping, we haven't run into any critter problems. We leave backpack pockets empty and open at night, thereby eliminating any perceived need, on the part of rodents, to chew into them to see what's there. We hoist food and anything that smells interesting (such as toothpaste) into a tree, and hope rodents and bears won't get nosy. This is their space, after all.

Swimming after a day's paddling is cool and relaxing. After lying in the water for a while, you can forget about baths. If laundry needs to be done, just wear your clothes while swimming. Hang the stuff to dry and in half an hour, you're good to go. We would never sully lake or stream with soap. Worry about laundry once back in civilization. When doing dishes, dump dish soap remnants and rinse water into soil well away from the water.

Embracing the Dark Side
It may sound funny, but to those who haven't camped in a wilderness, the woods get surprisingly dark at night. Most of us have become so accustomed to city lights that out beyond civilization's luminous glow, night has a novel sort of mystique. The only light comes from nature, such as Jupiter with its moons and the glow of the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, and the North Star. The night sky in the Boundary Waters is a dizzying swarm of stars. If you're lucky, you might have good moonlight. Regardless, small flashlights are a necessity. LEDs are little, bright, and easy on batteries.

Our first night in the wilderness was punctuated by lightning. Fortunately, it turned out to be all “talk” and no action. Rain held off, the lightning remained distant, and sun greeted the morning. The wind, however, still blew strong but now came from the west. Not until the second evening did it finally die down.

Loons, Falcons, and the Wasp Whisperer
Loons give voice to the wild. Their laughing, quavering, and sometimes melancholy cries reverberate day and night. They watch the approaching canoes warily. As you get close, they will dive, remaining underwater for small eternities, only to surface in unexpected places. They are expert swimmers and feast on fish. It's always interesting to have a camera at the ready, in anticipation of where they will pop up.

Loons do not provide the only voice in the Wilderness. On some lakes, the staccato cries of “ki ki ki ki ki” grab your attention as a dark, diminutive merlin falcon circles over its island nest, soaring high and rapidly diving back to tree top level. This August ritual is an attempt to encourage young ones to leave the nest, abandon the safety of the piney aerie, and take wing. Known also as pigeon hawks, merlins feed mainly on other birds and some insects.

A young snapping turtle isn't too pleased at being forced to pose Chris. (Photo by Mary Goodner)
Speaking of insects, biting flies may make their presence known by delivering painful bites to exposed ankles. I recommend having a fly swatter handy. It's particularly useful in the canoe, where flies will bide their time, sitting harmlessly near a gunwale, until you forget about them, only to chomp an ankle while you gaze at a distant shore. The swatter makes them reachable almost anywhere in the canoe. Some years these flies are merely a mild annoyance at best, but other years they can push the limits of your repertoire of profanity.

One prominent insect species that entered our space was the bald-faced hornet. This large, assertive, thick-bodied black wasp (with whitish head and tail) would occasionally buzz around our camp until it managed to locate and capture one of those bothersome biting flies. Then it would take the hapless critter back to its large, round, volley ball–sized paper nest (the location of which remained a secret) and feed it to the larval hornets. These common camp companions quickly became welcome guests. The more flies the hornets nabbed, the more welcome they were. With their nest located elsewhere, they had nothing to defend and hence never showed the least interest in us.

One advantage of a late summer trip is that mosquito populations might be at low ebb. For us, they were bothersome only just after sunset. A dab from a repellent stick applied to clothing or hats proved effective. In the middle of the night no mosquitoes at all pestered us.

Gazing into the Abyss
Very late one night, I convinced everyone to forsake warm sleeping bags to stand out in the starlight and the cold. Glowing colorful curtains careened across the northern sky, shimmering beneath the North Star. The northern lights are silently—and too often secretly—spectacular. Descriptive words such as “awesome” truly miss the mark.

The lake was a deep black mirror, reflecting vibrant stars as brilliantly as they shone in the midnight sky, thus creating the illusion that our campsite was suspended between an infinity extending below and one reaching above. In that scene one could sense the vastness of space. As John Muir said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”

On a long day of paddling and portaging, we traveled through very different environmental worlds, from hemlocks to hardwoods, from boulder fields to bogs, from lily pads to lichens. Chris photographed carnivorous plants nestled among tamarack and Labrador tea in a floating bog. Pitcher plants and sundew both trap insects to augment their nutritional needs in this soil-deprived setting. What an excellent example of creativity, adaptation, and perseverance provided by nature.

Pitcher plants are aptly named. The leaves form "pitchers" that hold water which can attract, kill, and digest insects. (Photo by Dale Goodner)

Exposed Boundary Waters bedrock is etched with parallel grooves that orient north and south. These lines and ridges bear mute testimony to the mile-thick massive glacier that scoured this landscape, moving south like a slow-motion tsunami of ice, just a few thousand years ago. It left behind barren rock and lakes, where, ever since, herbaceous plants have been gradually building up soil and forming the foundation of a northern boreal forest of spruce, pine, and hemlock.

These smoothed-off igneous rocks add a rugged beauty to the landscape and, at some points, channel water from one lake down to another. There the water might flow in broad sheets over rock, or funnel along grooves or crevices, which provides the perfect place for a person to lie down and let the torrent tumble over and around. It forms a horizontal shower, effective for rapid cooling.

The Gift of Humility
Wilderness broadens our horizons. It offers an unpretentious, less egocentric worldview. Chaos may be afflicting the Middle East, but to a family of fledgling mergansers, what's really important is learning to fish. To a timber wolf, our tragedies and tribulations are insignificant. Chickadees don't care one bit about our arbitrary calendar dates or dire predictions of Armageddon. In the wilderness, the world doesn't revolve around us. We are just a few of many creatures experiencing nature, not modifying it.

Sarah spends hours immersed in natural beauty, using the time to read and reflect. (Photo by Mary Goodner)
In Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, we found shared adventure, relaxation, exertion, serenity, novelty, challenge, and solitude, all wrapped in expansive natural beauty. This complexity is what makes wilderness a stabilizing and grounding influence. It touches something within—an innate sense that is primordial, spiritual, and atavistic. It connects us to the living planet in ways that our tamed, civilized, air-conditioned, polluted, noisy, hyperentertained world cannot.

As we prepared for our impending “empty nest” at the campsite, we were not alone. Many actual empty nests were scattered about. Like the merlins, lots of young birds were learning necessary survival skills as they prepared for migration. Loons showed their fledglings how to patter along the water and gain enough speed to take flight.

We were pleased and proud that our two grads led the way unerringly through a labyrinth of lakes, islands, and bays. They handled placid waters as well as wind and waves. They carried their own canoe and their own gear over portages. They helped in all phases of setting up and taking down camp and in loading gear.

Sarah, in her bow seat, negotiated waves, avoided rocks, and maintained direction and speed. Portaging was just a mild annoyance. She showed mental and physical toughness. Clearly, she was prepared for whatever she might encounter in grad school.

Teamwork on the portage trail. Chris became proficient at hoisting the canoe onto his shoulders. (Photo by Mary Goodner)

Chris navigated around islands, into narrow channels, and across broad lakes. His years of athletic training really came to the fore. With a keen sense of direction and a science scholarship in hand, he appeared ready to explore suitable majors.

The week ended appropriately with signs of autumn all around us. Asters and goldenrods were in bloom and birch leaves were turning yellow and beginning to fall.

We must each do our part to pass on this legacy, to preserve this amazing American landscape as a gift to the future and a reminder that there exist values far surpassing the almighty dollar. The Boundary Waters Wilderness is far more than just a place to paddle and portage; it's a priceless treasure trove of biodiversity. Wilderness contains answers to questions we may someday be smart enough to ask. Conservation is a contract between generations and a long-term survival strategy based upon sustainability and peaceful coexistence with the rest of the biosphere.

Another lesson is the simple reminder that the best things in life really are free—or, in the words of Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu, “If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

Letting Go
Both kids are back pursuing careers. Although Chris enjoyed the trip and had a great time with his older sister in the bow, for Sarah it was an epiphany. She surprised herself with her ability to go with the flow and to relinquish worry for a little while.

Chris "water skiing" in the non-motorized zone. (Photo by Mary Goodner)
In the woods, after all, what would worry accomplish? This wilderness experience is something both can carry in their hearts for many years to come.

Mary and I both learned to fret less about Sarah and Chris. We are confident they can navigate their own course through college and beyond.

As many parents know all too well, letting go can be difficult. It even seems strange to lock the doors at night, knowing the kids aren't here. Mornings are quiet. School programs, practices, meets, and meetings go on without us. Our nest, like those of the mergansers, merlins, and loons, is now empty. We felt a kindred spirit connection to these creatures and may just have to migrate back up there with them again next year.

As a former Chief Naturalist for the Peoria (IL) Park District, Dale Goodner has introduced many people to forest and prairie ecosystems. He also (still) authors an environmental column for Peoria’s monthly newspaper, The Community Word. Goodner retired from the Park District as Supervisor of Interpretive Services in 2009 and moved back to northeast Wisconsin, where he enjoys the great outdoors, empty-nesting (or not) with his family. Goodner’s artcle for Empty Nest will one day be published in a book he’s working on. Dale Goodner can be reached at dhgoodner@gmail.com.

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