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 In the Zone by Douglas E. Dormer

It was all I could do to keep the canoe straight, heading into the waves and the wind. I couldn't pause, or wander, or quit. "How are they doing?" called to Dan, my 11-year-old son in the bow. We worked together perfectly by instinct from the first time we shoved off. He could afford a quick glance back. I could not. He took a quick look over his left shoulder timed to his stroke. Immediately he cranked his head over his right shoulder, flipping the paddle and switching to a pulling stroke which started to turn the canoe. "They've flipped." By the time I heard the words I'd read his motion and was pushing the stern around as hard as I could, determined to complete the 180 degrees before we were slapped up side of the head by the next wave.

As we came through the turn, I saw Alison, my 19-year-old daughter and Joe, my 12-year-old son, bobbing in the water about a foot away from each end of their canoe as it tumbled sideways in the wind and swells. I couldn't hear it, but Joe yelled, "Al, quit trying to right the boat!!" "I'm not. I'm just trying to not get hit in the head again," she answered. The canoe continued to tumble like a stone polisher while Alison and Joe tried to get hold of the gunwales.

With the wind and seas at our back, it didn't take us long to reach them. I tossed a line to Joe who looped it through the support at the bow. Dan and I pulled them to shore with Joe swimming on one side and Alison on the other coming into the rocks near an unoccupied campsite. Dan jumped from our canoe and pulled me up onto the rocks. I hopped out and pulled in Joe and Al's canoe while they climbed out of the lake, laughing and giggling like 5-year-olds.

"Not bad. We've got our swim in. You should try it." Joe laughed. Alison stood there dripping. "That was great! We lost the point, and that was it. No use fighting it. We were going over." She stood there dripping, laughing, celebrating. Clearly, they were in the zone.

Finding the zone-and staying in the zone-is what it is all about. Everyone who is fortunate knows what we mean by "finding the zone." And everyone has his or her own secrets for finding it. For us, the zone is like a magical place where the normal clutter of time constraints, deadlines, responsibilities and the myriad of obligations and expectations that dictate the pace of thought in the civilized world dissolve into the moment. Nothing but the moment, with its own sensations and focus.

Much of this has to do with a sense of time. I've read that Pygmies, one of the last cultures to remain intact and unchanged by "civilized society" at least into the 1960's, do not grasp a linear approach to time. They have no concept of the past, the present, and the future. Instead, they believe that someone is "centered" with respect to time. This is a sort of balancing concept, that someone is fine with the way in which things are proceeding. This is one of those morsels I read about long ago but can no longer be sure my recollection is accurate. But I understand the concept. It works for me. Simply put, it means that we live in the moment, rather than on a continuum which represents some giant, cosmic to-do list.

This quest for the zone began about three weeks ago. After eleven years at the same company it was time for me to leave. So I find myself with a modest severance package and a little free time for the first time since I was twelve. What now? That's easy. Find the zone. Get centered with respect to time. Head for the forest and move the effort to re-connect with lost friends and family to the top of the to-do list.

So we drove the thousand miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Ely, Minnesota to enter the forest and find the zone.

Ely is in the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, an area along the border between Minnesota and Canada which includes a million acres with over 1,000 lakes, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, and 160 miles of portages through some of the most beautiful northern forests in the world. Long ago scraped clean by repeated advancing and retreating glaciers, the Boundary Waters are a sculpture composed of exposed granite and basalt-the very crust of the earth-and swatches of forest anchored by a thin veneer of newly accumulating top-soil, surrounded by pristine lakes and streams. The evidence is everywhere you see a downed tree-root systems that are broad and strong, but barely a foot deep.

We are not real explorers in this gigantic park. That first bite of the apple was had hundreds of years ago by the Sioux and the Chippewa and, beginning in the seventeenth century, by the French Voyageurs.

The modern history of the Boundary Waters began in 1909 with the designation of the Superior National Forest, and reached its present state in 1978 when Congress passed the BWCA Wilderness Bill. The Boundary Waters are now administered by the US Forest Service.

We are heading into the Boundary Waters in the last week of July, the busiest week of the year. But it never feels too busy, at least not by normal societal standards. The only real control is over the number of permits that are issued for each entry point. An entry point is simply a lake, or stream, or trail which provides access to the Boundary Waters. Once in, we can go pretty much anywhere and stay as long as we want. A busy or popular entry point will allow eight parties to enter in one day. The more remote or environmentally sensitive entry points are limited to as few as two parties per day. Except in certain "Primitive" areas, which require a special permit, parties are expected to camp in designated campsites. These campsites include a grate for a fire, a pit toilet down a rough trail, and enough cleared area for two to four tents. The guiding principal is "Leave No Trace." So, we are issued a BWCA garbage bag with our permit in which we are expected to store and remove all waste.

Day one: Despite the freedom of newfound time to prepare, we still are not ready. I'd like to say it is because it has been so long since our last adventure that everything needs extra attention to prepare, and there is some truth to that. However, I am the real problem. I can't visualize it. How, exactly, did I used to load the packs? How much food did we carry? How did we distribute it? I just can't remember. I am not in the zone.

We are finally ready at 3:00PM. Our entry point is Angleworm Lake, one of the least popular entry points because of the challenging 2-mile portage from the parking area to the lake. The trail, like all trails in the Boundary Waters, is clearly marked and well maintained. It is fairly flat and easy for the first half. The second half includes some scrambles over exposed rock, across a stream flooded out by a beaver dam, and some steep climbs and drops. Near the end, the trail merges with a trail from another lake and winds into Angleworm Lake, dropping the last 30 feet elevation on a steep slope to a rocky landing. The launch point isn't on the lake itself, but on a small stream which is barely wider than the length of a canoe.

The plan is to make two trips. Each of us will carry a pack on the first trip, then the canoes and anything left on the second trip. We each have a pack scaled to our size. I will carry our 65 pound Mad River Malecite canoe while Alison will carry the lighter 45 pound Old Town Minnesota II which we rented from an outfitter in Ely. In addition, we have the usual assortment of miscellaneous stuff-canoe paddles, life jackets, etc. No reason to struggle by carrying everything in one trip. It's only two miles. With six hours of daylight, we have plenty of time.

The first mile moves quickly, but the second mile is slower. We catch up with a group from Outward Bound, two guides and seven students. They are the other party entering Angleworm Lake today. They are struggling. Today, they can barely make it. In a few days, this will be easy. We know it. They don't. On a particularly steep climb over exposed rocks they sit. They are spent. I make some stupid over-excited comment like, "Are we having fun or what?" They look back at me, and I know the look. It's the look I give when, on a long race like a half-marathon or a marathon, I slow to something like a feeble trot or maybe an animated walk. Someone runs by shouting what he or she thinks is encouragement: "Come on. You can do it." I know I can do it-in my own way. And whether I can or not, the last thing I want is to hear from you as you leave me in the dust. I trot off down the trail. I am not in the zone.

We decide to do the portage in two legs with a break about a mile and a half in. We find a nice place on the rocks where the trail crosses a spillway from one small lake into a marsh and head back for the canoes. Dan stays to filter some water.

After carrying the canoes about half a mile, I can see Alison is struggling. She's had trouble with her knee before. It's not so much the weight as it is the lateral stresses of manhandling the canoe on her shoulders along the trail. She stops and summarizes the situation. "If I keep going, it'll be shot. If I stop stressing it now and wrap it, it might be fine and I can at least carry the packs." Alison is a newly minted Emergency Medical Technician and an experienced woodsman with excellent judgment. There is no decision to be made. For the remainder of the trip, she would make two trips carrying the two bigger packs, while I would make two trips carrying the canoes. Her knee would hold up just fine.

This time however, I am making three round trips, for a total five legs. And the two miles indicated on the map must be wrong. This is the longest two miles I've ever hiked. It has to be at least three miles. At the end of each leg, I grab the Nalgene bottle and slug 32 ounces of freshly filtered water, then head back for the next load.

It's 8:30 PM. The sun is behind the trees, teasing the horizon. We are at the lake and I have two more trips back to the staging point for the canoes. Five and a half hours and we still have more to do. I can't believe it. "Who's going with me?" I yell as I start towards the trail. "I am," Joe says, as he sprints past me and up the disintegrating slope away from the landing.

As we scoot down the trail I am angry. I've done it again. It's going to be a race to find a campsite and set up camp before dark. In fact, I give us even odds whether we will even make it to a campsite.

I know better. I've done this enough times to know that I do not like getting stuck over night in the open forest, especially with the boys. My vision is to find a campsite, set up the tents, go for a swim, catch a few frogs, build a fire, cook dinner and be ready to climb into our sleeping bags as the stars come out. That will not happen today. I cannot say why this is so important. Staying in the open forest really is not much different than staying in a primitive campsite. I think it is some vestigial remnant from the society we are escaping. We are only supposed to camp in certain places, so that is what we should do.

Then too, there is something about dusk. I feel the nesting urge. It doesn't matter where I am or what mode of transportation, as the sun reaches the horizon, I feel a certain melancholy anxiety until I know where I will sleep. Hiking a trail, paddling a canoe, or driving down the highway it's the same. It is not so bad when I have a hotel reservation or a certainty where I will be making my nest; on some primal level I know I will get there. But when I don't know where I will lay my head, it's another matter. It's a hard wired genetic response. Once the sun has set though, even if I haven't found the nest, the feeling passes, sometimes replaced with a far more focused concentration as I struggle to keep in contact with my surroundings in the dark.

I consider setting up camp at the boat launch area. It's rocky with lots of trees and only a little room at the bottom of the slope. We will never be able to set up the tents. So what? We can just climb into our bags and start again in the morning. It's not like we have not had to make camp in the open forest before. I am not in the zone.

We finally arrive back at the landing with the last load around 9:30pm to the sounds of crickets and frogs doing their evening warm-ups. One look around the site and the decision is easy. We load up the canoes and shove off. Alison and Joe maneuver their boat like a semi-truck out of a parallel parking spot, forward, backward, forward then off down the stream. Dan and I make a quick stroke or two and the boat turns and glides forward. Alison mumbles something I don't need to hear. I smile.

After six and a half hours where every movement forward was directly linked to the contraction of a muscle, the extended glide of the canoe is stunning. Stroke, glide. Stroke, glide. I watch the alignment of the trees shift to mark our silent progress. I could get used to this.

Angleworm Lake has six campsites. The first two are almost next to each other, just down the shore to our left less than a hundred yards. I know they will be taken by the Outward Bound group. They call out to us as we paddle past, "Glad you got your boats in."

"Thanks. Now all we need is a place to call home," I respond. The third site is on the right about a half-mile down. I expect it will be taken by a group of Eagle Scouts we saw coming from another lake. It is.

The fourth site is about a mile down on the right shore, deep in a small bay which runs parallel to the main body of the lake. The red dot on the map which represents the campsite covers an area larger than I would like in the real world, but it is smack at the deep end of the bay. We should be able to find it by touch even in the dark. As for the other campsites, it does not matter. They are too far away.

The only light now is from the dregs left by the sun which has spilled over the edge of the earth. I take one last look at the map, one heading off the compass, and look for something discernable on the top of the tree line. It's not that we cannot see; it's just that we cannot see the detail. And at this stage in our trip, we need the detail as much as we need a campsite.

As we enter the mouth of the bay, we have a good sense of where we are. Except for the sound of distant frogs, and a couple of loons, the only sound is from our paddles stirring the water. From the other canoe, Alison says in a voice not much above a whisper, "Over there, on the right. That could be it." Dan and I have already noticed the patch of whitish gray which stands against the opaque, impenetrable wall of the forest. It indicates a 150-foot section of exposed rock rising out of the water. But that doesn't look like where I remember the big red dot on the map. That rock is about 300 yards from the end of the bay. We push by.

As we reach the end of the bay, nothing even remotely like an opening for a campsite appears. We cruise the shore for a couple of minutes, then head a hundred yards or so along the west shore of the bay. Still nothing. Now we cross the open water back to the whitish gray splotch. I pick out a slot on the right side that looks like we could wedge in two canoes. We pull in. Whatever we find, this is where we will stay. Dan hops out and pulls me up onto the rocks. As I shift my weight out of the boat, Dan is off scrambling up the face. "This is it," he yells. "Here's the fire grate." I pull up our canoe, then lift Joe and Alison's up into the slot and hold it steady as they climb out.

We haul the packs up to the top near the fire grate. Alison, Joe and Dan all slump onto the logs which are arranged like primitive furniture in front of the fire pit. "You start the fire while I figure out where to put the tents" I announce. They mumble, "OK." I look around for the cleared areas where I can set up the tents. From what little I can see in the dark, the campsite looks good. Nice exposure to the west, but protected by the peninsula across from us which defines the bay. Quickly I throw up these old friends of mine, leaving the flies off. The night is warm, and the sky is clear. I stumble in the dark back to the fire pit. All three are positioned exactly as they were when I left. Dan looks up, sucks in a big breath, holds it, then exhales. "I'm going to bed. I'm too tired to eat." Everyone agrees. I suggest we each eat at least an apple (we have eight apples), or a Clif bar. Everyone grabs an apple. We munch quietly, reflecting on how nicely this has all gone. At the same time, Alison expresses the idea we all feel: "I was pretty nervous. I really didn't want to get stuck someplace where I didn't have a clue where we were sleeping. This is nice." We burrow into our sleeping bags. After a few words, we are sound asleep.

These forests, lakes and rivers are sacred to us. It could be an environmental thing since we have long family history ties to this place, but I don't think so. At its core, this is also a genetic thing-as hard wired as the ability to speak or walk or paddle a canoe.

We can trace our family's roots in these forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula back to the 1880's, five generations ago, on both sides of the family. On my mother's side, Joseph A. Payant was the oldest boy of six children when his father died of tuberculosis around 1892. As a 12-year-old breadwinner, J.A.'s first job was as a tailor's apprentice in the small town of Wausaukee, Wisconsin. In the early winter months, he traveled through these forests from logging camp to logging camp taking orders and measurements for suits for the loggers. He would then bring the orders back to the tailor's shop where the suits were made by hand from whole cloth. After the spring thaw, when the logging season was over, these loggers would come to town to pick up their new duds.

Later, J.A. bought the tailor's business and the building which housed it. Eventually, he passed that business on to Andrew, the next brother in line, and began a second career as an undertaker. In his 93 years he started many successful businesses in the small towns around Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. And in his later years, he took me to the forest. No big lectures. He knew I would understand.

Along with logging, the other dominant industry in these northern forests was mining for iron ore. From the Mesabi Range in Minnesota to the Gogebic and Marquette Ranges in Upper Michigan, mining was the dominant industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In 1864, my great grandfather on my father's side, Richard Trezona came to Minnesota's Mesabi Range from Cornwall. Then 18 years old, he had begun his career in the mines of Cornwall as a water boy when he was around 10, carrying water to the hard-working hot miners deep in the shafts. Before he was done, he was general superintendent of the Fayal District of the Mesabi Range for the Oliver Mining Company, a division of the newly formed United States Steel Corporation. In this prominent position, Richard Trezona and his family lived the life of the elite, complete with maids, nannies and chauffeurs. During this rise, he brought over his brothers from Cornwall each of whom made his own mark in the mining industry.

In all cases our ancestors have been bound to these forests, principally for economic reasons, but, far more important, we have been bound to the peace and tranquility which these forests and lakes and rivers afford.

I was raised in the town of Marquette, on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. My ties to the forest were less economic, and more by choice. I realized early that there was something here which could clear the mind, bring peace to the soul.

In high school, my passion was for debate, the competition between young minds over complex and sometimes unsolvable problems. My debate partner, Maynard Bowers, and I spent hours walking through the woods developing arguments in support of one proposition, then developing arguments to oppose the same proposition. This was in the late sixties, when Vietnam was on everyone's mind. During one year the proposition for debate in high schools across the nation was: "Resolved, that Congress should prohibit unilateral military intervention in foreign countries." Our formal competition mirrored the national debate which even then asked the question Should we allow another Vietnam to happen again? This was not simply an academic exercise. We were only a year or two behind our friends and our friends' older brothers who went to boot camp, made a quick stop home, then went on to someplace we only knew through television, finally to return home in a box. We knew too many. Their names are still with us, and on a wall in Washington. We waited for the lottery, to find out what our draft numbers would be.

We explored the issues as thoroughly as we could from our vantage on the basalt outcroppings along the shores of Lake Superior and in the forests on the iron-laden hills. We learned how to think in these woods. And we were in the zone. Maynard was the politician both locally and in his dreams. I was always taken by the art of the deal. What we shared was an appreciation for detail, and a love of the game. Maynard's draft number made it clear that he would do his duty, so he graduated from high school a year early and funded college and later law school with commitments to the Navy. My draft number was even lower, but I was in the first year after the draft was cancelled. For me, it was a non-issue.

Maynard was in that sunset group of draftees who were called up, then told, "Never mind. We've decided to cancel the draft. You can quit if you want." For Maynard, the choice was not that simple. His parents were in the midst of a divorce. The Navy offered both an escape and a source of funding for school. "Heck, I'll owe them twelve years anyway. I might as well stay the twenty. I can retire, move to Montana, and begin my political career on a full pension. I'll still be in my early 40's." It was an excellent plan. Maynard loved the mountains and glaciers as much as I loved the forests and lakes. Later, Maynard was my best man. That was the last time we were together. The last I heard, he was a judge in the Judge Advocate General's office in the Navy. That was 15 years ago. I wonder what has happened to him, and if he still goes to the mountains, or the forest, to find the zone.

My own father died when I was six. My knowledge of him is sketchy. What I do know is that he loved these forests, and that his father took him into what is now the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota to fish, and canoe, and find something which must have been as important to them as it is to me. Now, I bring three of my four children to these forests.

Four years ago, the first time I brought my family to the Boundary Waters, we stayed at a bed and breakfast called The Trezona House, named after Charles Trezona, my great grandfather Richard Trezona's younger brother who was the superintendent of the Vermilion Range, the range of iron mines around Ely. In the morning, as I drank a cup of coffee with the proprietor, he showed me a picture taken on the steps of the house around 1927. "Look. Here's Captain Charlie here. Let's see. And this is his niece, Mae Dormer [my grandmother] and her son, Richard Dormer [my father]." Seventy years later, we were heading into the forest from the same house in which my father stayed when he was my sons' age. We asked for a copy of that picture, and assumed the pose on the steps for our own picture.

Over the years, we have lost touch with both sides of our family, as well as important old friends, for all the usual reasons of time and space.

Day two: I awaken in the dark pre-dawn morning and look through the thin mesh screen to see if the stars are still visible. They are not. Clouds have moved in. As I lie there, trying to decide if I should clip the rain flies over the tents, I notice diffused lightening flashes buried deep in the cotton clouds off to the west. Soon the interval between flashes is almost nonexistent. I cannot hear the thunder, but it's coming, along with the rain. I get out of the tent and pull the rain flies over the tents just as the droplets begin to splatter around me. I put on my rain suit and head down to the small bluff to watch the series of small thunderstorms roll across the lake. I make a cup of instant faux coffee on the little stove and settle in on the rocks. This is a magnificent campsite.

Around 7:30, I feel the urge. I should be working by now. Review the overnight email. Check voice mail. Review the list of open projects and start calling my team members. Is everyone on track? Which fires need to be managed quickly before they are out of control?

This is nuts. Why am I thinking about all this when I am out in the forest? Besides, it's not my team anymore anyway. That's a weird thought. It has been so long since I didn't have to be accountable that I forgot how to just let go. I am not in the zone.

I look at a small bush climbing out of the rocks with white and red berries. I wonder what it is. I should know. Soon, Dan, my early riser, stumbles over in his rain suit. We sit on the rocks watching the storms roll in and savor the moment. By the time Alison and Joe are up, the thunderstorms have passed and the clear blue is taking over the day.

For this six-day trip, we mapped out a three or four day loop which would take us back to Nels Lake, about four miles down the road from where we parked our truck. We know we have plenty of time to wander, or not wander, wherever we want. We decide not to move on today. Instead, we graze and explore. After lunch, we all take a nap. Are we tired from yesterday's exertion or are we just shedding the skin which living in the civilized world demands? Al and I sleep longest. Joe and Dan have long since awoken and are off searching for frogs among the rocks near the shore. Finally, we stagger out of our respective tents blinking in the late afternoon sun.

Suddenly there is a ruckus down the shore and Joe is laughing uncontrollably. A minute later Dan and Joe walk into the campsite. Dan is soaked from head to toe. "I was trying to catch this big frog... I almost had him... I would have too... But I fell."

We all change to our swimming attire, me in my standard camping shorts, Joe and Alison in their swimsuits, and Dan in his already soaked underwear. For the next hour, we swim in the cool water of the lake.

After dinner, we dig out the fishing poles and cruise the shoreline looking for a bite in the early evening calm. We hear loons. More than the usual one or two per lake which we expect. This must be a family with this year's young, their plaintive calls reach to the bone and remind us that we are not in front of the television set any more. As we paddle back to the campsite, we hear a loon with a different sound calling from the north, perhaps the next lake. It's kind of loud-a little different somehow. I can't put my finger on it. Before I can ask what the others make of it, we hear another one. And still another. Simultaneously we all realize we are not hearing loons at all. It is a pack of wolves, announcing themselves and celebrating the evening as they have since before the earliest two-legged creatures entered these woods. The sound is magical. Indescribable. There is nothing else like it in the world. Now we are in the zone. How could we not be?

On our thousand-mile drive from our home in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Ely, Minnesota, we spent a night with my cousin, Jane and her husband near Milwaukee. Jane is my first cousin on my father's side. As I've said, we have drifted apart. I have only known Jane for the last four years. One day she picked up the phone and called me. "It's time we speak" or something like that. Since then, we meet or speak fairly frequently. We are learning to become family.

Jane is not a forest person, though she comes by it on all sides of her family. Her mother's family (not my side) spent years camping through the summer in some of these same forests in the 1920's and 1930's. Jane has compiled the notes of these journals as a volume for relatives and friends. It is an amazing look at that time and place.

Jane finds the zone in the various projects which she undertakes. She has just concluded a project which would stymie most people. Her daughter's friend, Kim, is in the Peace Corps in Ghana, West Africa. Unrelated to her job for the Peace Corp, Kim has seen that the local schools have nothing. No books at all. Only the richest children have paper or pencils. Kim decided to build a library. Jane and Kim's mother adopted the project. Their plan was to host lunches, raise funds, secure books by donation, purchase or any other means, and ship them to Africa. At first, the vision was to fill a few shelves with an encyclopedia and whatever books they could find. In the end, they filled a cargo container with 13,000 pounds of books and 104 bicycles (for the men to get to and from work.) She had just shipped the container a few days before we arrived. Her enthusiasm and quiet contentment were contagious. Jane is in the zone.

Day three: There is a crunching noise behind the tent-limbs breaking. Not too loud, but definitely not restrained. Deliberate, discrete crunching sounds evenly spaced. I know this sound. It's a moose. I slip out of the tent quietly. It is silent now. I look around. He's there. I just can't see him.

I head down the trail to the facility. As I head back, thinking about coffee, I notice ripples sweeping across the lake in front of our campsite. I look for the source and find it down to the left, just beyond the slot where we have stored our canoes. There he is. Standing in knee-deep water staring straight at me. I freeze. Now it's a game of chicken. Who is going to move first? I think this is a big deal-man confronting beast. He is not impressed. After a moment, he turns his gaze towards the lake and takes a big drink.

I sprint back to the tents and in a loud whisper yell, "Get up. There's a moose, with a full rack!" and bolt back to the top of the bluff over the water's edge. Dan's there first, standing in his underwear. "Oh. Cool" he says to himself and us. Next Alison comes bouncing out fiddling with her glasses and her new camera, trying to capture the moment. From the tent, I hear Joe "A goose! Who cares about a goose?" In unison we all chant back, "NO. A MOOSE, not a goose!" Joe is beside is in an instant.

The moose swims across our private little bay to the point directly across from our campsite. Halfway across he ducks his head underwater until only the tips of his huge antlers show above the flat, still surface. Then he re-appears and finishes his swim across the water, snorting and clearing his head-the moose version of morning coffee. Slowly, carefully, he picks his steps among the rocks as he climbs to shore. He shakes off the water from nose to tail like gigantic dog, looks back at us once more, then heads into the woods. Life cannot get any better than this.

Enthused and rested, we pack up camp and move on to Gull Lake then Gun Lake where we plan to spend the evening. As we sit on rocks over Gull Lake eating our lunch, an eagle flies overhead sailing out over the lake from the trees behind us. No one has said anything, but we all track her. Suddenly, she makes a little jerk, does a wingover like a World War II fighter, and dives down to the surface. In an instant she is climbing again, with a foot long fish dangling from her talons, back over us and into the trees. We can't see anything, but we hear the screeches which tell us that the fish is being served to the next generation of splendid acrobats.

We camp at a campsite we call "prairie camp" on Gun Lake. It is a grassy, bug-infested clearing on the eastern shore of the lake. On most trips, this would be a fine spot. But we are spoiled.

The water filter clogs after pumping only about three gallons over the first three days. Alison curses the filter, its designers, the company that manufactured it and the store we bought it from. I try to say something soothing but it's not sincere. I'm enjoying the rant. "I don't care. This thing is a piece of shit. I don't want to hear about the ridiculously small porosity needed to trap Giardia, [the bug which gives a flu like disease]. It is simply unreasonable to get less than three gallons of water from a brand new $30 filter. It would be different if this were some silty puddle, but not here, not in these lakes." We eat dinner, boil water for the next day, and crawl into our bags as the bugs come out in force.

After we left Jane's house on our way to the Boundary Waters, we decided to make a stop in Northeastern Wisconsin. It was the last Sunday in July, and our interim destination was a small county park on Lake Noquebay, about 8 miles east of the tiny town of Crivitz.

In 1947, my grandfather, J.A. Payant and his three younger brothers decided to have a family picnic. They did it again the next year and the year after that. Babies were born, students went away to college, adults were married, lives were lived and, through the fifties and sixties, the family picnic became the event of the summer. The permanent date was set as the last Sunday in July, and the location established at Lake Noquebay.

These picnics are some of the clearest, best memories of my early life. Often over 100 people, we would gather in the late morning, eat each other's favorite recipes, play softball, and swim in the lake. We children wandered wherever we wanted and did whatever we wanted. The adults were all too busy with each other to perform their usual job of policing our activities. To the best of my recollection, this was the one place where I could not pick up any sense of judgment or criticism from anyone towards anyone. These people all loved each other like they were family, which of course, they were.

We pulled in to the park around 11:30 AM. Not much had changed in the 19 years since I was last there. It was pretty quiet. "I think this is the clump of trees where we used to gather the tables," I said. "Over here is where we played softball. There used to be a really cool merry-go-round over there, but it probably wouldn't meet today's safety standards." My heart was beating fast as we walked around. It felt like going back in time. We wandered down to the lake. I watched my children wade in the water, picking clamshells as I had 40 years ago. I wished we had not been too busy to attend more of those picnics. I cannot remember why we couldn't attend or what was more important. I wandered up to a few groups at picnic tables explaining that we were looking for a certain family reunion. "Nope. Not us. We're new here." We wandered on.

After about half an hour, we decided to hit the road and continue to Ely. As we walked from the lake back to the picnic area, my disappointment was apparent. It was too much to expect that after 19 years the annual family picnic would still continue. Alison picked up on my mood. "You know, we really don't have much family on any side. Jane is the only one we know on your side, and we only have a few relatives we know on mom's side." She left the thought unfinished.

As we approached the stand of trees where I remembered those picnics from so many years ago, a woman and her husband were hauling a table out of the sun. She looked up and shouted, "I know you. You're Doug Dormer!" I knew the face, and thought I knew the person, but could not pull the name across all the years. We had found the Payant Family Picnic. In the next hour and a half, over 120 of our relatives pulled in with food, pictures and stories to tell. It was like we had never missed even one.

At first my three children followed me around like little ducks. Soon, however, they had made their own memories and they were on their way. I recognized some people, like Theresa, immediately, even though I haven't thought of her in years. Now with seven children of her own, she has the same magnetism as when we were 15. Other people, like Lucy, I remembered clearly, but in my mind they are 10 years old. Now they are grown and have their own children. Others, like Marianne, I remember clearly, though it wasn't until late in the day while driving through Wisconsin and Minnesota that I could begin to piece it all together.

The same non-judgmental feel which I remembered pervaded the atmosphere. My recollections were not just those of an impressionable teenager. This group, this place, really are as special as I recall. Now my own children will know.

We still have six hours to drive, so we pull out about 3:00pm. Daniel says what we are all thinking: "We have to plan to be here next year. And let's bring mom and Willie" (our two-year-old.) "I never realized we had so many cool relatives."

As we continue toward Ely, we drive through the tiny town of Wausaukee, Wisconsin to find the new Payant Park, a tiny little space between buildings along the short main street, with a small pavilion in the center, on the site where J.A. and Andrew Payant once had their tailor shop. It even has its own Web site, complete with the park's history. (See "Payant Park Project" at www.wausaukee.com.) They would be so proud. We certainly are.

Day four: We eat breakfast and pack in the rain and wind. All is good. We are prepared. We are comfortable. We consider two alternative routes. One will require us to travel fast, but offers a fascinating loop north to the border of Canada and runs through the big water of Crooked Lake, down past the Basswood falls and some ancient Indian pictographs ending back at Nels Lake. The other route is more leisurely. Nothing as dramatic as ancient pictographs, but good fishing, great scenery and time to savor. We choose to savor.

By lunch we arrive at our next campsite, an exposed rock bluff on the eastern shore of Boot Lake. Very strong winds from the west have blown the rain clouds away. Although we usually seek shelter from the westerlies, this time the exposure seems reasonable. Great sun with enough wind to keep the bugs from settling. The reasons aren't very good, but we like the spot, so who cares? We pull out the tents and drape them over bushes to dry and begin to cook lunch. I pull the canoes up onto the rocks about ten feet from the waters edge, and Joe and I wander off to explore.

Joe and I are standing underneath a big pine tree trying to remember the characteristics of the different kinds of varieties of pine. "How many needles are in each bundle on a White Pine? How big are its cones? Is the bark smooth or rough?" We think it's a Jack Pine, but aren't sure. Suddenly we hear a rumbling sound coming from the campsite. Before I can ask "What's that?" Joe has bolted past me at a full run. He pitches his sunglasses onto a pack as he heads for the canoes. The wind has picked up both boats and slid them across the rocks to the lake's edge like they are kites. Alison, Dan and I are all in pursuit, but Joe is the only one with a chance of catching either one. Our Mad River canoe, which had been on the side farther from the water, is already in the water, sailing past the stern of the Old Town. The Old Town is now in the water at the edge of the lake, just beginning to glide away. Joe leaps into the air and lands sitting in the water with his hands latching onto the gunwale and his boots digging into a crack in the rock a few feet from the lake's edge. He can't pull it out, but it's not going anywhere. We grab the boat and pull it back up onto the rocks. In these few moments, the Mad River canoe has blown sideways across the lake and is now about a hundred yards away, moving quickly across a large open bay. If Joe had not caught one canoe, we would have been in a challenging position. Not a safety risk, just a pride risk. We would have either had to bushwhack to where the boats eventually would beach, or we would have had to bum a lift off one of the occasional canoes passing by.

We grab the four life jackets and two paddles which, fortunately, we had removed from the canoes, climb into the one remaining canoe, and begin the chase. The wind seems to hook to the left around the next point and head into a smaller bay. We catch up with it just as it is nearing the shore at the next campsite. Dan and Joe hop onto the rocks and hold on to it while Alison and I land our canoe. We secure both boats while we laugh and collect our thoughts. "I think God would rather we have chosen this site," said Al. "Yea. We chose poorly," adds Dan.

We decide the easiest thing would be to paddle both canoes back to the first campsite. As long as we hold the nose into the wind and waves, we will be fine. Progress will be slow, but then we are not in a hurry. Time does not matter. We shove off.

This is not a new situation for us. We've paddled into a stiff wind on open water before. We know what we are doing. Simply keep the nose pointed into the wind and waves and we will be fine. Lose the point, and we will have problems. At best, we will get turned around and lose ground. At worst, we will get perpendicular to the wind and parallel to the waves, in which case we will run the risk of getting swamped or flipped.

The boats themselves can make a huge difference. Our Mad River Malecite canoe is 16 feet six inches long, has low sides, a moderate v-shaped bottom and weighs about 65 pounds. The Old Town is 18 feet long, has higher sides, a flatter bottom and weighs about 45 pounds. When the boats are full with gear and people, they handle roughly the same. But empty, with the lighter people in the higher profile Old Town canoe and the heavier people in the lower profile Mad River canoe, the difference in handling is huge. We should switch boats, but do not.

As Dan and I struggle back towards our campsite, I realize Alison and Joe will never be able to hold the point into this wind in that big, light sail of a boat. But I did not expect them to flip.

Later, as we stand on the rocks after Dan and I pull the Old Town out of the lake, with Alison and Joe dripping, I realize how fortunate we are--not just that no one was hurt, but that no one is at risk in the entire adventure, at least no more so than in most everyday situations. Joe, Dan, Alison and I are completely comfortable in our surroundings. We are all in the zone.

Quietly, Alison gives thanks for all of us. "Thank you, God, for reminding me that I am not so very big or important." We all smile.

Rather than try again to fight the wind, we decide to tie down both canoes then bushwhack our way back to the first campsite where our lunch and packs remain. There is a rough trail, perhaps only an animal trail, past beaver stumps and over the rocks back to the first camp. We hike through, eat lunch, then haul our gear to the new site where nature, if not God, deems we should stay. We spend the evening fishing and feasting while Alison and Joe's clothes dry. Even Alison, who casts her line just to experience the feel of the cast, catches a fish. She is almost apologetic. We quickly snap a picture then release the little glue gill. Everyone except Daniel hauls in something, although mine-which is the biggest-gets away.

Day five: The fifth day is a relaxing, tranquil day as we move onto Four Town Lake and find a campsite which will allow us to sprint out of the forest on our last day. We swim, sit around the fire and talk. We savor our last night in the forest. Society begins to encroach. We try to keep it at bay, but it is hard not to anticipate our return to the other world.

Late in the evening after all are asleep, I lie in the tent, watching the Northern Lights put on their glorious show. As I rest in this exquisite natural wonder, I think of my new friend, Sam Bahour, who lives in Ramallah, in the West Bank. I doubt I will ever meet him face to face, but I am getting to know him. Sam is an excellent writer who lives under the curfew of Israeli occupation. To Sam, I am just another name on his bulk email list. For me, Sam serves as a point of reference, both for what is common to us all and for the incredible gulf which exists from one family's existence to another's. Through his frequent emails, Sam tells me about his day, about the utility worker who is shot and killed while responding to an emergency call, or the deaf old man who collects the garbage, but who knows what the young Israeli soldier is saying even if he cannot hear because he has heard it before, many times, in this long occupation.

But what stands out about Sam more than anything is his clear, concentrated effort to raise his children without hate in an environment where every external force revolves around hate and death. In the course of my daily rat race, I rush through Sam's emails storing the words and images until there is quiet. Now I have quiet. I recall his words, which he uses so effectively. Following is a recent message.

From: Sam Bahour [mailto:sbahour@palnet.com]
Sent: Thursday, June 27, 2002 9:52 PM

We finally had a house visit of our cities uninvited guests. Sixteen fully armed Israeli soliders entered our home as part of the house to house searches that they have been carrying out for 4 days now in Ramallah, while we sit under 24-hr curfew.

Our home compromises of 3 flats. My in-laws live on the ground level, we live on the 1st floor and my parents on the 2nd. My wife, Abeer, and oldest daughter, Areen, spent all day baking to fill the time while under house arrest (in international law they call that "collective punishment"). It was 7:30pm when Areen wrapped a tray of the sweet "Haresah" that had just come out of the oven and was excited to send it to her grandmother in the flat below. When we are under curfew, like now, we use a basket and rope from our front porch to send things below since we are not allowed out of the house. When the basket swings into the door my in-laws know that they should open to see what we have lowered. This time Areen was alone on the porch and started lowering the basket when she saw a soldier's helmet at her grandmother's doorstep after the basket was half way down. She hurried and pulled the basket up and in and left the window wide open. She came running saying the soldiers are in our house. She was scared, more than she has been since we became under curfew. I had just got off the phone with Corky, a New York Daily News reporter, and was at my computer.

I went to the front window to see a lot of soldier's kneeling in front of the stone fence in front of our house. My dad happen to be with us at the time. As we sat to see what was going to happen our doorbell rang. When my wife answered via the intercom it was her mom saying that the soldiers are here and we should open the door. When we did no soldiers entered, only Fadwa, Abeer's mom. I met her in the stairway and she advised that they want one of us only to come downstairs. I proceeded to go see what was up. When I reached the doorsteps of my in-laws I looked in to see their porch packed tight with fully armed soldiers kneeling in a full alert position.

One soldier was kneeling at the doorway and trained his rifle on me as I approached. I greeted them and asked what is needed. He asked me if I spoke Hebrew and I told him English or Arabic. He proceeded in perfect English and asked who was upstairs. I answered that my family and father were there. He demanded that everyone come outside in front of the house. I asked if the children should come too because the weather was a little cool. He snapped back and said "everyone". I yelled upstairs and asked my family to come down and bring their ID papers with them. As I waited the soldier asked my mother-in-law where was Marwan Barghouti, as if she should know. I told him that although my mother-in-law has the same last name they are not related. I told him each are from a different village. He said, sarcastically, "no this is Ramallah". I answered back and advised him that he was in Al-Bireh not Ramallah and that my in-laws are from Dir Ghasannah and Marwan was from a village called Kober. He seemed to be confused so I just answered his original question and told him Marwan was in "your jail". He smirked and seemed to accept the answer, which is true.

My wife was now approaching with my daughters and father. Areen, my oldest daughter was shivering with fear. I held her and bought her in front of the soldiers who were absolutely crammed in the doorstep and porch all in the kneeling position, weapons pointed. I told her, "see they are just like us, they don't scare us." My father tried to comfort her too and told her the same. My father was itching to engage the soliders but we convinced him to pass this time so no one ended up sleeping in prison. Areen relaxed a bit, but did not say a word as the soldier in the doorstep demanded that my wife open the car garage. I told him the key was upstairs and she would need to get the key. He approved and as we sat waiting for Abeer I told the soldiers, " we have a long way to go yet." No one answered but 2 or 3 of the soldiers, young boys, shook their heads in agreement. We sat their looking at them, each looked as if they were fearing for there lives. They were in a foreign land in a stranger's house and had a whole Palestinian (that is terrorist) family in front of them. They just stared at us as we hugged our children trying to relax the shock and shed the fear.

As Abeer came with the key to the garage two soldiers asked her to open the garage (in international law they call that being "a human shield"). As she opened our empty garage, the soldiers, full of fear, entered step by step guns ready to fire. I could not tell if they were disappointed that they fund only dust or if it was a relief to them.

As the the two soldiers returned to the house, as we sat outside in the cool breeze, one soldier extended his hand with all of our ID's. My mother-in-law spoke to them in Arabic, she said, "maybe one day you will come back in time of peace and not be so scared". No one answered.

The lead soldier called for the soldiers to exit the house. On his way past us he quickly said "bye", as if he knew had did something wrong by violating our life. They left, one by one, in full alert. It turns out they had searched and taken refuge in every home of the house not just the porch. As they exited gunfire could be heard a little way up our street. It was another Israeli unit for sure but they took no chances moving slowly and cautiously back to the street. As the walked past us, one by one, each with a heavy weapon or radio equipment or backpack, my daughter just hugged me tight. As the last soldier left the house my father-in-law emerged and stood at the top of the steps. Frustrated, he bid them farewell and told them in broken English, "Be sure to come back tomorrow."

After they left we learned that they checked each room and closet of the first floor.

We returned to our home and Areen was much more relaxed. She came to us and said, "you know I used to be scared of them but not anymore." She went on, "you know, some of them look like nice people. I feel sorry for them with all those jackets and gloves and helmets, they must be so hot, maybe that's why they did not talk to us." I assured her that I'm sure they are nice people but Sharon forced them to come. I am struggling to make sure she does not view every Israeli, even those that violate the security of our home, as the enemy.

At last, the fear of those helmeted, armed soldiers running free in our streets has been broken. I was hoping for this day so my daughter will not live in fear of our future neighbors. Nadine my 2 year old daughter can hardly speak but she imitates the whole above episode in the most cutest accent and body language ever.

As we settled down after our daily dose of occupation, we joked that they could have stayed since we had some of the best sweets in Al- Bireh to offer. More seriously, tonight we will give our girls an extra hug and kiss good night, because we know how today could of ended if one of the soldiers in the street saw Areen lower a basket above the head of the soldier entering the house.

God help the next house they went to search.

Still under military curfew, Sam

It is only an accident of the universe that I am here with my children, in this sanctuary, while Sam is held hostage in his home with his.

As I reflect on Sam's work, I think about the role that we Americans play, or can play, as a country and as individuals. I ask What can I do? I think about Bush's escalating rhetoric about the need for a "regime change" in Iraq. I see Rumsfeld, with absolute certainty, setting the stage for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. I recall the guarded comments from today's military officers who express concern about sinking into another Vietnam. And I recall my own youthful confidence as Maynard and I struggled with the same basic issues certain that we could find a solution. Now, I pull at my recollections of Thomas Friedman's insights, hoping to find some direction. I cannot imagine what I can do individually, but, like most Americans, I desperately want someone to present a strategy, some vision, to which I can grab hold. And I wonder what has become of my old friend Maynard.

In the civilized world, I do not linger on these thoughts, moving rapidly and safely to the next item on the day's to-do list. But here, in the zone, I linger. With sons eleven and twelve and another who is two, I wonder, will there be a draft to support an invasion of Iraq or some other battle in the war on terrorism? Will numbers on slips of paper pulled from a drum dominate their late teen years? Will their names be engraved on a wall, as a tribute to their sacrifice to facilitate a regime change? Will I be able to look them in the eye and say I did everything I could?

Day six: Although we planned to get an early start, no one is in the mood. We move at a considered, even pace-call it a crawl. We do not want this to end. As we slowly go through the motions, we talk about the similarities between today's events in the Middle East and how they compare to the events in Southeast Asia 35 years ago. We talk about my old friend Maynard. Someone asks when I last heard from him. "We dropped off each other's Christmas lists about 15 years ago," I say.

"Why don't you find him on the net?" I explain that I have looked many times through the usual people search engines, always coming up with too many possibilities but nothing solid. "Joe speaks for everyone-even me. "Why don't you just start calling them? Go down the list. You'd do it in a heartbeat for a deal. Why not for an old friend?" I have nothing to say.

Dan still has not caught a single fish, and we are all sharing in his misery. "I can't catch fish. I suck," He whines. I tell him I have a feeling. "Today is the day. You are going to catch a great fish today." That much is safe. Then I get greedy. "In fact, you are going to catch a fish on Mudro Lake!" I do not know why I add this unnecessary level of specificity, but I do. Now I have to live with it. Dan blows it off. "Yea, right." He sulks. But now he believes too.

As we cross the portage into Mudro Lake, some folks from South Carolina who are just beginning their trip tell us they caught bass in Mudro Lake. When we get there, Mudro Lake has the perfect feel-lots of reeds and logs along the shoreline. We pass a young boy who catches a nice fish from shore. Daniel casts his line again and again. Nothing. We troll along the shore for two hours. Still nothing. Not a bite. I wish I knew more about fishing. Somehow, with all the time I have spent in the forest and on lakes and streams, I have never become a decent fisherman.

The civilized world is already encroaching on our pure, unsullied brains. We have a dinner reservation scheduled for 6:00pm at the Burntside Inn, a wonderful historic lodge near Ely. We plan to have dinner with some distant relatives whom we have not met before. We have asked them to give us some slack since it is hard to predict how things will go after a week in the forest, but we have made the commitment.

At the start of the day, meeting that deadline seemed like a sure thing. We'd be out of the forest by 3:00pm with plenty of time to return the rental canoe, take showers, and, most of all, stop at Dairy Queen for our sugar fix. Now, paddling slowly across Mudro Lake, making the reservation seems like a truly stupid idea.

As Dan continues to fish slowly along the lakeshore, Alison and Joe paddle along at a crawl, sighing impatiently, but knowing better than to rush us. By the time we near the stream out of Mudro Lake, Dan is frustrated beyond words. "I hate this. I just can't catch fish. That's all there is to it. I'm just going to jump overboard. I'd have a better chance anyway." He mopes and sulks and pouts as we pull out of Mudro Lake. All I can say is, "Stay with it. I really thought you'd catch something here, today. Stay with it. Things happen in their own good time. You can't control it. You just have to be ready and patient." My words don't help.

At the end of the stream out of Mudro Lake, we pull the canoes up to a road which crosses the stream just before it enters Picket Lake. Technically, Mudro Lake is the entry/exit point for the Boundary Waters. Picket Lake and Nels Lake are in the Superior National Forest, but outside of the Boundary Waters. As we pull up onto the road, we realize we were standing next to Chainsaw Sisters Saloon, an interesting little enterprise at one of the most popular entry points into the Boundary Waters. From the signs outside, it looks like a pretty tame place as saloons go. Soda, water, essential supplies, and a fee for parking ($2.50 per day) or for each entry or departure (also $2.50). We have heard of Chainsaw Sisters Saloon, but did not realize that we would be passing right in front of it. We weigh our options. The day is slipping through our fingers. Where time had meant nothing for the last week, now time is becoming important. We told people we would be at dinner at 6:00. We have reservations. We have expectations to meet. I can feel my blood pressure rising.

It is 3:30pm now. We can probably find a ride from Chainsaw Sisters Saloon back to our truck, but that is not the finish we had in mind. We might make it in time for our dinner reservation. Or, we might just waste time and be late anyway. It's not like this place has a hotel shuttle to the local airport. Or, we could continue as planned. We have two lakes, a stream and two portages to get to the far side of Nels Lake. According to the map, the first portage is short, only 20 rods-about the length of a football field. Then, after a short paddle through what looks like a swampy area, comes the last portage of the trip. This one is a little longer, about 185 rods-but still only six-tenths of a mile. Finally, there is a mile and a half mile paddle across Nels Lake and we are done. We will still have to cover the four-mile hike to our car, but that will be easy.

Without too much conviction, we decide to forego Chainsaw Sisters Saloon and push off into Picket Lake.

As we paddle, it strikes me how far we have come in these last six days. When we started, this place felt remote and wild, even though we have been here before and come to know it as our home. Now it is our home again, although only temporarily. The portages are all so clearly marked and well maintained. It is a park. In its own way, it is almost as safe and secure as the kiddie playland at McDonalds. While good judgment is still essential, we cannot claim we are experiencing the true wilderness. I begin to wonder what it would be like to be an explorer in a true wilderness-someplace where you can only rely upon your own wits to stay safe, to survive, and where navigation requires true skill as you bushwhack through undisturbed forest, or try to discern the remnants of animal trails.

That's it!! That's the next adventure!! I'll announce my plan over dinner this evening.

As we approach the end of Picket Lake, the radar alarm in the back of my mind starts to sound. First quietly, a warning that there is a discrepancy between my sense of where we are and my recollection of where we should be. No big deal. Just take a look around for the landmarks I identified on my last look at the map. No match. That island is not where it should be. And we are reaching the shoreline at end of the lake too soon. What gives?

I pull out the map trying to make sense of it. At the extreme end of the lake, the map shows a stream which connects from the next lake. On the right, less than a hundred feet away, should be the landing for the trail. I can see the stream, but it wanders into a marsh of reeds and swamp. There is no way we can land anywhere near there.

We notice some high ground further off to the right, and aim for it. I climb out telling the others to hold fast. Nothing. I triangulate again. Still no fit. Is it me? Have I suddenly lost my ability to read a map? We decide to head back to the mouth of the stream for one last search. No one says anything but we are all running the calculations for heading back to Chainsaw Sisters Saloon.

We reach the mouth of the stream. Still nothing. No sign of a landing point or a trail or even any terrain where there could be a trail. Dan and I head into the stream. We will follow it as far as we can. Joe and Alison linger in the lake. The stream wanders left and right. It dissolves into channels and side-channels which go nowhere. It shrinks, both in width and depth. We hang up on shallow mud bars and push off with our paddles. The reeds and grasses squeeze us closer and closer. This seems familiar, but I cannot quite place it. We push on. I call out to Alison and Joe. They answer. We cannot understand each other, but their tone is not distressed.

Suddenly I remember. This is the Minnesota version of the swamp scene from The African Queen. I resolve not to go over side. I hate leeches too.

Finally the stream disappears into the swamp. I am looking ahead across the swamp and listening. I can see where the next stream must come out of the higher ground into the swamp and can hear the tumble of the water spilling across the rocks, but I see no way to get there. Then Dan calls out, "I've got it! Over there, on the right." And there it is-sort of. Off the last side shoot of the stream is evidence that someone has been here before. Calling it a trail is a stretch. Calling it a landing is just plain wrong. It's perfect.

Daniel and I paddle backwards until we can find a spot to manhandle the canoe around and head back to the lake. Alison and Joe have heard our calls and are coming in, but they are hung up on a mud bar. They push off before we get there, and we head into the stream. There isn't room for both canoes to pull in at once, so Dan and I go first. We paddle and push as far as we can, but this is thick ooze. The bow just will not go any farther. It's like we are pushing into wet cement. Dan carefully picks a spot which supports a clump of grasses to place his foot. It looks high and solid enough, like it will provide some support. Gingerly, he shifts his weight. No problem. It's good.

Ahead several feet we see rocks at the surface. Beyond that, we see ground rising into the woods. However, the space between the grass clump and the rocks looks highly suspect. Dan knows. No choice. No big deal. He steps quickly, lightly and hops to the rocks. "Yes!!" he yells and pumps his fist into the air.

Now it is my turn. I walk forward in the canoe and step onto the grass clump. No problem. Following Dan's lead, I try to float across the muck to reach the rocks and immediately sink to my knee. I stand there with one foot swinging in the air while I continue to sink deeper in the ooze as Alison, Joe and Dan laugh. I laugh. If there was tension, it is gone now. I wade or swim onto the rocks, careful not to pull so fast that I leave my boots behind, then pull first our boat to shore, then Alison and Joe's boat.

"Joe and Dan. We'll unload. You scout ahead. Let's make sure this goes someplace," I say. By the time Al and I have unloaded the canoes on a little patch of bushes, Dan and Joe are back. "Well, it isn't much of trail," says Joe. "And you better take a look at the launch-if you can call it that." I am a little impatient. "Can we make it?" Dan answers, "Oh yea." So we shoulder the packs and head off.

After only about one hundred yards, we reach the water. Big water. Not big by real lake standards, but bigger than I expected and way bigger than is shown on the map. This isn't a swamp. It's a small lake. And the reason is now apparent. There is dam. A great big beaver dam about 100 feet long with a drop of about eight feet. Water spills slowly, musically through the openings along the dam, converging to form the stream someplace below. Alison let's out a big sigh, "Damned beavers." We laugh.

Now it makes sense. The map is wrong. This dam has lowered the level of Picket Lake and completely changed the shoreline at this end. Above the beaver dam, the trail on the map is under water. We are bushwhacking. We look out across the small lake. We can see at least two big beaver lodges on the sides of this lake. We all search for the exit point, but none of us can discern anything. I look beyond and see a huge beaver dam someplace ahead. I can tell it is in another un-marked lake. That means at least one more dam, maybe two. Beyond that, most of a mile away, I see birch trees and other signs of the high ground which separates our world from Nels Lake. Can we get there? Yes. Is it worth it? We will see.

I can tell that Alison, Joe and Dan do not know what is ahead. I do not know either, but I do know that we are going to be struggling for quite some time. Is it one more pond or three? Will we find a trail or an impenetrable thicket? Will we be forced to turn back? I decide not to say anything. We will push on.

Then there is the dam itself. While I have been looking across the water trying to feel my way to the next lake, Joe has been studying the dam and the rocks and logs right in front of us. "This is going to be interesting. We barely have room to maneuver the boat to get through these stumps and trees. And I don't see how we can avoid scraping the bottom on the rocks." We head back for the canoes and the rest of our gear.

I push Joe and Alison off as their canoe excruciatingly grates and grinds across the rocks, gets hung up on a sunken log, and finally is free. Joe looks back. "You might want to try the other side of this thing," he says in an understated voice, referring to the only other course we can imagine. We shove off with far less grating and quickly move across the pond past the beaver lodges. Again Dan and I are in the lead. "Can you see it?" I ask him. Dan always sees things first. "Nope." Then he adds, "This is fun." His quest to catch a fish is now forgotten. He is absorbed in the quest to find the trail. Then he announces, "I've got it!! Over there near the trees." And he is right. There it is.

Again we pick our steps carefully to find a way to the next beaver pond, and again we launch from the dam, paddle past the beaver lodge and search for a point to go ashore. Again Alison mumbles, "Damned beavers" only this time we join in unison, and we giggle.

Finally we pull out next to where the stream spills out of the rocks into this, the highest pond. The stream is spectacular. As far as we can see up into the trees, the stream tumbles and rolls softly making music. This should be it, the last portage. There will not be another "damned beaver dam." We just have to find our way through and over this ridge. We are encouraged. The beaver ponds so far have swallowed the trail, but we should be able to pick it up here-at least whatever remnant of the original trail that remains.

Dan and Joe do not wait for instructions. "We'll scout ahead," they call as they disappear into the woods. Alison and I secure the boats then shoulder the two large packs. We start down what has to be the trail. We figure we will run into Dan and Joe on their return leg. The trail is rather overgrown, and there are a few logs to cross. Clearly no one is maintaining this thing-if it is the trail at all-and only a few folks have come this way, but we are fine. The trail roughly parallels the stream, which is off to our left. We cannot always see it through the trees, but we can always hear it whispering its encouragement.

After a couple of hundred yards the trail dies. It does not end or stop or dissolve. It dies. Right there in the forest along the stream. I look around while Alison catches up. I know it is here. I just cannot see it. Where did Joe and Dan go when they got to this point? Did they branch off earlier? I retrace the trail in my mind. They must have come through here.

Alison walks up and looks around. "This is nice." She says sarcastically. That says it all. Trying to maintain my great-white-hunter image, I point to a log across a tiny opening in the underbrush which shows clear sign that man or beast has crossed over and announce a little too confidently, "This must be the direction." We push through. Soon we are standing at the bottom of a cliff amongst the fallen rocks, the kind of unstable scrabble that rolls when you step on it, and grabs your feet and bites your ankles. Above, the underbrush becomes a thicket. Scanning for an opening in the trees gives no indication that Nels Lake is near. There is no way we are going to push the canoes through this. God, I don't want to turn around now, not after all this.

Then we hear, "We made it! We found the lake!" Alison and I breathe a sigh of relief. Joe and Dan are still a ways ahead to our left. We call back and tell them we'll meet them on the trail near the stream. We turn around and head back. When we get there, we call out again. Joe and Dan call back, this time from someplace back towards the start of the trail. We have missed each other. As we have always practiced, one party stays put while the other party homes in. Alison and I drop our packs. In a couple of minutes, Joe and Dan come trotting in.

"We found the trail, and its pretty good," says Dan.

"Dan did it," says Joe. "He saw the bridge across the stream. We crossed over and there it was, a clearly marked trail. It's kind of a climb, but its not even half a mile to where the lake spills into the stream. No problem." The "bridge" is really just a log which shows signs that we are not the first to cross. We follow them up the trail and find an excellent landing point into Nels Lake. Dan is skilled. We are lucky. The mouth of the stream is long and narrow. If we had missed this opening, we would have bushwhacked at least another mile through the dense brush to find the main body of the lake.

Quickly, with a spring to our step, we trot back for the canoes and soon are paddling across Nels Lake. As we cross Nels Lake, we pass a fisherman with his two children fishing for northern pike. He pulls up a 30-inch pike which the seven-year-old girl has caught. We are impressed. I ask him what lure he was using. He says a jitterbug. Dan makes a note. We have a jitterbug in our tackle box.

Suddenly, two beavers slip off the bank into the water about 25 feet away. One dives and disappears. The other swims along side, keeping a close eye on us. Dan whispers, "Look, a beaver." Alison follows in a loud, cold voice, "Kill the beaver." She is not ready to forgive the beaver's engineering work. Soon we are all doing our best Elmer Fudd imitation: "Kill the beaver. Kill the Beaver..."

Quickly we are across Nels Lake. It is now 6:30pm and we still have to retrieve the truck, drive to town, return the rental canoe, and get cleaned up. The plans for the day have been superceded, but we are in the zone.

Joe and I run the four miles in our hiking boots while Alison and Dan hang out at the boat launch site. People drive by in their cars and trucks. Some wave. Some don't. No one offers a ride, but then, we do not try to flag anyone down. Dealing with people is going to take some getting used to.

When we return, Dan is beaming. In his hand is his fish pole, with a nice pike hanging at the end. He caught the pike on his third cast shortly after we left and has been trolling the fish along the shore keeping it healthy, waiting for us to return.

We hurry to town. We find we have missed our relatives with whom we had planned to dine by about five minutes. They had waited as long as they could. We will catch up with them for lunch tomorrow. At 8:30pm we are at the Trezona House caked in mud and grime. We call the Burntside Lodge to ask how late they are open for dinner. We are in serious need of a great meal, and this is a tradition not so easily relinquished. The host kindly explains, "I'm sorry, all our reservations for the evening are taken." In my most professional persona I follow his lead. "I am sure they are. In fact, we had a 6:00pm reservation." "Aw. The Dormer party," he says, raising the ante of formality. I mumble something stupid about a rough portage while swallowing my pride. He puts me on hold. In a minute he is back. "Can you be here in half an hour?" "Absolutely." I respond without having given any thought to the logistics of four showers and forgotten directions.

We arrive not much past the half hour and have a splendid feast. Over dinner, we reflect upon the long week and resolve to stay in the zone as long as we can. It has been a magnificent week. We could ask for nothing more. We are still in the zone.


It is 6:30 am three days later. I am just sitting down at my desk. I have my computer, with access to the Internet and I have the telephone. Under my shirt, I still wear my compass, just to keep the feeling alive a little longer. I pull out a piece of paper and start a to-do list for the day. It feels great to be here.

I pick up a note reminding me of research I need to do for a company which is considering me for an executive position. I need to learn more about their senior management team. I do a search on the chairman's name. It turns up his affiliation with a legal association.

Funny, in all the years I have tried to find my old friend Maynard, I have only looked through the people search engines. I have never done a global search using the standard Windows search engine. I type in his name: "Maynard C. Bowers, Jr." A moment later I have the first ten hits. Looking down the list I see the usual mismatches, things which are matches in cyberspace but which are only dead ends like the channels which hang off the stream out of Picket Lake.

Then, six items down, I see it. "Augusta Georgia: obituaries..."

"Mr. Maynard C. Bowers, Jr., 47, died Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2001, at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, Aiken.

Services will be private.

Mr. Bowers, a native of Battle Creek Mich., had retired as lieutenant commander and military judge from the Navy and was a veteran of Desert Storm during which he received an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Services Medal with a Bronze Star... He was a member of the Paralyzed American Veterans, was a former member of Disabled American Veterans and was a former Rotarian.

The family said, "He loved his grandchildren."

       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine


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