Sixth Sense by
This past summer my wife, Diane, and I made a dream come true. We
paddled in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Quetico
Provincial Park for the entire summer. Previously, every time we
finished a canoe trip, no matter how long it was, we would lament the
fact that it was too short and talk about how great it would be when we
could retire and spend an entire season paddling.
Ultimately, we decided not to wait, however, and determined to make
it happen now, as opposed to the infamous ''someday''. In February of
1999, we began the process of planning and making all of the
arrangements necessary for such an undertaking; coordinating sabbaticals
from our jobs, planning routes, started dehydrating food, saving money
so we could pay our bills, and making countless lists of tasks to be
done before we could wet our paddles.
Most of all, we began counting the days and dreaming about the day
our adventure would actually begin. Finally, on May 22, in the year
2000, Diane and I pushed off from the landing at Lake One and began an
odyssey that would end on September 22, 2000. Our lives would be changed
forever and in ways we could never imagine.
Part of the Family
It was hard to imagine spending the next four months in our canoe and
in the Canoe Country. Except for short resupply exits, and a two-week
period when Diane was ill, we spent the entire time paddling and ended
up covering most of the Quetico and large portions of the Boundary
Waters. We actually made our dream come true!
If you have paddled the lakes and rivers of the canoe country, walked
its ancient portages, pitched your tent on a bed of pine needles, sat on
a slab of granite looking out over calm waters as the evening sun
spreads its golden light, and drifted off to sleep to the haunting call
of a loon, you are part of a special family. A family that is bonded
together by a passion for paddling and a love of wild places. We are
willing victims of that siren call which rings in our ears and draws us
back again and again. No matter how many trips we have taken, no matter
how many years we have paddled, we never get enough.
During our adventure I kept a journal and faithfully made some sort
of entry each day. There were days when all I wrote were details about
our route, observations on the weather and wildlife, what we had for
supper, or what our campsite was like; the kind of mundane entries that
would bore anybody else.
There were also those times when the writing juices would really flow
and my fingers would cramp from writing for so long. Often this would
happen on layover days or when I found myself sitting under a tarp
during an all day rain. Give me a mug of tea, a small fire for ambience,
the smell of wood smoke, the sound of rain on the tarp, and a
comfortable spot for my camp chair, and I can fill an entire notebook.
I had one such day on Cirrus Lake at the beginning of a 25 day trip
that began at Beaverhouse Lake. A few days earlier, Diane and I had
driven up to the Beaverhouse entry with Sam Cook and Steve Therrien.
Sam, the outdoor writer for the Duluth News Tribune, wanted to do an
article about our summer-long adventure and thought it would be good if
he spent a few days with us before writing the story. Sam loves to
paddle, and will jump at any opportunity to be on the water and call it
"work". Sam's friend, Steve, lives in Superior Wisconsin, and
is a teacher and fly fishing guide on the Brule River.
We drove up from Ely in a rain that would not quit and listened to a
weather forecast on the radio that made us wonder if we should delay the
start of our trip or at least grow webbed feet. We pushed on, however,
and were rewarded with three days of almost steady rain. So we found a
beautiful camping spot on Cirrus Lake and hunkered down there.
The day Sam and Steve left us to head back to Duluth, Diane and I sat
under a tarp, drank tea, read, and wrote in our journals. It was the
kind of day that could frustrate you at the beginning of a trip,
especially if your trip was only a week long. There would be that sense
of urgency to get moving. But Diane and I were going to be out for
almost a month on this trip, so we savored the opportunity to relax and
enjoy the day for what it was. This is what I wrote that day.
Back in science class we all learned that we have five senses. We
see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. It seems to me that when we are in
the wilderness, however, we are much more aware of these senses than
when we are in our everyday lives. We use and depend on them far more
than normal. Ponder these thoughts with me if you will.
Sight. Ever notice how much you look to the sky when
you are canoeing? Watching clouds, wanting to be prepared for the
thunderstorm that can come out of nowhere, and looking for evidence of
wind on the water or in the trees? We have all seen the deep green of
pine trees against the background of an impossibly blue sky, long vistas
down an island studded lake, a ridge of red pine trees whose trunks glow
with the soft light of a setting sun, or the pulsing intensity of embers
in a dying fire.
Smell. The incredible scent of pine needles warmed by
the sun. The smell of wood smoke or the pungent fragrance of pine resin
from a burning pine knot. The smell of clean pure air, the fragrance of
crushed balsam needles, the sage-like aroma of sweet gale crushed in
your hand. Or the aroma of freshly caught walleye frying in a pan.
Fragrances which bring back sweet memories.
On the other hand, how about the smell of a sweaty shirt that you
have worn for 14 days, the unforgettable odor of methane gas as you
slosh through what we natives affectionately call ''loon-shit'', or the undeniable
aroma that wafts up from the ubiquitous boundary waters biffy? These too
are the smells of wilderness. Conjuring their own memories.
Touch. Can you imagine the feel of your paddle in your
hand right now? Sure, you can. Or the feel of the gunwales of your canoe
on your knees as you apply pressure to keep your proper position. The
shock of cold water as you jump in the lake, even in August, or the
warmth of the sun on your back after several days of clouds and rain.
That pine cone or rock poking up under the tent floor; right in the
middle of your back. How about the smoke in your eyes that causes tears
to flow and follows you everywhere as you cook dinner over a fire.
Or the ache of muscles that scream out after a mile-long portage. And
who can forget the pull on your line as a lake trout hangs on the bottom
and refuses to come up. Or the soft breeze on your face as you look out
over another picture-postcard view.
Taste. Peanut butter and jelly every day for four
months, tender walleye hot out of the pan, a drink of cold pure water as
you paddle across a lake. Blueberries, raspberries, and wild
strawberries picked alongside a portage. That special taste as you use a
pine needle for a tooth pick. The sharp salty taste of your own sweat
after a long, hot portage. Or the wonderful flavor of crisp bacon and
fresh eggs early in the trip, or a mug of steaming tea on a cold windy
Everything seems to taste better in the wilderness. Try some of that
freeze-dried food at home and you'll see what I mean.
Sounds. We all have awakened in the early morning to
hear wind in the pines and then laid in our tent wondering how big the
waves were out on the lake and if we would be wind bound. Or the sound
of your precious canoe scraping that rock lurking below the surface, the
crackling of a fire, a chorus of birds waking you up at four in the
morning, the sound of rain hitting the water as a squall blows across
the lake. Or the comforting sound of rain on your tent as you snuggle
down in your bag.
Then, there is the sound of a waterfall or rapids around the bend,
lightning getting closer with every strike, the wind in your ears as you
paddle into a head wind, the whisper like sound that your paddle makes
as it slices through the water. And the incredibly loud sound of
hundreds of mosquitoes buzzing outside your tent, the rush of air
through the wings of a raven that flies closely overheard, or the sound
of the white throated sparrow that you never tire of hearing.
Ever heard the sound of ''silence''? If you have, you know what I
mean. Last, but certainly not least, the sound of loons, loons, loons.
The near perfect manifestation of wilderness.
Now that I've got you all warmed up with memories buzzing around in
your head, let me ask you this. Have you ever wished that you had more
senses or at least the ability to make the ones you have work better? To
be more in tune with what was going on around you, so that you could
really appreciate the wonder and beauty of your experience.
Wouldn't it be great if we had a ''sixth sense'' that would allow us
to re-live past experiences all over again with the same kind of
intensity? I have found myself thinking these thoughts, wishing for that
kind of awareness, and coveting that ''sixth sense''.
On our summer long trip I often reminded myself of the need to be
vigilant to make sure that I was experiencing everything to its fullest.
I knew that the months would fly by, and I did not want to get to the
end of our adventure and wish I had been more observant or attuned to my
Those of you who are able to paddle for only a week or so each year
will probably laugh at my concerns, thinking that with four months to
paddle there would not be much chance of that happening. But I have
found that whether I am out for a week or an entire summer it is easy to
get desensitized. Then after the trip is all over, I wish I had paid
more attention and tried to burn the details into my memory so I could
pull them up later on.
However, as we all know, after the trip is over, and all the gear is
put away, all that is left are the memories. We look at maps and read
our journal entries, trying to bring back all of the images and feelings
of the experience; but most of the time all we can muster is a hazy
general good feeling that pales in comparison to the real thing.
Even photos fall short. How often have we tried to show a photo of
some incredible scene to someone else and apologized by saying that it
looked better in real life? We can't capture that third dimension on
film any better than we can in our mind.
I wish that I had a nickel for every time that I have commented about
how wonderful it would be if we could find a way to bottle the smell of
white pine needles warming in the sun, or the wonderful fall smell of
decay that we associate with a portage in late September. But, we can't
do it. Nothing replaces actually being there. No matter how hard we try,
we can't re-stimulate our senses. In the long run, this is probably
Maybe this why we can talk about those incredibly hard portages with
a hint of bravado and say that they weren't all that bad. Or brag about
how terrible the mosquitoes and black flies were and forget the misery
they created and how they almost drove us crazy.
Maybe this is what keeps us coming back. Wanting to recapture those
special feelings that can only be experienced in the moment. I think
that it might be good that we can't just pull these feelings back up on
command. Most certainly, they would lose some of their specialness if we
could. Perhaps a fleeting moment of awe or wonder is all we need.
Perhaps these things simply sit deep in our soul, nurturing us without
our even knowing it.
So, until we can be on the water, and once again have our senses
stimulated, we will have to be content with second best; the memories. I
don't know about you, but I think I am glad I don't have that sixth
sense. It makes me look forward to the next paddling season with the
same excitement year after year.
See you on the water!