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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

Tough Lesson Learned in the BWCA by Mary Jensen

''Sorry, Mary, the doctor says I can't go!'' The art teacher, and one of the leaders of our proposed canoe trip, was standing in my office doorway. And that's how I found myself in charge of a group of students on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. As a teacher at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls I was involved in an interdisciplinary humanities study trip to the BWCA. The idea was to travel the area and express the experience through art, music, and writing.

When I agreed to participate I was only to evaluate the writing and assist with the canoeing end of things. I am an experienced camper, can hold my own when carrying a pack or a canoe, and can paddle with the best of them. However, my J stroke is weak and I had no idea how to navigate the endless turns and twists of the look-alike rivers and lakes of the area.

I would be fine as an assistant; but to be in charge of a group was going to be a stretch for me. My one saving grace was that a long time friend and colleague, Mac, volunteered to assist me. Since we had shared my adventures, camping trips, and bike tours I knew we'd be able to handle anything together.

Anne, another colleague, was the official leader of our group and an experienced BWCA tripper and leader. She assured me that she would never make a turn without me being close enough to know which way to go but I still experienced considerable trepidation as I made preparations for the trip.

We bought and packed up our food and gear, met with students for last minutes instructions, and hoped for the best. To add to my doubt we learned that, due to dry conditions, there was a complete fire ban in the BWCA. Cooking would be possible on our small stoves but a campfire is the core of a campsite and I didn't know what we'd do without one.

Time To Go

As we left the campus parking lot everyone was in high spirits and I felt that I was successfully masking my fears. But, as it was my 58th birthday that particular day, I had moments when I wondered what I had gotten myself into!

Our paddlers included me, Anne the leader, nine students, another teacher and her husband, my buddy Mac, and, at the last minute, the art teacher who got clearance to come along.

As we exceeded the number allowed in one group we would split into two groups once we were on the water. My group included three football players, two young women, Mac, and me. The boys were big and strong but lacked any canoeing or camping experience. One of the young women had neither experience, nor inherent desire for wilderness travel, but simply needed the credits to graduate. The other young lady was an experienced camper and paddler. Together we'd see what lessons the wilderness had to share.

We had no idea what those lessons would be or how difficult they would be to learn.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

After an excited night in our outfitter's bunkhouse lodge we leaders were up early, having our necessary coffee fix, and listening to the steady rain on the roof of the bunkhouse. Needless to say, this development did nothing to decrease my worries.

We sat and waited. And waited. And quietly hoped the rain would stop. The students slept on. We waited for the outfitters to come to work and soon they did. I frankly was hoping they'd get stuck in the mud somewhere and not be able to issue us our canoes. No such luck. Their arrival signaled us to pack up, put on our rain gear, and head out.

No one, including myself, said anything about the folly of canoeing in a steady downpour. But I was thinking plenty. The first half of our group loaded up their canoes and headed out while we watched. It was gray, it was raining, we were cold, but paddling helped us to warm up.

As we paddled, and warmed up, our spirits rose in spite of the continuing rain. We made our first portage relatively easily even though several people, including myself, got wet when reloading the canoes. The rain eventually let up but did not go away. The winds picked up as we crossed our first lake. A lake which happened to be larger than most.

As we entered an open area the wind and waves rose higher and higher. One of our canoes soon appeared to be in trouble. They shouted that they were taking on water and were too tired to go on. Obviously, at this point, stopping wasn't an option. We had to talk them through it.

They really weren't taking on much water but they were scared. We made our way to an island and stopped for a pep talk. By the will of our encouragement we managed to make it to a place where we could all stop for lunch. After our lunch of salami and cheese, which everyone thought was ''the best they'd ever eaten'', we all felt better. Funny how the outdoors, exercise, and adrenalin improves even the most ordinary of foods.

We had planned to camp that night only a relatively short distance from our lunch spot where there were two campsites close together. Anne and her group were at the first site and assured us the the other site was just around the corner. We continued on.

We found places where it looked like we could camp but could not locate the steel fire grate that identified an official site. After 45 minutes of fruitless searching we went back to Anne's site to consult. Looking at the map again we decided they were at the second site and the first site was around the corner in the opposite direction. And there it was.

We gratefully pulled in and unloaded. But it was slow going as the kids didn't know how to select a good tent spot and some had never set up a tent at all. Mac and I got them set up and then we all had some GORP and some rest. Soon everyone felt much better.

It was cloudy but the rain had shut off and we got a clothes line up for our wet gear. We were all reasonably dry but one boy didn't have any dry long pants and another didn't have any dry shoes. Both items on our ''required'' list. The kids began to play cards while Mac and I prepared our first supper. Spaghetti sauce, even though from a jar and placed in a zip-lock bag before we left home, never tasted so good. It is true that whoever cooks in a situation like this is a ''great chef''.

Instructions about how to properly wash the dishes prompted a couple of them to do them and we were ready for the night. Without a campfire it got cold quickly and sitting around the camp stove just didn't do it. We played cards until it got too dark, then huddled together and talked some, but it was still early to go to bed.

We were all tired but a campfire would have spoken to that primal need that exists even in the video playing generation. One of the boys claimed to have never been to bed so early in his entire life! We told him to pretend it was 2:00 a.m.. Our tents were the only warm, dry places available so we were soon snug in our sleeping bags.

Sunshine On My Shoulders

The sun was out in the morning and we let our gear dry out before we set off. I had slept well in my new tent and sleeping bag but the kids had not fared so well. Rocks under their tents, no ground cloths (again, on the ''list''), leaky borrowed tents, and not being careful to keep stuff dry, all led to some touchy campers that morning. However, the strong sunshine, and stacks of aptly named ''Hungry Jack'' pancakes, improved everyone's mood tremendously.

Then a turning point occurred. Someone referred to Anne's group as Group One and to our group as Group Two. And the fact that our group was ''tougher''. This was the first sign I had seen of group cohesion. Now there was an ''us'' and a ''them''. One of the elements for a real group feeling to occur. That, and our shared adversity, were starting to create the experience I had hoped for.

At the end of the trip one of the students said we ''started out as a group and ended up as a team''. Lesson number one, group membership, was being learned.

The next day it rained again. But we were getting the portaging down pat and were doing much better. Better that is until we got to the long portage to Hansen Lake. It would be one of our longest, at 120 rods, and was blocked by some fallen trees. Not just a log but full sized trees. We had to throw our full Duluth packs across a four foot blockade to our waiting football players on the other side.

And then came the canoes. It took everyone's best effort to make this happen. And, you know what, it did! The kids came through. The adults came through and I came through. What do you know?

(Editor's Notes: Mary and Anne chose early May to lead their students into the wilderness. While this time frame has many distinct advantages it also generally comes with a significant amount of rain, some cold temperatures, and surprises on the portages from fallen trees that haven't been cleared. Fire bans are highly unusual in May but strange things happen sometimes. Mother Nature does what she will. As you can see by Mary's tale, good gear is essential in these conditions. Hypothermia is a real, and deadly, concern so waterproof footwear and a full rain suit is highly advised. And a good tent, recently waterproofed, a ground cloth under it, and a warm, synthetic sleeping bag are essential for proper rest and warmth.)

I will admit that I had a moment of doubt as I walked in water up to my ankles with a canoe on my shoulders. I thought ''I am 58 years old, what am I doing here?'' The point seemed to be simply that I was there, and I was doing it, and so was everyone else.

The BWCA had once again made its point. Natural wild beauty tested a group of people and they made it through with great individual effort orchestrated for the good of the group. Lesson number two learned. Physical limits are much higher than expected.

Our Brief Reprieve

The next day we had sunshine throughout most of the day and things were looking up. Some of the kids were brave enough to go swimming. But not for very long. We had a free afternoon at a beautiful campsite, in the sun, and I personally experienced the unforgettable high of having two pairs of socks dry at the same time!

Some of the students were inspired to draw and others worked on a paddling song that included a verse about each member of the group. The humanities projects were starting to happen. Two boys volunteered to make supper so I had a chance to relax and reflect and simply enjoy.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to do anything about one of our group. The young woman who came to get those needed credits. Despite everyone's efforts we just couldn't get her to become an integral part of our team. This was a lesson we did not want to learn but one which we would have to accept as part of the process.

The next day the rains returned. And the wind blew. Coming from the direction which we were headed out onto larger Saganaga Lake. Even though we had all gained canoeing skills by now it still took everyone's best effort to get across this lake. A stop of the leeward side of American Point, and some consulting of the map, pointed us down a narrow channel past Englishman's island. Tonight's campsite would be on Long Island, out of the wind. A little longer paddle but out of the relentless wind.

As we set up camp for the night, in a steady downpour, Mac and I were at the point of giddy silliness which usually happens when we are getting to the end of our tolerance level. The kids were simply cold and wet. I made some hot cups of soup because everyone was hungry in addition to being wet and cold. Mac quickly put the kids to work setting up the tarp for shelter from the rain. Food and a dry spot helped considerably.

The tents were up and there were some naps and some general silliness with paddles and butts and the infamous BWCA latrine box. Nothing like a little scatlogical humor. But they were adolescents. And they had to do something to combat the constant rain and resulting wetness and cold. Something that was harder and harder to ignore.

After licking the pan clean from the beans and rice, and scouring the food pack for any crumbs or tidbits, there seemed to be nothing left to do but go to bed. Some group members tried to sit under the tarp for a while but the cold eventually won out. The boys played cards, the girls slept.

Day Is Done

As I lay, warm and dry, in my tent I heard Mac call from his tent on the other side of the campsite. ''Mary, can I come and visit?'' I answered, ''Sure.'' And he came over. Map in hand. He then proceeded to show me where we were on the map. Only a couple miles from our take out point. The winds, and the decisions of the day, had brought us much closer to the end than we had planned.

The fact that we were cold, tired, and only a few miles from dryness leapt out at me. I admit the weight of the responsibility of trying to keep this group together, and the demands on my 58-year old body, were staring to get to me. And while our equipment had kept us relatively comfortable, the kids were water-logged, cold, tired, and cranky.

Mac and I decided to talk to Anne in the morning about ending our trip the next day. I knew Anne would not want to but it seemed to me that it was time to invoke the words of Winston Churchill who once said ''Never, never, never give up except when dictated by good sense.'' We agreed not to talk to the kids about it until we'd talked to Anne in the morning.

It stopped raining sometime in the night and I had slept well. It seemed late when I looked out my tent door only to see that a major fog had rolled in during the early morning hours. I couldn't see twenty feet. It gave the campsite an eerie and magical feel. Almost as if we had fallen off the edge of the world.

While Mac made coffee we watched the surrounding islands slowly emerge out of the fog. Coffee finished, land now in sight, Mac and I set out around the corner to Anne's site. We weren't sure what Anne would say but the fog had clinched it for us. Water was running off everything.

To our surprise, she readily agreed. At least she said she did. I believe she felt the peer pressure but didn't understand it herself. Lesson number three learned. Even as adults. Each person learns something different about themself in trying conditions. Not everyone comes to the BWCA with the same baggage or leaves with the same message. But no one is unchanged by the experience.

Purists, like Anne, come for the peace, the quiet, and the chance to reconnect with that primal relationship between humans and nature. I came to physically challenge myself and for a bit of ammunition to fight the battle of encroaching age. Mac was in it for a new adventure. I believe most of the kids came not knowing what to expect but with the youthful expectation that they could do anything.

Anne was able to make her connection but would have certainly stuck it out to the prescribed end. I met my challenge and survived the added responsibility of leadership. Mac most certainly got his adventure. The kids found it harder than they thought it would be but learned they could survive. Especially if they did it together. Even our most reluctant group member learned that she could survive the unwanted and the unexpected.

Some of our paddlers will return to the BWCA. Some won't. Some will go on to other challenging outdoor activities. They will all have memories of a wilderness trip that did not include electronics, rock music, beer, or cars. They know that at least once in their life they survived with little more than their own inner resources.

Final lesson learned. We went home.

--article courtesy of

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