Lesson Learned in the BWCA by
''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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.