You meet all kinds of folks in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
It's true, sometimes, that you don't see many people at all. Entry to the wilderness is managed by a state-of-the-art quota system that spreads visitors out over dispersed entry points and on different days. But at the height of summer, especially at the portages that connect this land of 5,000 lakes, you run into people making their way in the wilderness.
On one recent visit to the Quetico, which is the Canadian sister wilderness to the Boundary Waters, my family and I were sprawled out on rocks at a shoreline, exhausted after a monster of a portage, half a mile long with slippery rocks and plenty of elevation change. Often, the portages are fairly short, and within minutes of walking you will see the next lake glittering in the sun through the trees. But the trails can also be long, rocky, and boggy. It sometimes takes multiple trips.
We watched three canoes glide in, each carrying three young women. They wore big smiles and floral print sun dresses over their bathing suit tops and shorts. It took them under five minutes to empty their canoes and don all their gear, including a bear box on a tumpline. And then they were gone, up the trail. Amazons.
You'll also run into families like ours, gear strewn about as we make multiple portages, as well as troops of Boy Scouts, and pairs of older gentlemen, their aluminum canoes bristling with fishing gear. I remember one conversation at an outfitters with a young man planning a solo trip. He asked me how many flannel shirts he ought to bring. I said I thought one was fine.
I am always happy to see so many different kinds of people canoeing the Boundary Waters, because, as any environmentalist knows, behind every wilderness there's a fight. Lots of people from far-flung places need to care deeply about public wilderness in order to protect it against the inevitable plans for development, extraction, and otherwise removing the wild from a place.
For me, being in the wilderness is an expansion of being human. It's an opportunity to step out of a sense-depriving daily grind. Each trip, although taxing and sometimes scary, is enormously rejuvenating.
But more than just a getaway, wilderness is expansive. I feel more alive: freer to see, hear, smell, and think. There's no better place to do that than from the seat of a canoe, hearing wavelets slap the sides of a boat, feeling the sun, the wind, smelling the sweet...