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Sunday, October 31, 2010
Friday, October 29, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Sunday, October 24, 2010
I have tried this before and it’s never gone well, but because it’s so important I will try again. I am at the shack. Long before it was the title of a popular novel, my family went to the shack. Growing up, we almost never took a traditional “vacation.” Instead, we took two or three days a couple times a year and went to the shack.
Back in the 1950’s my dad and some of his buddies started hunting in the Lost River country far north of Bemidji. (Unknown to most of humanity, there is a great deal of Minnesota north of Bemidji and yet south of Canada.) Dad’s brother Cliff had been part of a logging crew in 1943, logging the woods around Waskish, MN. He came back with wild stories of wild country, and my dad couldn’t resist. Eventually the gang (that’s what Dad called them) arranged a lease with the DNR and built an old cabin back in the woods, a half mile east of the Lost River itself. Today that site is twelve miles from the nearest paved road, eight miles from the nearest full-time neighbors, and a half mile from the nearest -- and only -- other such cabin in these woods. If you walked out of the shack and headed north, assuming it was winter so you could walk through the tamarack bog without sinking, you’d walk forty miles before you came to a paved road. In first thirty-five of that forty miles you’d cross three dirt roads, one every ten miles or so.
It will be easiest to tell about the shack if I tell you about arriving today. Jason and I had grand plans to spend two days here hunting grouse. Earlier this fall we spent a week hunting black bears, and the grouse numbers looked great. It’s been a busy fall, so we plotted and pried and finally decided we needed to block out these two days. Our wives had a women’s retreat, our kids planned to spend the weekend with relatives, and we were so excited. I picked him up at 5 am sharp. With a small arsenal and two dogs in the back of the pickup, we drove north -- as far as Grand Rapids, where we got a call that one of his daughters was throwing up. The relatives who planned to care for his children were not equipped to care for sick children -- and so we turned around. We did stop along the way to explore a piece of public land just southeast of Hill City. The dogs had great fun romping around in the brush scaring up grouse just far enough away from us that we couldn’t bring them down.
We finally got back to Jason’s place and I decided to turn north again. This place is deep in my bones and it hurts to be away from it, so the idea of abandoning my plans to visit the shack was unbearable. The dogs liked the second drive north much better, as they got to ride in the cab. We started the long drive on the gravel road from pavement (MN Highway 72) to shack (12 miles east, past the Balsiger Road, the Little Tamarack River, the Anderson Road, and the Lost River) about a half hour before sunset, and pulled up at the shack just about the time the sun dropped below the horizon. I noticed on the drive in that it’s been windy. Dozens of trees have fallen across the road, but grouse hunters -- and possibly a few industrious DNR workers -- have cut up the trees and pulled them clear of the road.
So we pulled up at the shack before dark. It’s a one-room affair, eight paces by five. This is not the original shack my dad and his gang built. I stayed in that one when I was a child. I remember coming up here one time and finding a hole in the side of that shack where a bear had chewed its way through the wall. That shack used to stand just down the trail from this one -- there was a tiny housing development of two one-room shacks back here in the wilderness. The guy who had the lease on this one always used to keep it locked -- we left ours open. Ours burned down one winter when I was about eight. The other lease-holder’s son and a couple friends came snowmobiling and stayed overnight, but they’d forgotten the key to their shack, so they stayed in ours. During the night the oil stove got out of hand, and the son died in the fire. His father couldn’t bear to come up here anymore, and gave the lease and his shack to my dad.
So now this is the shack. One room. A cantankerous oil stove, one not at all prone to get out of hand and barely prone to throw out any heat, sits in the middle of the floor. I don’t understand how inside the stove is a merry oil fire, quite hot if you open the door and stick your hand anywhere close -- but the outside of the stove is cool to the touch. I’d think all the heat is going out the stovepipe, but that’s cool as well. It mystifies and, on cold nights, frustrates me. An old iron pump occupies the southwest corner, and next to it is the kitchen -- a couple metal cabinets (metal so they’re impervious to mice) and some countertop. At the east end are two sets of bunk beds -- the old squeaky metal kind. Between the bunks and the stove, an old metal dining room table and four chairs complete the ensemble.
As I was saying, we got here just before dark and I unloaded my gear, climbed the suicide ladder and took the old coffee can off the top of the stove pipe, and added a gallon of diesel fuel to the barrel out back. Started a fire in the fire ring, started some water heating on the Coleman stove I brought along, and got my Coleman lantern set up. Most of these tasks were unnecessary, but I did each one partly for convenience and partly for the joy of the skill it takes to light a fire, prime the old cast iron pump, or light a lantern. Both the stove and the lantern have been fixtures in my family since Julie and I were first married, and both are exactly the type we used to bring to the shack when I was a child.
I got the dogs fed and watered and cut a stick to use for roasting bratwurst over the fire. Sat for a long time cooking and eating supper, watching the full moon climb over the trees at the east end of the clearing. The shack used to sit in deep timber and the moonlight never reached the ground here. In those days the temperature inside the shack was consistently five degrees colder, it seemed, than outside. A couple years ago, though, the DNR logged our little backyard. I was furious then, but I’ve come to appreciate the openness. It’s good to see the stars, and on days like today when it’s not quite warm enough, a little sunshine coming through warms the shack right up.
We sat by the fire, me and the dogs. They hear and smell things I don’t, so I wasn’t surprised when they both turned to look down the trail and began to bark and growl deep in their throats. Very likely they smelled a bear or a moose; less likely it was a wolf, but the number of grouse hunters coming through lately keeps the wolves away from the road. Bears and moose just get nocturnal when there are lots of people around. I told the dogs to ignore whatever it was, and they curled up at my feet, next to the fire, the three of us looking like some combination of a Pleistocene diorama and a Norman Rockwell painting. Then the breeze switched to the northwest. I had to sit at the very end of my log to keep my face out of the smoke. The dogs smelled something off that way. Again, it could have been something big, but it might just as easily have been a skunk -- it’s hard to say. We did have a skunk in camp while we were here bear hunting earlier this fall, and for a while it took up residence underneath the shack. We were very, very careful if we had to use the bathroom (forty paces from the front door, around the back of the shack) during the night.
After supper and the show the stars and the moon put on, I came in and used the water I’d heated earlier to take a sponge bath. I wouldn’t normally worry about bathing for a one-night stay here, but Jason found a deer tick on his pants when we were hunting earlier in the day, and I don’t care to experiment with Lyme’s Disease. So I was fastidious about getting clean. Now the oil stove is throwing out just enough heat to keep it good for sleeping in here tonight. (Outside there will be a layer of frost on everything by morning. It’s one of those perfectly clear, crisp nights.) The lantern lights up the room very nicely, thank you. It hangs over my head giving off a great deal of light and a comfortable hissing sound. I sit at the table with my laptop, writing. It seems like violence to have this bright bit of technology here. I do feel vaguely guilty, but there is precedent. I remember being completely horrified the first time we were hunting here and my brother’s cell phone rang -- and he answered it! Now I’ve come to expect cell service here, though it’s spotty enough that I have to turn the phone off when I’m not using it or it will expend all its battery searching for a signal. It’s a good idea to limit one’s dependence on technology, and I enjoy turning off the cell phone for most of the time I’m at the shack. In the same way, the laptop comes out so I can write. Thank God there is no wireless network here, and I refuse to consider a cell phone uplink.
That’s the shack, though I haven’t talked about mice or traps, the sheet metal on the roof, the solid 2x6 construction of the single front step, or the bear claw marks on the southeast corner. Each of those items and dozens more have stories attached. I come here and I am reunited with my father as a young man, hunting here with his gang back in the 50’s. I remember shivering in the early stages of hypothermia when I was eleven. My mother tried to get me to drink coffee to warm me up, and I couldn’t imagine how anyone could choke that awful stuff down. I think of the many times my brothers and I have come here to hunt bears. At least that’s the excuse. In reality we get to spend a week with each other, and hunting is the best way to do that. I remember bringing Erica here when she was five, and the first words out of her mouth when she saw the shack were, “Daddy, is that building going to fall down sometime soon?” Or Teya, on the same trip, at two years old discovering on the sandy road that runs past the shack that deer leave tracks -- and she was so proud to show me each and every print along fifty yards of a deer’s trail.
It is a lowly place, left unlocked because there is nothing of value here, nothing worth a thief’s trouble to steal. Yet each year when the lease comes due, and we hem and haw about paying that much for a ramshackle old building and wouldn’t we just be better off saving up for a trailer of some kind so we could camp anywhere? We pay the money and keep the memories and come back again next fall. We are richer for it.
The skunk is back. He must have wandered in late and denned up under the shack again. His odor comes with him, faint but unmistakeable, not the gut-wringing smell of a full dose of spray but rather the tenuous reminder of early mornings on a deer stand when skunk scent served as a cover. Until a moment ago, the dogs were asleep on a scrap of carpet I laid out for them next to the other bunk, the one I’m not using, but the skunk smell woke them out of a sound sleep. We’ll have to be cautious if we need to go outside tonight!
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Once upon a time there was a tiny village by the seashore. The people of this village were afraid of the sea. “It’s dangerous,” they said. “Don’t get too close.” They thought the ocean was pretty, and they liked the beach, but the water secretly frightened them. They saw storms come in with winds and waves that battered the rocks at the beach. They never built their houses close to the water, because they knew that the ocean would destroy their homes. They went to the beach on sunny days and had picnics. Sometimes the children would splash about in the shallows, but their parents kept them from going too deep into the water. “Playing in the shallows is fine,” they said, “But don’t go out too far. Keep your mind on the beach.”
One day a man came to the village. No one knew where he had come from – he just showed up. A group of teenagers asked him, “Who are you?” They had never seen a stranger before. “Come and see,” he said.
He led them down to the beach. There, pulled up on the sand at low tide, was something they had never seen before. It looked almost like a small house with a rounded bottom sitting on the sand. Out of the top of it came a large pole, as tall as a tree, and a huge piece of cloth was rolled up against the piece of wood.
“What is it?!” they asked in wonder.
“It’s called a boat,” the man said. “I use it to sail over the sea.”
The teenagers were speechless at this. They couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to sail out on the water. But a few of them were curious.
“How do you make it go?” they wondered.
“The wind blows, and it pushes the boat. I use that piece of cloth to catch the wind and it sends me across the water.”
“You go wherever the wind blows?”
“I work with the wind. I have a rudder that helps me steer the boat, but I go where the wind drives me.”
When the teenagers went home, they told their parents about the strange man and his strange boat. The parents said, “Don’t go down to the beach anymore. That man is dangerous. You know the sea is not safe.”
But those teenagers kept going to the beach to talk with the sailor. And he came into town. He told stories of sailing on the waves, of being out in the middle of storms, of wonderful places across the water. A few people listened to his stories and wanted to learn more, but most of the townspeople muttered about this dangerous stranger and how he was filling people’s heads full of dangerous foolishness.
Finally they chased him out of town. They carried him down to the beach, threw him into his boat at high tide, and pushed him out into the water.
Then something amazing happened. A few people – just a handful – cried out, “Wait! We want to go with you!” They splashed through the shallow water and, to the horror of the other villagers, climbed aboard the boat. The sailor pulled them aboard and began teaching them the art of sailing. The villagers watched in shocked silence as the boat sailed farther and farther out on the water and finally disappeared over the horizon.
Finally one old woman said, “Serves them right. They’ll go out on the ocean with him, and they’ll all drown in a storm. Serves them right.” The people turned and walked back to their safe village.
A few of the villagers who had listened to the sailor’s stories meet on the beach once a week. They tell stories about the sailor and his boat. They even splash around in the shallow water. But they are afraid of the sea, and so they never go beyond the shallows.
Legend has it that the sailor is still out there on the ocean with his crew, sailing on the wind and the waves, going wherever the wind blows. Once in a while two or three people from the village will get a strange idea, and they will build a boat. They’ll set sail out into the deep water even though everyone tries to talk them out of their crazy dream. They talk about the sailor as though he was right there with them. They invite others to come along, but almost everyone is afraid to try it. As they launch, someone on the beach will usually say, “Serves them right. They’re going to drown in a storm, you mark my words. Keep your mind on the beach, that’s my advice.”
One of the amazing claims that Jesus’ early followers made was that the Spirit of God lived in them and guided them. This is exactly what Jesus had promised – that the Spirit would come to believers, live in them, and move them around in ways that made no sense to those watching from the world. “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus said, “And you hear the sound and see its effects, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Those who follow Jesus often make decisions that don’t make any sense from outside. The Spirit blows them in strange directions, sometimes.
Are you willing to leave safety (and maybe even sense) behind in order to sail on the wind of the Holy Spirit? Or do you have too much need to be in control? God is going to get his work done, get his kingdom built, one way or another. The question is, will you be a part of it?