Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Transitions and other lessons

I woke up yesterday morning on the south shore of Lake Ashigan, about three miles and four portages from the Canadian Border. In my sleep I listened to the roar of a stunning waterfall three fourths of a mile to the southeast, the call of loons back and forth discussing the fishing, territorial disputes, and the presence of predators. An otter spent a half hour feeding off the shore of our campsite just before I went to bed Sunday evening, and I watched him surface and dive over and over again while I managed the dying coals of a birch log I'd broken up earlier in the evening. Yes, there were mosquitoes punctuating the night, too, with their on-and-off assaults.

I woke up there yesterday morning just after sunrise. My daughter Teya and I enjoyed breakfast, then broke camp and were paddling before the sun was half of the way up the sky. The water, heavy with pollen from the pines, lay like a mirror displaying clearly every minnow's feeding, every waterbug's tracks. We paddled through the remainder of the morning as the wind kicked up at our backs and then turned to fight us as though to keep us from leaving. By noon we were at our landing. At two p.m. we sat eating BLT's and writing our memories of the trip -- Friday through Monday -- in permanent marker on our map, which Teya will then hang in her room or keep with her other memories. At three we were hurtling down the highway at seventy miles per hour, strange feat for those who so recently considered a four-mile-per-hour average to be phenomenal time. About seven we drove into our own driveway.

It was a day of transition.

Sunday morning next to the waterfall between Gibson and Cattyman Lakes, I had the opportunity to reflect with Teya and some friends about what Jesus told his disciples in Mark 6 -- "Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and rest a while." These few days in the Boundary Waters have been a quiet place for me, a place to rest. Seems a little strange when you think that daily life when canoeing means packing and unpacking camp each day, carrying eighty to a hundred pounds across multiple portages, cooking over a camp stove, fetching water out of the lake and purifying it before you drink. Each evening one of the last things I do is stash the food pack to keep it away from camp-accustomed bears, and the first thing in the morning I have to walk back out in the woods, well off trails and a hundred yards or more from camp, to retrieve our food pack. Meals have to be rehydrated, and there are no microwaves.

Why, then, do I come back from the Boundary Waters feeling rested? I can think of a few reasons, but the first is that it is a quiet place. Our first evening on Ashigan Lake I heard the dull buzzing -- not as loud as a mosquito -- of a boat motor from Newfound Lake, four miles to the west of our campsite. Yes, it was quiet. No playlists, no ring tones, no traffic. The first night of our trip we stayed along the Canadian border on Birch Lake. We could easily hear words from conversations of other campers in their campsites a quarter mile or more away. (In fact, I struggled on Birch Lake with how "crowded" it was.) The Boundary Waters is certainly quiet. Another translation of Mark 6 has Jesus saying "come away by yourselves to adesolate place." I think we need desolation, we need quiet, we need the lack of activity and noise and constant demands on our time.

Another reason I come back from the Boundary Waters feeling rested is that I am physically active. I've noticed a pattern in this over the last twenty or so times I've been there: The first two days my back aches, my hips hurt, my shoulders rebel against the constant paddling, carrying packs, and hunching over. (Lack of chairs in the Boundary Waters means that you are constantly hunching over -- over the fire, over your shoes, over a map, over a camp stove.) But after the second day, my body gets used to the demands and I feel good. I still get tired out and sometimes my muscles are fatigued from hard work, but it's a good feeling. I feel healthier in the Boundary Waters, as a rule, than I do in my soft recliner or my ergonomic office chair. We are made for movement and physical work, and our bodies feel best when they function this way.

At a deeper level, the Boundary Waters is a spiritually quiet place. It is a place where for a few days I let go of the hectic, double-booked, fifteen minutes late, squeeze in one more phone call schedule that so dominates too many of my days. Instead I focus on a few important things -- listening. Conversation. Noticing things. Taking care of the necessities, like food and water and rest. I don't spend more time talking to God in the Boundary Waters. Over the years I've struggled with this fact. But I'm starting to realize that being there unstops my ears, takes the blindfold off my eyes, so I can begin to connect with him more completely. While I don't pray a lot in the Boundary Waters, I do spend a lot of time just looking out at the lake at sunset, watching the subtle shift of colors, the perfectly mirrored image of the trees on the far shore reflected upside down in the water, the way ripples from a bass feeding spread all across the lake and distort the images. I may spend a half hour just sitting and looking. It's not very productive time, in one sense. But it is spiritually quiet time -- and I am convinced it's exactly what Jesus was recommending to his disciples.

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