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Anderson: Is all that hot gear a barrier to real experience in the BWCA?

Jun 02, 2018 02:48PM ● Published by Editor

By Dennis Anderson of The Star Tribune - June 1, 2018


Dressing for the occasion can be a head-scratcher while canoeing the boundary waters. Much of today’s wilderness-travel gear is tech-driven and expensive, or at least not cheap, and trekkers can be forgiven if they succumb to the marketer’s argument that all of it is necessary. Or most of it. Yet the wonder upon reflection is how anyone ever paddled the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or adjacent Quetico Provincial Park without dropping $250 for a raincoat or nearly that for a week’s worth of freeze-dried food.

Some of the new equipment is necessary, or at least advantageous. You do need to stay dry in a border country that often is wet, and whose portages can be pockmarked with mud and water. Tents should be rainproof, and sleeping bags protected against water while traveling. It helps also if this equipment is somewhat lightweight, a consideration as well for a paddler’s necessary conveyance, a canoe.

Yet the other day while stumbling through a modern-day outdoor-equipment store I couldn’t help wondering whether in the rush to be ultra-prepared for any eventuality while paddling the boundary waters, or otherwise tripping the light fantastic in wild places, that we don’t insulate ourselves from the experience so much that it becomes more so a walk in the park than a voyage through rough country.

A consideration as well, while choosing gear, should be a general understanding of the landscape and how to fit into it — a nod here, as it were, to tradition and traditional ways.

The Chippewa, for example, who traveled Quetico-Superior country hundreds of years ago, wore by necessity the muted colors of clothing they could fashion from the country of which they were a part. Their canoes, similarly, were covered in birch and their paddles wooden and, in many cases, ash. In important ways, therefore, these natives were not only in border country in summer, fall, winter and spring, they were of that country — blended in.

So too the earliest white paddlers. Like the Chippewa, at night they slept beneath overturned canoes, protected there from rain but not mosquitoes. Their boots were leather, not neoprene, and their canoes heavy. Also, packs they swung on their backs were canvas, with leather shoulder straps riveted for carrying. Often also these packs were outfitted with tump lines that fit over their foreheads, and the packs’ colors were earthen, naturally.

Patented in 1892 by a fellow named Camille Poirier, these “Duluth” packs remain popular today among some canoeists, though perhaps less so than more contemporary iterations crafted from nylon and rigged with hip belts, sternum straps and other comfort-inducing accommodations. Cool enough, these modern packs, and durable, among other advantages. And yet ... and yet, paddlers gliding across Knife or Poohbah or Shelley or Keats or a thousand other lakes and rivers in the BWCA and Quetico with their canoe’s thwarts buffered by Duluth packs sewn from 18-ounce green canvas suggest a valued awareness of, if not reverence for, those who traveled the same waters generations ago.

Telling also are food choices paddlers make.

Freeze-dried entrees have appeal due to their ease of preparation. But for less money and more palatable fare, meals prepared from scratch while loons call and whiskey jacks hover enriches the boundary waters experience. Pancakes. Beans. Rice. Cured meat. Fresh fish. Excellent alongside each of these is bannock, or fry bread, made of 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder and a ¼-teaspoon salt mixed with water and pan-cooked over a low campfire, or tilted alongside it, until golden brown.

These and other outdoor travel choices say a lot about who we are and what we remember. The greenhorn who buys everything new, shiny and top shelf can be forgiven because he or she doesn’t yet have the experience, or knowledge, to be more appropriately selective. Or aware enough of the country he or she will travel, and how to fit into it, given its history. Or courageous enough to shed life’s conveniences, even if only for a short while, for a shot at life itself.

When equipment becomes more the point than the adventure — with all of its threats to safety and comfort — opportunity is missed. Because only in the voids between comfort and discomfort, security and danger, can wilderness bestow its treasures fully.

In his book, “Runes of the North,” Sigurd Olson writes about the joy of reaching the space between seeming opposites, and existing there, however briefly.

“That night we celebrated and each of us had a fish for supper, knowing they would never taste so good again. Trout fried a golden brown, hush puppies in the fat, a can of beans and tea. We piled logs on the fire and crawled contentedly into our bags. The storm could howl now and we didn’t care. Tomorrow was another day.”


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