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Woodland Trails: The silence is deafening in the Boundary Waters wilderness

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outdoors River Falls, 54022
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River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The silence was deafening. There were simply no sounds other than that of the wilderness: Loons calling in the distance, a grouse drumming until 11 p.m., songbirds singing back to me as I imitated their calls while eating a shore lunch.

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Wilderness is the only place you can find silence today. No sounds of cars tearing down roads or planes overhead. No dogs barking in the distance or phones ringing in your ear. No timetables or schedules to keep track of. Relaxation was easy to come by. On this day, one of the loudest sounds was that of the canoe paddles cutting through the water. You knew you were in the wilderness.

We call them silent sports -- sports that don't use motors -- kayaking and canoeing set the bar high for wilderness travel. From the Eskimo kayaking in the Arctic, to the voyageurs who traveled in birch bark canoes where we were now paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or BWCAW.

There's a long history of wilderness travel in North America. In fact, canoes and kayaks are all that is left of what some call the art of primitive wilderness travel, canoeing, kayaking and packing in on foot.

Europeans are, for the most part, devoid of wilderness and the wilderness ethic we crave and cling to in this country. Europeans do not camp, cook or even hunt and fish like we do in this country.

Hopefully, the wilderness lands we have set aside from the Rockies to the coastal areas to the BWCAW will forever be free and wild for generations to come.

What we noticed about the wilderness were the little things. The eerie sounds of the loon echoing across a wilderness lake remind you that you are on your own in the wilderness. Loon calls are the only sounds you hear. Across the bay, the other paired loon answers. Then farther off another loon calls out in the distance. You cup your ear to hear more echoing for more miles than you have paddled to reach this remote wild setting. It's like the loons are saying, "Can you hear me now?"

The next morning you see the delight of the loon's life. A mother loon and its young swimming out in front of camp or next to our canoe unafraid as if its job is to entertain us.

First, riding on the mother's back, the baby loon seems so helpless. But in a second it's left by itself as the parent dives deep to catch a meal for the fuzzy little package now bobbing on the water. The baby loon surprises you when it tries to stand erect on the water as it flaps its tiny down-covered wings like its parents do routinely. You smile at the cute antics of this baby emblem of the wild.

A moment later the mother, or maybe the father, loon comes back to the surface and the young loon gets a Happy Meal from Alpine Lake. In the boat we quickly reel in our lures when the loons get too close and dive for food. I hate to think of the damage a treble hook would do to a loon. A moment later, the little loon and its parent are conversing in some manner as little loon peents and purrs and the parents answers with soft loon cries that seem to say all is well.

After a couple of days on the water a wilderness sojourner begins to unwind. There are no thoughts of lawns, work or appointments. The only appointment this day is to catch more fish, see more wild waters and land and spot more moose. At day's end, darkness drifts in as the loons' calls grow louder. Once again, a lonely ruffed grouse drums next to camp as the clock approaches midnight. We drift off into restful sleep after a hard day of paddling and exploring.

The biggest difference about this trip to the BWCAW was the devastation from the big wind storm of 1999 and the fire of 2006 that flattened around 800,000 acres. The burned dead and dying trees make it seem like we are in another world. This is not in the green pristine wilderness that we had traveled before.

But yet we realize that fire, in the end, will be a good thing. The forest will be reborn anew and better than before. We know that wind storms and downed trees are commonplace in nature. It's only man who puts a monetary value on wilderness. And it's man that so often seeks to destroy the wilderness for the cash values that might come from its destruction for their profit.

Despite the devastation, it was the little things that my son, Josh, will remember most from this trip: the whole area devoid of green that exposed the rocks. The rocks in front of camp that we sat on and the moss that slowly breaks them down. How many times had fire seared those rocks? How long have those rocks been there? How many people, moose, wolf and bear have walked on those same rocks? The rocks that are everywhere above and below the water. The silent rocks that have so much to say.

My daughter, Erin, remembers the tremendous campfire she created with wet wood. That fire, started only with matches, kept us awake staring into a picturesque flame that was far more rewarding to watch than any late-night TV. Erin will also remember the last portage -- trudging overland on rocks, through water and sweating until she finally reached the end of the trail back at Sea Gull Lake where she laid the heavy pack down.

For me it was the adventure of being on our own in the wilderness with my kids. I can still close my eyes and see the once green wilderness now exposed and naked to view after the storm. Looking closely at the downed trees, it was easy to understand why so many tipped over so easily in the big storm. There is no soil there to hold them and make the roots strong. There are only rocks that the moss slowly breaks down to a fine, shallow silt where trees, ferns and grasses cling in order to survive.

When we left, we didn't have to bring out any pine cones, rocks or driftwood to remember this wilderness adventure. For us it was working together as a team. There was Josh's friend, Megan, taking turns washing dishes while Josh cleaned fish. And Erin making a fire while I paddled out to get drinking water for camp right from the lake.

The trip back from Alpine to the car left at Sea Gull seemed much longer than the trip going in. Tired arms and sunburned legs were our rewards. The calling of the loon paid us back for time lost from work. Drinking water out of the lake was medicine that lowered our blood pressure. The deafening silence paid the bill in full so we'll keep the receipt until we head back to the wilderness once again.

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