Only Three and a Half

I felt homesick. Lonesome for Ms. LaCount and the soft comforts of our home. Gloomy in my stomach and behind my eyes because of some absence or presence I couldn’t discern. I’d expected all that. I also felt like I might barf every time I looked at or just thought about food. That was unexpected.

It was Wednesday, August 14 of this year. On Sunday the 11th I’d paddled away from Crane Lake, MN, headed east toward Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry point #12 on Little Vermilion Lake. I planned to reach Lake Superior by way of the Grand Portage on Saturday the 17th or maybe the day after that.

The anticipated homesickness had come on full-force during the second day. I didn’t enjoy the sensation, but I knew I could deal with it, and I did, by reminding myself of how lucky I was to be in that place doing what I was doing and just continuing to move forward. The unanticipated pukiness had imposed itself midway through the first day. It got worse any time I tried to choke down a mouthful or two of sustenance and it was, partially because of the mental state a relative lack of food helped create, a tougher problem to solve.

Because I had no appetite, and because forcing myself to eat made me feel sick, even made me dry-heave a couple times, I wasn’t getting nearly as many calories as I probably needed to keep up with the number I’d been burning. Two or three hours without food on an average, easy day around the house can frazzle my apparently fragile ability to function. If I lift weights, split wood, take the dogs on a long walk, go for a bike ride, spend a few hours doing chores around the house, or do anything slightly more taxing than just being awake, that breakdown in function usually comes about much sooner. Multiple days without eating as much as my body and brain seem to require can deeply darken and distort my cognition. I have no idea how or if I would function in a life in which real, constant hunger — which seems a lot different from having an appetite I can satiate any time I want to (if I take time to do it) — were my reality. Experience tells me I’d quickly fall apart in every mental and physical way. I’d come across a lot less stable than I usually do. It also tells me a lot of well-fed people cast a lot of sanctimonious, ignorant aspersions on people who muster unspeakable grit to survive real, constant hunger.

By the time I pulled into Prairie Portage around 8:30, after two-and-a-half- hours of paddling on the morning of August 14, I was feeling depleted and unsure and glum. I had paddled and portaged for at least 10 hours on each of the previous three days. I’d been drinking a lot of water and Gatorade, but I hadn’t been eating much. My sense of resolve was vulnerable — way more so than I’d realized — to any potential physical or emotional respite.

Four hours later I was at the Moose Lake landing, a few miles north of Ely, watching testy families embark on their own trips and waiting for Ms. LaCount to arrive from Duluth and drive me home. By 6:30 that evening my gear was hung to air out in our Chester Park basement and we were eating pizza and drinking beers and watching Better Call Saul.

I had planned the trip boldly, with clear eyes and some trepidation about many of its challenges. The route is 200 miles give or take, which meant I’d need to average just under 30 miles per day. I was doing that. I’d bucked nerve-wracking cross and quartering waves that threw my light little boat around in queasy ways over long stretches of big water. I’d persevered against deep second-day Dementors and started to make up time and slowly regain self-assuredness after a stupid navigation mistake on that same day. I could have kept going — could have turned northeast into Birch Lake, toward Knife Lake and beyond, instead of heading southwest to Moose Lake — If I’d have had to.

At least that’s how it feels now, a little more than a month later, while well-rested, dry, fully fed, and pleasantly caffeinated. It feels like I not only could but definitely should have done it. It seems like the guy who decided to head home made his decision out of shortsightedness and cowardice. That guy saw options. He didn’t believe he had to do anything other than what felt most comfortable. I’m not mad at him. I am disappointed in and for him. I wish he’d have had the wherewithal to see it differently.

I wrote this on September 14, 20, and 21. If mid-September Chris could talk to August 14 Chris I think I’d try to say something like, “Dude. Listen. I know you feel crummy in ways I can only kind of understand. You’re in a rough spot, and I can only remember part of how that felt. But I also know you can do what you set out to do. You might not know that, but I do. You’ve been in situations something like this before. Remember the 2015 Heck of the North? — how miserable the whole thing felt because you’d jacked up your SI joint halfway through the summer and it still hurt more than you could explain and you were riding an uncomfortable experiment of a bike and there was just something about the day that had you feeling exhausted almost before you’d started? You could have bailed a bunch of times and you didn’t. You were slow enough that the parking lot was almost empty by the time you finished. But you finished. Don’t bail now. Keep going. Just keep moving forward. You won’t be a bad person or a failure as a human being if you turn toward home. You also know what it feels like to regret quitting. And you know what finishing this trip will mean to you. You know how much you and I both need to see you do this. Please don’t stop. The decision you make is going to affect me. I need you to do this. If you’re going to be the person you say you want to be, and if you’re going to avoid being the person you claim to regret being in the past, you have to keep going. It’s OK to acknowledge how rotten you feel, but you really only have one credible choice. There is no heading-for-home “option.” You must keep going.”

August 14 Chris wasn’t thinking in those terms. I can only partially remember why. His process of weighing options at the ranger station that morning was influenced by more factors and feelings than I can recall. I can’t put my head exactly where his was. I know he was tired enough to occasionally stumble when he walked. The weather along his planned route was supposed to (and did) get miserably muggy and hot, and he tends to do poorly in those conditions, and that wouldn’t help him feel better physically. He had a handheld satellite tracking and messaging device that was going through battery life much faster than he’d expected it to. Even though the Canadian rangers had let him charge it (they have electricity generated by water, and he felt ashamed for using it even though he didn’t think it was shameful for another guy at the station to be charging a similar device with a tiny solar pad), he was worried that if it died Ms. LaCount would be worried; she’d used it to help him correct course on day 2, and while she’s cool in any crisis his grim state of mind led him to assume she would be very concerned if his little blue triangle disappeared from the online map she’d been using to see his location. He had wholly failed to anticipate the pain a hard Kevlar canoe seat can inflict during long days on the soft tissue and bones of a 225-lb. person’s undercarriage. He also hadn’t done the training that would have helped him get familiar with, or the research that would have helped him find a cushion to prevent or alleviate, that literal pain in the ass.

It’s tough to really remember why quitting seemed wiser than just taking a deep breath and getting back after it, but that’s obviously how it felt, and he had his reasons. In my best moments I work hard not to dismiss those feelings and reasons. But I can still empathize only so much with his decision.

From my current vantage point I can see a lot of simple ways to deal with all those issues. For starters, he could have taken half a day or even just an extra couple hours to rest, do his best to eat as much as possible, reconnoiter, and have an honest little talk with himself about the next few days. That would all have felt tough for him. He was in no mood to sit idle at a campsite when he could have been making miles. He would have seen resting time as wasted time. That’s too bad, because a little R&R would have prevented him from doing what he did, and what he did was sell himself short and let himself down by making an understandable but dishonorable choice. He gave up way too easy.

Or maybe he didn’t. Perhaps I’m being unduly hard on him. I do that a lot. I seldom give any past version of me, even the boys I was at 10 or 11 years old, much of a break. I struggle to believe past versions of me deserve the same patience and grace I believe every other human being deserves. It’s possible those boys and young men and middle-aged men sometimes really do need me to be hard on them. They might also deserve some kindness. They’re people too, right? Human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion?

When it came time to make a decision in that mid-morning moment while devices were charging at Prairie Portage, I just didn’t see it as a necessity to persevere through the mental and physical discomfort I was experiencing. It’s that simple. I believed more in giving up than I believed in persisting. Had I seen it differently, I’d be typing a much different little story. Probably something a little humble-braggy. Still quasi-existential and self-excoriating here and there. Maybe a touch triumphant.

But in that moment five weeks ago I saw perseverance as optional. I conjured powerfully seductive stories about why heading for home was actually the safest, wisest, most conscientious choice. That’s why I’m writing a narcissistic confessional of woe about how I lost my nerve and made a cowardly decision to give up and trade courage for comfort. Or maybe it’s could also be a narcissistic confessional of rue about how I kept my head amid distorted thinking and made a disappointing albeit wise decision to admit exhaustion and head home. Maybe it’s both? Maybe it’s neither.

Had I planned an aggressive three-night, four-day trip starting at Crane Lake and ending at Moose Lake, I might be tempted to feel almost satisfied about what I experienced and accomplished. I might even be able to get myself to feel good about it. If I were really thinking positively I’d be able to avoid negatively judging what I saw and did against the things more-accomplished peers have seen and done.

Because I was taught well as a teenager at Camp Voyageur, I paddle strongly, portage efficiently, and manage a campsite quite well. I know what I’m doing on the trail, and I took satisfaction in doing it a few weeks ago. I saw a bunch of bald eagles, including one that landed atop the bare trunk of a long-dead pine just as I paddled by it; I don’t always believe in signs but I did in that moment. I don’t know what it was a sign of. I’d need someone who knows things I never will to help me figure it out. A golden eagle flew so close to me I could see the shine of its dark eye and make out individual feathers in its enormous torso. I took intentional time every day, in my own weird, inarticulate way, to say out-loud words of gratitude and humility. I spent long, frequent moments, even as Dementors obscured everything, pondering how lucky I am to have the health, gear, time, support, and other resources such a trip requires. I had distinct moments of pure fun, unfettered joy, and lung-crushing reverence  in response to characteristics of water, light, and air I’ve only ever experienced up there. I reveled in the coziness of my little one-person tent — spent three supremely pleasant evenings watching the sun set while poring over maps, reading Phillip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and (even though I generally find “journaling” distasteful) taking notes about what I’d experienced. I built new appreciation for my Wenonah Advantage canoe and Bending Branches Sunburst 14 XL paddle.

I had some solid, thought-provoking days.

According to an entry titled “2018 Border Route Day 1” in my crumpled little Blue Collar-brand notebook, on that day I “picked a struggling dragonfly out of the water [on the Loon River] and let it dry off on the bottom of the canoe. I don’t remember seeing it fly off. I probably stole an excellent meal for some fish or bird, but how can you pass by a fellow living thing in distress and do nothing? Probably the same way I do it all the time.”

I also “slipped on slippery mud on my first portage, a very short and easy one, while trying to figure out how much I’d have to eat before my backpack didn’t feel worrisomely heavy.” (It was a good, instantaneous, rug-pulled-out-from-under fall. I dropped the canoe.)

I knew right away that food was a problem: “I don’t think I came close to keeping up on calories this day. It’s tough to do when I am coming close to keeping up on water & powdered Gatorade — I feel full all the time, and it doesn’t take much food to feel like it’s just sitting somewhere around my throat just doing nothing but getting stuck & feeling uncomfortable.”

Most of the day one route was on water that’s legal for motor boats. Some of the folks who drive those boats treat canoe travelers well. Some don’t. “I got passed by at least 10 boats,” the notebook says, “full of anglers & folks getting shuttled to & from canoe trips. Even on the Loon River, which is fairly lazy & narrow, only two — one Zup’s Outfitters shuttle and an enormous Crestliner that might have been pleasure cruising — truly slowed down. The Crestliner was such a beast that it still sent a serious wake my way, but I was grateful for the gesture.”

Some wildlife hassled me: “I got hissed at by no less than five of what I believe were otters — small, brown mammals just barely raising their heads out of the water to — I assume — express displeasure toward my presence. I get it.”

Navigation was typical, based on my previous BWCA experiences: “I took one wrong turn, figured it out in 30 seconds, and experienced basically zero consequences. I’m not a talented map reader — Lac La Croix stumped me for a little while, but it wasn’t a big deal because as long as I kept heading due east there was really no way I could get lost or mess up amid the mostly tiny islands that either the map only kind-of-accurately renders or that I’m not skillful enough to have made sense of. I got to where I was trying to go, and I did it at the same pace I’d have kept if I knew exactly where I was the whole time. I needed breaks. I was getting super tired.”

I took a dip after getting camp set up around 5:00 p.m.: “The refreshing effect of a quick swim to wash off 10 hours of sweat, bug dope, portage mud, and Coppertone 30 cannot be overstated. I still wanted to go right to sleep, but I didn’t feel nearly as out of it as I did pre-ablution.”

And I perseverated: “Just as I got everything set up & stowed away — except for hanging the food pack — it started to rain. I hung out in the tent looking at maps & taking notes, wishing I could be w/Ms. LaCount at her mom’s house, and feeling extra homesick knowing she’d be at our house alone, without dogs, the next night, then on a work trip to Omaha. [After dropping me off on Sunday, she drove to Hoyt Lakes to spend the night with her mom and drop off our dogs before heading home Monday to sleep at our house before flying out of Duluth Tuesday for a there-and-back-in-one-day work trip.] I’m not great at some aspects of being a husband, especially ones that include being both literally and figuratively present. I’m extra-conscious of that when she & I are apart. It crushes me when we’re this far apart.”

After covering 33 miles that day (according to an imprecise re-tracing of my route on Google Maps), I camped on Twentyseven Island.

Day two was tough.

“No idea how many miles, but almost 10 of them were unnecessary, and if Shan hadn’t been tracking me I’d eventually have been able to figure it out with the satellite tracker app on my phone [the Garmin Earthmate iPhone app], but not NEARLY as quickly. To say it was sobering & embarrassing is vastly understating the issue. Most of the day was grim — gray and feeling like it would rain at any moment, and just tough to feel good about even though after a white-knuckle 2-mile paddle to start the day the wind was mostly with me. My canoe’s tractor set is crazy uncomfortable after a certain amount of time. I paddle differently on my left than I do on my right, and even though I’ve worked hard to figure out why I can’t, even when I’m paddling for the better part of 10-11 hours a day.”

Good times in my brain, they were. When I look at the paper map I was using that day, I can only kind-of understand how I got off track. I know I went straight when I was supposed to make a hard right turn, then just kept going for a few miles. Then I had to backtrack those few miles. It could have been way worse, and I’m grateful it wasn’t, but it did suck. I can’t think of any reason, other than drifting and getting turned around while stopping and looking down for a moment to fill a water bottle, for why I would have done almost the opposite of what I knew I needed to do. It’ll gnaw at me for a while.

“I rested on a lovely little rock ledge pitched at just the proper angle for napping. Sort-of slept for almost an hour. Forced down some food. Slept again. Felt good for a while. Misread the map in the Rebecca Falls area. iPhone to the rescue again. Embarrassing again, but I suppose a resource is a resource. Crossed the Curtain Falls portage. I was there in high school, although I can remember very little other than taking a typical teenage photo making it look like I was about to dive in. It’s no joke as a waterfall.”

The day ended better than it began: “Then the sun came out and the water calmed. My mood picked up a bit, but I was cooked, so I found a lovely little spot on an island on the U.S. side [of Crooked Lake]. I felt guilty & weak about not taking advantage of the conditions to make more miles, but knowing when to quit is wise. Saw two bald eagles and one golden. The balds were at a distance, but the golden was SUPER close, and it’s tough to describe how enormous they are.”

And as always, I brooded: “Feeling like this [trip] is difficult leaves me in even more awe about what some human beings have endured and are enduring.”

Google Maps suggests I paddled about 28 total miles that day, which means I made it about 20 miles along my intended route. Yeesh. Have I mentioned that’s going to bug me for a while? It doesn’t do much to dispel some of the rumors I spread about myself.

Two days. Net miles: 53. Gross miles: 61.

Day three was lovely. It would have been a perfect day for having a long morning, a vigorous but reasonable day of paddling and portaging, and an early stop to swim, read, make a good dinner, and sit around the fire. I did none of that. All four mornings of my trip, including the morning I said goodbye to Ms. LaCount at Crane Lake, felt anxious and impatient, as if not only my progress for the day but the validity of me as a human being depended on hitting the water early and going hard until I could go no further. That’s not a fun way to travel, even on a trip intended to be difficult.

“Super calm & sunny all day,” says the notebook. “Tried to make the most of it without going overboard & getting myself in a spot where I had a lot of distance to cover & exhaustion & darkness approaching.” I was on Basswood Lake, where in some spots campsites are literally few and far between. I’d started paddling at 6:30 a.m. At 5:30 p.m. I was heading for a group of sites that might have taken me till almost 7:00 to reach. When I rounded a corner into English Channel, on the Canadian side, and found a campsite not marked on my map, I took it. Technically I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t have a Quetico Provincial Park permit. I feel a little bad about breaking Canadian rules.

“I’m ensconced in my tent at 6:53 & except for taking a leak a couple-three times before waking up I won’t leave, partially because of bugs, partially because there’s more conviviality inside the tent, with this notebook & the maps & A Rumor of War, than there is outside. I’m not going to slather on bug dope so I can sit around a fire alone when I can stay in the post-swim, post-dinner (beef jerky & avocado) relaxed vibe and LAY the F DOWN, which I’ve been looking forward to doing since I got up from my nap around 1:40 this afternoon before doing the Wheelbarrow Portage. Basswood is BIG water. I have come to dislike big water. I still have a lot to go. At least today it was almost perfectly calm. That felt good. Saw three or four bald eagles today. One landed on a dead tree — looked like a telephone pole — just as I passed it. I said hello to it & thanked it, very clumsily, for reminding me to say thank you for the day & the lake & safety.”

I was still thinking hard about going straight instead of turning the day before: “Going off course yesterday had me shook for much of today, even though all my calls today were correct. I pulled out the iPhone to check Earthmate once on Crooked Lake, when I was just getting started for the day, and once on Basswood, when the scale on the map gave me second thoughts. I was right [without the phone] both times. On Basswood the phone did save me from making an already longish crossing maybe a mile longer.”

I experienced something I’d first experienced 30 years earlier: “While resting on Basswood, at the west end of the long portage, I kept thinking I heard human voices & music in the rapids. I’m having the same sensation here in English Channel, listening to a wind gently unfurl waves of water in soft slaps and plinks and something like tinkling noises.”

Trying to eat kept giving me problems: “Food was a struggle yesterday & more than half of today. I fed myself as much as I could stomach, but just the thought of it made me nauseated. I generally don’t like preparing food, and when all I want to do is sleep, just opening a pouch of tuna, cutting open an avocado to mush up with it, and choking it down feels way harder than the privilege of it should feel. I probably have a wise amount of food with me. It feels like a ludicrous amount, and every time I eat — even when I manage to have an appetite — is a decision based on knowing how violently I’ll blow up if I don’t have at least something. When I have time to eat all I want to do is lay down and do nothing. I should also have put on more sunscreen today. My thighs, shins, and feet feel very warm.”

Google Maps says I did about 27 miles. That’s kind of disappointing. I thought it would be more. I thought I was hauling ass that day. Net miles: 80. Gross: 88.

The next morning I paddled to Prairie Portage, had the little existential crisis that keeps on giving, and wound up heading out instead of keeping calm and carrying on. From my last campsite to Moose Lake was about 15 miles. Total net miles for three-and-a-half days: 95. Total gross: 103. I was slowing down. I was very tired. I could have made it.

Those three-and-a-half days taught me a lot about my capabilities and limitations. Most of that knowledge sits comfortably. Some of it inflames my precious ego. I’m OK admitting there are things I want to do and be that will just never come to pass. I’m also excited by the realization that I can do and be much more than I once believed possible.

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