One day I will remember that I don’t form my travels, my travels form me.
I had long put off exploring the Boundary Waters because they lack mountains, which I’ve come to realize is my principal signifier for wilderness. A succession of people in my life visited the area and told me, repeatedly, that I would appreciate them, from my ex-husband who first acquainted me with the Boundary Waters’ existence when he did a solo trip there sixteen years ago, to my own son who went there with his dad when he was eight years old, to my sister and brother-in-law who have explored the place many times.
I’m not sure I would have felt enough pull to the place to plan a trip of my own volition, but when Travis’s childhood friend Fred e-mailed last spring with the suggestion that we take a trip there, it was not in me to turn it down. There was a wilderness trip on offer, so I would go. I cast my hat into the ring and we began to prepare, reserving permits and seeking advice from outfitters.
The more time passes, the more my travels into nature center on wildlife encounters, and so that was the lens through which I viewed my hopes and expectations for this trip. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area harbors a dazzling array of wildlife: timber wolves, bears, moose, and cougars, along with beavers, badgers, and bald eagles. I prepared myself for a wildlife bonanza. I bought an additional 16G memory card for the camera and added additional batteries to my stash.
And yet I returned with not a single wildlife photo. Well, that’s not completely true; I photographed a frog and a leech. I had a few opportunities for beaver and ground squirrel photographs, but that was on the evening of the first day, and first days kick my ass so hard that it’s all I can do to get the tent up and dinner eaten.
But what became clear during the trip was that wildlife was everywhere, we just couldn’t see it. On the second day, we stopped for a drink and a snack on a broad, sandy beach. The sand was laced with fresh tracks — moose, wolf, and bear all intertwined and leading into and out of the dense woods lining the beach. I noticed that the bear tracks were of two sizes: large and not-so-large, which meant a sow and a cub. Every beach we landed on had fresh tracks, and yet despite constantly scanning the shoreline as we made our way through the water, we saw almost nothing.
But it was clear that wildlife saw us. We would see and hear the evidence everywhere.
And so the trip, for me, began to reveal other things: our connections with each other and with our friend; the difference between silence and mere quiet; the ingeniousness of plants; a reminder that my body, though getting older, can still move the soul it houses into remote spaces; the perspective-shattering recollection that I was getting the trip I needed, and not necessarily the trip I had planned.