Monday, June 1, 2009

Counting My Way Through the BWCA

I will be heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in 18 days. This is my fourth trip.

For those who have never been there, the BWCA is a little more than one million acres of wilderness. Nothing motorized is allowed. What you carry into the BWCA, you consume or carry out of the BWCA. There is no electricity. There are no conveniences. There is no concrete. It is undeveloped, largely untouched nature.

It is breathtakingly beautiful and filled with wonders like baby moose, enormous fish, and vibrant colored foilage.

We canoe through deep lakes full of water pure enough to drink without filtering. When we get to the end of the lake, we pick up our canoes and packs, and carry them across portages.
The portages between lakes are narrow passages, measured in rods. A rod is 16.5 feet. The ground is uneven and littered with tree roots and forest debris. The mud can be knee deep. Deep in those portages, there is no sense of time passing. Though you know others are present, you can't hear or see them. The loudest sound is your own breath. Portaging is a very solitary activity. It's also physically challenging.

On our trips, we bring fourteen teens. Each person carries something heavy, whether a food pack, a canoe, or a clothing pack. We travel between sixty and seventy miles during the seven-day trip. Our days follow nature's rhythm, starting at sunrise and ending at sundown.

As beautiful as it is, I would never choose to go there. I hate camping passionately. I hate being cold. I hate finding nature in my food. I hate outdoor commodes. I hate woodticks and leeches.
So, why do I go?

The first year I went because Joe asked. Last year I went because he told me "I like it better when you're here than when you're not." This year someone asked him what he wouldn't go to the BWCA without, and he answered, "My wife."
I go because sometimes we do something for someone we love without any hope or thought of personal gain.

And yet, each time I go to the BWCA, I do gain.
On last year's trip we knew we were going to have to do a mile and a half portage -- 480 rods --at one end of the trip. Joe and I chose the end, thinking we'd be seasoned and ready for that mile and a half by then.

Portages are both my favorite part of traveling and a struggle for me. Both years I've carried heavy, heavy packs on my back. The weight of them bends me in half and I struggle to walk across even level ground. Sloped ground often defeats me, leaving me sprawled on the ground until someone can help me to my feet. Yet, there's nothing to compare with the feeling of success I get when I complete a portage.

I have techniques that help me portage. I don't talk. I don't think. I don't even pray. I count paces. I am my own odometer.

Each rod, for me, takes three paces. When Joe announces the length of the portage, I multiply by three and know how many paces I will take from start to finish. It's been remarkably accurate. I need to have the measure. Using it, I can tell when I'm a third of the way... halfway... almost there. I can convince myself to finish a portage when I know I've already accomplished three-fourths of the journey.

All week I thought about the 1,440 paces I would take to get to the other side of that mile and a half portage. We finally arrived at the shore marking the start of the long portage. In the background, I could hear the kids talking about the long portage and their plans for making it across. A couple of them asked for the pace count so they could use my measure to keep track of their progress. They bargained with themselves, saying they'd go a certain distance and rest before continuing. They each had a different notion about how far they could go without stopping and different strategies for success.

I had my own plan, and I didn't care to articulate it. I was going halfway before finding a tree to lean against for a rest.
The first few feet of the portage presented the first challenge. The ground sloped sharply uphill. I needed help to hoist myself and my pack up to the actual trail.

I set off, counting.

Kids passed me.

I kept counting.
My focus is extremely narrow during a portage. Bent at the waist under the weight of my pack with the strap across my forehead, I'm physically incapable of looking ahead. Instead, I examine the ground for potential dangers. Considering I can't get up by myself, falling is a Very Big Deal.
The ground continued to steepen, so my paces were shorter than usual. At times they were so small, I couldn't count all of them. I promised myself I'd take longer paces as soon as the ground leveled, and kept moving forward.
Kids passed me again.
At the one-third mark, I encountered the first victim. One of the canoe carriers was sitting on his canoe. Lifting my paddle in a salute, I kept walking and counting.

I passed more kids. Two this time. They were leaning against a tree sharing water. Another paddle salute and more counting. The kids respected my counting and didn't try to converse with me during portages. Smarties.

The slope increased. My thighs were burning. Something in my pack was gouging my back with each pace. My breath was harsh.

I lied to myself in that moment. "What goes up, must come down." Of course, that's true of gravity, but not portages. Sometimes they are steep from start to finish.

The slope sharpened again near the halfway mark. My paces were mostly straight up instead of forward so I only counted every other pace. I stepped off one rock into a muddy patch and nearly lost my balance when I realized the mud was halfway up my calf. I only kept my balance by stepping backward. Grrr. I might have cussed. Out loud.
For an instant I thought of Jesus making His own journey with the weight of the cross on His injured back. I though of Him falling. I thought of Simon helping Jesus. I thought of Him struggling through His journey only to meet His own painful death. I knew my journey would end on the bank of the next lake, and I'd find Joe and the kids, a drink of water, and the warmth of the sun.
Just at the halfway mark, the sun burst through the canopy of trees. I had my free arm wrapped around a tree trunk in the middle of the path and balanced myself with the hand carrying my paddle. The patch of ground I could see was sloping down instead of up.

I didn't stop. I told myself I'd take another hundred paces before I stopped.
After those hundred, I talked myself into a hundred more.
I made it all the way without stopping once, although sometimes my forward progress was so slight it seemed I was at a standstill. The journey was a physical struggle for me. Near the end, the kids I passed earlier passed me again. Despite their own exhaustion, they all had a word or sign of encouragement. As I took the final steps and entered the clearing, those that arrived first applauded and shouted encouragement, "You did it! Yay, Kari!"

I wasn't first or last, but I carried my own burden. And then I stood with my bruised back and mud-caked jeans and applauded as the last of the campers took their own final steps across the portage.

The best thing about that portage had nothing to do with my own success.

The best thing was watching those fourteen teens struggle with their own challenges while taking the time to help each other at every step with drinks of water, a damp washcloth, or word of encouragement. Yay, kids!