High on the Monument Portage, where Canada and the U.S. are a footstep apart, you meet a white-haired violinist of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. A heavy pack is strapped to his back, but he smiles and slows and says, "Nice day," then pushes across to the American side. He is using the Quetico-Superior wilderness of Minnesota and Ontario for relaxation and release from the cymbals and crescendos of his lyrically ordered world. Others use the wilderness in other ways. Guides will tell you of the middle-aged woman who pushed a canoe across lake and portage for three days, cleared a camp site and sat down to a quiet week of unrelieved knitting. Another guide recalls how he took a pair of city slickers to an isolated island deep in the Quetico, then watched them as they played gin rummy for a week, oblivious to the leaping bass on the water and the wacky call of the loon.
The Quetico-Superior wilderness may be used in myriad ways. Bird watchers plunge into its depths, there to indulge in orgies of feathered voyeurism. A botanist from New York shuffles around the bogs and muskegs and turns up nine varieties of wild orchid. Anglers arrive with flies and bucktails to meet the challenge of trout, northern pike, walleyes and bass. Rockhounds chip at the slopes of granite, basalt and greenstone, collecting infinitesimal treasures from the Canadian Shield, the oldest exposed rock face in the world. Boy scout troops dissolve into the forests, earning merit badges and learning firsthand the harsh realities described in the boy scout handbook. Fathers and sons push into the canoe country, not so much to learn about nature as to learn about themselves.
No wilderness area of North America better meets their needs than Quetico-Superior. It is a balsam-spiced retreat of some 3,000 square miles, sprinkled with emerald and sapphire lakes and laced with meandering rivers—described by an early explorer as "verey Gental but verey Sarpentine"—extending nearly 200 miles along the border of northeastern Minnesota and western Ontario. The wilderness is two great forests running together at the national boundary: the Superior National Forest in the U.S., Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Both were set up in 1909; they are administered separately but in close cooperation. Superior carries out the U.S. Forest Service idea of the multiple use of parks. There are some roads, some picnic areas, many lodges and outfitters and even some logging south of the border, but mostly there are deep, dense forests.
To the north, Quetico lies entirely unblemished. Along its edges you may find the slightest incroppings of civilization, but Quetico itself is the special property of the wind and the water, the otter and the bobcat. Canada goes out of its way to point out that in Quetico there are no stores, no lodges, no bait shops, no roads. Logged and burnt over years ago, it has almost succeeded in re-establishing its virgin nature. One travels by canoe, one camps with the moose and the bear. One walks across tree-to-tree carpeting of sphagnum and duff, which do not know commercial man. Two tenderfeet returned to camp with a story about two large dogs seen swimming across a lake a few miles away. Whose dogs were they, and what were they doing so far away, they asked. The dogs, of course, were timber wolves, worth $25 each in bounty. (Another tenderfoot made the opposite error; he shot a dog and tried to collect a bounty on it.)
July 24, 1960
The wolves of Quetico-Superior may be seen and not feared; they are too wise to venture near man. Not so the bear. The forest abounds in black bears, and some of them are conniving and crafty, especially in years when the wild blueberry crop is bad. One outfitter lost $4,000 in gear to bears in a single year. Bears creep into camp late at night and rip through packs for food. They have learned that tin cans contain goodies and they will bite right into them. One hapless bear, on a recent night, bit into a DDT bomb.
Quetico-Superior once belonged to the Crees, the Sioux and the gentle Chippewas but then became the land of the French voyageur, the wild, abandoned adventurers who canoed and portaged the boundary area en route to Montreal and Quebec with their cargoes of fur. Now no trace of them remains except for the faint portage trails they established, the lakes they named and the unforgotten songs they sang, brought to French Canada by the first settlers in the early 17th century:
En roulant ma boule roulant,
en roulant ma boule....
trots beaux canards s'en vent baignant,
rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant.
Every hour the voyageurs would stop canoeing and smoke a pipe; thus distances across the Quetico-Superior lakes became measured in pipes instead of miles. Portages were measured in poses, or deposit places. Coming to a portage, the voyageurs would unload and transport their gear as far as they could without collapsing, then drop it at the pose and go back for more, traveling thus to the end of the portage. Nowadays portages are measured in rods, 16½ feet each, or two huffs and a puff for the typical American woodsman.
The land passed from Indians to voyageurs to loggers to tourists, but all as passers-by only. The Scandinavian 3 and the Finns, and then the Croats and Slovenes, worked the iron deposits. The Finns, in particular, brought their own ways to the wilderness. To get rid of bears, they recited:
Hide thy claws within thy hair-foot,
Shut thy wicked teeth in darkness....
Throw thy malice to the mountains,
And thy hunger to the pine trees,
Sink thy teeth within the aspens.
Cold was fended off in a similar manner:
Cold, thou son of wind,
Do not freeze my fingernails,
Do not freeze my hands.
Freeze thou the water willows,
Go chill the birch chunks.
It worked; the Finns survived. For present-day travelers, however, heavy clothing is recommended. The bear song will be found useful today if it is accompanied by a heavy beating on a tin pan; the bears are not fans of such music.
Now the camper pushes off from the American side and soon establishes the rhythm of the paddle: dip, push, swing. A mile of canoeing and he is surrounded by dense forests of pine, balsam, cedar, spruce, aspen, birch. Down the lake comes a weird cackle, part laughing hyena, part lunatic. It is a loon, concertmaster of the wilderness, indulging in his daily laugh at the piddling invader. Only a few minutes of watching make one realize that the loon belongs; he is the master and man is the observer. The loon is a large bird, as big as a goose, but he rides much lower in the water and he has a flatter head. As the camper's canoe nears, he will disappear, for the loon is a water bird; he can dive as deep as 90 feet, stay under for 10 minutes or more, flying through the water with half-opened wings faster than a trout. He is gone, but no matter; soon another will appear ahead, giggling and cackling with idiot laughter at your appearance. A single loon makes a motley crew.
The most beautiful song in Quetico-Superior belongs to the plainest of birds: the white-throated sparrow. He sits all day in the trees calling for Sam Peabody: his call sounds like "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Pea-body," with a rich, musical quality no flute could duplicate. Or you may hear the chop and crash of a pileated woodpecker hammering away at his trade of master carpenter. The pileated woodpecker is as big as a raven, and he wears a bright red hat. His home is no simple round hole in a tree, but a boxlike affair of good size. Making the home, he bangs away at the tree with a jackhammer beak, ripping and tearing chunks of bark a foot long. Like the beaver, he was lumberjacking the forest long before man came in with his saws and axes.
The birds of Quetico-Superior range in size from the hummingbird to the bald eagle, in sound from the soft dee-dee-dee of the chickadee to the raucous squawk of the gull, in boldness from the shy ruffed grouse to the camp-robbing "whisky jack," or Canadian jay, which will be only too happy to join you and the red squirrels at dinner. In these wilds, the bird watcher may drink his fill.
The animal watcher has a more difficult problem. Caribou are gone, wolves nearly so. Beavers have grown wise. Their houses may be seen everywhere, but the occupants rarely. Deer come down to the lakes to drink, and now and then a porcupine will be sighted paddling across a river. Bobcats shriek in the night. Otters gambol and frolic in the lakes, and weasels go about their cold business of ermine-coated assassination. The game of animal watching takes silence; a cough on a lake will cause all the animals around to draw back into the deep woods. But there are surprises, and man is not always prepared for them. In Quetico-Superior you are aware of the presence of the animals all around, even though you may not see them. Their sign is everywhere—a few loose porcupine quills, the mashed imprint of an ambling moose, a hank of hair where a bear has scratched his back against a tree. In the morning you awaken to find that the red squirrels and the whisky jacks have cleaned the crumbs off your festive board; they are the wilderness garbage detail.
But these are tangibles, the things you can see, feel and touch. More important to the traveler in these wild square miles are the intangibles, items of the spirit and heart. The wilderness country is the answer to a need which cannot be met in Central Park or Lincoln Park, nor even in the great national forests crisscrossed by roads and dotted with picnic tables. The need has not changed since John Muir expressed it more than 50 years ago: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of nature, and to get rid of rust and disease."
SHIVERS WITH A FULL MOON
The smell of resins and saps, no part of the cities, was a part of mankind's heritage for milleniums, and there are those who maintain that the peculiar pleasure which comes from these smells is in fact the pleasure of re-establishing a link with one's ancestors. Man still reacts instinctively to certain phenomena of wilderness and freights these phenomena with more than normal meaning. How else explain the shivers which come with a full moon on a clear night in the wilds? Or the instant release of adrenalin in the system when a wolf cries nearby? Or the flood of amorphous memories on entering a fragrant pine forest? Why is a campfire so comforting? Said the English historian, George Trevelyan: "We are literally children of the earth, and removed from her our spirits wither or run to various forms of insanity. Unless we can refresh ourselves at least by intermittent contact with nature, we grow awry."
For the average American who goes to the Quetico-Superior wilderness to refresh himself for the first time, a pattern emerges. He has been outfitted, taught the six basic canoe strokes, told how to read a map and how to make and break camp and pushed off toward the central lakes of the huge forest. Now he is ripping away with madman strokes, trying to beat the water to death with his paddle. He has a campsite in mind and an estimated time of arrival. He arrives on time, hands blistered, back sore, mind already racing ahead to the next day's timetable. He decides he will go to bed at an appointed hour, and when his watch issues the command off to bed he goes.
The next day he is a little more sloppy about time. He looks at his watch less often; he has an ETA, but he says to hell with it because he has discovered that the walleyes are hitting in a little bay. He arrives at his destination campsite a few hours later but suddenly realizes that it matters not at all. The whitethroats and the whisky jacks, the bears and the squirrels are there waiting for him. In Quetico-Superior the animals and the birds, the lakes and the trees are the landlord, and man is the tenant, endured but not integrated.
And so the camper gradually loses his city outlook on time and space and relaxes into the wilderness, and only then do the refreshment and the rest begin. The tenderfoot will know he is cured of city madness the first day he decides to sit around the campsite and watch birds or to partake of what Thoreau called "the tonics and barks which brace mankind." He is now prepared to endure—and indeed to appreciate—the hush of a deep woods.
Silence comes all at once in the wilderness, and it can be as disquieting as an unexpected thunderclap. Pure silence is rarer than city man thinks. Lying in your bedroom at night, you may think you are experiencing silence, but an audiometer would show a constant level of sound which your ears are no longer aware of hearing. This city sound is compounded of generators whirring, far-off buses and airliners and automobiles, the hum of electric wires, fans, meters, thousands of audibilities blended into a general background hum to which you have become accustomed.
Now you are deep in Quetico-Superior. The wind has been blowing softly against the tentside. At the water's edge there is a constant slap-slap against the granite rock. Then suddenly the last whitethroat makes his last call for Old Sam Pea-body. The wind dies down, and quits. The final tiny wave of the evening subsides against the rock, and you are drowning in silence: pure silence. Those space scientists who first felt weightlessness must have experienced something akin to this first ordeal of silence. It is disorienting and harrowing until you get used to it. Guides tell of passing campsites at night and seeing solitary figures dancing jigs and singing at the tops of their voices. In deep silence, one comes face to face with oneself. Some would rather dance and sing, till the wind starts up again.
Essentially, the test which a wilderness like Quetico-Superior poses is the test of whether you can live with yourself, minus all the softening and palliating forces of civilization. Can you make a go of becoming one with the woods and the waters without sprinting hysterically back to the lodge? Quetico-Superior poses no life-or-death test of your ability to survive in the out-of-doors; you may have discomfort, but you will survive. Even in the remotest parts of Quetico Provincial Park, the ranger's plane flies over once a day, and a simple distress signal (three of anything: blankets, tarpaulins, shirts) will summon him to your side. Your worst errors, then, will not be crucial as they might be, for example, in Alaska or Brazil. So your problem will be simply to achieve the oneness of nature and yourself, and this oneness is a spiritual thing. As Scouter Grady Mann put it: "On mechanized outings, where one can easily move 100 yards to the nearest road, the challenges of adventure, discipline, hardship and self-reliance are lost."
Some would laugh at the violinist hoisting a 75-pound aluminum canoe across the Monument Portage. Or at the puny C.P.A. battling huge waves on Lake Saganaga. What's in it for them? At least some of the pleasure lies in the defeat of pain. When the portage is over and the four-pipe lake has been conquered, the ordeal is forgotten, and in its place comes the deep fulfillment of the conqueror. Having achieved these minor miracles with your own hands, having learned to enjoy the beauty of silence at night, having separated the flute call of the whitethroat from the silly soft notes of the cedar waxwing and having started a warm fire on a rainy day and battled a northern pike into your canoe, you are en route to becoming a wilderness buff. And a wilderness buff is a wondrous thing indeed!
The wilderness buff may be spotted in the city by his compulsion to talk about the wilderness. What is wilderness? Webster says it is "a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings." The National Park Service says wilderness is "an area whose predominant character is the result of the interplay of natural processes, large enough and so situated as to be unaffected, except in minor ways, by what takes place in the non-wilderness around it." By Webster's definition, huge areas of America are still almost all pure wilderness. By the Park Service definition, there are still some 58 million acres of wilderness in the continental U.S. In these areas, the Park Service does some minor landscaping and housekeeping, builds a few roads, allows some logging and peripheral commercialism. The true wilderness buff frowns deeply on this. The Park Service has even found itself criticized by buffs for putting down epidemics of bugs in the forest. The bugs are natural; what they do is nature's plan, therefore they should not be interrupted. So goes the argument. For that matter, there are buffs who all but advocate the death penalty for wilderness campers who leave a sardine tin on a campsite. To such purists, a cigarette butt thrown in a lake is an abomination, an outboard motor is a thing of the devil and a one-lane dirt road into a wilderness converts the wilderness into a spoiled, urban area.
The argument rages, as it has since America woke up to find its forest areas threatened. Conservationists like Aldo Leopold assert their dogma: "Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow." It has shrunk and is shrinking, though there are signs that the shrinkage is coming to an end. The Park Service concept of protecting and preserving wilderness areas, of permitting peripheral commercialism but maintaining interior naturalness is making the wilderness available to more and more people. And proposed federal legislation would lock into law the wilderness areas we have.
Calvin Rutstrom, a portager in Quetico-Superior since 1914, takes this view: "When I first started traveling here, we thought the forest would last forever, in the same form it always had. Then outboard motors started coming in, and people had trailers which automatically launched their boats, and then came aluminum canoes and such. And a lot of the older people said: 'The North is gone.' But there's room in this wilderness for both points of view. Whether it's art or music or literature or whatever, it's what the man makes of it that counts. You can go right out in those woods now and get all the challenge you want in the world. You can get off remote paths here and see no other human being for weeks, and it's a wonderful thing to meet that challenge."
THE WILDERNESS RULES
The remaining dissonant element is the boor camper, who disobeys the wilderness rule to "put your fire dead out," who does not bury tin cans, who does not leave a stack of kindling for the next camper and who generally goes through the woods as though he were the first and last person ever to use them. Fortunately, he does not last long. Nature has a great maturing influence on such people. Obeying the rules of the wilderness is one way to become one with the wilderness. Failing to become one with the wilderness means having a miserable time and not returning. Boor campers are soon sorted out by this process of natural elimination. And the wilderness is unyielding. It does not bend for you or the fox, but you may bend for it and in the bending add a new dimension to your life. And then you may agree with Emerson: "It is in the woods we return to reason and faith." Or even with Thoreau: "In wilderness is the preservation of the world."
U.S.A. CANADA BOUNDRY LINE