A Wild Path: An Essay Collection

THESE DAYS I AM WORKING ON A NEW BOOK. AN ESSAY COLLECTION FOR ADULTS ENTITLED “A WILD PATH,” it’s a little over half-done. Similar in style and substance to my 2017 memoir, “Deep Woods, Wild Waters” it will contain many an outdoor story. I don’t usually do this, and my publisher would probably not be thrilled, but I thought this might be a good time to share one of the new essays with you, my friends. It is entitled: Bad Weather, or Charlie’s Fire.

“The skies will change. The clouds will blow off. The sun will come up again….”

We had been out for nearly three weeks on the big, wilderness river system. Had begun in the height of summer, with temps in the upper 80’s under a towering midday sun. Many were the times we leaned over the gunwales of the canoes and dipped our hats or neckerchiefs or t-shirts into the water, then put them back on, in an attempt to remain cool. At night that sunlight lingered until nearly midnight, and we slept in light clothing, our bags unzipped to welcome an evening breeze through the mosquito netting.

The weather, although warm, had been grand. True, we were drenched by the skirts of a few thundershowers roaming the big country of northwest Saskatchewan, and were once chased across a stretch of open water by approaching lightning bolts, barely racing to shelter in time. But for the most part, we experienced the rare treat of unbroken good weather for more than two weeks, and were able to soak up all the beauties and good tidings of the wilderness under blue skies, with ballcaps and sunglasses always close by, while wool mackinaws, rain suits, and stocking caps remained stuffed into the bottoms of the Duluth packs. We became, as my grandmother used to say, “brown as berries,” and gloried in our good fortune.

But summers are short in the North Country. And with the arrival of a stiff nor’ easter, with buffeting winds and rain and rolling whitecaps, we got an early foretaste of fall. The temperatures plunged and stayed down for days. Lake crossings in the big winds were a fierce challenge. The rains did not quit. And all the heavy clothing that had been safely tucked away was pulled out, put on, and eventually became, to one extent or another, damp, soggy, or soaked.

Although experienced wilderness travelers, we felt our moods changing as well, from the sunny dispositions that had reflected sunny skies, to something more akin to gray, gloomy, and irritable. All a part of a wilderness trip, perhaps, but not our favorite part.

After weeks in the untraveled country, we now found ourselves in slightly closer proximity to a far northern town and a railroad, with a few more signs of human impact, including portage trails just a bit more heavily used than before. We were on such a trail, during a break in the rain, pushing through mud, wet grass, and wet alders, and going back for our second load, when we met Charlie. Charlie was a Cree fishing guide, out with his two sportsmen in their big motorboat, crossing the portage to another boat cached on the other side. Charlie seemed to be in good spirits. But he seemed more than a little concerned about us.

“You guys OK?” he asked. “You look pretty wet and cold,” I replied that we were doing OK. Charlie seemed unconvinced.
“Looks like you need a good fire to dry out,” he said. I answered something along the lines of the woods were too wet and it would take forever to get one going.

“Naw, naw,” said Charlie, “I can get you the one going in no time. Hey guys, go and gather up some wood, will you?” I made a slight protest but quickly gave in—knowing we did indeed need to warm up and dry out, and wondering what Cree Indian, woodcraft magic Charlie was about to employ to accomplish the mission so quickly. I could sense that he was wise and knowledgeable as well as helpful, and I was ready to learn. And get warm.

My opinion of Charlie quickly changed. He had no idea what he was doing. He and his guys gathered up anything and everything that might charitably be described as wood, all shapes, and sizes, and dumped it into an ever-growing pile by the side of the trail. There seemed to be very little in the way of planning or forethought in the construction. Accustomed as I was to lay a careful fire—usually in the “log cabin style” of criss-crossed sticks and logs, with smaller tinder placed just so under the larger pieces, with just enough space to allow for oxygen and breathing, but close enough so that the flames would catch and grow—I thought the entire slapdash construction looked foredoomed. Especially considering it was wet. There was not a chance in the world that that sodden heap of the brush was going to become anything other than a smoldering, smoky mess. Indian woodcraft indeed! But I kept my mouth shut out of embarrassment and common courtesy and kept watching.

When the pile was about four feet tall, Charlie disappeared and went back to the boat. He returned with an empty coffee can, poured a fair amount of white gas into it, slid it under the pile, and dropped a match into it. Hmmm. It made a fine, steady torch. The torch quickly began to dry out the nearest twigs and branches, then the next ones, and the next and the next, with each successive layer catching fire, drying out more of the pile and spreading the flame. In minutes we had a crackling—even roaring—bonfire.

Indian woodcraft indeed.

We thanked Charlie profusely, pretending that we had had total confidence all along. Which, of course, we had. Mostly. And after he had left with his fishermen, we stayed a good, long while by his bonfire, getting thoroughly dried out. And warm. And happy. And in an unexpected, welcome bit of serendipity the bad weather ceased, the clouds cleared, and although the temps remained chilly and the stocking caps stayed on, for the remainder of our trip we paddled once again under sunny skies.
I have used old Charlie’s “trick” many times since, when a three-day low has stretched into four or five days when even the ‘squaw wood’ on the underside of balsams and spruces becomes soaked, and when emotions become gloomy and soggy as well. Then a warm and crackling fire, seemingly produced by magic out of nowhere, can be just what the doctor ordered. Woodcraft, Charlie reminded me, does not necessarily require flint and steel—with which I have indeed started many a fire—but simply involves figuring out what works, what you’ve got, and what needs to be done.

Bad weather, of course, can call forth such situations. And life is full of bad weather. In the Canoe Country, much of what we do and the way we pack is an acknowledgment of the certainty of bad weather. If not now, then an hour from now, if not today then tomorrow, if not this week then the next. The old Minnesota saying—“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”—has much truth to it. The entire camping equipment industry is nothing so much as our eternal human attempt to stay ahead of bad weather. From breathable, water-proof rain-suits and hats to good old wool and all its modern iterations to fleece to rip-stop nylon tarps and tents to lined, impermeable Duluth packs to lightweight boots and mukluks and sleeping bags, to camp stoves that you can light in a hurricane, to ‘duck tape,’ everything is better, lighter, and more effective than anything that Daniel Boone, or the voyageurs, or legendary outdoor writers Sigurd Olson or Calvin Rutstrum could have dreamed of. And it all helps us to stay safe and comfortable in the wilds.

But there is still the human component. We still need to use our own wits and manage our own emotions.
Simply accepting the reality of hardship, of bad weather, is a part of it. I still remember a Quetico Provincial Park trip I guided, many years ago. Everybody arrived in the rain. We made our introductions in the rain. We unloaded the cars and loaded the packs and canoes in the rain. We paddled in the rain, we portaged in the rain, and we arrived at the camp in the rain. Unfortunately, this was the group’s introduction to the Canoe Country, to what a real canoe trip was all about. It was an unusually harsh one, and to first-timers, the whole thing didn’t seem like much fun. I have never seen a more morose group of human beings in my life, as they huddled under the rain tarp I had set up, grumbling amongst themselves, waiting for me to get the campfire going and produce something warm to eat. I had mentioned the necessity of setting up tents, gathering more wood, and other camp chores. There were no obvious moves in any of those directions. But I was reluctant to be too assertive or to get annoyed and add to the emotional distress. So I kept working away as cheerfully as possible.

Suddenly Julie spoke up. “Hey, guys,” she said in a somewhat exasperated tone, “Doug didn’t make it rain! He’s doing everything he can for us, and it’s not going to rain forever. We’ve got to chip in and help. Haven’t you ever been wet before?!” And she began bustling around, getting out the packs and tents, helping with the dinner. Soon everyone was in motion, the camp was set up, dinner was prepared and eaten, and dishes cleaned up. It was just what needed to be said, and done, but I couldn’t have said it. It had to be someone from the group, taking the initiative, shaking off the lethargy. In the morning the skies were clear, the canoes sliced through blue waters, and we had a dandy week in the Quetico. Needless to say, I had a soft spot for Julie for the rest of the trip, and she went on to join us in some of our most memorable expeditions in the far north.

Sometimes it’s just common sense that’s missing. On another Quetico Park trip, I led my group down a long stretch of an open lake on a cold and windy day. One rocky island loomed in the distance, and as we approached we saw someone waving an orange life jacket from the shore. Fearing the worst, we rushed over, quartering the waves, and arrived to find a number of young men standing around, their tents pitched on an open campsite in the teeth of the wind. One of the fellows spoke up. “Hey, can you guys loan us some Coleman fuel? We ran out, and we’re really cold!”

I tried to appraise the situation, which didn’t make much sense. They were clearly able-bodied and should be able to start a fire with a little wind protection. “I can give you some fuel,” I said, “but we’re just starting our trip and we need to save most of it. Why don’t you move your camp around to the other side of the island? Pitch your tents there—it’s a nice little campsite and you’ll be out of the wind and twenty degrees warmer. That will help more than anything.” He said something about being worried about mosquitoes. I came up on shore, poured out some gas, grabbed their hatchet and split a little wood, and once again mentioned the importance of getting out of the wind on the lee side of the island. They assured me they would.
Toward the end of the week, we met another group just coming into the park and stopped to visit for a bit. They mentioned being flagged down by a group of guys on a little rocky island who were cold and wanted to buy camp stove gas. “How were they doing?” I inquired. “Pretty miserable,” was the answer. “Where were they camped—which side of the island?” I asked. “On the west side, right out in the wind!” was the answer. I shook my head.

The real challenge with bad weather—other than the truly life-threatening sort—is almost always emotional. The bottom line is, you’ve got to deal with it. How do we manage the gray skies, the buffeting winds, the cold, the rain, the discomfort? Can we improve our situation? If not, how do we get through it? Adopting what I call, “Minnesota fish position,” head down, shoulders hunched, no neck, hands shoved into pockets, immobile, is seldom a useful response.

In fact, as the years have gone by, I have come to think of emotions themselves as a sort of weather—the weather of our own inward skies. Unpredictable, beyond our conscious control, always there in one form or another. Clouds drift over and drift away again. Storm fronts arrive, sometimes seemingly “out of the blue.” There are occasional blow-downs. Or blow-ups. We learn to be prepared, to accept the reality of discomfort and bad weather, of sadness and anger and frustration, as a part of life, and perhaps not to invest quite so much in whether the skies are blue or gray in any particular hour on any particular day. The skies will change. The clouds will blow off. The sun will come up again.

When I was a little boy, out in the fishing boat or otherwise spending time with my Uncle Wilbur, he delighted in gently teasing me. In teasing me particularly—more than any of the other sons or nephews, it seemed. He had a fine sense of humor, and employed certain standard nicknames and sayings and bromides that he trotted out whenever the occasion was appropriate. One of his favorites—whenever I might be irritated or upset or ‘down in the mouth,’ or when the weather was simply crummy and we couldn’t go fishing—was, “Dougie, into each life a little rain must fall.” And then he’d wink and chuckle at his own wisdom. Again. And I would groan.

But he was right, of course. That’s why sayings become bromides. And I’ve employed Uncle Wilbur’s wisdom more than once while sitting out a thunderstorm with sons and nephews, or many a group of wet campers; or when—if it’s really needed—sliding a coffee can of white gas under a pile of wet wood, and then watching as the sunshine returns to a circle of smiling faces.

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