Deep Woods Wild Waters: An Excerpt

ON THIS MORNING I AM THINKING ABOUT THE CHALLENGES WE FACE, the many challenges we have faced in the past. I am thinking about our families and our ancestors and our country, and all we have been through. I am thinking about something called gumption. I wrote an essay about it in my memoir, ‘Deep Woods Wild Waters.’ Below is that essay. We begin with a canoe trip on a far northern river…

We sat with the canoes lashed together, pulled into a little cleft in the rocks, discussing the situation. The river was in flood, and the realities we had encountered didn’t necessarily match the details on the map. We had already wrapped one canoe around a rock in rapids and been fortunate to get it off. We didn’t want a repeat performance. So when we came to the narrowing channel with the sheer vertical sides, with the menacing rumble of whitewater around the bend, we were uneasy about heading around that blind curve, staying right side up, and finding the portage.

The pull-out might be underwater in the shoreline shrubbery as others had been, making it too difficult to disembark. Or we might miss seeing the portage trail entirely, and find ourselves swept down a cascade we’d had no chance to scout. In the far north, no one wants to portage any farther than necessary; consequently, the old trails are often right at the lip of the fast water. This is a good thing for limiting carrying distance, and in normal water conditions an experienced party can always handle the take-out; but in high water, prospects are trickier.

So Jim and I clambered up the jumble of rocks to scout a route, saying we’d be back soon. In two hours, we were. What we had found couldn’t really be called a trail, but perhaps the vestiges of one. The going was rough, brushy, with intermittent wet patches and some steep climbs. We would have to do some serious bushwhacking, but the challenge was manageable. Mostly, it would be long. We might have to camp overnight in the bush—on the “trail.”

But we would be safe. And with the old Indian axiom, “No one ever drowned on a portage trail” in the backs of our minds, the decision was made. We’d pull out here. After roping and hauling the packs and canoes up the rocks—a challenging but somewhat invigorating endeavor—the real labor began. We attacked the carry in stages or poses, going partway with a portion of the gear, then heading back for the next load. Not only did this eliminate the need for an exhausting, long carry, but the relatively short distances also reduced the chances of anyone wandering too far off the obscure trail and becoming lost, a real concern.

And so the hours went by. It was hot. Mosquitoes and flies were thick. Alders and shrubs scraped at exposed skin and tore at clothing. After a while, tempers became frayed and doubts began to be expressed about the whole enterprise. I returned from one trip to find a canoe right-side-up in a patch of blueberry bushes, its owner stretched out inside. She wasn’t going any further, she said. But in a few minutes, she did. We were committed, and the only option was to move ahead.

Eventually, the late northern light faded, and a bush camp was made. We found a small seep and strained and filtered water for the night. Dinner was prepared and eaten quickly, and soon the sound of snoring drifted among the tents. But I couldn’t sleep. I felt bone-deep exhaustion but countered by a strange feeling of exhilaration. My mind kept returning to the challenges of the day, the decisions made, and especially the difficult, successful, step-by-step progress we had achieved. I was thinking about gumption.

There are many words for it—this ability to continue, to press forward, and forge ahead, in spite of all setbacks and obstacles. Courage, of course. Persistence. Pluck, backbone, tenacity. In the old days on the frontier, they used to call it sand, or grit. It was a trait that opened up a continent. My old friend, Sigurd Olson, liked the Finnish word, “sisu,” denoting a combination of hardiness, bravery, and indomitability.

Each word has a slightly different tone or meaning, a different history behind it. For some reason I like gumption. It’s not a pretty word, but it sounds a bit like what it means, and it conjures images of a rough-hewn stubbornness, a refusal to back down or give up.

A long, hard portage trail can be an occasion for gumption—and more than that, even a metaphor for the many hard trials we encounter in life. I used to have a favorite route in the border country that included a long carry. In inexact voyageur patois, we nicknamed it “la biche” or more correctly, “la chienne.” It wasn’t really that tough, but for many first-time trippers, unaccustomed to packing canoes and heavy loads over a primitive trail, it assumed status and meaning far beyond the ordinary. Many were the nights around a campfire near the end of a trip when I heard some version of, “Well, at least I know that if I can portage “la biche,” I can handle anything else that comes my way.”

In a time in which real, physical hardships can be largely avoided, we still retain the human need to test ourselves, to rise to the occasion, to feel what we thought to be our limits exceeded. We need the experience of overcoming simple, primitive challenges, if we are to be prepared for the even more daunting psychological and spiritual challenges of everyday life, no matter the century or cultural milieu.

But for many today, such encounters are very few and far between. I have always thought this was one of the great benefits of wilderness travel and experience. In truth, what is now known as “wilderness” was once simply the world itself? It was in the context of this world that all of our abilities, instincts, mental and emotional landscapes evolved. Would we all be better off if we went back to living in caves and shivering in the cold rain? No. But it’s probably a good thing to do something similar occasionally, to travel for a time through an external world that more closely resembles the contours of the internal one. Such a journey occasionally calls for grit. For gumption.

In an old John Wayne western he plays a rough, self-reliant, crusty character named Rooster Cogburn. Rooster has a weakness for whiskey. His nemesis is Katherine Hepburn, who keeps insisting that he give up drink. Finally, Rooster erupts in exasperation, “Life ain’t an easy game. Sister!”

And he’s right. It ain’t. Every life presents figurative mountains to climb, rivers to ford, deserts to cross—and long, hard trails to portage. Sometimes we make it even more difficult on ourselves with whiskey or some other vice. Or there might be an extra and involuntary hardship that life has placed upon us. Sometimes the very definition of gumption, of courage, of grit or sand, is to simply continue to put one foot in front of the other while carrying a heavy load; no matter the level of exhaustion, discouragement, pain, or frustration. There are times when there is absolutely no short cut, no way around what needs to be done. As Robert Frost put it so well, “The only way out is through.” So through we go, particularly if others—our group, our expedition party, our friends, our family, are counting on us. And, in one way or another, that is almost always the case.

My grandmother was born many weeks premature. They said they could hold her in a teacup when she was born. Her mother died when she was 8 years old, her father when she was 11. As a young, orphaned girl she lived in the YWCA and married when she was 16. She never grew taller than 4’ 11’ or weighed more than 98 pounds. She sent her only son off to fight in WWII and managed her family through the Great Depression, feeding bums out the back door. She had red hair and a sparkling spirit and was about the feistiest person I ever knew. She was competitive and loved to play every card and board game ever invented, and I loved to be around her. Occasionally I beat her at Chinese Checkers. She had gumption.

My Uncle Wilbur fought his way across North Africa, served as company scout at Anzio and Monte Cassino. He was wounded multiple times and returned with a box full of medals. He was near-sighted and stood 5’3’’. When he came back from the war he had a hard time re-entering civilian life and holding a good job, but he eventually found happiness as a history professor. He loved to tease and play practical jokes and show me hand-to-hand combat tricks. He called me Fleetwood because I was the fastest runner in the family. He had his first heart attack at age 42 and lived to be 70. I enjoyed every minute I ever spent with him. He had gumption.

My Uncle Dick I never knew, but I heard many stories that though he was smaller than his brothers, he was the family protector and defender against all bullies and toughs. He became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and jumped behind enemy lines in the early hours of D-Day. He was killed at the Battle of the Bulge. He loved the woods and the outdoors and my dad flattered me by often saying that I “took after Dick.” A profound compliment. He had gumption.

My dad survived a broken and scandalized family in childhood and served in Aden, Arabia in the war. He did not see real combat. But the loss of his beloved brother was devastating. He came home to follow his farm boy’s dream of singing and composing, performed in the Robert Shaw Chorale and recorded Beethoven’s Ninth under Arturo Toscanini, became a music professor and choir director, kept his family together and became the historian and keeper of all the family legacy. He had gumption.

My mother is now 90 years old. She learned to play the piano as a child during the Depression, studied further in college, and became a fine performer, accompanist, and an extraordinary teacher, giving piano lessons for 72 years straight. She has a smile that lights up a room. When I was a boy she could run faster than I could. Now we visit her in Assisted Living. She suffers from asthma, is in a wheelchair, or walks short distances with a walker. Her smile remains. So does her spirit. She has gumption.
When I think about my life, my ancestors, and my family, I sometimes feel I am surrounded and supported by gumption, that it is as near and accessible as my memories and the blood in my veins. Save for the courage and grit of all those who came before me I would not be here at all—and their example, their influence, and legacy, is always there to draw upon. Still, sometimes that spirit is hard to find. Occasionally I’ve felt I have lost it or misplaced it or forgotten about it; and there have been times in the deep woods of life when I feared I’d wandered off the trail……

Nobody has gumption or courage all the time. We are all laid low by fears or doubts. I have read the letters my uncles sent home from WWII, and they are tinged with both. My Uncle Dick particularly, writing on the gunstock of his carbine just days before he lost his life in the brutal cold of the Ardennes Forest, said, “I’ve learned that I’m no hero…”

He was wrong. From everything I’ve read or been told about him, and from all that I understand about life, he was wrong. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” Perhaps that’s all it is. Perhaps a hero simply keeps putting one foot in front of the other for just a little longer. Even with a heavy load. Even when he no longer thinks he can. He has doubts. He has weaknesses. But he has gumption.

At our bush camp on the trail, we awakened the next day to a beautiful morning and fixed a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and coffee. Backs and necks were sore, but spirits were good. We broke camp, picked up the packs and canoes, and carried on. It wasn’t that far—we had made a better distance than we thought the day before.

Before long the brush parted and the bright river beckoned, and we gratefully slipped the canoes into the water. As the paddles flashed and the shoreline fell away, I looked back one last time. The bush had closed behind us and it was already hard to see where we had emerged. I turned back to the river and pulled on the paddle—once, twice. The strokes were easy and the response of the canoe swift. We would encounter more difficult portages in the future. But for now, in the open air and the sunshine, we were headed downstream.

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