HERE IS A LITTLE STORY for folks who: love the Boundary Waters or Minnesota’s outdoors; love the iconic artwork of F. Lee Jaques; love the writing of his wife Florence Page Jaques (Canoe Country, Snowshoe Country) remember the wonderful photography of J. Arnold Bolz; or, just like a good story, from a warmer time of year.
Years ago, I was writing a manuscript that would become my book, Paddle Whispers. I thought the spare and simple text would do well with Canoe Country photography, and, as yet an unknown and unpublished author, wrote to J. Arnold Bolz, whose brilliant photos often graced the cover and pages of the Minnesota Volunteer and other national publications. He had also written a lovely book I was fond of, Portage Into The Past. Surprisingly and very kindly, Dr. Bolz—probably some 40 or more years my senior—wrote back, inviting me to the lakeside Northwoods home of he and his wife, Belva, where we might brainstorm and discuss the idea.
We hit it off wonderfully, sharing many common interests, and tentatively made plans for Arnold to send me photos that might accompany different portions of text. We met several more times, even going into the woods together where Arnold could take new shots with me within the frame. We also had the opportunity for more delightful conversations. At this point (and still today) I was very taken with the ‘scratchboard’ art of F. Lee Jaques, he of the famous dioramas at the New York Museum of Natural History, the Bell Museum, and illustrator of many of Sigurd F. Olson’s books.
One day, at the Bolz’ kitchen table, as Jaques’ name was brought up, Belva told a fascinating, almost unbelievable story that I remember still. It seems that, not so surprisingly, the Bolz’s and the Jaques’s were very good friends later in life. And this fact led to the story. Belva told of a time when the four of them were attending some gala event. Lee cut quite a dashing figure and was, as seemed to often be the case, somewhat surrounded by admiring persons of the female persuasion. Someone asked Florence casually if this fact ever bothered her in any way. Florence answered, no not really. There was only one instance that caused her any consternation.
It seems that Lee had told her, more than once, of a time when he was a very young man. He and a good friend were on a journey through what later became known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area—at that time not well known or heavily used—real ‘bush country.’ As Lee and his friend came paddling downstream, going fast with the quick current, and slipping around a bend in the stream, they saw an extraordinary sight. “There on a boulder in the middle of the river,’ said Florence, “was a young woman, beautiful, completely nude, long blonde hair thrown back, glistening in water droplets, sunning herself in the wilderness. There was no one else around, no canoe, no tent, and before the two boys could say or do anything, or imagine what they MIGHT say or do, they were swept away, downstream and around the bend. Well,” said Florence, “Lee has never gotten over it. Like Lady Godiva of the wilderness, or a freshwater mermaid. He ‘s remembered that girl all his life—the gorgeous image of her on that rock in the river. Wondering who she was, if she was even real or a fantasy, and what her story might have been.”
At this point, Belva said, she had gasped and caught her breath. “Why, that was MY MOTHER!” she exclaimed. “She also remembered that day all her life. She was on her first ever canoe trip. She slipped away from camp for a swim, feeling she was quite literally at the ends of the Earth, taking a few adventurous moments to feel the water, the wind and the sun on her bare skin, on a rock in the river, never DREAMING that there might be anyone else around, or that anyone would appear. Then, suddenly, there were these two young men, appearing as if from nowhere, paddles suspended in the air, silent, mouths agape, as they floated by and then disappeared downstream. She never forgot it, the embarrassment, the risqué thrill, never imagined she would ever learn who they were or where they came from. And now, here we are, and—my goodness, what are the odds!”
Indeed, what are the odds? It’s hard to imagine. But it’s not hard to imagine the image of that single moment of astonishment, burned into the memories of all concerned. I think it is a wonderful story of coincidence, of serendipity, of mystery…
In a sad coda, Arnold and I never got to do that book together. He and Belva were taken from us in a car accident before we ever finished. But I have always cherished the opportunity to get to know them. To meet and receive the guidance of another mentor, like Sig Olson. And I have never forgotten the image in Belva’s story. It’s burned into my brain, too. Meanwhile, I eventually finished writing the book, and in the end decided I would illustrate it myself with pen and ink drawings, in the style of F. Lee Jaques, as I have done in many books since. For—although I only got instruction from poring over the books he illustrated—Lee has been a mentor, too. And Frances as well.
So, here’s to beauty and mystery and the unexpected; to mentors, to good stories, and to a Happy New Year. And… to a fully protected wilderness.