In the North
the woods are deep and soft and the lakes, at dawn and dusk, carry sound as if it were a holy thing. You travel in July. Like all days in Quetico-Superior country, the day you choose to write about proceeds honestly. Afternoon comes, and the sky above the pines holds clear and blue. Clear enough, almost, to see all the way to Atikokan. When you dip your paddle, you do so, simply, to draw water. To move the Alumacraft forward. But with every stroke, it feels, also—as always—as if you are moving forward in search of something. You continue paddling anyway. Upon reaching the Deux Rivières narrows, mud-ridden and thick with reeds, you slow, but here slow is . . . okay. There are water lilies to behold, and a pair of electric green dragonflies—the ones with transparent wings, the tips dipped inky black—are flitting here and there above the gunwales of the Alumacraft. And, you are still moving forward. You pass back into open water. Only later, at the edge of mighty Sturgeon, do you truly pause, and even then just for a few minutes, to wait for a second canoe, for the other travelers in your party, to catch up. They do, and you continue paddling. But in those minutes you hold still, something shifts. Physically, it is an increase in wind speed. An onslaught of clouds at odds with the morning’s promising blue. A sudden, premature sprinkling of water and the hairs, pulled erect, on your arms. In time, though, you remember how it felt, also, as if a story were revealing itself. As if, for years, you had been trying to say something, and it had taken only the sky darkening to figure out what it was. So when you write about this moment, you write about it as if it were the moment you found what you had been looking for, but you do so knowing that isn’t quite true. Knowing that later that evening, after the mosquitoes emerged and a line of clear sky reappeared, after you zipped your tent and then your sleeping bag, your thoughts already returning to the jagged flashes of light and ricocheting hailstones, to the sound the rain made hitting the bottom hull of the Alumacraft, and, later, to the woods you eventually made it to and the raindrops left, in the wake of it all, on the white daisy petals, what you were still searching for, what you had perhaps always been searching for, even before it got to be too much, was refuge.
In the End
you decide to travel north. You have seen the weather forecast, but you have made so many mistakes here, and in the North, the moss along the darkest trails is this audacious, hopeful shade of green. Which is to say, when, only after you have returned home, Meredith tells you the story about the woman and boy who died in a storm on a campsite some miles south of the campsite where you, too, just days later, sought refuge, you know that even if she had told you the story before you departed, you would still have chosen to leave. You would still, on that morning in late July, have pushed your Alumacraft off the dock on Nym Lake. Would still have directed it into the rolling whitecaps on Batchewaung, and later, into the heavy rain and hail on Sturgeon, and, the following morning, into the fog that persisted nearly until you reached the burned—as in, growing—island near Chatterton Falls above which the bald eagles were still circling. You would still have taken the back-to-back Halliday portages: the overgrown, muddy—as in, muddy—960 and 730 double people facetiously (but not really) refer to as a “hell-of-a-day” into lonely meandering Elizabeth. You would still have eaten the wild blueberries growing—as in, bravely—behind the fallen tree that had perhaps once stood as tall as the tree that fell on the woman and boy who perhaps, like you, loved the northern waters most at sunset. And you would still, perhaps—as in, definitely—have chosen to swim naked in those waters on the evening after crossing Halliday, not only to touch, in a way, the orange sky but to soothe your body, the raw skin, upon which you had balanced the Alumacraft, which was not, in the end, some tangible equivalent of the grief you also carried but could not set down but simply a boat, 18.5 feet and 62 pounds dry, with a dent in the side. Yes, you would still have told Meredith, you are going to leave. Because what you already knew then, which you still, in the years after you returned home, had to learn—as in, accept—the hard way, was this: that in the end, there is no such thing as refuge.