Why We Go Into The Woods
In the summer of 2012, Bearpelt Creek dried up. I’ve heard that when the water is high, it’s a great route for travelers through the Quetico National Park, but I never saw it that way. I only saw it as a nearly dried-up trickle of mud. When we portaged our wooden canoes over the peat and muskeg onto the murky, thin-trickling waterway, our camp counselor, Emma, assured us that “we won’t be here long. We’re about to enter the most beautiful part of the Quetico. This next stretch isn’t pretty, but it’s short.”
She was wrong. The meager snowfall in the previous winter and the shifting of certain critical beaver dams had transformed Bearpelt Creek into a kind of monstrous, alien labyrinth—a river of mud through an endless expanse of yellow marsh, walled by tall reeds and blackened trees. We'd travel down one branch for an hour, only to find a dead-end and an angry beaver. There was no solid earth to portage over, so we resorted to pushing our canoes across dams and bars of peat.
All of us were teenaged girls, in middle or high school. We’d been paddling for a little over a week and a half together, at the midway point of our three-week trek through the Boundary Waters Canoe and Wilderness Area and Quetico National Park. We were kids, but we were focused, determined, and willing to wade through a lot of muskeg to reach our goals. We’d had to turn around once already for a medical emergency, but our spirits remained unbroken—we thought, perhaps, we were unbreakable. Until Bearpelt Creek.
The dry season was bad for canoeists, but it had been very good for leeches—particularly, giant horse leeches, and Canadian ribbon leeches. I’ve been terrified of leeches, large and small, since I was a little kid growing up near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I think it’s the way they move that creeps me out the most—like little accordions, expanding and contracting. It’s my opinion that things that wriggle and squirm in the mud should stay in the mud, and not latch onto my feet and ankles. I let Emma know that this was my biggest irrational fear.
“They’re kind of beautiful, though, aren’t they? In a way?” Emma attempted to convince me, to keep up my spirits. Green-backed, orange-belled worms clung to our paddles as we lifted them out of the water, some of them stretching out longer than my forearm. “The big ones won’t go after humans,” she assured us. But she didn’t sound confident. They all seemed pretty eager to get into our boat. We’d see more slick, black bodies lining the bottom of our canoes each time we lifted them over another dam, like a layer of padding on the wood.
When night fell and we still weren’t out of the maze, we were forced to make camp on the only solid ground we could find—a rocky hill, like a pale, bald head sticking out of the swamp. We set up our tent in the dark.
This was my third long trip into the woods. The first time I went, when I was 12, our squad of little girls got struck by a week of severe thunderstorms and, at one point, we were forced to paddle haphazardly beneath the black-and-white underbelly of a burgeoning cone twisting in the sky while the air hummed with an otherworldly green hue. The funnel cloud passed over us and, I think, dissipated before it became a real tornado, but the sight was dramatic, and all the more so from my vantage point underneath a thin blue tarp we’d tied to a pair of trees to shield off the rain. Moments like that—where nature rears upon its hind legs and reminds you that you are at its mercy—are, I believe, what we’re really after when we go into the woods. Or into the mountains, or wherever we may roam.
We set out on the second day, halfway through the maze of marsh and beaver dams. We boiled and double-treated our brown, muddy water with extra iodine. Emma's faux-positive ramblings seemed sort of manic, detached from our reality: "Everything's fine! This is the last stretch before the most gorgeous lake you've ever seen in your entire life! Let's sing a song, we're having a good time!" A bolt-on the bottom of our canoe had come loose, and bit by bit, water crept in, and with it came little invertebrates thirsting for blood. "Wildlife is so interesting, isn't it, girls? Just scoop ‘em out, toss ‘em back to their homes!”
Soon, it felt like we had always lived in The Maze. There was nothing, nor had there ever been anything, outside of Bearpelt Creek. There was only us, and the leeches, and the endless yellow marsh.
The sun was low in the sky by the time we made it to the portage site. One of the girls began to cry, out of sheer relief.
But then, we realized the horrible truth: the shore we saw, about half a football field away, was impossible to reach by canoe. It was separated from us by a hundred feet of deep, gooey muskeg. There would be no choice but to wade through it, on foot, carrying our packs and canoes on our backs through a waist-deep gauntlet of mud and leeches, fighting the sucking pull of the muddy river-bottom against our hiking boots.
We floated there on the water for a few minutes, silently, observing the task before us. We waited for Emma to attempt to spin this, somehow, into a cheery remark.
Instead, she dropped her shoulders, craned her neck, and let out a guttural roar into the sky.
“I’m sick of this river! I’m sick of this bog! I'm sick of all these (expletive) leeches!”
What followed was a string of shouted cuss words that would make a sailor blush, some of which I believe were made-up. Slowly, each girl began to shout along with her, until all six of us were yelling like coyotes. It was like a war chant, and when we were finished, we were psyched up and ready to face the worst the marsh had to offer.
And so I trudged, waist-deep in muskeg, with a Duluth Pack full of food and camping equipment, sinking into the mud with each step. It was like one of those nightmares where you can hardly move. I watched my friends ripping leeches off of their clothes and tossing them— red-bellied medicine leeches, Canadian ribbon leeches, and giant horse leeches—into the marsh.
I can’t overstate how scared I am of leeches. I know that it’s irrational; some people have heights, some people panic in tight spaces, I shudder at the idea of a leech on my shoe. In all of my stress dreams, I’m taking a high school math test while leeches creep across the floor to get me. I want to make this clear, to impress upon you exactly what was going through my head during this next part.
I’d tucked my canoe pants into my wool socks to create an anti-leech barrier around my whole lower half, but I wasn’t perfectly prepared. As I took a deep breath and adjusted the leather straps over my shoulders, I glanced down to see that, wrapped around my arm like a Christmas ribbon, there was the biggest, most monstrous horse leech I’d ever seen. Oh, they don’t go after humans? Yeah right! This thing was as big as an eel!
I was so shocked at the sudden horror that I fell backward, flinging the leech into the grass, and submerging my whole body—Duluth Pack and all—into the muskeg.
I don’t recall pulling out of my backpack, but I must have—my next memory is of clawing my way onto the shore, covered in mud. It felt so good to reach solid ground. I felt horrible, losing our food pack in that awful marsh, letting it get pulled down into the goo. Emma was able to retrieve it, and the pack, like me, was caked in mud. Luckily, we maintained our waxed canvas Duluth Packs, and the interior—while perhaps a little bit damp—stayed clean, and our food was protected.
“You did a great job,” Emma said to me, even though I knew I hadn’t. The rest of our team brought the remaining items ashore while I took the pack down the portage trail, to the next lake—the one that Emma had emphatically promised us would be the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen in our lives.
And you know what? It was.
I walked onto the rocky beach of a crystal-clear, cold lake. It was clean, and blue as sapphires, and so still and calm. I was laughing when I waded in, washing off my pack and my skin, brushing all the mud out of my hair. I don’t recall the name of this lake—all I know is that it was not Bearpelt Creek.
That night, we camped in the most gorgeous part of the Quetico. I woke up in the night and I walked down to the shore. I found that I didn’t need my flashlight. The moon that night was full, and huge, and orange, and it lit up the whole sky almost like daylight. All the others were asleep, and I felt that I was completely alone in the whole world. I listened to the owls and the loons, and watched the moon rise and fall, like a slow breath of the world.
It’s those things that compel us to go into the woods, I think. The story about the moonrise after my story about the two dramatically miserable days I spent on Bearpelt Creek is, perhaps, less interesting, and less fun to tell at parties. But seeing that orange harvest moon ascend over the still black lake was, to me, at that moment, the most cathartic and important thing that had ever happened. Like taking a breath after half-drowning in the mud.
I think we go into the woods to be humbled. We go to meet forces of nature which dwarf us, and obstacles which seem insurmountable. We go to confront our limitations, to try and fail at things, to test ourselves and touch the boundaries of our own power. We go for the quiet stillness, and the swell of love we feel for little things like clean water and good friends who have your back when you fall. We go into the woods, and we remind ourselves what it means to be human. And we come back, and we’re stronger and better for going, when we go into the woods.
When you go into the woods, go prepared—keep your canvas waxed, and your friends close by, and a positive spirit in your heart. And if all else fails, take a moment to yell and scream, release your frustrations, and take a breath, before you turn back toward the task at hand. You will succeed, and you will be well-rewarded.
Written by Madeline J.