Among the trees, beneath the stars: My first Boundary Waters experience

It’s 11:30 p.m. on the night of Thursday, October 5, as the checkout scanner at Walmart rings up a $15 shin-high pair of black rain boots. In just seven hours, I’d be on a trailer-hitched school bus headed toward Tofte, Minn. with my Outdoor Skills I class.

A vast majority of my camping experiences happened 50 feet away from the back door of my house. I had never been to the Boundary Waters before.

Fogged windows blurred the shades of rose and amber attempting to crack the horizon.

Starry-eyed and half asleep, I hobbled off the bus like it was the first day of school; I was somewhere new with dozens of soon-to-be friends.

First came a quick gathering of our groups, followed by instructional demo of carrying the canoe, collecting a map and compass, and off we went.

Wading in water a foot deep, we cast off from shore. Our first lake: Sawbill.

 We eagerly waited as other groups cast off from the shore of Sawbill.

We eagerly waited as other groups cast off from the shore of Sawbill.

The scenery matched that of a Bob Ross painting. Icould hear him whisper “happy clouds” despite there not being a cloud in the sky.

After the first portage, we made it to the second lake and home to our first campsite: Alton.

 Why would we ever want to pull ashore with views like this?

Why would we ever want to pull ashore with views like this?

Between trees, bushes and shrubs, we pitched our tents in a spot that would play home for the next 24 hours.

The tone-deaf chorus of our stomachs meant only one thing: lunch time. Tortillas, meat and cheese would subside us till dinner.

A rickety cruise around the lake, a much-needed nap, and a half-dozen or so games would steal the next several hours of my life.

Before I knew it, the smell of cedar sprigs was overpowered by a mixture of red, green, and yellow peppers in your grandparents’ style tin pot. Onions, canned chicken and a bit of seasoning would round out a successful first, and only, attempt at stir-fry.

Bellies full, the fire became a gathering spot for stories. A reading from Sigurd F. Olson lulled us into our respective sleeping arrangements.

Roots, rocks and dirt would replace my regular mattress, pillows and sheets.

The thumping from grouse acted as an alarm the following morning.

Instant oatmeal with chocolate chips brought me back to the days of zero responsibilities or stress. A swift cleanup of our site, and it was time to move on to new grounds.  

With the sun rising higher by the minute, three zig-zagging canoes paddled two more lakes before staking claims on our final destination for the weekend. We made it to Grace Lake.

 We watched a muskrat swim back-and-forth from a small island just off the shore.

We watched a muskrat swim back-and-forth from a small island just off the shore.

Exhausted, we hit shore. While unloading our gear, we stumbled upon the unofficial mascot for the group: a skull.

 We believe that it is a moose skull, but no one was able to confirm. 

We believe that it is a moose skull, but no one was able to confirm. 

Tortillas had never played such a role in my diet until I found myself for the second afternoon in a row scarfing down another meat and cheese concoction wrapped in floury goodness – with roasted red pepper hummus for a touch of camping fanciness.

Stuffed, our leaders sent us out into the wilderness for ‘solo time’; a time when we gather our thoughts and think about the importance of this trip. I found a spot on a the edge of a rock looking outward at the lake.

When I first sat down, my mind raced with thoughts of school, work, finances, friends, and my family. I instantaneously became overwhelmed and began to tear up.

Small creeks along the shore put me into a hypnotic state as the waters babbled to compliment the sound of the soothing winds.

And just like that, our time was up. We found our way back to the campsite to circle the fire pit.

Like a carousel, we recapped our experiences. Allowing ourselves to speak freely, I grasped onto a feeling I had yet to have during the trip: relaxed.

In a state of tranquility, time became an illusion. Hours passed without notice as chatter by the fireside picked up. Stories were told without making a sound.

Color began to fade as night took over.

Captivated, we stared into emptiness; everyone awh-struck with what we were seeing, and with what we weren’t.

Knowing we had a four-hour trek ahead of us tomorrow, we carelessly talked each other’s ears off until 2 a.m. A mere five hours later, we would all be gazing out at what would be one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen: a Boundary Waters sunrise.

 We watched the treeline for hours as both the moon and sun produced colors I had never seen before. 

We watched the treeline for hours as both the moon and sun produced colors I had never seen before. 

It was at that moment that I felt a connection with my surroundings.

To meet deadline for the bus home, we had to get moving. Covering the trails and water we’d just portaged and canoed through, we resisted every step in order to extend our time there.

We did our best to keep ourselves entertained while exuding all the strength we had remaining into the strokes of our paddles.

As we trekked our sixth and final portage, it dawned on me that 56 hours had passed since we departed on our endeavors.

I wanted to stay. I wanted to turn around and sprint back into the seemingly never ending forests. But I couldn’t.

Just like that, my first trip to the Boundary Waters was behind me.