Ely — For fun and stories this summer, I shuttled backcountry paddlers to wilderness entry points for the Ely Outfitting Company. The job could not have been more enjoyable. Thinking back, I’m reminded why the wilderness is so good for people.
To begin with, nobody was a grouch. Everyone headed on a wilderness adventure was giddy with anticipation. But there was more.
Put me in, Coach
Age means nothing to an adventurous spirit. The numbers of seniors who piled into the outfitter vans, fishing gear in hand, adult children in tow, spoke to that. Others were in the wilderness starting chute, like one little girl who defined first-timer moxie.
She was an effervescent 7-year-old and game for any suggestion. This included attempting to portage a Duluth pack that was nearly as tall as she was, and twice as wide. She backed into its shoulder harness, stood with what little height she had, and when that pack came off the ground it promptly pulled her over backward. She bounced onto it like a beanbag chair, giggling and flailing arms and legs that barely reached the sides.
“Oh. My. God.”
There are scenic locations on various shuttle routes that unfailingly take the breath away. In those spots, I purposefully drove slower.
An exuberant group of young urban women graced the shuttle van for both drop-off and return transport. Their rapid-fire banter swirled across four rows of seats as we drove. Listening in was a conversation rodeo — pick one and stay with it. While I didn’t catch every word, I sensed the group was an exceptional mix of attorneys and other professionals. They were tech-savvy and well-versed in metro culture.
We eased down a steep gravel road and rounded a horseshoe bend in a bowl-shaped landscape. At first, the tree line blocked a view of the lake at the bottom. But when we climbed the opposite side, the curtain of trees pulled back. It revealed a sheer cliff tight against the road on the left. Just feet outside the passenger windows to the right, the cliff fell sharply to the lake and we threaded our way between the two.
A cloak of morning mist hovered over the lake’s mirror surface. The scene was like a motionless apparition not wanting to attract attention. But it did. “Oh. My. God,” the passengers breathed. The sight transformed that clipped, ubiquitous phrase into a deep whisper, gobsmacked with wonder.
These same women also dealt with a freak act of nature that baffled even seasoned wilderness guides.
One of the women cut her foot on a rock and submerged it in the water for relief. Moments later, a set of teeth from somewhere beneath the surface clamped onto her cut foot. The biter released before anyone saw it, leaving bloody marks stamped into her skin.
As a team, these city women tended to a wilderness challenge. Neosporin and bandages for their friend, and a photo of the wound to help ID the culprit. Back at the shop, the lot of us considered possible suspects. Snapping turtle? Otter? Beaver? We never reached consensus. My money was on a northern. Regardless, the group’s camaraderie and thoughtfulness fostered my education.
Wilderness is a catalyst for human decency. It’s an equal-opportunity host and everyone is invited. Folks from across the United States, Mexico, South America and Europe have ridden in the outfitter vans.
I drove for a Bosnian family whose mother and father came to America several years ago to escape war. They described the dangers between warring factions. But they also shared stories of Bosnia’s grand mountain regions. Now, as U.S. citizens, they had concerns about returning to Bosnia. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness gave them a natural world to treasure, reminiscent of their homeland.
Once during a week of storms, I picked up a Sri Lankan family in the rain. The father twice asked if he could help tie down the canoes. I declined his offer and he got in the van. But he knew I was in for a drenching as I scurried to knot wet rope. He opened the door again and got out with a smile. “It’s not our way not to help,” he said.
My first memory of shuttle-driving also was the most recurrent. It started when I took a group down a remote, pothole-infested road no wider than a driveway. After unloading the trailer and inquiring about final questions, I pulled away.
I watched the people in the shuttle’s side mirror preparing their gear. I wondered what they’d experience upon entering utter solitude. Every morsel of their existence was in that small cluster of packs, canoes and each other.
I got into the habit of taking that final glimpse whenever I left canoers. As the van jockeyed around a bend, I’d silently wish for safety and stories. Then the brush in the mirror would close between us. And they were alone.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at email@example.com.