Canoes and contemplation: Book collects essays about beloved BWCA

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 6, 2013 - 6:20 PM

Boundary Waters Canoe Area. MNHISTLAKES ORG XMIT: MIN2013020713332123

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • Star Tribune file,

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Just as you never step in the same river twice, you never return to the same Boundary Waters.

Oh, it’s still the BWCA, more than a thousand lakes on the border of Minnesota and Canada, lashed one to another by rivers, ridges and rocks.

The fish still bite. So do the bugs. That primo campsite on Crooked Lake … or Winchell … or Little Sag still beckons.

But every trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has its own moments, no matter how many times you’ve dipped your paddle. Now several dozen of those experiences have been collected in a new book, “The BWCA Reader.”

“Talk to anyone who goes up there and they have one or two just-ripe stories they love to tell,” said Barry Johnson, an Apple Valley man who began putting out the word that he was seeking essays. After a quarter-century of making his own trips, he knew there were stories to tell. Almost 500 people responded.

Themes emerged: reminiscences of the area before its federal designation, fish stories, misadventures and mishaps, animal encounters and a sort of “wilderness therapy” that people experience when they remove themselves from phones and faucets.

Johnson, a communications director at Best Buy, noted that physical therapy also comes in varying degrees, himself nursing a broken bone in his foot after an errant step on a recent canoe trip. “I think it’s easy, if you’ve been going up there for a long time, to forget you are in a wilderness and four, five, six hours away from help,” he said. “Thank goodness I could limp out.”

Some of the stories tell of similar brushes with isolation: the husband supporting a fallen tree on his back until his wife could crawl from their tent, or the couple who failed to pull their canoe far enough up on shore, leading to a morning’s stunned realization.

Several tell of first trips. One, of a last.

“I like to say the book is not fine literature, but folk literature,” Johnson said. He’s right; there are no Sigurd Olsons here. But these are true stories, honestly told.

Most seek to put into words the transformative experience that the Boundary Waters can offer. The breakthrough often takes its time, and may never arrive. But a pattern emerges: Someone completes a rough portage feeling barely winded, or discovers the peculiarly satisfying sleep of exhaustion, or realizes that they have a skill they never imagined — which may be as simple as helpfulness.

The essay that Johnson chose as the overall best was in this vein, a recounting by Lee Vue of St. Paul, now 23, of her first trip to the BWCA with a group from YMCA Camp Menogyn. At 13, she’d felt caught between the traditions of her Hmong heritage and “the modern expectation of the American Dream.”

Portaging canoes and packs from one lake to another “was preposterous and hard labor,” she wrote. “It was insufferable, the ordeal of constantly wet feet in order to endure another day in the great outdoors.”

By trip’s end, Vue had discovered an untapped courage and tenacity within herself. (An excerpt from her essay accompanies this story.) Today, Johnson said, she is “both sweet and assertive.” Chalk up another grudging breakthrough for aluminum canoes.

Johnson would like to publish a second volume, but is waiting to see how this book does, having published it himself. “I like to say it’s light enough for a Duluth pack and heavy enough for a Christmas stocking,” he said, shamelessly. The book is $11.99 through, and also is at the Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely, Minn., Lake Superior Trading Post in Grand Marais, Minn., and Micawber’s Books, St. Paul.


Excerpt from Lee Vue’s essay, “In Those Moments.”

“It was on the very last day that we took the risk of allowing one person to carry the canoe. I was the first person to volunteer. Yes, volunteer. Why? I’m not sure why I took the initiative. I’m not one to step up; my comfort level is more about moving myself to the back and observing. Something inside urged me to raise my hand. The tension was building, rising from the tingles of my feet to my fingertips. I felt as though I was being electrocuted as my hand shot up into the air with a need to be THE ONE to carry the canoe. As we propped the canoe onto my shoulder, I was so afraid that I would falter, afraid the canoe would get damaged. But a small voice inside me chanted over and over, ‘You can do it!’

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