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“At that point in my life, I didn’t have much belief in my own abilities, especially in a world where you’re constantly compared to others and your worth is measured by your merits. I had no merits. I had no unique skill. I was simply ‘just myself,’ an extremely quiet Hmong girl who accepted her place in society. Oddly enough, the first step became two, three, a dozen and then hundreds. When I reached the end of the portage and the canoe was safely in the water, I had never felt so proud of myself. My spirit soared with adrenaline and satisfaction. I did it!”
Roxanne Chmielewski’s short essay, “One Less Duck,” illustrates the once-in-a-lifetime glimpses into nature that can come by having nothing more pressing to do than sit.
“My BWCA trips leave me with a wonderful memory of beauty, peace, the wonder of nature, an appreciation of hard physical work, and the joy of friendship. Also, an enduring love of the flora and fauna of the North Woods. I’ve viewed creatures that are difficult to see when motors and noise are involved.
“One stark memory is sitting on a rock on an island in Lake Saganaga at dusk. I casually watch as a duck and her half-grown ducklings swim just offshore. Next, I see a huge dark shadow coming up under the ducks, and a duckling simply disappears with a swoosh. A good meal for a monster fish, but one less duck. I recall that the attack was so swift and nearly silent that the other ducks did not seem to notice or be fearful.”
“Iron Mike” Hillman, an author in Ely, writes of his father’s last trip into the BWCA, after staying away for years because it had, in his eyes, become too popular.
“That next spring, Dad and I took our final trip to No Man’s Lake. The trees of our old camp had filled back in, and we fell asleep at night listening to the sound of the river heading north. It was like being home again, and was a wonderful trip. Everyone caught fish, except Dad, but he didn’t seem to care; he was past that point in his life. The thing that pleased him the most was the entire trip all we saw of humanity were two canoes that passed through our near-perfect wilderness, like a mirage, and were gone.
“Dad was standing at the end of the portage when I came up to him and asked him if he was coming, or if he planned to go home with someone else. ‘I want to thank you for bringing me back here,’ he said. ‘This is the last time I’m ever going to see this lake and I wanted to thank you for the gift.’ ‘Don’t be going mushy on me,’ I said. ‘No,’ he answered. ‘It’s just that I’m no damned good anymore, got no sense of balance, can’t carry a pack anymore, it’s time for me to call it quits. This is a place for young people and not for old farts like me. But I want to thank you for giving me back something I’d lost. This is the way it was before, and this is the way it always should be, and now, thanks to this trip, it’s the way I will always remember it.’
“Then he turned back to the lake. I picked up the last pack and headed toward Sheridan Lake and the way back home. Whenever I think of my father, he is standing at the end of that portage, looking east into the rising sun of a new morning, shining down on the place he loved the best.”
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185