Douglas Wood’s lifelong yearning for the outdoors began with a lake. Make that two lakes. He fished during laid-back outings on Little Lake — a glorified pond near grandparents in Alton, Ill. — before making his first trip to northern Minnesota’s Lake Kabetogama. Generations of his family made trips to the sprawling, wild lake on the Canadian border since the 1930s, speaking of it “with reverence and awe.”
“I look back to see my granddad at the motor,” Wood writes in his new memoir, “Deep Woods, Wild Waters,” released this week. “He is wearing his customary khaki pants and shirt, his old fedora jammed onto his head, a toothpick in his mouth. He is smiling. I am grinning so hard that my face hurts. A Johnson Seahorse, five horsepower motor cannot push a sixteen-foot resort boat very fast, but in my mind’s eye, we are flying, my granddad and I, on a blue lake under a blue sky in a world of endless beauty.”
That trip fueled his imagination, stoked his passion for the outdoors and drew him like a magnet to the north.
“I fell instantly in love,” he said. “And when I had the chance to move to Minnesota [from his childhood home in Sioux City, Iowa], I did.”
Paddling trips inspire stories
The son of college music professors and himself originally a school music teacher, Wood found a better fit when he left a traditional career and wove together playing music and writing songs, guiding wilderness trips from the Boundary Waters to remote Canadian territories, educating kids, and writing 35 books, including “Old Turtle,” which became an international picture book classic.
He has a third “Old Turtle” book, “Old Turtle and Questions of the Heart,” that came out last month and tackles deep thoughts for a picture book, but the memoir satisfies him on a much more personal level as a lifetime of heading into the woods, into a canoe, and soaking up nature near or far inspired the more than three dozen chapters.
“I may be happier with this book than others I’ve written,” said Wood, 65. “It has more depth.”
Wilderness experiences steer chapters on topics such as slogging through marshes (or those tough stretches of life), the ancestral allure of a campfire, embracing sacred places, and the art of letting go in order to achieve a quest, from landing a storied fish or spotting a moose. He addresses the importance of being still and being fully in the moment — something that often takes several days as people on paddling trips shake off their daily routine and at-home responsibilities and fully tune in to the wilderness around them.
Some chapters hit lighter topics: making campfire coffee and telling stories with extra flair, losing battles to pinecone-bombing red squirrels, and embracing simple joys such as throwing sticks into a river with a grandchild.
Writing a memoir gave him a chance to pay homage to early mentors, including environmentalist and writer Sigurd Olson, who sent him a letter of encouragement when he was 25 and became like another grandfather to Wood. Wood’s first big guiding trip retraced Olson’s 520-mile 21-day journey from his book “The Lonely Land.”
Olson’s portrait hangs in Wood’s home office in a 1930s log cabin perched on Pine Point, which juts into the Mississippi River north of St. Cloud. Nature guides, psychology and philosophy books, trophy fish, concert posters, book awards, his sketches of family and scenery, souvenir rocks, and more provide inspiration on the days he isn’t seeking his muse in Minnesota’s outdoors. On many afternoons he enjoys working with the sound of piano lessons by his wife, Kathy, while his own gift for music flows into the rhythm of his words.
“My musical ear is part of my writing,” he said. “I grew up surrounded by music.”
Wood frequently talks with school classrooms as a visiting author — something that keeps him connected to children and sparks ideas such as his original “Old Turtle” book 25 years ago. He makes sure to inspire the kids, too — especially the ones who struggle to stay still and focused like he did at their age. He didn’t realize until he hit his 50s that he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.
“I was the worst reader in my class,” he tells them. That didn’t stop him from selling 2.5 million copies of his almost three dozen book titles, with more in the works. “Now they don’t give up so fast,” he said of his young audiences. “That’s the coolest thing.”
For Wood, the outdoors was his refuge from doing poorly and feeling judged at school, and it became his best education. While he shares whimsical and thoughtful stories in his picture book, this new memoir distills the best of those lessons, some passed down from grandfathers and now passed to his children and grandchildren.
In the summers, they join him and Kathy at their rustic 1925 cabin built on remote Fawn Island.
“The little island rests in the middle of a great, blue lake — Rainy Lake — just one portage north of Kabetogama, a part of the old Voyageur’s Highway, a path to the back of beyond,” he writes. “It is a path of adventure and discovery, a path I’ve loved all my life, a path of deep woods and wild waters.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a St. Cloud-based writer. Reach her at 10000likes.com.