The fullness and emptiness of wilderness

We paddled the length of Clark Lake under a clear blue sky, aided by a trailing breeze.

Three of us in two canoes; a tandem and a solo, all riding steady under a full load of camp gear. There were no other boats on the water. Paddles rose and fell in a metronomic cadence. The red canoes rode steady on the gentle swells.

We were in the Sylvania Wilderness Area, 18,000-plus acres on the north side of the Wisconsin-Michigan border 60 miles from home. It felt as if we were a lot farther away.

We paddled to the far end of Clark, portaged canoes and gear a third of a mile to Crooked Lake, reloaded the canoes and pushed off. Eagles and osprey soared; loons chased across the water. In the distance one canoe crossed against the far shore and then was gone.

Lakes have personalities; to meet one for the first time is to initially be tentative, take it all in slowly. Crooked Lake was true to its name, a meandering lake that seemed larger than its nearly 600 acres. Portions of Crooked paddled more like a river than a lake, narrowing down, turning the corner, each new bend opening up a new horizon, a new vista. It was enthralling.

“There was solitude and there was time for reflection and there was the ease into sweet relaxation.”

At the far northwest corner of the lake is the portage trail to High Lake. We landed, portaged.
Then across High Lake (90 feet deep at its deepest), Kerr Lake (a pothole, merely 8 acres) and finally to West Bear Lake. Four portages from the start and at each one the mosquitoes seemed worse than the others. There was only one camp site on West Bear; we had it reserved.

If lakes have personalities, so do campsites. The site named Coyote on West Bear Lake was centered on a point under the high arches of maple and pine. We viewed it first glance with some trepidation: Would the heavy forest hold mosquitoes? We unloaded the canoes. Sally and Kerry set tents and a mosquito net; I went for firewood. We unpacked cooking gear, unrolled sleeping pads and bags, set up small camp chairs.

A thin breeze blew across the point and helped keep the mosquitoes at bay.

I started a campfire and when the bigger pieces of wood burned down we cooked tenderloin steaks over the coals. Shadows grew longer; sun reached the horizon. Then dusk and darkness and the coals glowed red and the dark of night surround us like a blanket. Overhead, the first stars. We walked to the far end of the point and looked out at the western sky and the myriad of stars. The Big Dipper held its ground to the north. A falling star blazed then burned out.

Back at the campsite; marshmallows over the embers; loon call in the dark. Then silence. We may as well have been at the end of the earth.

By daybreak our lives had slowed down. We had coffee, bacon and eggs, watched the sun dapple the tops of the trees then rise higher and bring light and heat. Sally and Kerry took the canoe and fished the far shore. I wandered with the camera, found a profusion of whitish, ghostly Indian pipe plants, the odd plant that lacks chlorophyll. They stood pale in the rich forest floor. I lay prone on the ground in dry leaf and pine needles with camera; the plants stand only 3 or 4 inches tall, one has to get to their level.

We did very little. Visions of taking the canoes to nearby lakes dissipated as morning fog burned off; it sounded like too much work. The world slowed. The world narrowed; all that remained was the lake and the sky and the woods. There was no more. All else faded away. There was the sound of the wind in the trees. There was the occasional bird song. There was nothing else.
And in that absence was everything.

If wilderness is a fullness, it is also an emptiness. Empty of human noise and bustle. Empty of phones and computers, too often the twin banes of modern life. Empty of stress and pressure and all that we accept as normal until it is gone. On West Bear Lake on a July afternoon the decisions are simple; fish or not fish, hike or not, lie in the hammock and feel the summer breeze.

There was solitude and there was time for reflection and there was the ease into sweet relaxation. In the two days we camped on the lake we did not see another individual. Nor did we feel poorer for that. For those two days the world as we knew it was campfire and tent; lake and canoe; woods and water and sky. All this. Nothing more. And nothing more needed.

On the afternoon of the second day I found a downed cedar tree a mile from camp, cut it to lengths, hauled it to the lake shore, paddled the canoe over and brought it to camp. I sawed it into short bolts, split a few of them; sweet, tangy scent of cedar in the air. In the time of sundown I started a fire, added the cedar, took in the smell of the cedar in the night air. The fire burned bright and hot and fast.

We sat next to the fire in the early darkness. There was no need to talk. Loon called. Nothing more.
Next morning we broke camp, loaded canoes and paddled out; one portage, another. Sun brought heat and on the High Lake landing Sally said, “Let’s swim” and the three of us swam in the cool waters under the July sun. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that can refresh one as well as a swim in cool water.

Another portage, another hour under paddle. Then the boat landing. Canoes ran up on sand; stilled. The trip was over.

We loaded the truck, headed for blacktop.