When you were young did you ever think your dad had gone crazy? I did and in fact I knew he’d gone crazy. Crazier than the 20 or so loons we’d seen on this trip put together.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota
is 1.1 million miles of pristine soul recovering wilderness untainted by the mark of human machinery. A large part of who I am today was forged up in those woods. In the BWCA
you can go days without seeing another human. Well, those days may be gone but in the late 70’s and early 80’s we’d experienced it on more than one occasion. I didn’t realize it at the time but on this particular trip my life would be changed forever.
Good ol’ Daddy O had kept us in the woods for an extra day and had to be to work the following morning. It was four lakes, three portages and one long ass drive back down to the cities ahead of us. We were looking at about midnight that night to be home and it wasn’t even six in the morning. When you’re 14 years old that shapes up to be a long day.
Fast forward to the early afternoon.
We had just come out of the little river connecting two of the lakes and were greeted by gale force winds and whitecaps on this particular lake. Not a monster lake but it was a good sized lake. We had planned on maybe a half hour of paddling to the portage up the creek on the other side. Instead we were facing shore lunch to wait out the wind. Other canoeists were already lined up on shore to the left of the little river not daring to venture out. There must have been five or six canoes there indicating the wind had been blowing for awhile.
Here is where everything went south and I realized my dad was stone cold crazy. “Boys, I’ve got to get to work. I can’t miss any more.” I suddenly had to puke. “You up to it?” he asked. “Are we up to it???” I thought to myself. “He’s joking. Yeah, he’s freaking joking.” I always sat in the front and turned to look at him. I saw the stoic, “I ain’t BS’ing” look he gets when nothing is more important than the decision he is making at that moment in time. “Was that a flash of Cuckoo I just saw?” I thought as I turned around to face my death.
This was the first of a few times where I truly knew that I was going to die.
Seriously, I did not believe we could paddle through those whitewater waves and live to tell about it. I knew all those guys on shore weren’t going to come save us. We’d caught their interest as we hung in the protection from the wind in the mouth of the river. I could only imagine the conversations over there safe and secure on the shore. I bet stupid and crazy were adjectives used a lot at that moment in time.
“Alright dad, let’s get it over with.” I said resigned to my fate. My poor little brother in the middle was silent. I wanted to cry and man oh man was I ticked. Above all I was scared. I almost drowned at five years old and I remember it clearly, looking up at the sunlight above the water out of reach and wondering why I couldn’t breathe. Yes, this madness of paddling through waves that would capsize us in no time had me scared.
. Put your head down and paddle because your life and your brother’s life depend on it. We started out across the lake and as we pulled away from the shelter of the river mouth the wind and waves hit us like a locomotive with no brakes. My frequent use of the F word was also born on this day I believe because it was certainly burned into the synapses as much I said it in my head.
The waves started pounding us and the crowd on shore all stood up to watch. That’s what killed me about this fiasco. Those people were smart enough NOT TO PADDLE IN THIS SHIT!!!! When I saw them watching us, I knew, I just knew….
It was the longest terror filled hour and a half of my life.
Wave after wave after wave and the cold wind and spray. Canoes can handle rough water. We’d drilled many years before on what it takes to tip one but this was sheer madness. I spent that time with my head down paddling. When my muscles started to complain from the energy it took to make any headway in the wind and waves, I shut it off. I literally turned it off in my mind and ignored it. I thought of Mr. Best in wrestling practice pushing us and pushing us to squeeze that little extra bit out of ourselves. I just paddled.
Not a word was spoken once we hit the full force of the lake. Not one word. We all knew what had to be done and the consequences of not doing it. We all just paddled. About ¾ of the way across we started to get some relief. The woods were closer and providing a little break and I felt a glimmer of hope that we were not going to capsize and drown.
About 150 – 200 yards from the other side we got some relief. Only then could I allow myself to feel my arms and shoulder burn. I turned to look at my brother and saw the relief in his eyes. Dad? He smiled. He knew what a messed up decision it was and I’m sure was relieved as we were. “We made it boys! Wow!” I wasn’t ready for Wow yet. I was still coming out of the black hole I’d hidden in within myself. The sunlight was still out of reach.
We got to shore, rested for oh about ten minutes and with an “I’ve have GOT to get to work tomorrow, let’s go.” We were off. We made it home about 1AM that night and I’ve never been on a BWCA trip with my dad since. Not because of that though, it’s just the way life worked out.
When life’s event have you at the end of your rope.
Put your head down and paddle for all your worth. I learned a lot about myself that day. To this day I can turn off feeling all but the most intense pain when I need too. I can do what it takes to survive. I can stuff fear, bottle the rage and use it for motivation versus letting it get the best of me. You can too. I use that day as fuel when life’s cyclical nature throws the curve a little low. You can too. Just paddle.
You know what you have to do and you know you can do it.
Do it. Just paddle. I learned that miserable situations can be handled better with acceptance. Here I am, yes it sucks. Boy howdy does it suck but there isn’t a thing I can do to change it. If I’d of lost my cool or given up well who knows what the outcome of that day would have been. The key is to figure out what you need to do to get through this temporary misery. I say temporary because as I stated, life is cyclical. When things are going good, hang on it’s about to get worse. When things are going bad, hang on because it will get better. The key is to keep the highs riding high longer and to make those low cycles not fall so low or for too long.
Like I'm doing right now, put your head down and just paddle. We'll make it.