In Search of the Beaver Within

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

In Search of the Beaver Within

Plunging through the nation's most civilized wilderness, even the staunchest of urbanites can J-stroke back to the Pleistocene
By Philip Weiss

My life as an outdoorsman began when my wife bought an 80-pound concrete planter and I bent to lift it out of our hatchback. A sniper perched on the building opposite my apartment house felled me. At least that's what it felt like. I'd thrown my back out. I spent the next five days crawling around the floor, calling everyone I knew trying to figure out how to get my body back. My wife's first husband said I should get more active. That was the worst part, knowing I'd become a yuppie clich‹.

After a few months of rehabing my back, I got the choice everyone who's chained to a desk gets, and I called my friend Tony in St. Paul. I'd lived there, just hours from the finest flatwater paddling grounds on the continent, for years, but dismissed them in the same way New Yorkers dismiss the Metropolitan Museum: I can always go there. But certainly I'd heard the Boundary Waters lore. A girlfriend who'd gone there came back talking about a spiritual place drained of human activity. The moose were black and dangerous; the bears were built like men, grunted like men, and died like men. Blackflies loved finding the chinks between your sweater and your neck. There were old trappers' cabins in the woods with five-foot-long crosscut saw blades fixed to the windows so that bears wouldn't crawl in.

Tony and I made a date, and I flew out. It was September; we were making the classic trade-off: no bugs, but no swimming either. We drove up from the Twin Cities and stopped for dinner overlooking Lake Superior in Duluth, and then got on probably the most inspiring road in the history of rock--Highway 61--to Two Harbors, and thence to Ely.

A moose stumbled out of the trees near the road in the fog, and Tony said it was rutting season. The landscape felt blank and dismal; the hotel we found was more of a barracks.
The next morning, fearing the worst of my first real wilderness experience, I got down on the thin white hotel carpet and prayed. No, actually I exercised, because I couldn't get it out of my head that I would throw my back out when I tried to lift the canoe, and Tony would have to paddle back with me stretched out in the bottom.

Ely is a small town with a main street of outfitters and shops. It was raining when we headed out to provision. We bought Map No. 113, and at a shoe store I found $14 rubber calf-high boots. The liquor stores in Ely sell what looks to be every kind of hard liquor in plastic bottles. We packed bourbon and then stopped at the visitor center to watch the video on bears. I studied our map. It looked like a bad skin disease, hundreds and hundreds of blue splotches breaking up the land.

We drove north. The landscape grew blanker, and then came the signs that say, "If you carry it in, carry it out." We were about to cross the imaginary line marked on our map in heavy red cross-hatching: wilderness.

A few minutes later we were at Lake 1. We rented a metal canoe with plenty of dents and some questionable rivets, and I tried lifting it just a little on the landing, comparing it to the concrete planter. About even. Tony threw our Duluth packs down inside it and pushed off. Banks of hoary black and green-stained rocks slid by. The pines crowded the horizon to eternity, and here and there you could see a tall white pine. We slid through black water. I put my hand down in it, and my skin was white with a green-black cast.
I had the feeling that all overstimulated city dwellers seem to get when faced with nature's stillness. Is this it? Is this all? My first wilderness, and I didn't get it yet.

At the first portage, Tony offered to take the boat, but I needed to know then whether my back would make it. I threw myself down on the trail and stretched again, with the roots and rocks scratching my legs and head. Then I hoisted the canoe. The back held. I ran up the trail through the woods with the boat jouncing against my neck, happy as I have ever been.

Tony was the navigator. His goal was to get us far enough away that we wouldn't run into other people, but not so far that we'd have to push ourselves. We wanted peace, not a race--but then, that's not hard to pull off in the Boundary Waters: It's so vast and accessible, you can find seclusion not even 15 miles from the most popular put-ins.

We stayed for a couple days on North Wilder Lake. I practiced feathering my paddle as we approached a loon on the still water. I lay on granite, studying the deep scratches left by the glaciers. We walked trails that the Indians and French trappers had surely cut hundreds of years ago, leading over hogbacks to isolated lakes that were nameless on the map.

At dusk I plunged headlong through the thick Norway pines looking for firewood. I knew I risked being impaled by a branch, but I felt only the deep, watchful comfort of thick woods and thought their spirit would protect me. Then, too, the Boundary Waters is pretty forgiving as roadless wilderness goes--perhaps the best place in America for curious urbanites to spread their backcountry wings. The waters are calm, and in summer or fall it would be hard to die of hypothermia even if you wanted to, even if you'd had too much to drink. There are lots of campsites on every lake, and minutes after you put up your tent, the red chipmunk that makes its living at that campsite appears and begins doing a series of Disneyesque antics like going into your pack or boots, antics that soon grow wearying. The second night I heard a bear snuffling its ten-gauge nostrils right next to my ear just outside the tent, and I sat up in fright. But if you really want to worry about bears, you should be elsewhere.

Still, we were in deep nature, and as it always does in such situations, your animal self claws its way to the surface. To shit outdoors is a great thing, to scratch yourself on a tree, too, to hear the sharp crack of the beaver's tail on the water and feel kinship with all creatures. You also key in to other drives that aren't so pleasant. Tony did not have as big an appetite as I did, and he had gotten the food, but I wanted more of it. I didn't want to limit myself to just one granola bar at lunch. I remember resenting him one night with a primal resentment: Why hadn't he thought to bring more noodles?

Of course we were supposed to eat the noodles as a side to the fish. But neither of us was getting fish. We fished constantly and caught nothing.

One day while Tony was casting from a rust-red rock, I read aloud a page from The Fox, where D. H. Lawrence states that the soul of the hunter has to go out and meet the soul of the hunted and enrapture that soul, and then the hunting can all follow from that. I told Tony he should apply that lesson to the fish. That didn't work either.

The next day we fished a shadowy corner of Horseshoe Lake--where the fish were surely hiding--and found a beaver dam. It was more of a city than a dam, spreading out in all directions and pretty far into the lake, too, like the Battery in lower Manhattan. Mounded, spongy, and monumental--you didn't know where the rest of nature stopped and the beaver began. My whole spirit identified with the untiring beaver. Not because it was a capitalist, no, but because the beaver didn't stop to think about what it was doing the way I always did. It just did its thing. Emerson said, "Do your work and I shall know you." It seemed I knew the beaver better than I knew myself.

On the fifth day we paddled out. We stopped at one last prime fishing hole and saw bald eagles high above. Later, a guy at the long portage at the west end of Lake 2 told us he'd been getting walleyes in the streams. I wanted to kill him. Tony and I were both so stricken by that news that when we turned around our canoe was floating out into the lake. I didn't have to think; I jumped into it. I was feeling ecstatic in a private way. I'd come to realize that the only thing I'd ever really cared about was writing, and I was in the wrong job. It was a lot easier for me to recognize this without any civilized distractions, with the rain pelting us, with a bear traipsing around outside the tent. I felt like I'd gotten back to some of my original beaver-wiring.

It was Friday afternoon, and the weekenders were starting to flood in, carrying huge red coolers. I was grateful to see the human hand on the land again, for a few minutes anyway. On the way back to Ely we passed a house I don't think I'll ever forget, where instead of a fence a man had dragged boulders into the yard and set them out at four- or six-foot intervals, a kind of Pleistocene boundary. Independence and creativity don't inhabit cities, I concluded; they flourish in solitude.

We landed at a breakfast joint that had all-you-can-eat pancakes for $5.95. The price point was such that you had to eat 12 to make it any sort of value over ordering sets of three, and I barely made it. But I was suddenly infatuated with money. Money had been so valueless a few minutes before, and now it was suddenly valuable again, yet it felt like such an artificial commodity. You could throw it around for anything, and I did. I bought junk food all the way back to the Twin Cities.

I don't care about money anymore, I told my wife when I got back. A beaver just wants to be a beaver, that's all it wants to be. Do you think an otter's heart dwells in a beaver? No, it's only going to be happy being a beaver, and damned if I'm not going to be the beaver I was meant to be.

Philip Weiss is the author of Cock-A-Doodle-Doo, recently released in paperback by St. Martin's Press.

See Also:
Access and Resources: Into the Flat Blue Yonder

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