We did not sing this morning, but simply let the silence engulf us as we paddled. Side by side our three canoes glided across the smooth surface of the lake. I listened to my breath going in and out, the rhythmic sound of the paddles as they sliced the water. I cast my gaze around me, watching the world pass me by with a slow, easy sigh, the way it had done for thousands of years.
Everything here was composed of simplicity. Straight lines formed a rhythmic flow: the line of the canoe cutting across the still water, toward the horizon line. The trees pointing skywards, the clouds in rows, the line of the paddle as it broke the surface of the water. There was nothing elaborate, nothing to draw our attention away from the simplicity. Lines dominated in this vast wilderness, creating a feeling of stability, eternity, serenity.
Such was the essence of the North Woods.
“How many portages does this make?”
I waded through waist-deep water, lugging my canoe behind me to drag it ashore.
“This is the fourth one today,” Jessica replied to the anonymous question.
“Good lord, it’s not even eight in the morning!” Emily said. “I curse whoever invented portages.”
“God?” Paula suggested.
“Actually, icebergs are mostly responsible for carving the lakes in this area,” Jessica said. “That was nearly 12,000 years ago, and since then, the North Woods have been inhabited by various Native American tribes such as the Chippewah, Cree and Dakota people.”
“This place still ices over in the winter, though, doesn’t it?” Paula asked.
Jessica agreed. “The lakes freeze over so thick that you can take dog sleds over them, or walk to the center to chip through feet of ice in order to go fishing.”
I couldn’t believe that lakes this deep and alive could be frozen solid half the year, every living thing encased in winter, sleeping until spring. What a place this must be shrouded in ice and snow, and such a different world than the one I was seeing, here on our hot August afternoon.
“After the Native Americans were here,” Jessica continued, “the land was taken over by French Voyageurs. They used their thirty foot canoes and the portages between lakes as transportation on their trapping expeditions, looking for mink and beaver.”
“Ah-ha!” Emily cried. “So they’re French portages. I should have known.”
On this particular portage I volunteered to carry the heaviest canoe, and soon I remembered how much I disliked the beast. I pressed heavily forward with the canoe balanced on my shoulders, watching as the others trooped ahead of me with their own packs. I clung tightly to the edge of the gunnels, trying to balance the canoe’s weight into a comfortable position, but comfortable was a word that didn’t enter my vocabulary today. The canoe swung abruptly forward and I had to slow down to adjust my center of balance once again. The portage was slow going. My shoulders ached. My mouth was dry. The cushions on the thwarts of the canoe did little to ease the pain of sixty-five pounds. I could feel the sharp edges of the canoe pressing into my shoulders. I lifted my head a little to peek out from under the halo of the canoe and I saw a valley of rocks stretching out before me. Slowly I picked my way through them, trying to find my footing on unsteady ground. The boots of Emily and Paula disappeared from my view, and I suddenly felt very alone.
No more! No more! I thought. I wanted to yell for help. I wanted to heave the canoe off my shoulders. I wanted someone to take my burden. But this was selfish: they all had their own burdens to carry.
The portage grew steeper and my feet grew heavier. I felt tears prick my eyes. No more! No more! No more!
“A little more.”
I blinked and my teary vision cleared. I could see Emily’s boots again, now standing in front of me.
“A little more,” she repeated, in case I hadn’t heard her. “That’s it. Keep going. Not too much further now.”
She had come back for me. She had faded out of my view, but here she was back again, to help me along. She had forgotten her own burden and was helping me carry mine.
I moved my feet forward, guided by her encouragement.
“Oy, look out for that branch now,” she noted, pushing a large one out of my way. “Need any help? There you go… that’s right. You’re doing great. That’s ace, man.”
“Ace?” I found myself giggling. “King, queen, jack?”
“No,” she scoffed. “Just ace.”
I was both distracted and reassured by her voice. It was amazing how so simple a gesture was so effective. Suddenly before me I saw the glint of sun on water, and eight girls surrounded me, taking my canoe, rubbing my shoulders, nodding their approval. The weight was lifted, the sun pierced my eyes again.
“Thank you,” I said.
Emily shrugged. “S’okay. You would have done the same for me.”
And I knew I would have.