In the lee of the island, all was still. The stiff wind that was beating the lake into small but powerful waves did not penetrate here; the water only rippled slightly from the current. The light was dimming, first from the golden clouds that filtered the sun’s last rays and then from the shadow of the island’s tall trees. It was all very picturesque: the lake, bordered by forests with rocky hills in the distance; the island, a small fortress in a sea of water; the setting sun wrapped in clouds. The atmosphere felt otherworldly. I knew it would not last, so I savored the moment.
Sinking the paddle’s blade into the water, I pushed against the weight of the lake. I was the canoe’s sole occupant, and it responded immediately to the pressure, gliding across the uneven surface and tacking slightly. As the stroke neared completion, I twisted the paddle in my hands, angling the blade away and levering slightly. The pressure realigned the canoe with my path, and I prepared to repeat this action. The stroke needed work, but that was one of the reasons I was there.
Camp was behind me. Dinner would be ready soon, cooked by friends and family, and no doubt it would be delicious. I did not want to miss it, but I had not been able to resist the temptation of taking a quick solo paddle. Now I was beyond the reach of our site and the only sounds were the wind in the trees and those that came from the canoe and paddle slipping through the water.
Idly, I wondered why I had chosen to take this jaunt. The purposes, perhaps, were many. For one, I sought to work on my canoe-handling skills. Also, I had brought my dad’s camera, an old Fujica single-lens reflex that was, at the moment, safe in a Ziploc bag. I needed to use up a roll of film and thought the island, bathed in the evening light, would be a good subject.
I also came to think. As my uncle had pointed out, when you’re on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, you have a lot of time to think. I wanted this time alone. And, inevitably, my thoughts began to wander.
As I paddled the length of the small island, I thought of the days when man first came to this beautiful wilderness. One had to be cunning to survive here beyond the reach of society. The traders and the trappers lived and even thrived in this world of trees, rocks, and lakes. Perhaps they had even stopped on this very island. This was a land of harsh beauty and harsher laws - the laws of nature.
With a pang of nostalgia for something I had never experienced, I thought, I could live here, but I knew I could not. Things are different these days. Man, now the tourist, has easy access to these lands. Compared to even a hundred years ago, the area is swarming with humans. Perhaps the beauty of the land is undiminished, but man has left his mark and things will never be the same. No, I could not live as the trappers and traders had. Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, like most people.
My canoe was composed of a Kevlar composite. The paddle was high-tech, a carbon fiber mix. My life jacket incorporated the latest technology to keep me afloat. Even my dad’s camera, though a bit outdated, was less a relic of the past and more a hallmark of modernity. Let’s face it: I was the tourist. I doubted I could survive long without these vestiges of modern society. Yet those who had come before me had survived on far less - only a few possessions and what they could make with their hands. It must have been difficult. Perhaps, I thought, I should not be so eager to wish for the past. I was stuck in this time and needed to make the best of it.
I remembered that I had come here with a purpose and took out the camera. I paddled around the island and carefully framed shots of rocks, trees, and sky; with luck, these would turn out well and I would have have them to remind me of my expedition.
One last time, I thought of how things had been when the wind, the sky, the lake and the trees were all that existed. I looked at them now, perhaps at some of the same trees that had stood then, and wondered at my own existence. For one last moment, I was alone, a soul afloat in a sea of solitude.
Then, with a sigh that was as much in my mind as audible, I turned the canoe around. No doubt it was time to eat. They would all be there, oblivious to what I had seen and experienced, oblivious to what I had thought. I would rejoin them, and in doing so I would rejoin the world of simple laughter, the world of people, the world of civilization.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.