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Sam Cook column: Wilderness pilgrimage: Life in the slow lane

In roughly 24 hours, we will be there. We'll step out of the vehicles somewhere in Ontario, have a good stretch, assess the blackfly situation and go. Down the trail. Into the woods. Across the lakes scoured out 10,000 years ago.

Right now, I'm at that delicious precipice before takeoff. Gear is packed or stacked. The checklist is full of check marks. All we have to do is throw the food in the packs.

Six of us, the usual crew. Three canoes, nine bulging Duluth packs. Nine days on the water. Twenty or 30 portages. Hopefully a couple hundred walleyes, a few dozen lake trout and — always — a couple of northern pike as long as your leg.

But quite honestly, as with any kind of travel, we do not know exactly what we will encounter out there in the wilderness. That is why we keep going.

It's a privilege to immerse yourself in a vast and completely natural setting for an extended period of time, especially if you choose to travel in a primitive way — by canoe or on foot. Moving through an intact natural system at about 3 miles per hour, you slip into an intensely satisfying rhythm. I cannot say why this is so.

You must accept, going in, that you'll earn every inch of ground or water you cover through physical effort. Sweat will run into your eyes. Legs will ache. Shoulders will complain. Sometimes, early on in a trip, I'll find myself eager to be around the next point of land, wanting to reach the next lake. I have a gerbil-like metabolism, a friend likes to remind me. But soon enough, I'm able to dial back and begin living mostly in the present. That's when you know you've arrived.

You take what the weather gives you, whether it means riding a tailwind or plowing through oncoming waves. Last year, at the end of a portage in a downpour, we wedged the bows of our canoes into the branches of some trees and stood under them in our rain gear, talking, until the storm had passed. A few times, when the wind has whipped the lakes to a froth, we have pulled out on some point or island — windbound — until it was safe to move on again. That might mean hours.

At those times, although we might rather be moving, we don't look at it as a delay or a setback. It just is. You are there. You're safe. When the blow is over, you'll move on again.

We have nursed tiny fires to flickering life in all-day rains. We have breathed the smoke of distant wildfires. We have waded calf-deep through wet portages.

But we have also witnessed sublime and exhilarating encounters with the creatures around us. Once, from camp, we watched an osprey across the bay, backlit by the evening sun, rise from the water with a fish in its talons. That would have been enough, but on its way up, the osprey seemed to stop in midair to shake off water from its dive, then recover and continue flying. We all let out gasps upon seeing that osprey do something it must do on an almost daily basis.

Last year, in one camp, an amorous spruce grouse made display flights that brushed our sleeves and shoulders as we tried to set up a tent on his mating grounds.

We can dependably predict that at a camp our second or third night, we will watch snapping turtles and painted turtles laying eggs in the gravel at water's edge. Happens every year, and we still stand and watch. Last year, we watched two humongous snappers mating just a couple feet off shore in tannin-stained water.

These natural events occur daily in the wilderness. Once in awhile, we're fortunate enough to happen by at the right moment to witness them.

Who knows what it will be this year?

We'll go have a look.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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