For many, wilderness is about wonder, renewal
A summer evening nearly 50 years ago on Basswood Lake remains indelible in Paul Schurke's memory. He was on a campsite on Washington Island in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness north of Ely.
A summer evening nearly 50 years ago on Basswood Lake remains indelible in Paul Schurke’s memory. He was on a campsite on Washington Island in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness north of Ely.
“I was 10 years old, on a Lutheran Pioneer Boys canoe trip,” the Ely adventurer remembers. “I was out there in my green uniform shirt with the neatly pressed red kerchief. It was late evening, a picture-perfect night.
“We were playing kick-the-can at our campsite. I could see a bear cub on the far shore, and the loons were calling. I was transfixed.”
That early experience, and more like it, would shape Schurke’s life. He knew from an early age that he wanted to live near the wilderness. He and his wife, Sue, began leading winter trips into the Boundary Waters in 1977. Schurke went on to co-lead with Ely’s Will Steger a dogsled expedition to the North Pole in 1986. The Schurkes operate Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely.
This week marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, creating a federal wilderness designation and protection for millions of acres of land.
Moments like the one Schurke described are not uncommon among people who venture into North America’s wilderness. They tell of experiences that spawned a lifetime of wilderness travel - and wilderness appreciation. Those who paddle, hike, hunt, fish and run dog teams in the wilderness say they find solitude and renewal that’s hard to come by in other recreational settings.
“It’s about the best you feel during the year,” said Tom Heinrich, 64, of Hayward, who makes several wilderness trips each year with his wife, Carol. “You’re alive. You’re constantly thinking. You’re really focused.”
For many, the simplicity of life on the trail in wild places fosters the kind of experience Heinrich describes.
“It’s slowing down and unplugging,” said Amy Freeman, 32, of Grand Marais. “It’s being away from the distractions of daily life, but it’s more than that. … Your activities are pared down to the basics - moving from place to place under your own power, having to cook your own food.”
Freeman and her husband, Dave, have paddled and dogsledded thousands of miles and shared their experiences online with students across the country through the Wilderness Classroom.
For Duluth author and wildlife photographer Michael Furtman, 60, the solitude of wilderness travel is an important part of the experience.
“It’s a very different experience than being on a popular lake,” Furtman said. “There’s no other noise, no sense that anyone else is around. That’s an experience you can’t find anywhere else except wilderness. It kind of makes you feel small, and that’s a good thing from time to time.”
Kate Crowley, 64, of Willow River discovered that feeling when she was a 14-year-old girl on her first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“The most amazing thing - it has stuck with me forever - was going out one night, sitting on a rock and feeling like I could reach out and touch the stars. I had never seen the firmament like that. … It was overpowering. It has a way of making you feel very small, but very lucky, too,” Crowley said.
Stu Osthoff and his wife, Michelle, publish the Boundary Waters Journal magazine in Ely. Osthoff, 58, guides several wilderness fishing and hunting trips each year.
“Ultimately, the reason I go is for spiritual fulfillment, which is kind of hard to explain,” Osthoff said. “I get invited to excellent whitetail properties in farm country, but I can’t get fired up about it. I’d rather hunt 15 days in the Boundary Waters and not get a shot.”
Heinrich understands that.
“One thing Carol and I talk a lot about is the spiritual aspect of the whole thing,” he said. “You’re pretty humbled by wilderness, wherever it is. You think you’re really important as a person when you’re waiting in line or you’re put on hold. Now you go out there, and you’re just part of a great big scheme. It humbles you.”
Like Amy Freeman, many other wilderness travelers talk about the satisfaction that comes with the physical challenge of wilderness trips.
Duluth’s Jerry and Bob Fryberger, 77-year-old twin brothers, have been paddling and portaging since 1946. They make multiple trips each year to the Boundary Waters and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.
“One of the reasons my twin brother and I just the love the Quetico is because it breaks down to where life is very, very simple,” Jerry Fryberger said. “You have no emails, no meetings to go to. You just have to pack up, get in the canoe, paddle, portage, pick up those packs and put one foot in front of the other. It’s fantastic. All the tension melts away after about two days when you get into the rhythm.”
In the wilderness, simple things matter, said Duluth conservationist David Zentner, 78.
“It’s the excitement to roll out of a tent and be in a place that’s obviously dominated by natural forces and shaped by natural forces,” Zentner said. “To experience that - smelling it and touching it and feeling it.”
Mike Link, who served for many years as director of the Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone, also has taught wilderness philosophy classes at Northland College in Ashland and the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“It comes to a point on any wilderness trip where we’re guided by daylight and dark, and we eat when we’re hungry,” said Link, 69. “That, to me, embodies everything. It’s a matter of removing the strictures that society places on us and just living.”
The need for wilderness
The Boundary Waters is the most popular wilderness area in the nation, attracting about 250,000 visitors a year. Use has declined slightly in recent years, perhaps as baby boomers age and as a result of other factors.
Some say the physical demands of wilderness travel are more daunting to Americans now than in past decades.
“People blame the drop-off in wilderness use on the digital age and kids with their electronic gadgets,” Schurke said. “That’s certainly a huge part of it. But we’re just so far removed from life on the land that stepping into a place called untrammeled land is even a greater leap than ever.”
Schurke sees it on the dogsled trips he leads.
“I see more of the deer-in-the-headlights look in people those first couple of days,” Schurke said. “The bugs, the thunderbox (latrine) in the woods, boiling water from the lake. … The rigors of wilderness catch people by surprise more than they used to.”
Bill Hansen, owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters north of Tofte, sees the subtle changes, too.
“The equipment has gotten better, but people are taking shorter trips,” he said. “They don’t have as much time as they used to. The typical trip is still a little over four days. People are spending two or more nights at the same campsite. They want to relax more.”
Ken Gilbertson, associate professor in environmental and outdoor education at UMD, says that despite those trends, most wilderness users still seek challenge - and an element of risk - in wild places.
“You’re sitting on that (wilderness) beach with a group of friends. You know you’ve got the skills,” said Gilbertson, 59. “But when that plane flies off and wags its wings, and you know you’re not going to see a plane for three weeks, you feel that in your gut. It’s self-reliance and interdependence.”
Hansen, 61, said wilderness is more important now than ever for another reason.
“At some point, the human race will have to confront the concept of sustainability,” Hansen said. “We’re not conducting ourselves in a way that’s sustainable now except in wilderness, where the goal is perpetual sustainability. Eventually, we’re going to have to have that goal for agriculture, for settlement, for manufacturing, for everything. Wilderness is kind of a model for what’s coming in the future.”
Duluth’s Zentner, who pushed for passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in 1978, said he hopes another generation will continue to champion wilderness.
“The big question in my mind is, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ” Zentner said. “Our heroes have enabled us to have, in 1964, 9 million acres, and now much more. Do the kids on the island in Crooked Lake this morning … do they know what they’ve been given? Are they willing to fight to keep it? Where is it on their value list? I don’t know.”
RELATED LINK: What is wilderness?