Time Alone in the Wilderness

Last week I paddled with two other men in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Minnesota and Canada. I traveled with Renewal in the Wilderness—an organization that hopes to bring refreshment to those in helping professions like clergy, social workers and teachers by having them get out into the wilderness. Over the course of seven days we canoed in a dozen different lakes with ten portages from about 100 feet to three quarters of a mile. All told we traveled thirty miles.

Watching the moonrise from our campsite. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

I’ve never been in a place like the BWCA before. After the first two lakes, no motor boats were allowed. Additionally, local aircraft cannot fly over the designated wilderness area. Campsites dot the lakes and are limited to a single group. The week after Labor Day brings fewer people—and fewer mosquitoes—along with the beginnings of a Fall chill. While we saw other paddlers from time to time, we generally were alone breathing in the pine scented air and listening to the slight wish of the paddles.

We had many conversations about life and God and our experiences outdoors. We cooked simple but tasty meals. Our leader brought cheese and crackers and wine for the late afternoon. We watched the evening fire become embers and slept in two man tents. I often went to the lakeside to watch the loons swim by or the eagles perch in a far off tree or to simply hear the lap of water.

On one of our days, the day after a couple of long and difficult portages, we had a solo experience. We had the opportunity to be alone for the day—a bit over seven hours—in a secluded spot. Near our camp was a very small island that I chose for my spot. Our guide paddled me over to the island and after I got out, I watched him paddle away back to our campsite which lay around the corner and out of eyesight. I had a lunch, a couple of energy bars, my journal and prayerbook and an emergency whistle in case things went south.

I walked as much of the island as I could, which took all of three minutes. There was a rocky outlook, a place amongst the trees for me to sit and write, and a small path leading to the opposite shoreline. Our instructions were simply to be. Be present. Not obsess about things to do. To just look out at the water and the beauty of nature all around and take it in.

And so I did.

I’ve been away a long time and so I didn’t have a lot on my mind about work or even home. I’ve known that things have been well taken care of and that this sabbatical has been a wonderful gift. So I sat there on that small island in the middle of Ensign Lake and gave thanks. Thanks for the beauty of nature, and its healing of my soul. Thanks for the gift of time away. Thanks for a life that has brought more goodness than I could ever imagine.

I prayed and wrote and walked and looked out over the water. Two otters swam by, letting me know that they didn’t like me being on their rocks. Loons called to each other. Fishermen paddled nearby hoping to get a fish to rise.

Not often do I do this. Not often do I just spend time in the wilderness just to be. Or if I do, it’s only for a couple of minutes before getting back on the trail. But that day—those days—out in the BWCA made me realize how much I—and all of us—need to be renewed.