By guest blogger, Anna K.
When I was growing up, my family took camping trips every summer. At first we would go to large campgrounds with big groups of people and families from our neighborhood. They were the kind of campgrounds where there were designated campsites with parking spots, a water spit, and indoor bathrooms down the road. But as my brothers and I got older, our family started to think about adventuring into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
The Boundary Waters was a place I had heard about my entire life, as my dad is from Ely, Minnesota (a common entry point into the area) and my parents had taken many trips there with friends while my brothers and I were growing up. It’s a reserve of lakes, rivers, and bogs between Ontario and Minnesota that campers who are looking for a more “off the grid” experience can enjoy. There are no motor vehicles allowed, and you need to apply for a camping license so that the number of people entering (legally) can be controlled, in order to keep it as quiet and wild as possible. Camping in the Boundary Waters is much tougher than just rolling up to a campground, parking the truck and unloading your coolers, sleeping bags, and camp chairs. In order to reach your destination in the BWCA, which is usually a small campground only marked by the small fire ring and pit toilet, campers must canoe and portage (carry your canoe and gear over land between two bodies of water) for miles. Depending on how far you’re going, it can be an entire day, or even a multi-day, trip. The days of portaging are long and hard, but made fun by the company you’re with and the beautiful scenery surrounding you.
When my parents decided to take our whole family to the BWCA, they opted for a safe, more secure way of experiencing the landscape. We stayed outside the wilderness area at night in an established campground and would canoe in during the day to explore and experience the wildlife there. In the evenings we would make our way back to our campground and sleep in tents right next to our car. During this trip, since there were five of us, we brought two canoes: my dad and my brother, Luke, in one, and my mom, my oldest brother John, and I all in the other. Being the baby of the family and the only daughter, I sat in the middle between my brother and mom as they paddled us between destinations.
When getting the fire going for dinner at night, I attempted to help, only to be shuffled away from the fire ring because my brothers were both Boy Scouts and, apparently, knew the best methods for fire building. This was a common occurrence throughout my childhood and adolescence. I’m a hands-on learner, but when I would take too long to complete a task, someone else in my family would usually take the reins. I got used to it, but looking back it makes me really uncomfortable that I did. I think to myself, “You are and always have been capable. Why let others take learning experiences away from you?” Every time I would let my brothers or someone else take over, I was giving up a learning experience, a chance to grow, and allowing myself to sit back and be a bystander in my own life. I look back and think maybe I was too whiny, maybe I liked girly things too much, allowing others to categorize me as fragile or lacking and, thus, to sideline me. Which then in turn made me sideline myself and not fight for those learning opportunities. It became a cycle: someone sidelines me, I then sideline myself, and then people think I am less capable, therefore making me think about myself in a similar light. I was already a girly-girl, and so I sat back and got comfortable in these predetermined feminine stereotypes. Maybe, as a young child, having a Barbie sleeping bag didn’t win me points with the fire-building kids. But having a love for Disney Princesses, Barbies, and twirly dresses doesn’t make someone any less capable of lighting a match, or any less deserving of the opportunity to learn about something they’ve shown interest in.
This was the first time my family had gone to the BWCA, and it ended up being the last non-RV camping trip that my family ever took together. While I remember this last family trip to the BWCA with a lot of fondness, I don’t really remember carrying my own weight or contributing to the onward push of the journey.
However, in tenth grade my two best friends, Emma and Kaija, and our three dads all took a week-long father-daughter trip to the Boundary Waters. At this point, my brothers had already been there several times with my father and with their respective Boy Scout troops, trips on which they had actually stayed out in the wilderness area for an extended time. This would be my first time in true wilderness, with no way in or out except by canoe. My dad talked to me about the trip beforehand, letting me know we had a lot of stuff going into our packs, and that he wouldn’t be able to carry it all by himself. I knew I would be taking on a challenge, as no assertive brothers and protective mothers were coming along.
We took three canoes, one for each dad-daughter pair. All of the girls sat up front to paddle, while our dads all took up the back to steer. The canoes were heavy with gear, so I don’t reproach my dad or the others for using their strength to steer us in the right direction. Since I had only ever sat in the middle of a canoe, I was learning as we went along. I sat up front, looking for rapids and sneaky, lurking boulders just underneath the water’s surface so that we wouldn’t hit the bottom of the canoe on rocks, logs, sandbars, and the like.
As we canoed, Kaija, Emma, and I all joked and laughed with our dads, and constantly sang “Just Around The Riverbend” from Disney’s Pocahontas. In our minds, we all wanted to be Pocahontas: the independent, strong, adventurous woman out on her own with the wilderness and the rapids. I would daydream about being as strong and powerful as she, only to be jerked out of my own thoughts with my dad’s voice saying, “Anna, paddle”. Oops, sorry, Dad. I would soon learn that just sticking the oar in the water and pushing it backwards wasn’t enough. My dad coached me, telling me to send the oar deep into the current and use my upper body to propel us forward as I pushed the paddle backward. It was hard work, and my spaghetti arms grew tired easily. This was going to be a long trip that required me to have stamina over the course of the winding rivers and wide lakes, the many portages, and all throughout the trip as we would go out to fish and explore.
We would come to the portages where we had to get out of the canoes, carry our equipment to the next body of water (anywhere from thirty feet to even a mile away) and then put the canoes and equipment into the new lake or stream and continue on in the direction of our campsite. You can’t get anywhere in the Boundary Waters without portaging, and it’s a slow and often heavy ordeal. Since we were canoeing, we brought much more stuff than one might bring on a backpacking or hiking trip. We had bags of food, pots, pans, silverware, plates and bowls, several changes of clothes, fishing gear, a fish scanner, three tents, fishing bait… I could go on. Ultra-light wasn’t a part of our vocabulary back then. We’d unload everything from the canoes, and then three people would balance the canoes on their shoulders and trudge across the portage while the others began carrying as much equipment as they could. The canoes were long and heavy, but Emma, Kaija, and I each got a turn to carry our canoes across a portage. I remember it being a slow, burdensome process. I was sweating and hoping my dad would come along to take it off my shoulders, something my brothers certainly would have offered, but he didn’t. Finally making it to the other side, my dad (who had beaten me there) helped me set it down, and feeling extremely relieved but also proud of myself, I turned back to go help bring over more of our stuff.
Our dads had experience and knew what they were doing, but they let us daughters take on challenges and understood when we needed to be pushed. I’d always heard about the BWCA and the many portages it took to make it to the next campsite. Carrying a canoe that far seemed like something I would never do, but after I had accomplished it, I felt powerful. You can’t learn how to carry a 16-foot canoe across a half-mile stretch of land just from watching someone else do it. You have to do it yourself and realize the mental strength it takes to continue forward. You have to feel the weight of each step and the buzzing in your mind as beads of sweat drip down your forehead and you tell yourself you can’t rest until you reach that tree, and then that boulder, and maybe just a bit further until you’re finally to the other side. That wasn’t something I could learn from watching, yet that pattern of people taking over was ingrained in me, whether I liked it or not, and over time I had developed a tendency to give up easily. At some point I stopped challenging myself or attempting to take on tasks that I was unsure I could do, because, in a way, I had gotten accustomed to not being encouraged to try them. And as much as it would be easy to blame others for this, it’s certainly on me for getting comfortable with giving up, and letting others take control.
This trip with my two best friends and our dads was the first time in the wilderness that I had ever been expected and trusted to carry my own weight. The expectation was new to me and uncomfortable at first, but the more we were out on the water and the longer the portages got, the more confidence I had and the more weight I attempted to take on.
One afternoon, Emma, Kaija, and I were sent out in a canoe to pump clean water into the water bladder. We sat out in the middle of the lake and took turns pumping the filter, laughing the whole time. Our lives were about to change, as Emma would soon be leaving for her first year of college and Kaija would head back to Qatar where, at that time, her family lived during the school year. We had been best friends since childhood, somehow managing to stay connected and close while Kaija lived overseas, I was in theater and competitive dance most nights, and the fact that Emma was two years older and having experiences and feelings that Kaija and I would not completely understand until several years down the road. It was an important time in our lives to learn about our strengths and what we were capable of accomplishing, and to see each other succeed.
Being out in the middle of nowhere with no one but each other, it made us see how much we were able to take on. So often young girls are left out of the equation when it comes to outdoor activities, and so being there with each other and our dads was such a special experience. I think about the differences between my Girl Scout troop activities and the kinds of things my brothers did as Boy Scouts. I remember doing crafts, maybe helping out at some farms, and doing a bit of volunteering. At the same time, my brothers were taking week-long camping trips, canoeing, backpacking, learning fire safety, learning knot tying, and building structures. I remember appreciating having the opportunity to spend time and bond with other women, encouraging and observing other women’s strength and successes, but this time out in the wilderness gave me a feeling of power I’d never felt before.
It was a marriage of two things I desperately needed: time spent with other women, and experiences in the outdoors that pushed me in a very tough and confronting way. Our trip into the wilderness brought Kaija, Emma, and me closer, helped us to appreciate this beautiful earth, and taught me that I could push myself more than I thought. And since Emma, Kaija, and I were all at a similar level when it came to camping, fishing, and exploring in general, we helped each other along and celebrated when the other caught a fish, even if we hadn’t gotten a single bite on our own lines. We got excited to see Emma carrying her canoe as we portaged back home, and I felt proud as I carried the largest pack with the tent, pots, and pans all the way back to the car on our last day.
Even though we went with our fathers, we were able to look up to each other and see strong, independent women. And our fathers encouraged us to push ourselves and take on more responsibility. At that time I was only in tenth grade, and it would be a while before I would take on the wilderness again. As I’ve now gone through college and begun to backpack with more of my friends, I find myself having more confidence to take on new challenges and to find out what I’m capable of. I’m still a weakling with spaghetti arms, but I try not to use that as an excuse not to carry something that seems too heavy for me. I use it as the reason why I need to lift the weight, knowing it will only make me stronger, in every sense of the word.
Learn more about the BWCA: http://bwca.com/index.cfm?
Find out how you can help preserve and save the Boundary Waters from mining: https://www.savetheboundarywaters.org/
**During this blog post I am writing solely from my own experience and do not speak for Emma, Kaija, our fathers, or any others mentioned in this post. My experiences and interpretations of events are completely my own.