The Wilderness in a Time of Crisis

People, Recreation By Kim Young

Sigurd Olson famously wrote, “Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”

I couldn’t agree more, and have often asked myself: What is it about the wilderness that makes it such a spiritual necessity? Is it the simplicity of being in the wilderness, with minimal equipment, food and gear? Is it the delight in observing animals in the forest or seeing the billions of stars we never glimpse from our homes? Or is it the wild, adventurous part of the BWCA: The feeling of living on the edge, facing danger, and doing things for yourself? Or is it that when we travel into the wilderness, we don’t bring our problems with us?

Trees and shoreline in the Boundary Waters

My first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was in 1977, and included a few days in the Quetico Provincial Park. Every year since then, I’ve travelled to one of those two special places. I leave the regular world behind to experience the solitude and the majesty of the boreal forest. No phone calls, no television or bad news to interrupt the day to day plans. Just me, my friends, my family, together in that pristine place where I feel complete.

I didn’t realize how much I took these experiences for granted.

Three canoes and paddlers at dawn in the BWCA

I got the wake-up call in December 2018, when I learned I had breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy and waited for test results that would determine if I needed chemotherapy. I put my life on hold: it all seemed so surreal. For ten weeks, I kept busy with sewing projects around the house. My inner voice said, “remain calm, positive and upbeat.” This was my mantra. But my outer voice was anxious and concerned.

I might never travel to canoe country again. I had made permit reservations for a 2019 Boundary Waters trip but didn’t know if I would be able to travel with my friends. However, I held onto that reservation as a reminder that, if I came out of this health crisis, there was an adventure awaiting.

When I learned that I didn’t need chemotherapy, I was given the opportunity to paddle again. I silently rejoiced, aware that other women have not been so lucky. I was grateful and humbled.

Canoe in blue water of the BWCA

All this is now in the not-so-distant past. Now, in 2020, we as a nation face another health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been asked to stay safe at home and to shelter in place, which feels like an odd déjà vu. One critical illness has been replaced by the serious threat of another.

Living in northern Minnesota, I’ve been able to take walks, boil maple syrup and stay in my log cabin. Meanwhile, my city friends and relatives are trying to stay optimistic, confident we can outwit this virus, even if it takes longer than we want.

The Boundary Waters is open for overnight camping and the Quetico, although open, is closed to Americans due to the border being closed to non-essential crossings. Many are escaping to the Boundary Waters for obvious reasons. The woods are far safer than the grocery or hardware stores, and after being inundated by the non-stop news around the pandemic, the silence of the wilderness is especially welcomed.

Traveling in the wilderness can give you hope, along with the simplicity we need in our lives.

Trees in the mist

It’s telling that Sigurd Olson’s words about the spiritual necessity of the wilderness were published in 1946. Months before, the United States was embroiled in the Second World War.

These words came in the aftermath of one of the most horrific periods in human history.

People needed the wilderness then, and now, in our challenging times, the same need exists. As most everyone who has been there will tell you: The Boundary Waters will cleanse your soul, bring you peace and clarity.

Kim Young
Kim is a retired Dental Hygienist. She is on the Board of FOTBW and writes for the Boundary Waters Journal Magazine. She has been canoeing in the BWCAW and Quetico since 1977.

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