40 years of what all of us are doing anyway

Posted: Sep 07, 2003 12:00 AM

Forty years ago, in the Far North, I first cast my eyes upon her.

I had ventured out with a wizened local friend who had said to a 22-year-old prowling for some remote land, "I may know just the place." We reached her via a logging bridge the ice would take out 18 months later.

Her beauty made the heart hammer. Love was in the air.

Within a month she was part of the family, acquired with earnings from two summers working Great Lakes ore boats. Terrific job for a college kid: hard work and union wages for 60 days, back when the steward would make you join the union or get off the boat. Receipts from thinning timber for two years reduced the final purchase cost to $1,500 for 35 acres in a state forest and a mile of river frontage.

Oh, and for a 25-year-old cabin, no electricity, no phone, no running water, and no neighbors for 10 miles. And, when the cables for the dilapidated suspension bridge came down, no access. In the winter you snowshoed in. In the summer you swam, fetched the canoe in the cabin and used it as a ferry while there - and, after stowing the canoe and closing the cabin, swam back. Still do.

Marriage and two sons followed - the only surpassing decisions in this blessedly lengthening life. We just returned, she and I (she loves the place too, but does like to say, ever true, "Aren't I a good sport?"), from the 150th visit made during 40 years - some for just days, some for weeks, some (early on) for months.

Things there are much as they were, but with more and less.

Bald eagles have come back. Salmon were introduced to counter lamprey eels, which persist. There are wolves now, and coyotes; more bears and otters; about the same number of deer, but smaller. Beavers are not so abundant, nor turtles, frogs, butterflies, crayfish, waxwings, nor whippoorwills.

Elms have gone; blight is reducing the birches and affecting the maples. There's greatly less snow. The river level, heavily sensitive to snowmelt and rain, seems ever lower - and sometimes so slow the river seems to flow in reverse.

The cabin has doubled in size. Tanks of propane - floated across the river and winched up the bank - provide for cooking, refrigeration, lights, and (yes!) an indoor commode. The place doesn't lack for much that matters.

So, 40 years of taking off the watch; settling in for downtime; recharging. Of pulling up the drawbridge against "civilizational" assaults and depredations. Of flying under the radar and off the screen. Of the simple joys of  living.

Of driving 22 hours each time - each way.

Of drinking from an old tin cup.

Of repairing river, animal and weather damage.

Of guerrilla war (or open combat, depending) with mice and porcupines.

Of felling trees and stoking fires.

Of canoeing, fishing, shooting, hiking and hammocking.

Of campfire conversation.

Of reconnecting with moonrises, with sunlight dancing on the soul.

Of the soothing soughing of wind-rustled leaves, the consuming speech of pattering rain in the woods.

Most discovery is rediscovery; the trick is what one emphasizes.

Extensive nature reading there has elicited mountains of commendable quotes. Among the best are this one describing the cabin - from J.R.R. Tolkien...

"Elrond's house was perfect, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing (or reading), or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness. ... Evil things did not come into the secret valley of Rivendell."

...And this one, ostensibly about fishing yet really about immersion in middle-of-nowhere Nature - from Robert Traver, of "Anatomy of a Murder" fame:

"I fish because I love to. Because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly. Because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social posturing I thus escape. Because in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing what they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion. Because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed, or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility, and endless patience. Because I suspect that men are going this way for the last time and I for one don't want to waste the trip. Because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters. Because in the woods I can find solitude without loneliness. ... And finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun."

Upon lowering the drawbridge and returning to civilization one finds ... the same old same-old: unfun combat of various deadly sorts about everything from the Middle East and the Ten Commandments to nonprescription drug coverage and denominational blessing of homosexual unions. And millions enduring the rigors of electrical blackout.

Forty years at the cabin remind that blackout can bring with it the rediscovery of abundant virtues. And all of us - that's ALL of us - really are just camping out anyway.