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Commentary: Packing up, and pondering what might lie ahead

Sam Cook

DULUTH — I spend isolated moments of each day now anticipating an upcoming adventure. Six of us — trail-tested friends — will soon slip our canoes into a Canadian wilderness lake and push off. We'll spend 10 days on the trail at about 3 miles per hour — the perfect speed for travel in my opinion.

Much about the trip will be familiar — we do this every year. We are, in many ways, going home.

We know the mile-long portage will have the usual boot-sucking mud holes. We know the painted turtles and maybe a snapper will waddle ashore to lay eggs in one camp. We are reasonably sure the lake trout will be in the deep hole we find by lining up some white pines on one shore with a bald rock on the other shore.

The predictable elements of this annual sojourn are reason enough to keep most of us coming back year after year. But it is the unknown that is the true lure.

Each year, it seems, the trip offers up some surprises, some completely unpredictable moments. Will we happen to watch an osprey feeding its young high in a white pine? We could. Will we be windbound on an island for an afternoon? Maybe. Will we discover wonderful walleye fishing in a spot we've never tried before? It might happen.

Part of what all of us do when we make these annual pilgrimages — to paddle the canoe country, to hunt whitetails at deer camp, to kayak the Apostle Islands or fish Isle Royale — is put ourselves in a place where something might happen that we will remember for the rest of our lives. It might be wonderful or frightening or extremely difficult. At the moment these events occur, we may not fully realize their import. We will be too busy making the right moves or being immersed in the experience. But later, when we've had time to put things in perspective — perhaps around a campfire — we'll know that the experience ranks up there with our most cherished memories.

Like the time we two of us watched a bull moose feeding in the shallows, strands of lilypad plants festooned in its antlers. Or the time another bull moose approached our camp on Kahshahpiwi Lake one September night, his broad antlers raking the bare aspen as he came. Or the morning a black bear began swimming across a northern Manitoba river — then reversed course when he caught human scent on the opposite shore.

Sometimes, inevitably, these unforgettable events in the backcountry involve our own human foibles — dropping an entire stringer of walleyes into the lake (and jigging for it until you find it again, with every walleye still there). Or the time you gave your multi-tool to the lake while trying to extricate treble hooks from a cantankerous northern pike's jaw. Or putting your foot through a beaver dam until your backside has come to rest in the cool ooze of that dam muck.

Things happen out there. Humility is easy to come by.

Sometimes, the single moment you hold onto from a trip has nothing to do with big waves or big fish or some bonehead move. It might be that the most profound recollection you carry home from the wilderness is something as simple as sitting on shore in utter silence, contemplating your significance in the universe.

Soon, I'll start tossing gear into piles.

Packs. Paddles. Tackle.

Headlamp. Rain gear. Tent.

I enjoy the outfitting process. It's part of the ritual of the trip. I'm simultaneously recalling previous trips while anticipating the coming adventure. The smell of woodsmoke in the tarp yanks me straight back to a familiar camp. I stuff the tarp in its stuff-sack and wonder — what will happen out there this year?