And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
—excerpts from William Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned”
In the summer of 1964, Matt Ellsworth–a biology teacher and freshman wrestling coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School located in Oak Park, Illinois–took a group of 15-year-old boys on a one-week canoe trip. We drove 11 hours from Chicago to Ely, Minnesota, which is the point of departure for trips into the Boundary Waters canoe country, a 2 million acre area of pristine wilderness. This area includes a vast network of lakes and streams on the US-Canadian border.
Unlike much of the Midwest, the Boundary Waters canoe country is designated as primitive wilderness. This means that this area has been set aside to be preserved in all of its primeval beauty. In effect, the boundary waters are the same today as when the Ojibwa Native Americans hunted the Caribou that once lived there. While paddling our canoes on a Canadian river, I remember seeing Ojibwa Indian cliff paintings that were created 800 years ago.
I recall how the lakes and rivers were absent of the droning sound of machines: no motor boats are allowed. The area is so vast that we often paddled an entire day without seeing other people. At night we built campfires under towering pines where the solitude was periodically broken by the haunting calls of loons.
Apart from experiencing nature in all of its pristine glory, I learned how to portage a canoe. Portaging entails carrying a canoe and gear between lakes that are not connected by water. The length of the portage path varies, typically ranging from 100 feet to well over a mile long. Carrying a canoe on your shoulders can test the mettle of even the strongest and fittest athlete: I remember having to dig deep when traversing those 1+ mile portages. After all, how could a 15 year old quit a job–albeit a hard one–when his peers expected that he would be successful?
Moving forward 41 years, I thought that my then 15-year-old son, at the time a sophomore at Oak Park & River Forest (OPRF) High School, would benefit from experiencing the wilderness. We are both city slickers, so we used an outfitting company that provided the gear and the guidance required to survive for a week.
I immediately knew who to contact. Dan Waters had grown up in River Forest (OPRF ‘57). His mother, Mitzy Waters, lived in River Forest and knew my mother, Helen Mojonnier, who grew up in Oak Park. I asked Dan how he ended up owning Canadian Waters (www.canadianwaters.com), an outfitting company 570 miles from Chicago. He said that his family spent many summers vacationing in northern Minnesota. He liked that part of the country so much that he moved there in 1963. Shortly thereafter, he founded the outfitting firm.
Getting back to the trip itself, I think that going into the wild has even greater value today than it did 41 years ago. First, it seems to me that we spend an inordinate amount of time interacting with screens: computer screens, cell phone screens, and TV screens. I recently saw the comedian Bill Maher perform at a theatre in Hammond, Indiana. Although this was a live performance, I observed most of the audience staring not at the human being on stage, but instead, looking at two humongous screens—reflecting the comedian’s image—that were positioned on both sides of the stage.
There is nothing inherently wrong with staring at screens; however, sometimes it is done excessively and at the expense of our relationships with people. This fact is put into relief on a wilderness journey. In God’s country, there are no screens to stare at. Absent cell phone towers in close proximity, you are cut-off from society, as we know it. What you have instead is an opportunity to spend significant time bonding with your child, actually talking with one another, face-to-face, free from civilizations distractions. In addition to communicating with one another, you and your child have an opportunity to jointly interact with nature in all its beauty and terror.
In the middle of one night, we were woken up by our campsite dog, Bubba, who was barking wildly. Shortly thereafter, Bubba ran up the path to the top of a hill. A black bear came close to our camp, but after being chased by a wildly-barking Bubba, the bear high-tailed it out of the camp-site. Black bears fear dogs whereas grizzlies have no fear of dogs. So, if you take a camping trip to northern Minnesota or Wisconsin, bring you dog and you won’t have to worry about being harassed by black bears.
The final lesson learned pertains to portaging. I figured that I knew how to portage from my experience carrying canoes 41 years ago. Furthermore, I believed that portaging would be a piece of cake, because today’s canoes are made with ultra-lightweight Kevlar in contrast to the heavier Grumman, aluminum canoes of yesteryear.
Well, did I ever get that wrong! After portaging a canoe over a couple of lakes, my back ached. Moreover, I slowed down the entire group, possibly preventing us from achieving our goal of making base-camp by dusk.
So we changed things around. As shown in the pictures, I carried the leeches, paddle and life preservers (see picture on left), and my son took charge of carrying the canoe. As a result of these changes, our pace increased, and we easily made it to our base-camp by dusk.
In thinking about the portaging aspect of this experience in the wilderness, my carrying the canoe caused a bottleneck. The bottleneck constrained us from achieving our goal (making it to base camp by dusk). By offloading the portaging to my teenage son, we eliminated the bottleneck; and, consequently, achieved our groups’ goal. This is actually a manifestation of a business philosophy—that many firms practice—called the “theory of constraints.” It is described in Eli Goldratt’s book The Goal. In retrospect, I found it fascinating how an experience such as a canoe trip can illustrate a fundamental philosophy of business management.
So, if you can take a week in the summer, spend it with your daughter or son up in the Boundary Waters canoe country. It will provide you with a great bonding opportunity. In addition, you might learn some meaningful life-lessons to boot.