On wilderness

PHOTO: Greg Walters, Flickr CC

PHOTO: Greg Walters, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

This week the ice retreated from the lake. Hard-blowing southern winds warmed the jackets off our backs before knocking over the driveway basketball hoop just hours after we set it up. Colorful birds, fresh off winging 2,000 miles, flitted through our old trees, considered the scene, moved on.

When you live in the woods of Northern Minnesota wilderness isn’t a concept but rather part of the routine. I wish that made me some kind of wily mountain man capable of tanning hides and crafting forest grains into tasty soup. More accurately I’m like the rabbit digging out its warren, minding very important rabbit business amid very stressful rabbit problems. Me, I’ve got bills to pay. Papers to grade. If the rabbit had newspapers he would write sternly-worded columns about rabbit issues. If hawks were much bigger, I’d need to watch out for them, too. Neither man nor rabbit knows which coat to wear this time of year.

For many, wilderness is an abstract concept, an ideal or destination. Like the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” they just feel better knowing wilderness is there. For others, it’s pure nuisance to be mitigated with shovels and concrete. I’ve come to know wilderness as a busy neighborhood of lots of folks, a good place to raise a family, and pretty safe if you keep your wits about you.

So why was I so nervous to click the online registration button for my son’s Webelos Camp this summer?

For the first time in more than a decade, I’ll be sleeping in a tent this summer. It will become one of fewer than 10 times I’ve done that my whole life. Some people love camping. We built a house in the woods with heat, electricity and fleece blankets on every chair so we would never, ever have to do that.

Still, this is an experience my oldest son should have, and with more Scouting years ahead (and two brothers working up the Cub Scout ranks) I know I need to dive in. Not coincidentally, I’m flooded with memories of my first camping trip, which so happened to be Webelos camp with my dad, at the time a chain-smoking diesel mechanic with little use for organized groups. I’m reassured by the fact that, while most memories of the camp remain hazy, I did appreciate that my dad was there.

By happenstance, the new book “Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir” by Jim Landwehr was sitting on my reading pile as all this went down. Landwehr, a St. Paul native now living in Wisconsin, writes about he and his family’s special relationship with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in far Northeastern Minnesota. From childhood on, Landwehr, his friend and brothers found the daunting prospect of “wilderness” to be a unifying force across multiple generations.

And while Camp Wilderness near Park Rapids is a far cry from the BWCA, I appreciated Landwehr’s heartfelt, honest telling of how a city boy learned to manage the wilderness over several decades. I’m a country boy, but the modern kind who has access to the internet. These skills are hard won.

A recurring theme in Landwehr’s “Dirty Shirt” is the idea that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to survive in the wilderness, but you do need to learn from your mistakes. He relates this well to how the same is true for relationships. I’d recommend the book, especially for those mulling a first-time trip to the BWCA.

Whether it’s the Boundary Waters, Scout camp or a walk in the woods, the wilderness isn’t challenging because it’s abstract, but because it is overwhelmingly real. Best to just enjoy the experience as it happens, for plans are but dreams.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, April 19, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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