Roughing It

Why do we keep going into the wild?

There is a point during every trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when you wonder why you signed up for it in the first place. The last time I went, with my dad, brother, and sister-in-law, that moment arrived before we did.

We always camp outside of the BWCA on our first night, so we can head in early the next day to pounce on a campsite for the evening. We were setting up in Tettegouche State Park, with a gorgeous view of Lake Superior, when the skies suddenly opened up. One gigantic bolt of lightning was all the warning we had. My dad and I were holding our rented tent open, trying to determine which end was up. Before we succeeded, our tent was soaked through, along with our clothing, packs—everything. We wadded up the wet tent, grabbed our packs, and scrambled back to the car. Then we headed into Beaver Bay for pizza, and stayed at the AmericInn that night, drying out all our gear in the hotel laundry machines.

So much for roughing it. But the rest of the trip, as far as I can recall, went fine. I’m pretty sure. You see, when it comes to camping, I only seem to remember the disasters.

My memory works the same way for golf. Some people dissect every stroke, reminiscing about that beautiful chip onto the green on hole 13. I’ll mourn, briefly, the ball I lost in the pond. But mostly, all I can think after a round of golf is: I’m done. Where is my drink?

Part of this memory loss is the result of one of the defining aspects of camping and golfing, and that is repetition. Moments, hours, even whole days begin to blur. Take camping, for instance. You get up. Eat breakfast. Paddle. Portage. Eat trail mix. Paddle. Portage. Eat lunch. Paddle. Portage. Eat dinner. Paddle. Portage. Golfing is even simpler: swing, swing, swing, swing, game over.

This is not to say these activities are boring. I’ll always remember the decent drives I’ve had in golf, the ones that hint at a marginal ability and encourage me to come back and try again. And I’m not likely to forget the little island with the great blueberry bushes or the hillside of wild strawberries where we feasted, looking furtively for bears. I have memorized the brisk smell of pines; the bracing feel of an afternoon swim in some of the cleanest, coldest water on earth; the sound of loons; and the howl of wolves.

But for me, outdoor activities are largely recalled as one narrowly averted disaster after another. The muddy, nearly vertical portage where we dropped the canoe, sending the metallic echo of our ineptitude across the lake; the giant snapping turtle floating where we’d just been swimming; the bear who got to our food bags when we hung them too low, puncturing each of the Nalgene bottles filled with wine with a single claw; the gigantic tree that fell in between our tents early one morning, sounding like a helicopter had landed in the camp and impaling the ground with a long, deadly branch.

These are also the things, paradoxically, that keep me coming back to the woods. Because, having survived on salami, apples, cheese, and peanut butter—sometimes all on the same sandwich—every burger now tastes like the best ever. Having pumped all my water through a filter, drinking straight from the tap seems like a miracle. Having neglected to wash my hair for a week (as my sister says, “Nothing puts the stench in existential like a few days in the Boundary Waters”), the application of shampoo feels like a sacrament.

This year, as I pack for our July trip, I don’t know what will happen, but I already know how I’ll feel at the end. After a week in the rough, dragging my pack around like a bag of clubs, I’ll be ready for my drink.

Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”

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