When I was a kid we lived in the flat, sparsely treed farmland of northeastern North Dakota. Except for in the river bottom, the trees that were around had been put there by man. The lakes where we fished for perch were put there by men, and the mighty Red River of the North was dammed almost everywhere you looked. From as early as I can remember, I hungered to get outside, and my fondest memories were “hikes” my mom would take me on. The one I remember most involved walking two shelterbelts down to the bank of the Red River, and following it back to the car. I absolutely loved it, but that was the wildest stuff we had going.
I have had two unending passions in my life, one I’m comfortable sharing and one I’m slightly embarrassed by, more for my wife’s sake than mine. These two obsessions have been wilderness and women. When I was 12 my cousin invited me along on his church group summer wilderness trip, a week-long excursion in the Boundary Waters. I fell wildly in love with the woods, the water, the rocks and the saturated wild air of that incredible place, and I also fell head over heels in love with my first crush. Her name was May, the adopted daughter of the seemingly ancient pastor who led our trip.
My cousin Eric and I were closest in age with each other out of a gaggle of 25-or-so cousins. We grew up very close, and most of what we did together involved fishing poles or .22’s—along with my brother, he was my first hunting buddy. We both lived in different little towns in North Dakota, so our wilderness haunts were actually just small lots of trees and muddy rivers cutting through the prairie. So at the age of 12 and my first Boundary Waters trip, I didn’t really have much of an idea of what wilderness really was.
My memories from that trip are still accessible. On our long car ride there we camped out for a night in a big empty church in central Minnesota, and one of the older kids crashed into a ceramic drinking fountain and busted it clean off. That’s all I remember of the trip there, but I do remember putting our canoe in. Eric and I shared a boat, just the two of us, with our packs tucked on the floor between us. We had both paddled before but probably only with adults, and it took us a while to be able to track a straight line. I remember the brief, overwhelming feeling of working hard for 10 or 15 minutes and not seeing the other end of the first lake come any closer.
I’m not sure exactly where we put in that trip, but I believe it was from the Ely side of things, and it may have been somewhere along the Kawishiwi River chain. I don’t remember how far we went, and I don’t remember the total number of days we put in. Here’s what I do remember: I remember seeing the old pastor’s naked ass as he skinny dipped right in front of boy’s camp. Don’t read this wrong, he was a good dude as far as I can tell, but he liked to be naked. I remember feeling strong and superior when the two oldest boys on the trip complained nonstop for days. One of them was overweight and looked like a rat terrier, and he wouldn’t shut up, ever. I remember the loons and the stars at night and I remember the deep smells of water and rainclouds and campfires. I remember my first taste of true outdoor living, real wilderness, where there were no cars or noises or anything else. It was complete, utter, overwhelming pure bliss. And I remember May.
Actually I don’t remember May all that clearly, but I do remember what it felt like to be in love. She was the younger of two sisters the old pastor had adopted, I believe they had been born in Vietnam--I apologize if that’s incorrect. I think she was either my age or a year older, and I remember how the entire front of my body felt like it was going to fly away when she was nearby. Our camps were split between guys and girls, so I didn’t get to see her all that much. There’s one moment that I either remember or I totally made up: it was evening and we had either already had dinner or it was cooking on the fire. We were in a campsite on a peninsula that reached out into a lake, and the sun was beginning to set. May was out there and I walked up to her, slowly and terrified. I had in my head to either tell her I loved her or to ask her if I could kiss her. . .
Neither happened and I don’t know if that memory is even real, but I can still get the impression of how alive it felt to want to be close to someone that intensely. There’s no great romance story here, nothing happened, but I fell in love over and over on that trip. I was an awkward, unabashedly excited preteen with thick glasses. I fell madly in love with the woods, those northern, dark, quiet woods that I miss every single night I’m not in them. I fell in love with May, this unsuspecting girl that played an important role in my life, and I think I fell in love with life itself at the same time.
I’ve been back dozens of times, on many personal trips and then later as a guide. For years I worked to offer young people a similar experience with the Wilderness as I had myself. There are few better ways than a long canoe trip to build character, grapple with life and learn to be yourself. I feel that place deeply in my bones and in my heart, it’s a part of me and I’m a part of it. In our culture we’re lucky if we happen into a bona fide rite of passage, and this northern border Wilderness is where I took a clear step into growing up and into who I was meant to become. Everything must be done to conserve and protect our public lands, and there’s no single place I would rally around more powerfully than the Boundary Waters. Rally with me today by signing the petition to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining.
Dan Doty is a producer, director and writer based in Bozeman, Montana. He grew up idealizing the North Shore and the Boundary Waters, and for many years he led therapeutic and correctional wilderness programs in the north woods.