If I had a blog, today I would write about the best Christmas of my life.
Now that Thanksgiving is past, we have begun to enjoy our Christmas traditions, one of which is watching Chevy Chase in “Christmas Vacation.” We saw our old favorite last night and, not for the first time, it occurred to me that only in a Hollywood fiction can I find merriment in that kind of chaotic holiday gathering. In reality, a holiday season like the one on Christmas Vacation would be a waking nightmare: The throngs of guests, the crowded rooms, the clanging music, the clatter of cooking and serving, and the cacophony of screaming kids and barking dogs is more than an introvert like me can bear. It isn’t that such gatherings are innately bad, it’s simply not an experience an introvert can survive.
The good news is: The gods, to whom I am eternally grateful, gave me a family of introverts, so the quiet holidays I love have been less the exception than the rule. In fact, it was in the company of my fellow introverts, that I experienced the best Christmas of my life.
In December 1997 we decided to depart the commercial bombardment of modern life and retreat to the North Woods of Minnesota, for Christmas completely off the grid. We rented a remote cabin, accessible only by snowshoe, dogsled, or cross-country skis. Twenty miles from the town of Ely and four miles from the nearest road, our cabin on Lark Lake was the perfect backdrop for a Christmas with no strings attached. Our only source of power was propane, which fueled the lamps, stove, and refrigerator. We had bottled water to drink and to use in cooking, but wash water had to be dipped from a hole in the foot-thick ice on the lake. We had no plumbing, so an outhouse met those needs, and the wood-fired sauna next to the cabin offered a soul-cleansing way to freshen up at the end of day. No phones, no internet, and no television gave us sanctuary from the barrage of Christmas merchandising while the short-wave radio that sat in the window offered us access to music from around the world.
Our journey began on December 21st, the Winter Solstice. After gathering supplies at Zup’s grocery store, we drove twenty miles out “The Fernberg” to Ojibway Lake. There we met our host, Steve Lampman, who had his snow-machine ready to take our heavier supplies across the frozen lakes to the cabin. We followed Steve’s tracks 4 miles across Ojibway and Triangle Lakes, to Lark Lake. The winter sun was pale as it shone down on the sheen of ice and snow and all around us was silence, glorious, luminous silence. This was not the quiet of a winter evening at home, this was The Great Silence – the phenomenon naturalist and Ely-resident Sigurd Olson described as, “…more than quiet, something that had no beginning or end, the great primeval hush the land once knew.” Not only had we left the world behind, we had entered a new world, a place as sacred as the manger on a Christmas long ago.
We walked along in silence, lost in our own thoughts on this mystical place, but as we reached the center of Ojibway, my sister-in-law, Kindra looked down at our icy path and whispered, “We’re walking on water.” We stopped and took in the depth of what Kindra had observed. It was clear that this was going to be no ordinary Christmas.
As we crossed the last portage, through the woods between Triangle and Lark Lake, we say our cabin, tucked away among the balsam and fir trees. The propane lamps glowed warmly in the gathering dark and the little wood-stove had things warm and toasty inside. The heat of the stove drew out the fragrance of the pine logs that made the walls of the cabin and filled our need for a Christmas tree to celebrate the season. Out on the lake, the sunset turned the snow to pink, then violet before sinking beneath the horizon. Longest Night was upon us and we honored the ancient rituals of the Solstice with good food, good wine, and the love of family. It was a night I wished would never end.
Over the next few days, we settled into the Great Silence, our spirits buoyed by the absence of television, ringing telephones, and automobiles speeding along the highway. The only sounds were the wind in the pines and the occasional call of a raven. One afternoon, we heard wolves howling nearby and though a chill ran up my spine, I have never been more thrilled. We had seen the wolves’ huge footprints on the lake that morning, so we knew the pack was nearby and though I sensed a primordial fear of the big predators rise, it was quickly tempered by the exhilaration of walking on the same ground as wild wolves. For one brief moment, I had a connection with the big greys and I was overcome with joy.
To be continued….