If I had a blog, today I would finish telling you the story of my best Christmas ever…
Christmas Day dawned clear and cold. Without the folderol of opening presents or cooking a big company dinner, we ate our Paddler’s Porridge. This is our usual North Woods breakfast as it was the traditional breakfast of the French Voyageurs, the legendary fur-traders and explorers who made this part of the north part of song and lore during the 18th and 19th centuries. In need of a hearty breakfast, these strapping young men started each day with hot cereal made from of oatmeal, mixed with wild rice, and craisins. I add cinnamon, vanilla, cream, and butter to up the ante just a bit, but either way, after a bowl of Paddler’s Porridge, even a Southerner is ready to spend the day out on the frozen lakes.
Once the dishes were washed, we bundled up and strapped on our skis, traveling east towards Uranus and Conchu lakes. Around noon, we crossed from Conchu to the Kawishiwi River, a ribbon of ice between tree-lined shores. The name: Kawishiwi (or Kawashaway) comes from the Algonquin words Kaw, meaning “no” and Ashaway meaning “the place between.” To the Chippewa, who dwelt here until the coming of the white man, this land of “No Place Between” was a spirit land; home to those who had passed beyond the mortal coil and was forbidden to those who still lived. Despite the legend, we chose to follow in the footsteps of naturalist Sigurd Olson, who came to this place often, in search of some sense of the magic the Chippewa found in this world between worlds. We did not know what we would find, but it was thrilling to be in a place so steeped with mystery.
As we traveled along the river, we discovered we were not the only ones to use the Kawishiwi as a winter roadway. The new-fallen snow was crisscrossed with the tracks of deer, foxes, moose, and wolves and it made me feel good to be part of this tapestry of life, a member of The Wild. In the trees along the shoreline, chickadees, timberjays, and pine siskins went about their daily round, gathering pine-nuts or retrieving seeds hidden during the bounty of autumn. In the distance, we heard the raspy voice of ravens patrolling the landscape for food. The wolves rely on the ravens’ aerial reconnaissance to locate deer or moose that have died from injuries, starvation, or cold. The ravens circle above the carcass, calling loudly, in hopes that the wolves will come and tear the bounty into bits the ravens can share. It is a somewhat macabre relationship, but that is the way of The Wild, the way of The North.
Lunchtime found us near a frozen waterfall. Across the river was a rock outcropping where we ate the sandwiches we’d packed for just this occasion. Despite the cold temperatures, the dark rock face was warm and it made a perfect rest stop after a long morning of skiing. By the time we’d eaten and basked in the sun, it was time to turn towards home. That far north, it was twilight by 3:30 and full dark an hour later, so we didn’t have time to waste on our journey home.
We crossed onto Lark Lake at sunset, the sky awash in magenta and purple. Most winter sunsets Up North are quite pale, so this blaze of color was a perfect end to a perfect Christmas day.
Nearly twenty years have passed since our Christmas on Lark Lake. We’ve been back to Ely many times since and each trip has been more akin to a pilgrimage than a vacation. There is something powerful, mystical and magical in the wilderness of the North that opens a person to experiences most profound. Part the magic comes from living simply – without the bells and whistles of modern convenience – and the rest is experiencing Nature in her wildest, freest form. Up North, Nature is still a wild thing, unfettered by human design. When you step into the woods or onto a frozen lake in the North Country, you become the servant and Nature is the master. It is an exhilarating experience, a gift from The Wild I will never forget.