There’s wildness in each of us, more in those who claim there is none. Deep down every one of us actively nurtures a secret desire to move more, to wear less, to eat with our hands, to use our toes to make fists in the sand, and to breathe deeply while the sun goes down over a body of water. Once nature’s roar is heard, ringing phones and beeping computers seem almost comically irritating.
After sleeping comfortably in the outdoors and internalizing the simplicity of coffee from a steel cup while sitting on a rock, Starbucks looks like a hilarious cacophony of irritations. When the wilderness gets inside a person they become able to size up every aspect of their surroundings with a confidence that can neither be bought nor taught, but must be gained by endurance.
Kerry is a server and bartender at a major North East ski resort. She works at the pub at the top of the mountain, her boyfriend of fifteen years, Rob, works at the big pub in the base lodge. Consummate professionals, Rob and Kerry maintain polite dignity no matter what kind of interaction they encounter. Once while covering Kerry’s shift Rob was asked what the resort does with all the moguls in the summer time. Rob smiled, placed the round of Mei Thais on the table, and informed the guests that moguls become moose in the summer and only bed down to be covered in snow again sometime around Christmas.
It’s really their easy going nature that makes them so skilled and so able to profit at their jobs. They’re both surfers and creative types from Daytona Beach who fell in love with the quiet beauty and raucous grandeur of New Hampshire’s North Country five years ago.
A while back I started bringing them along on my annual island trips. I know what is conjured in the reader’s mind when “Island Trip” is read. This is the Northeast, there are no palm trees, but twisted cedars bending over rocky shores. There are few gliding gulls, swooping at bread crumbs, but great Loons majestically floating by, trailing half a dozen offspring in their wake and sounding their huge cacophonous songs late into the evening.
The sand of the Northeastern Lakes are all rock and stone for the most part, not an ideal place to spread out a towel and read a book. However, unlike Portsmouth and Old Orchard Beach, there are no crowds at all. In fact when the odd kayak or small motored craft cruises by the island where we are camped the passersby seems to move on with some relief, as though they doubted that they would see anyone else. To see myself in shorts and a bandana, drinking a beer beside my pirate flag is a great sign of civilization and if the waves pick up on the lake, as they are want to do without much warning, we may provide their only safe harbor for miles.
I paddled with six companions this year. And every one of them manifested that wildness that only wild places can evoke. First timers have it the hardest. On his first trip out, Rob kept his phone in his pocket even though it was turned off or set to airplane mode. Kerry checked her watch a lot. They were hesitant to open the coolers or interact with the stoves and lanterns. They didn’t seem to trust that I’d packed enough meals or had any real intention of providing them with potable water. But all this was good. The first timer changes in observable ways over the first twelve hours on the island.
First I noticed the cell phone bulge was gone from Rob’s pocket. Then Kerry stopped caring about “time” and began to worry more about events like dinner, sunset, and morning coffee. Finally they offered to assist with putting out sandwich stuff for lunch, heating the water for dishes, and then when they were really starting to get into it they lit the lanterns and fired up the big propane stove to help with dinner.
My favorite observable points in the metamorphosis to wildness are the final phases. Once the newcomer exhibits all the aspects of group participation and familiarity with gear it may still take a day or two for them to break out of their front country chrysalis. I know the wild creature within each of us is ready to spread its backcountry wings when they inquire with little hesitation, “Will you show me how to use your ax?”
All day people add the variable of traffic to time, they consider distance, and then they account for duration of stay. Traffic + distance + duration of stay + return trip = journey. It’s a bit of a mind game to force into these variables the equation for going-to-get-firewood. Traffic is out of the question save for giving a moose their right of way. Distance is unknown because destination is unknown (for that matter route is also unknown). Duration of stay is directly compounded by one’s ability to recognize dry wood and the tools with which they have equipped themselves such as ax, saw, and cordage for binding together kindling. The return trip is often half the elapsed time of the trip out as the wood has been gathered and exploration becomes limited under the heavy burden of the adventurer’s prize.
We all exist in a state of fire familiarity from the day we first extinguish a birthday candle with our largest huff and puff and that usual spray of spittle. But to locate the wood, saw off chunks, split those pieces, and organize all of them by size. Then to light one’s first campfire… Few accomplishments resonate with what remains of our latent instincts like one’s first fire.
Rob and Kerry have their own canoe now. Next year Rob plans to be equipped with his first real backcountry knife. While at work Kerry has to be reminded to check her watch and remain conscious of time. I take tremendous joy right around sunset, whether we’re all meeting for drinks or grilling out on my back deck. Conversations dry up, heads turn toward the dying of the light, and these Northeasterners pay a silent homage to something that happens every day and that most people around them remain ever willing to ignore.