Camp time is humbling. You can do what seems like two days’ work, completely tire yourself out, and discover that it’s only 1:45pm. That said, 1:45 is fairly late when you’re up before dawn and asleep shortly after sunset.
As I write this, a dragonfly has landed on my notebook and watches. Now he hovers in front of me; then returns to land on the book. Several minutes pass and he remains. Today was full of lessons, he seems to remind me. Like a campfire, this sunset dragonfly enraptures with the hypnotic diversity of his movements; leading me wandering into my own mind.
I went to sleep early the night before, even by camp standards, with sunlight still gently streaming through the trees. I suspect I will again tonight. I awoke before dawn this morning and prepared my coffee and cereal before packing up camp. Once I launched my canoe, I headed east when I should have gone south. An easy mistake to make, I tell myself, when camped on an island that is, on the map, only slightly larger than the dot marking the campsite itself. It becomes hard to identify where you are. As I scanned the edge of the lake, groggy eyed and squinting, to find distinguishing features marking my position, the sun was rising just over the tree tops and sharp beams of light hit my face. Realization hit me like the clarity of this light rising in the east. Ah, south is to my right.
Having righted my course, literally, I portaged over a steep beast of a hill to Rivalry Lake, by the looks of it more of a swamp than anything else. The dragonfly now perches on the end of my pen, alights to hover before me, and rests again a moment on my pen before flying away. As the dragonfly skates into the distance, it drags my mind with it further into reverie.
The water of Rivalry Lake looked to be perhaps two feet deep before muck of an unappreciable depth began. The portage into Rivalry was, as you can imagine, just as mucky. My young dog, Mona, never having encountered a substance such as this, mistook it for solid footing and, despite my warnings, sunk in neck deep and became paralyzed briefly in shock before slowly backing herself out. To load our canoe, I had to stand on a log and use my paddle for balance as a walking stick.
A small seaplane flew overhead as I straightened the packs in the canoe. It circles back over and disturbs my peace of mind with thoughts of emergency and search parties, foreshadowing the next part of my morning.
After pushing off through the muck, I crossed Rivalry and headed toward the portage to Lake of the Clouds. A mere 75 rods separated me from my planned route looping through Lake of the Clouds, to Lunar Lake, around into Amoeber, and back into Knife lake further down from where I had entered Gijikiki Lake yesterday. Through the clouds and to the moon, I thought, an irresistible route.
I carried my packs up another steep hill figuring that the name Lake of the Clouds must denote an increase in elevation. I reached a fork in the path. Mona trotted toward the right, but I had been leaning towards the “left-hand path” of late and so I called her back and went that way. I was pleased to see the path clearly continue left and I felt vindicated. After what seemed like many more than 75 winding rods of tromping down this path it suddenly ended in a mossy hill.
Mona had run to the top of the hill. There was a ravine running perpendicular to my course, but neither left nor right looked to be a trail. The hill too looked untrodden, its moss undisturbed, but I climbed it to get a look around. Mind you, I am carrying all of my gear for this three week trip, and am again using my paddle to balance and push myself up even the slightest step.
From the hilltop, I saw nothing resembling a trail and there was no water visible in any direction just trees all around. I carefully descended the hill, and I went up and down the ravine but found nothing. Generally, a portage will be relatively clear of branches as people with large packs and canoes make a gap in the woods, but no matter where I checked branches whipped me in the face and scratched my bare legs.
Tuckered out and getting aggravated, I went back to the last semblance of a trail before it dead ended, and dropped my gear by a tree. I hung a bright red stuff-sack from a branch. I grabbed my map, a water bottle, and the GPS device I had brought but never before used. I set a GPS marker at my location and began back tracking, hoping to spot a turn I had missed before. Nothing. I returned to that fork in the road, maybe Mona was right. No, it too terminated in forest.
I returned to my bags at the farthest spot along the path, and checked my map. The lake should be to the south. I planned to bushwhack it to Lake of the Clouds, find the portage on that side, and backtrack back to my gear and canoe. The exit of the portage onto Lake of the Clouds was to the southeast, but the largest mass of the lake was more to the southwest. Fearing I’d over shoot it if I headed straight for the portage, I proceeded south-southwest hoping to find the lake.
GPS in hand, I came to a hill and saw an opening ahead in the treetops; a hopeful indication of a lake. I kept trudging southerly, confident this would be the now-fabled Lake of the Clouds. With each step I took, my destination took on more meaning.
I reached the opening in the trees only to find that it was a deep gulch. By now, Mona had started to whine and seemed quite concerned for our well-being. I had been at it in the woods now for well over an hour, maybe two. Seaplanes circled in my mind.
Looking around, I found myself with no reference point clearly showing where I had come from. I headed north and made for the GPS marker indicating where I’d left my gear. The margin of error on this GPS was a 30 foot radius and its compass is based off of comparing your relative positions as you move. These things hadn’t worried me at all before, but now they seemed like alarming deficiencies.
Despite my doubts, I made it back to my gear. I loaded everything onto my body and proceeded, defeated, back to Rivalry Lake. I had initially wondered about the name Rivalry, now I fumed about having lost the competition to a swampy, muck-filled excuse for a lake. I imagined coming across other people and working together with them to find the portage. None came. There was no campsite on Rivalry, and who would want to sleep by a mud hole anyway, so I would have to cross Rivalry and go back down to Gijikiki and the island where I started this morning.
Trudging towards Rivalry, I searched for a lesson in this misadventure. If things are as they should be, if I am trying to act conscious of the wholeness of all things and occurrences, if I am trying to deprogram some of the deeply imbedded duality in my worldview, then what am I to take from failing to reach the Lake of the Clouds?
I thought perhaps I was searching too hard for answers and lessons and should instead simply content myself with the knowledge that I did not get there and that is fine, perfect even. Failure is just another conditioned term. I thought it was a good lesson in overcoming my compulsion to always move forward and in my attachment to goals for the sake of themselves.
Just then, I came upon the fork in the path. The one I had checked before was not in fact the same fork that Mona and I had originally noticed. I hadn’t backtracked far enough! “Aha!,” I thought, “I can make it to Lake of the Clouds! All is not lost! I guess I learned my lesson and here is my reward! After all, I did turn around instead of foolishly continuing across that gulch before. I did control my impulse towards forward momentum. I had accepted defeat as part and parcel of the whole.”
I walked quickly down this new path. “Oh Mona! You were right all along. I should have trusted your instincts instead of my hootenanny ‘left-hand path’ non-sense. Here we go!” … It ended in the woods. “Shucks.” I swallowed hard. I dropped my head, disappointed, before breaking out in laughter. I guess I didn’t have it figured out yet. The lesson hadn’t quite taken.
It wasn’t just about thinking twice about forward momentum and blind determination. More than that, I needed to learn to accept and surrender to the perfection of everything. What is forward anyway? I don’t have enough perspective to know, and yet I fool myself into thinking that I do and I hinge my happiness on what I think is progress. Instead, I want to act not based on my material drives but on transcendental knowing. I wish I had a clearer idea of what that was, but that same wish defeats the point. Trust, surrender to a perfect whole. I headed back to Gijikiki and maybe that was forward. Forwards, backwards, regardless it was perfect.
As I approached my canoe, which I had left near the shore, I noticed a branch with many others piled against it creating a barrier blocking the trail I was coming from. I had walked right around it before. I chuckled at the path that was worn around this barrier, and at how my blind determination had contributed to the confusion of future portagers as I added to this path. How many would follow the tracks I have worn further into the woods that lead only to gulches in the middle of nowhere.
I half-ass loaded my canoe and shoved off. As I paddled out into Rivalry, I wondered, “was the real portage simply further down the shore?” I didn’t need to find out. I crossed the lake and stepped out into knee deep mud, less concerned this time about avoiding it. I glanced back from where I came, and scanned the shoreline further down, hoping to see canoeists glide out from some unseen cranny that I had missed. They didn’t, and I walked ploddingly down the steep hill, away from the clouds, and back into Gijikiki trying to accept things as they are.