This past week I had an opportunity to reminisce about my short and relatively uneventful stint as a boyscout. Well let me correct myself, cubscout (it’s been my understanding that if you can’t manage to graduate cubscouts then you don’t deserve the official title of “boyscout”). Conservation outreach and education is something I am really passionate about and some coworkers and I put together an event for a group of scouts. We had an exciting activity planned for them where we allowed them to build a native fish tank through which they would earn a fisheries and wildlife merit badge. Except we had forgotten that the excitement levels of 12 year old boys seldom need elevation. Two seconds into the introductory presentation and my partner was admirably fending off the questions and stories from the rambunctious crowd. In the end, it was a great event. The kids were very intelligent and had a blast learning about native fish and their habitats.
In a way though, it reminded me why I had quit as a second year Webelos. When you place kids at that age in such an unstructured environment it can quickly become a Lord of the Flies experiment. Really the unbridled enthusiasm they exhibit is the way it should be, except I was the quiet, introspective, task oriented kid in the troop. I’m supposed to build a birdhouse? Okay give me the wood, nails, and directions and don’t distract me until I’m done. Sadly, I never really even got any outdoor experience in the scouts. It was a good bet that our leader, who had dutifully stepped into the position when no one else wanted to, might have gone from ulcers to full blown heart attack if she’d led our band of rascals into the woods. Thus our activities were limited to things that could be done in a school cafeteria, namely bird houses and pinewood derby races. I’ve always longed for that quiet time found alone in nature. On the downside, In attempting to “go it alone” I haven’t had the same opportunity to accumulate the requisite equipment and skills in which to fully enjoy it.
In June I am planning a pre-grad school camping and fishing vacation across the Northern U.S. beginning at Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The 30 square mile area is like a mini Boundary Waters with numerous lakes connected by portages and will cause me to confront some of the most intense camping of my life, alone.
To gain some experience with my newly purchased camping gear I decided to take an overnight camping trip out to Three Creeks Conservation Area yesterday. On the hike in I saw countless wildflowers in shades of yellow, blue, purple, even red. Eventually, I left the trail and found a nice campsite next to a rock outcrop along a gently flowing stretch of Turkey Creek. It was a pleasant spot. Sinewy gray trunks of American Hornbeam trees, true to their common name musclewood, reached to the sun under the shade large walnut trees. The moving water kept the mosquitoes down. My senses were treated to a bevy of sounds and smells. I fell asleep to the conversation of two barred owls and the chatter of a racoons, and woke to the gobble of a distant turkey who had survived another hunting season. I smelled the wild onion crushed under my tent and the distant fire of another group of campers.
The trip wasn’t without it’s hiccups. My shoes got soaked after a misstep crossing the creek, it was a little cold, and I lost some of my dinner when my pan slid off the burner of my stove.
At first I was a little sad and intimidated by the thought of going north alone but now with one more successful trip under my belt and ample experience last summer camping in Montana, I’m kind of looking forward to the silence.
Especially with my personality type I can relate to a comment I heard on the radio the other day about the distinction between “alone” and “lonely.” Alone being a physical state and lonely being a negative emotional state. My friends sometimes don’t understand and may be offended when I don’t invite them to go fishing with me. Really it is nothing personal. When I am alone in nature there are no outside expectations. I have a special bond with the select few I share the outdoors with. It doesn’t mean I’m closer to them it’s just a different relationship. Those people and I have a mutual understanding and reverence for this silence and the surroundings. It’s nice not to have the added pressure and worry over if the other person is catching fish or is too tired to continue the hike.
Sigurd Olson the consummate outdoorsman of the northwoods sums up the value of silence in relation to our noisy world perfectly in his book Reflections from the North Country.
“I have traveled as my friend did many times, and while I love to have companions with me, I discovered long ago what psychologists call “creative silence”: the impact of solitude on the mind, the awakening of ideas and thoughts normally hidden when one is with others, the emergence of concepts often lost owing to interruptions and responsibilities. During such times one drinks from the deep wells of the past.”
His is not a self centered retreat. All of this is framed in his appreciation for companionship.
“We cannot separate ourselves from society, comradeship, sharing, and love. Unless we can contribute something from wilderness experience, derive some solace or peace to share with others, then the real purpose is defeated,” he writes.
The treatment of silence is where I find peace and my mind slows to a snail’s pace. A state of mind where you can listen to yourself and God. You are Moses meeting God in the wilderness, you are Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13 listening to the whispers below the world’s shouts.