August 18, 2004
The World Music of the Quetico-Superior
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- This past week I spent my days not tapping out
clusters of verbal symbols on a computer screen but rather chopping
fires, stamping my feet in the damp cold, and hauling 60-pound
Duluth packs over long portages.
It was glorious. Each August I spend a week canoeing through Quetico-Superior,
the two million-acre wilderness that straddles the U.S.-Canada border in
northern Minnesota. I do it to clear my mind, to remind myself of life’s
basics, and to open my soul to the wide world.
What a precious global resource we have under our stewardship in Minnesota,
this labyrinth of glacial lakes and virgin pine forests that offers a clear
window directly into humankind’s prehistoric past.
This year I traveled with my best friend from Rochester and his 14-year-old
son. At our last camp site, in the sprawling Lake Saganagon, we pitched
our tent among seven towering cedars that soared a hundred feet high and
surrounded us like strong watchful gods. Thanks to American and Canadian
wilderness protection laws, Quetico-Superior today looks much the way it
probably did in 8,000 B.C., when the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded.
I carried one book with me this year, but even more I carried, as I do
every year, a mind filled with a year’s worth of the chattering of
the daily grind. It usually takes a day or two of canoeing and portaging
before that noise subsides. After that I start to hear the morning bird
calls, the forest insects’ hum, and the piercing cries of the loons
My book was a selection of essays by Sigurd Olson – another precious
Minnesota resource – called The Meaning of Wilderness. A canoe guide
in Quetico-Superior before he became one of America’s most popular
nature writers, Olson believed that wilderness was an essential counterbalance
to fast-paced, technological modern life.
If that was true in his day, how much more true in ours. I wondered though
if Olson had advice about how the experience of wilderness might encourage
not only individual spiritual strength but also communal civic strength.
Was this even possible?
The first three days of our trip this year, it rained. The three of us
dripped and shivered and huddled and thanked God that the wilderness adversity
he’d served up was, all things considered, safely manageable. Then
the fourth day broke blue and sunny and we duffed lazily all day long at
our cedar-scented Lake Saganagon site, stretching our bare legs in the
100% mosquito-free air, and I read all of my Sigurd Olson book in one gulp.
Olson’s great passion was to offer his readers solid reasons why
natural wilderness was critical to humankind and should be saved. The reasons
he offered changed over the years. As a young man in his 20’s and
30’s, Olson stressed the simple pleasures of enjoying pristine nature,
of getting hard outdoor exercise, of breathing clean air, and of making
lifelong friendships on the trail and around the campfire.
In his middle years, he broadened his pro-wilderness stance to include
economic (wilderness as recreational resource), educational (wilderness
as a natural history classroom), scientific (wilderness as a biology laboratory),
and ecological and environmental arguments for wilderness preservation.
In his 60’s and 70’s, Olson at last began to plumb the subject
that all along had seemed to lurk just beneath the surface of all his writings – the
spiritual value of wilderness. Humankind was born and for 100,000 years
or more had lived in the wilderness, Olson argued. Wilderness and its challenges
had shaped the core of human character.
Thus, when modern technological man goes into the wilderness he feels in
his bones that he is returning home.
While some of his spiritual roots have been severed, he still has his gods,” Olson
wrote of modern man. “He needs to know that the spiritual values
that once sustained him are still there in the timelessness and majestic
rhythms of those parts of the world he has not ravished.”
The music of pristine nature resonates deep within all human beings. It
is the same song inside all of us. If we can only manage to hear it, it
is a unifying force that transcends all the superficial boundaries that
In Quetico-Superior, this magical music plays. The bald eagles swoop. The
fish jump. The loons cry, giving us goose-bumps. The full moon falls pianissimo,
and the sun rises like cymbals crashing. Inside and outside, we connect.
Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report