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 wood, making 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.

Bird Calls

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 more distinctly.

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.

Human Character

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.  

Nature's Song

“ 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 divide mankind.

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