So after a couple days at home, I was off again. I’m starting to become pretty well acquainted with my sleeping bag. When I got to the college, I had the impression that I was the only person on the whole campus. When I went to my first meal at the dining hall, a continental breakfast, I saw that I was actually not that far off. There were only five people eating; we all sat together and talked about why we were there. By lunch there were six people, but then the numbers started getting bigger faster, and within the next day this year’s full complement of 28 GOOP people had arrived.
First came training—this year, instead of training people on canoeing strokes, I trained them on navigation, which was a disaster the first time but worked out fine with the other three shifts of GOOPers, once I’d gotten the hang of it. I should have told them all how to find north with Polaris, but it slipped my mind. The next day we packed and then we shipped out, just like that. It was a fun eight-hour bus ride, I suppose, filled with playing contact (a shouted word game) and watching movies. But we got to Manito-wish too late for me to have time to hang out with Walter, whom I hadn’t seen since last summer. All we got to do was talk for a few minutes while I was supposed to be helping unload our buses. And the next morning we were going to eat breakfast together, but he had to leave because they were having him kill a mouse that hadn’t been killed when a mousetrap caught it. Sounds like he got the crap end of the stick for a lot of the summer. But I did tell him I’d be sure to visit him in Oklahoma this semester. He says his college’s town is a rail town, so it should be doable.
So we paddled out, me and Sasha leading our five first-years—Gus, Ellie, Anya, Rosemary, and Linda. (Out of 20 first-years this year, there were only seven guys, and we were the one group that ended up not having two of them.) We paddled all up the Manitowish River that first day, and then down Nixon Creek, where I pointed out the Black Hole to everyone: a place at the Nixon Creek portage take-out where the mud will eat you. Very shortly after I pointed it out to everyone, Linda stepped directly into it. But she managed to get out so that she could do it a second time. Then she stopped doing that. The rest of us would later conclude for her that she has brief blackouts where she just does really stupid things for no reason, like the one back in the cabin before we left where I was telling one of my favorite jokes, and as I was telling it, she guessed what the punchline was going to be, and asked: “Oh, is this like Tetris?” No one had ever seen someone ruin a joke so suddenly and completely before, which they said actually made it funnier than if I’d gotten to tell the whole thing. That was one wet and squishy portage, the one from Nixon Creek, but we managed to splorsh through the bog and up to the road and get to the next lake. Mostly Gus and I did the portaging: Gus has canoed a lot before, and of course I have lots of experience portaging canoes. Plus, Ellie and Linda and Sasha are all very small. Along the portage trail, I showed Gus what bunchberries look like, since we both also have a big interest in wild foods. We all got to clean ourselves off decadently in White Sand Lake, so we didn’t have Nixon Creek on us the next day.
The next day was our short one, and deceptively sunny—with that kind of sun, you wouldn’t think it could be so tremendously windy. Since we were going across the wind, not into it, we all managed to get across White Sand Lake to our portage okay, but after we got to Lost Canoe Lake, things got uneven. I was paddling with Anya, who’s a strong paddler, and we got across easily, especially with the dead weight of Gus slicing our canoe through the waves. The girls had benched Gus before we started to try to even out the speeds. When we landed at the next takeout, we saw that the other boats were still well behind us, so we portaged what we had to Pallette Lake. They still weren’t back, so we walked along the beach to find them and skip rocks. Linda and Rosemary got in next; they had apparently done a lot of walking, but were now making progress. But the last boat we could only see far across the lake, way back there. They were walking the boat along the shore. They started paddling, and finally managed to get to the landing. We later discovered that because Ellie and Sasha, two very light people, had taken the lightest packs in their canoe, the wind just took them for a ride wherever it was blowing. They blew back past the same peninsula four different times. They resolved to even the weights out a little more in the future. But this wind was, in fact, abnormal, and all the groups we passed talked about it. One group said they were on the chain of five lakes that day, and at one point the wind was so severe that they were paddling at top capacity right into it and going nowhere at all. So they asked some country club people if they could portage through their land, and tried again a little farther down, where I guess they were able to at least go a little bit.
Happily, after all that wind, we only had Pallette Lake to paddle across before we ended our short day. The campsite had a rocky beach, but it was still beautiful, because it was Pallette Lake—I’d been touting its beauty from day one. We sat around in camp and lay on the beach and gave each other massages. The girls speculated as to who of the twenty GOOPers would couple up with whom. (Gus with Anya, they said. I heard second-hand that this later turned out to be right.) Gus joined in the fun a little later. We all swam in the glassy-clear water. We cooked nasty pizza pockets that everyone snarfed down. We enjoyed ourselves.
Day three brought Stevenson Creek, but, bizarrely, it was not bad at all. The whole Midwest has been having a tremendously wet summer, and so the water levels on Stevenson were up dramatically. That meant no walking in the mud whatsoever. It also meant that the dock where we put in had fallen apart and drifted all asunder, but you win some, you lose some. By the time we finished the creek, we had only had to get out of the canoes three times, all for beaver dams. I felt like we hadn’t even earned the right to go into Trout Lake. But go we did anyhow, and after a snack on the beach and some chatting with our second intersecting group of the day, we paddled right across that without any argument from the wind at all. In fact, we got to the rope swing with no problems, and everyone even jumped off of it. Rosemary and Ellie were both reluctant, but peer pressure can be a powerful force, and in this case I choose to believe it was decidedly for the good, because that rope swing is nothing but lots of fun. There’s cold too, but that’s the water’s fault, not the rope swing’s. To warm back up we paddled to the Trout River, and then careened down it in a leisurely sort of way as it banged us into trees and rocks. We got to our campsite pretty late, but we made spaghetti, which didn’t take us long. Gus and I tried to make a fire with a bowdrill (after the regular fire had already been made, so we weren’t cutting into cooking time). But despite our strenuous and best efforts, we never got a coal to form. Maybe we had the wrong types of wood. In the meantime, I suppose it did get us out of helping with dinner. Ellie eyed us working and said: “You know we do have a lighter, right?” We both just gave her the evilest looks we could muster. Everyone but everyone knows the point of a bowdrill isn’t the fire you get at the end, but the act of getting it with a bowdrill. Unless you actually don’t have a lighter, in which case you probably actually want to use the fire.
The next day I woke up and stepped outside the tent and said, “Oh. Chance of rain.” Before everyone else got out, Sasha asked, “So are you a prophet then?” But when they saw the sky they agreed. We ate oatmeal and then paddled down the Trout River some more. A lot more, in fact, past the duck blind, past the cranberry farm, and finally into Wild Rice Lake. I had forgotten about this lake and the next, and everyone was very disappointed that we had five lakes this day and not three. But not nearly as disappointed as they were when we got halfway across Alder Lake and it started raining. And that was nothing compared to how we all felt when the rain spawned thunder and forced us to delay getting back into the water after our wet, cold lunchtime. Eventually it cleared but then farther down the lake it happened again, so this time we hauled up next to some cabin, awkwardly. And finally we saw lightning at the end of the lake, and hauled up on a little beach. But Sasha and Rosemary had been behind us, and stopped underneath a tree on a marshy little spit of land. After the rest of us stood there being cold awhile, I asked, “Is their boat floating away?” We studied it. “Their boat’s floating away.” And to confirm this hunch, they yelled to us about their escaping boat. So Gus and I paddled quickety-fast over to it and brought it back to them, which they thought was pretty swell. They waited out the rest of the storm with us. Eventually there was no more thunder, so we cautiously tried another lake, and got all the way across it! Same for the next lake, and by then we knew we were in the clear to go across Island Lake, the longest of the day. We even saw the sun from that lake. Our old friend. Camp that night was surprisingly unmiserable, considering what a cold, long, wet day we’d just had. Our Thai food even turned out pretty good, even though its peanut sauce seemed destined for disaster, being made of peanut butter, water, soy sauce, and lemon juice. We drank tea and then conked out.
One last day on the trip; we found suddenly that the time had passed like nothing more than a deep breath. Ellie and Linda mainly, but actually everyone, apparently decided that I was a good singer (I’d been singing them songs that I remembered since Trout Lake, to acquaint them with worthwhile lyricists), and asked me to sing songs. In this way we paddled our slow way up the lower Manitowish River, the current annoyingly appreciable. We were just getting to the dam when Leslie and Kate’s group, which we’d passed in the morning before they left, caught up to us. But they had lunch at the portage, whereas we’d already eaten our candy bars, so we made it back to camp first. Too bad, I believe we were all thinking; Gus had floated the idea several times of just sticking around out there for a few months and saying the heck with college. But the girls all wanted their showers and their normal food, so we managed to get back into the swing without too much trouble.
We rode back home the next day, this time with lots more to talk about. When we were getting to our exit on I-80, the bus suddenly got a lot louder. We got to the exit and pulled up to the stop sign at normal speed, but then the driver, Ron, put on the flashers and got out, telling us, “Be ready to get out if there’s a fire.” Turned out we had broken down at pretty much the very most convenient place possible, not counting the possibility of the engine failing right after we got back. So we got Security to drive us all back to campus, and since the bus’s belowdecks compartments couldn’t be opened without the engine pumping air to them, we didn’t even have to unpack our stuff that night. But I did have to sleep in my clothes with no blanket.
Since then, I’ve been haunting the campus, a student not technically here, sleeping each night in the EcoHouse living room. I’ve been doing a lot of hanging around, and absolutely no worrying about the books I have to buy and the classes I have to take. It’s pretty terrific, actually. But I can’t deprive EcoHouse of their living room space forever, and besides, I have a journey to embark on. So I’m probably going to stick around here until next Monday morning and then drive back home. By then I plan to have written my proposal for my project on why academic writing is so hard to understand, and maybe to have finally conquered that damn train that I keep failing to hop around here. Practice makes perfect. I’ve already done some camping out with a girl who I may have mentioned, and I’ve done plenty of hanging out, all over with everyone.
So here’s something I’ve been thinking about. You know my plan to go to Korea after college and teach English? I was thinking that a plane ride is a totally lame way to get across the globe. I decided a much more interesting way to do it would be to contract for a temporary job aboard a cargo ship that’s headed there. That idea is part of my new plan of making my life as interesting as possible, which is sort of the same thing as saying “Never be bored.” Ethan came up with that little dictum, but I think it’s pretty much the greatest. Time spent bored is time that could have been spent better. We only have a certain amount of time here, and I plan to spend all mine as well as I possibly can. Why be bored when, with just a bit of effort, I could be having lots of fun? I’m going to be out there doing stuff.