A Spiritual Journey (PART 1) -- by Aaron's Dad
by Rob Johnson
Be forewarned… this is not your usual trip report because this was not your usual trip. This trip was to help me mourn the loss of my ten year old son Aaron who died of leukemia in January. He had dreamed of coming to the Boundary Waters. It was 2014 and this was the year he was supposed to go… Instead, this was my first solo trip. Without my brain trying to focus on conversation with a fellow traveler I hoped that I would be able to tackle the big issues in my life. God and I were supposed to “have words.” I was purposeful and I had rituals in mind that would help me come to grips with the loss of my son who had also become my best friend. I had a plan…
September 2nd – The Journey North
This was intended to be a longer trip. I had asked for enough time off to go on a 9 day excursion, but already I was changing my plans. I left a day later than planned so I could see my daughter off to her first day of fourth grade…definitely the right choice.
After making Anna my traditional school bus pancakes, I left home around 9:30. I started the journey by playing the songs on Aaron’s new iPod. There weren't many tunes and they weren't my style of music…but they were the perfect way to start the trip.
I wasn’t on the road an hour when I ran into my first detour. Detours, flagmen, and construction would plague the entire trip north from La Crosse. The usual 6 ½ hour trip took 7 ½ hours. Here again…things didn’t go quite as planned (in case you missed it…yup that was foreshadowing). I arrived at Nelson’s Travel Rest around 5:00. The cabin is nice and reasonably priced for Grand Marais. I would gladly stay there again.
For dinner I walked down the big hill for a BWCA trip dinner tradition, Sven & Ole’s. On the way back I stopped at the liquor store. This was the last night for cold beer after all. The nice young clerk waiting on me noticed my left over pizza container. She joked that I had brought her dinner…so I handed her the box. I really wanted eggs for breakfast, not cold pizza.
Plans for the rest of the night…get some more weight out of the big pack and do some journaling. I documented my thoughts from the long drive up. I had decided the Aaron stuff and the tears that always followed were not suited to travelling down the highway at 70 mph. So instead, I used the windshield time to contemplate my other relationships that were under enormous strain from the stress of the last year. I gained some clarity, but no conclusions. Clearly there was more to think about…
DAY 2 – The Wilderness Journey Begins
I got up at 6:30 and made it to South of the Border Café by 7:00. Hearty breakfast under my belt, I headed up the Gunflint around 8:00 and made it to the East Bearskin Lodge right around 9:00. On the way north I saw a FOX! Now that, by itself may be cool enough for some folks but foxes have taken on a unique meaning for me. On the day of Aaron’s funeral our neighbor got footage of a fox pacing back and forth across the street staring at our house. We live in the middle of a subdivision. There is never wildlife in our yards…let alone a reclusive fox in the middle of the day. Several nights before this trip I also spotted a fox walking down the sidewalk. I slowed my vehicle to the speed of the fox and was able to stay with him for quite a while. I will allow you to draw your own conclusions about the appearances of the fox…and I will draw mine. I just know I have seen more foxes in the last year than I have seen in all my 47 years combined. So I was excited by the appearance of the fox on the Gunflint trail.
I chose East Bearskin Lodge for a couple of reasons. First, they provided access to Johnson Falls and that is where I wanted to say goodbye to Aaron (our last name is Johnson). Secondly, they were the only resort on the lake that rented a Bell Magic. I really wanted to paddle one because Bells used to be made in La Crosse. Andy and Quinn from the lodge were very helpful. They gave me some insights for my trip. Some of it good to hear and helped to clarify my plans. However, some of it was disappointing too, namely that the fishing where II was headed wasn’t so hot. The only issue I had with the lodge was that the satellite phone I rented only had a 60% charge on it when I left. I figured the phone was a necessity given that I was going solo. It turns out the charge was more than enough for what I needed.
Prior to heading out, I paddled around the little bay at the resort to determine if I wanted to use a canoe paddle or a kayak paddle. I had to admit the kayak paddle would probably be a little faster. However, I am so much more comfortable with a canoe paddle, so that it what I chose. I’m quite certain I made the right call. I even wrote in my journal, “The Bell Magic paddles GREAT.”
The day was one of those on-again-off-again kind of rainy days. I would don my raincoat to stay dry only to take it off again when the rain stopped because I was too warm. By the time I made it to the first portage I had already suited and unsuited several times.
This leg of the journey started out sad. This was not how this trip was supposed to go. Aaron was supposed to be with me. The wetness on my cheeks wasn’t just from the rain. I struggled with that through the middle of the lake until my thoughts drifted to another topic…is there a God? Part of the original premise for this trip was that I would use my time alone to hammer things out with God. As it turns out, I wasn’t able to wait until this trip to do that. God and I had already come to an understanding and I was at peace with my God again.
One of the things I had worked out with God is that he is OK with me getting angry with him. He knows I will have doubts and he will be waiting for me when the doubts have passed. So I decided to test that theory by wondering if God really existed at all. I knew where I would find the answer to that question and surveyed the wonders around me from horizon to horizon. I looked to the shore and a white birch tree. Next to it was a large white pine. I knew that no matter how long it took, no matter how many generations watched, that birch would never spawn a white pine. Heck, for that matter, the cedar nearby, though it was an evergreen, still would never spawn a white pine. I looked at all of the diversity around me and I was amazed. Then I thought about a bald eagle and contemplated how much more complicated the eagle is than the tree. I just can’t fathom enough happy accidents to get from algae to eagle. Several months prior I had told God it would be so much easier to believe if he would just show himself and I realized he does…
That is when I had my first epiphany of the trip. “You can’t find God in a video game.” I am in awe when I am immersed in nature. It is that very sense of awe that inspires me and brings me closer to God. It dawned on me at that moment, if our children aren’t inspired, if they don’t get this same sense of awe, they might not ever find their God. In the virtual reality of a video game they become the god, they determine what the world looks like. They determine who lives. They determine who dies. “You can’t find God in a video game.” Not the God with a capital G. It would seem that getting our children into nature is nothing short of a moral imperative.
I then reflected on my trip from earlier in the summer when I took my daughter to the BWCA along with Heavy Canoe and his daughter. We embraced nature. My daughter embraced nature. Now when her friends start to describe a car camping trip she stops them cold and tells them, “That’s not camping.” I took solace in knowing my daughter would be able to find her sense of awe.
My introspection was broken when I spotted the portage from East Bearskin to Alder. This was my first ever solo portage and it went…better than expected. The Bell Magic is very light making it easy to portage the canoe and a small pack at the same time. That particular pack is special. I bought it for Aaron as a Christmas present in 2012. He was supposed to use it on a trip to Sylvania that next summer. Instead, he was diagnosed with cancer on April 30th. Aaron never got to use the pack but it still made it into the wilderness. The canoe and the pack were delivered safely to the other side and I came back for the big pack. Thanks to advice received here on BWCA.com, I have learned to enjoy portages so I really don’t mind doing a double. When you think about it, you go hiking in the woods at home and thoroughly enjoy yourself. Why should a trail be any different in the Bdub? My big pack is a Granite Gear Superior One. It can handle a lot of gear and still be comfortable. On a previous trip we had even nicknamed it “Big Easy.” In a surprisingly short time, with a comfortable amount of effort, I soon found myself and all my gear afloat and heading into Alder.
My original plan had been to camp the first night on Alder. However, after talking with Andy I decided to push on to Canoe Lake. That decision was made even easier when I passed the site on Alder I had wanted and it was occupied. When I approached the portage from Alder to Canoe my heart sank. There was another group of four paddlers and they wanted to camp on the same lake I did. I knew two of the three sites on Canoe are good so I still stood a chance of getting a nice spot but that was only if no one else was on the lake. It is a short portage and I cleared it in great time, but the other group had a head start. By the time I was afloat on the other side they had taken…BOTH GOOD SITES! I couldn’t believe it. Was it really two groups of two instead of one group of four? But then I heard the yelling. They had split up to investigate which site was best. I really wanted the site to the west…please let them pick the other…please let them pick the other. They took the other site! As fast as I could I paddled to the west most site. I wanted to land there before they changed their mind. I cruised across the lake and my stress dropped incredibly as my canoe slipped up to the shore and I claimed the site that would be my home for the next week.
It is really a beautiful site…at least by my standards. It had exactly what I was looking for, rocks to lay out on, open areas with just enough trees for a hammock, and (most importantly) plenty of tall white pines. In fact, the reason I was in this part of the BWCA is that folks here at BWCA.com recommended it when I told them I was looking for the big trees. Big pines have always struck me as sort of a cathedral of the woods. And a cathedral is what I needed for this trip.
I managed to get my hammock and tarp system up between rain showers. This was my first trip using a hammock so it took longer than it should have to get it hung. I use a Warbonnet Black Bird and Super Fly. After spending too much money on those two items I decided to make my own underquilt. The underquilt consisted of furniture foam backed with a Mylar safety blanket and grommets to make it easy to hang. I also suspended an old fashioned grey noisy tarp over the logs around the fire grate. That way, rain or shine, I would have a place to cook, eat, read, and write.
I was all set to base camp. The original plan had been to make a big loop up through Caribou Lake but the more I thought about it the more I was content to stay right where I was at. I had several other places I wanted to get to: Johnson Falls, bushwhack into Rocky Lake, and maybe find the old mine on Spaulding. All of these were easy day trips from this campsite. I wasn’t at all sure I would find sites as good as this one and I didn’t have to set that hammock up again if I stayed. I realized as I age I am becoming a base camper. That was hard for me to admit. I remember double packing during my college years just so we could single portage everything. Now I am a base camper. Things change whether we want them to or not…
In addition to the beautiful sights of this site there is also a quiet babbling brook that can be heard from across the lake. Listening to the peaceful sounds I contemplated getting out on the lake for some fishing but the peace was broken when I heard thunder. I decided to try my hand at fishing from shore instead. I was pretty sure I wasn’t within casting range of any decent fish structure but getting a line wet that first day was a good start.
After I could honestly say I had “checked the box” on fishing I decided it was time for lunch. I snacked on an apple, some nuts, and a beef stick. As I eat I contemplate having a campfire after dinner but I’m pretty sure it is a longshot. This is a very popular campsite and I am there at the end of the season. Firewood will require a trip via canoe to an underused section of shoreline. Even then, given all the rain, I can’t be certain I will find dry wood for a fire.
After catching up on some journaling, I notice the thunder had passed and decide to head out onto the water. Even as I type this I realize that it takes me a while on most vacations before I can feel comfortable doing nothing. That first day was proof of that. Sitting around the campsite just soaking in being there wasn’t enough. So I grab my tackle box and decide to fish the shoreline until I find a place to go ashore easily and look for wood. I head west towards Paddle Lake, the little body of water attached to Canoe Lake.
Right where the lakes meet there is a small stream. That is where I decide to land the canoe. It made it easy to scout the stream and look for a way through. Later in the week I hoped to paddle into Paddle then bushwhack to Rocky Lake. The stream appears to be very shallow but doable. Convinced of that, I head into the woods to look for easy firewood pick’ns. Much to my surprise I find some nice sized dead branches under some pines that were, for the most part, dry. Things were looking up. The fishing might be poor tonight but at least I could have a campfire.
I dragged the branches to the canoe and loaded them up. Next, I climb in and get settled. I look up just in time to notice the canoe is being sucked into that stream…backwards. I reach down into the water with the paddle in hopes of connecting with the bottom to stop the backwards drift. Unfortunately, my paddle does not make contact with the bottom. I was so convinced I would make contact that I have leaned over too far. The narrow beam of a solo canoe is not very forgiving when it comes to leaning. Over I go! I am now wet and standing in water to about my knees. The canoe is swamped but still gunnel side up. Floating inside is my fishing pole, my tackle box, and my no- longer-dry wood.
I was never in any real danger. It was more of an inconvenience. I was going to have to change my plans again. In lieu of taking my time to fish my way back to the campsite as darkness set in I would instead have to hustle a bit. I figured that a fire was even more important now that I was a soaked camper. So I set all of my gear on shore, un-swamped the canoe, emptied my boots, and headed back into the forest for more firewood. It was a little harder to come by the second time but I still got what I needed. I then paddled directly back to the campsite without taking the time to throw out a line.
Changing clothes, putting up clothes lines, and pulling everything out of the tackle box took some time. Eventually things settled down and I began to think about dinner. This was my first trip with nearly all dehydrated meals. Per the advice from the Solo Tripping Forum, not only are dehydrated meals lighter and easier to pack, they also result in fewer dishes. That’s good news when there is no one to share the camp chores with. I decided the first meal would be Cheeseburger Deluxe Wraps. It was tasty enough but part of it didn’t rehydrate properly so it was probably better called Crunchy Cheeseburger Deluxe Wraps.
Then I got the campfire going. I now use a Windpro stove for cooking so I really don’t need a fire… but I really like them. I grew up with campfires. We do campfires at home. Everyone’s favorite movie of my son involves sitting around a campfire. I just like them I guess. I feed the fire long enough to build some coals for roasting marshmallows (also part of that video of Aaron). It is a fitting end to the first day.
I close up camp and get ready for bed. I climb into the hammock. After getting settled in I notice the dang (I didn’t say dang at the time) underquilt was no longer under me. It had completely slid to the far side. After lots of jiggling and wiggling and yanking and tugging I finally got it in place. By the end of the week I had climbing in with the underquilt intact down to a science.
I did a little reading then drifted off to sleep. I had brought a little camp pillow with me. I’m quite certain I could have gotten by without it but it was Aaron’s so it made the trip. I am so glad I brought it. I was downright cozy in the hammock. With a Blackbird you can even sleep on your side. I only woke up once. Anyone getting older will know why. So I left the warmth of the hammock to take a leak. The clouds were gone and the sky was filled with stars including two of the shooting variety. It is late enough in the season that Orion is back. I spot several other constellations including, Aaron’s Pickaxe = one my daughter made up in honor of Aaron and his love of a game called Minecraft. I go back to sleep thinking the clear skies are a good omen.
Day 3 – A Day to Slow Down
In the morning I wake to the sound of rain. I am finally ready to slow down so I just roll over and go back to sleep. Most of the rain was falling straight down and there was no wind so I saw no reason to be in a hurry to start the day. Just about the time I did finally roll out I noticed an ugly change in the weather. The windless morning rapidly gave way to gusts. I had seen this enough times to know a squall was headed my way. I dropped the grey tarp and used it to cover gear. The rain really didn’t last long but the wind did. I decided to move my “kitchen” away from the fire grate that was out in the open. I moved down the hill into the forest in hopes of finding a wind break. It worked reasonably well. I enjoyed a tortilla egg scramble. It was actually quite tasty but it did leave me with some dishes to do.
After breakfast I was wishy washy about heading to Johnson Falls for the pinnacle moment of this trip. At first it was too windy. Then when the wind died down it started to rain again. Finally, the sun did make an appearance but by then much of the day was gone. I decided I wanted a full day at the falls so I would put that off until tomorrow. This would also give my gear a chance to dry out, most notably my boots which would be much more conducive to a long hike if they weren’t soggy.
Later in the day I decided to head back to Alder for some fishing. My go-to lure for the Bdub, a floating perch Rapala didn’t do very well. I switched over to a deep diving black and grey shad Rapala and the fishing got better. I caught a couple of smallies and a couple more followed the lure almost into the canoe. I cut the fishing short when the sky got ugly again.
Back at camp, lunch was rehydrated peanut butter and the last of my apples. After lunch I decided to explore the woods around camp. I hoped that if I went far enough I could find some decent firewood. I did find some wood including a great pole to support the corner of the gray tarp that drooped a little. It raised the whole height of the tarp making it easier to stand up comfortably beneath it.
Dinner that night was freeze dried beef stew. It rehydrated well and tasted good too. I got a fire going again.
During my quiet times that day I had decided a couple things. First, I would try to use this trip to make peace with my emotions about Aaron. When I was done, I would use the energy I had put into mourning him into Anna instead. Next, when I did make it to the falls, before I carried out the ritual I had planned, I would tell Aaron everything, no matter how long that took. Content with my plan I finish the night with more reading in the hammock.
Day 4 – AARON DAY
The day started, like the previous two, with on-again-off-again rain. I really needed to get to Johnson Falls so I didn’t wait for the weather to clear. Breakfast was a cold meal consisting of a Power Bar and some Kool-Aid. I pulled together the provisions for a day trip and loaded them into Aaron’s pack. I didn’t even bring a fishing pole along…this wasn’t that kind of trip. When I headed out it really wasn’t windy so I made decent time. The rain, when it did come, was really more of a heavy mist.
At the portage from Canoe Lake into Pine I got out of the canoe and overestimated the height of my boot (or underestimated the depth of the water I guess). My left boot completely filled with water. This wasn’t what I had in mind heading into a long hike. I emptied the boot and tried to wring out my socks. I also removed the big wad of paper towel I had stuffed in my pocket but didn’t know why. I was actually able to get the boot reasonably dry. I spent extra money on good socks and it paid off. They performed well even when wet.
The portage from Canoe to Pine is tough by anyone’s standard. It is LLLLOOONNNGGG = nearly a mile and a half (and that is one way). As if that weren’t bad enough, the trail goes up and down, not once, but several times. Then, when you reach the end of the portage you realize there is still a long trail to Johnson Falls. Not being an official portage, the trail is in rough shape. Days of rain has not helped. I am really thankful I have the knee boots. It seemed fitting that the journey was tough. It took about an hour to get there. I realized how glad I was that I had chosen to base camp.
Johnson Falls is, in a word, beautiful. I had seen pictures but they didn’t do it justice. It certainly was worthy of the effort it took to get there. After just taking it in for a bit I decided to climb to the top of the falls. It would be fitting to be at the top for the ritual I had planned.
I reached the top only to find…another beautiful falls. The lower falls was one big drop. The upper falls is more of a cascade of water bouncing over boulders. Thinking there might be yet another falls I headed further upstream. Above the upper falls all you find is rapids. Pretty in their own right but nothing compared to the falls.
I decided on a spot between the upper and lower falls where I could get right down to the water. I knew…felt is more accurate…that this was the spot I had been looking for. I could yell whatever I wanted to yell and it would be lost in the roar of the waters.
I decided I would start at the end of his life. That way I could get the bad stuff out of the way and end on the happier times. I came clean about everything that had happened in the hospital. I told him we knew a few days before he died that he wasn’t going to make it. I told him I was more proud of my actions to help him during his battle than I was of anything else. But I also confessed that I was sorry I didn’t stick by him when one of the nurses tried to belittle him. I told him that even though it was an agonizing eight months in the hospital I still treasured that time. I got closer to my son than most fathers ever will. I told him he was my best friend. I told him I hated some of what happed in that hospital too.
Then I moved backwards, to the time before the cancer. I told him what I liked best about him…his smile, his mischievous sense of humor, his beautiful blue eyes, his intellect... Aaron is really, REALLY smart. He took his fourth grade standardized tests without having stepped foot in his fourth grade classroom. He took the test while in a public room at the hospital with people coming in and out including nurses checking on his IV pump alarms. We found out after he died that he had aced that test. His lowest percentile was 92% and he got a perfect 440 out of 440 in science. If you asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he wouldn’t say a doctor. He wouldn’t even say a heart surgeon. At nine years old he would tell you he wanted to be a cardiovascular surgeon.
Sorry for the diversion folks. I hope you will forgive a little fatherly pride.
Having told him everything I wanted to I then made preparations for the ritual I had planned. Over and over in my head I practiced the words I wanted to say until they were perfect. Then I waited for the weather to cooperate. I wanted the sun to peak through the clouds if only for a moment. But alas…it seemed this day would remain dreary. So I went through with the motions I had planned for months. I said goodbye again. After my ritual the sun did make an appearance. Aaron’s way of saying things would be OK?
I made my way back down to the lower falls. I enjoyed a lunch of GORP and beef sticks. Just as I finished up two hikers appeared. It just then dawned on me that I had the falls all to myself for exactly the length of time I needed it. I packed up and headed out onto the path. I was surprised when one of the two hikers fell in behind me. This is not an easy hike. Spending less than five minutes at the falls seemed like a waste of energy.
I struck up a conversation with the man as we hiked out. He and his partner had already travelled more than 7 miles on Pine Lake just to get here. Knowing the portage that lies in front of him I did not envy him. I left him at the point where the trail to the falls meets the portage.
The rest of the trip back was tough but otherwise uneventful. At the Canoe Lake end of the portage I passed the four guys who had chosen the other site. Their luck fishing had been about the same as mine.
When I got back to camp I decided to take a nap. After the rest I watched some videos of Aaron I had brought along on my camera. For the first time since his death, the videos did not make me sad to watch. I noted in my journal that the trip apparently had the effect I had hoped for.
Dinner was rehydrated shepherd’s pie, quite tasty but altogether too much food for one person. One of the drawbacks to travelling solo was finding good meals in the right proportions.
Next I pulled out the satellite phone. I had prearranged a call time with my family. I was looking forward to hearing their voices again and telling them all about Aaron Day. So you can imagine my disappointment when no one answered the phone. I decided to take solace in dessert, chocolate mocha mousse. Again, quite tasty but way too big of a portion. I took some acid reflux pills as a precaution against the effects of over eating.
After dessert I tried the phone again. This time I managed to get my wife. I was really disappointed that she had let Anna leave to go play at the neighbor’s house. The conversation didn’t last long but at least they knew I was safe.
I spent the rest of the night with a nice campfire. The sky was clear and calm. The moon was nearly full. It was a peaceful end to one of the more important days of my life.
I RAN INTO TROUBLE POSTING THIS AS ONE REPORT. PLEASE SEE PART 2 FOR THE CONCLUSION.