A Spiritual Journey (Part 2) -- by Aaron's Dad
by Rob Johnson
Day 5 – THE AARON MEMORIAL BUILDING DAY – or – THE DAY I FINALLY REALIZE THINGS OFTEN DON’T GO AS PLANNED AND FLEXIBILITY IS REQUIRED IF YOU WANT TO ENJOY THE RIDE. (That’s what I wrote in my journal that day.)
The day started out cold. Cold enough to wear long undies, pants, a long sleeve shirt, my fleece, AND my rain coat as a wind breaker. I wanted a hot breakfast but really didn’t want to mess with an egg dish so I made oatmeal, which even now I remember as being really good that morning.
I took my time getting going, in the hopes that the sun would make an appearance and warm things up a bit…which it did. This was the day I had decided to bushwhack to Rocky Lake. Based on the name and the topo maps I was expecting the lake to have cliffs on the south shore. I packed a trail lunch and everything I needed for a hike into Aaron’s day pack.
I had a plan. I would paddle over to Paddle Lake through that little stream. I would go ashore near the small creek that runs from Paddle into Rocky. I would follow the creek to Rocky and hope to find a game trail heading in the correct direction. Once there I would go to the base of the cliff and create a small memorial to Aaron in a place almost no one would find. I would leave a note in the see-thru water bottle Aaron had bought to go to the BWCA. I would cover the collapsible bottle with rocks in the form of a cross. Years later, Anna and I could come back and visit the memorial. Decades later she could take her kids here. I know this goes against the Leave-No-Trace ethic but I was pretty sure I could find a place where no one would ever find it…and I really hoped if they did, they would understand based on the note. That was the plan anyway.
It started out well. The stream between lakes turned out to be a piece of cake. There was a decent place to land the canoe just west of the creek that leaves Paddle. My topo GPS provided reassurance that the creek and the massive ridge were exactly where they were supposed to be. After a bit of tough bushwhacking I even found a moose trail heading in the right direction which made traveling through the brush a little easier. That was until the trail headed into a dense thicket. I decided I could find a better way than the moose so headed up the ridge. It was steep but from a distance appeared to have less undergrowth than the thicket. Less under growth, yes…but what I soon discovered is that fallen branches and downed trees on the steep terrain were even worse. I made my way back down the ridge and noticed that just the other side of that thicket was a wide open area. The moose had known exactly what they were doing when they laid down that trail. “Never doubt the moose,” was the first lesson of the day.
The trail took me right to Rocky Lake. The creek kind of petered out at that point and where it would have entered the lake there was a beaver dam of sorts. I made it! Proud of myself I headed west along the southern shore. For a while at least, there was a trail to follow. I began to notice something unusual. Rocky Lake had no rocks. I’m not talking just a few rocks…none. Where I had expected a cliff was really just a very steep ridge. The trail I was on ran between the dirt shore and the ridge. Eventually the trail took a 90 degree turn straight up the ridge. Not what I was hoping for so I headed back.
I finally spied two boulders on the other side of the beaver dam so I decided to make my way over there. Where there were two rocks hopefully I would find more? I made it across the old dam OK. From there I had a great view of the length of the lake and STILL did not see the lake’s namesake shore. Just the other side of the dam it got REALLY tough going. I had to bust through a windfall only to find a teetering cedar blocking the way. To the left was lake and to the right was impassible. I tried climbing into and over the cedar. I stopped for a moment…
That was when life hit me between the eyes. There were no rocks. Getting to the point of being up in that tree had been so difficult I knew my daughter and I would not be back. My perfect plan for an Aaron memorial was not going to happen. But I realized, that was the point wasn’t it? So often we plan. We build things up in our head until everything is perfect. But then life happens and the end result doesn’t match the dream. Just like the plans you have for your brilliant son with the pale blue eyes and wide smile. If life is only about matching our dreams perfectly we are all setting ourselves up for a life of disappointment. But standing there in that tree I realized it is about the journey. The experience is the goal. This special journey wasn’t about coming to grips with the many dreams that won’t come true. It turned out to be about embracing the experiences that did. It wasn’t about the decades I wouldn’t get with Aaron, it was about the 10 years I did get. So I stopped to enjoy the view from the tree.
With a new understanding I made my way back across the beaver dam and found the moose trail again. Plans had changed. I would head back to camp and make lunch there. I followed the trail as best I could but ended up losing it eventually. That was OK too…part of the journey. The GPS would get me back to the canoe. As I fought through the underbrush I thought of all the little plans that had changed on this trip. I wasn’t staying in the site I had planned…but I loved the new site. I was base camping instead of on a loop…but I was really enjoying not having to break camp every day. It is good to plan, but it is better to be flexible.
I loaded the canoe with plenty of dry firewood and paddled back to the campsite. As I paddled back through that little stream it was a bit more challenging going against the current but still easily accomplished. I was surprised when another solo paddler was coming through the stream the other direction. I hadn’t seen another solo traveler let alone one headed into a dead end lake with no campsites. The truly unusual part of this encounter wouldn’t be revealed until the last day.
Lunch was cheese and crackers back at the campsite. I enjoyed my meal while watching a parade of paddlers go by. It was a very busy day on Canoe Lake. The four guys from the site next to mine had gone but were replaced in very short order by another group who then left for a day trip.
Lunch completed I decided to go for a paddle of my own. I paddled close to that neighboring site trying to glimpse why they had chosen that site over the great site I had. I was staring at the site pretty intensely so I failed to see the new occupants paddle up. I felt pretty sheepish scoping their site so I paddled back to the west. I decided to go pick up the wood that had gotten wet that first day when I tipped the canoe. It was dry now and easy to reach. It felt like another symbol of my new found interest in being flexible.
That night was Jamaican Chicken and applesauce. Again the problem of portions made for two and only one camper. Given all the wood I had I was able to keep a nice fire going for quite a while. I did my journaling that night on the logs around the fire rather than in the hammock.
My last decision of the day was another change in plans. I decided it felt right to leave a day early. The next day, Sunday, would be my last full day in the Bdub. I would paddle out on Monday and take my time getting home.
Day 6 – My Last Full Day
I took my time getting going that morning. I was still full from dinner the night before so decided to go fishing before breakfast. I wanted to check out the east end of the lake. While paddling that direction I decided to troll the deep diving Rapala shad that had worked on Alder. I had only made it a short distance when I thought I hit a snag. Much to my surprise it was a walleye…a real, honest to goodness, BWCA walleye. Now, for many fishermen that may not solicit quite the same response, but for my friends and I the walleye has proven to be an elusive species. Even when we target them specifically we fare poorly. So this was a real treat and quite unusual. The fish went on the stringer and I began to contemplate a fish fry for breakfast.
Trying the trolling technique some more I managed to hook into a couple of bass but no more walleye. When I finally did get hungry enough to head in I decided that one walleye does not a fish fry make. I released the one from the stringer and felt good as I watched him swim down out of sight.
Back at the site I decided I would attempt biscuits and gravy for breakfast. While the rest of the meals I had tried were all rated “Easy to Prepare”, this one was rated “Chef It Up”. This sounded like a good challenge. Right from the beginning I ran into trouble. Attempting to mix the dough in the bag proved to be problematic. I tried to remedy the mixing problem by using a plastic yellow spoon. Given that yellow is Aaron’s favorite color you can imagine my disappointment when the spoon snapped in half. I soon made it worse by deciding what was needed was my hand in the bag. Yeah, I got the ingredients to mix but now half of the biscuits were stuck to my fingers. Out of the mess I managed to get 3 small globs of mix into the pan. The gravy was considerably easier. The biscuits turned out great and the gravy was excellent. However, given how much of the biscuit mix ended up in the towels used to wipe my hands, it is no surprise that I finished the meal still a little hungry. The package had indicated the meal would be filling. For me filling required the addition of a Powerbar.
After cleaning up breakfast I found myself with no plans. In the lull I had an Aaron attack. That is what I call the episodes I have when I can’t hold back my emotions. This trip was supposed to give me closure with Aaron. My ceremony at the falls was supposed to be a turning point. All it got me was one day without an Aaron attack and now they were back. I quickly realized how flawed that plan had been. You can’t set a date for the end of the grieving process. Aaron attacks were here to stay and I learned that was just fine. Once the Aaron attack had subsided I hemmed and hawed over what to do. It seemed like such a waste to do nothing with my last full day so I decided on a day trip. I packed a lunch and headed over to Crystal Lake for some fishing. Worst case, if the fishing was awful I would head over to Spaulding Lake and go bushwhacking in a search for the mine that is there.
On the portage over to Crystal I played around with the Bungee-Dealy-Bobs I had brought and found a great way to make the portaging even easier by securing gear to the canoe.
Unlike Rocky Lake, Crystal Lake lives up to its name. The water is crystal clear. I didn’t think that boded well for fishing but I was here to just enjoy a new lake so that was fine by me.
I tried casting in the shallow area around the portage without much luck. Remembering the success with trolling that morning I headed out for deeper water. Given the clear water I could make out a rock ledge that ran parallel to the shore. I trolled with the lure just on the deep side of the ledge. I paddled just fast enough to see the vibration in the tip of the rod from the action of the lure. I didn’t have to paddle far when the lure got hit by a bass. Bass may not be good eating but they sure are fun to catch.
So it went all along the northern shore of the lake. Release a bass, paddle a bit, catch a bass. And they were fighters. I had several come out of the water. Then as I trolled along I watched the pole get slammed. Ooooo, this was going to be fun. The canoe spun around and followed the bass. After a fun fight I landed one of the biggest bass I had ever caught. The only reason I quit fishing is that I got tired of pulling treble hooks out of bass. All in a lake that wasn’t supposed to have many fish at a time of year when other fishermen were lamenting how slow things had gotten. I mentioned this in a post on BWCA.com when I got back and someone pointed out they thought I had a little help from a special angel that day.
With the need to fish out of my system I decided to just explore. There was a campsite just the other side of the portage to Spaulding Lake that I was pretty sure would be empty. I decided to head there for lunch. It was a further paddle than I had figured but eventually I found the site. No sooner had I pulled the canoe ashore when a couple came walking into the site from a trail to the portage. Seems they had the same idea about lunch. I let them have the fire ring while I settled in down by the lakeshore.
Lunch was to be hummus and pitas. I had a powdered hummus mix and some packets of olive oil but what I didn’t have was…plain water. In my haste to leave I only grabbed one water bottle. It was full and plenty of fluid for a day trip but I had flavored it with orange drink. So a slight change in plans…I would be having “Orange-Hummus” for lunch. It actually tasted fine.
As I was packing up the couple came down to the lake and said they were heading out too. They pointed out that it was 4:00. I had no idea it had gotten so late. That time of year I knew I didn’t have time to push on to Spaulding so I headed back.
When I got back to Canoe Lake I noticed that other site I wanted to check out was open so I decided to stop. Most of the site was OK, maybe even nice. The great part of the site was the landing. It is low and sandy. I still like my site better but I could see why the guys opted for it that first day. The best part of stopping there was the big pile of firewood. I was wondering where I was going to get wood with darkness setting in and here it was. So I loaded some of it into the canoe and headed over to my site.
When I got back I decided I wanted to see some pictures of Aaron. I had purposefully brought my old cell phone along and kept it off to save the charge. I wanted it because it was filled with pictures of Aaron. So I scrolled through hundreds of photos. The one that stopped me dead in my tracks was the one from his last Christmas. He was laying on the new Thermarest I had gotten him. It was supposed to be for this trip. Instead, in two weeks he would be gone. Yup, mourning is a process and it will not have an end. Eventually, I came back to the present. Given the late lunch, dinner was a snack of cheese and crackers. I also had a hot chocolate and roasted some marshmallows.
That night was beautiful. After the campfire died and I cleaned up I headed down to the lake. The air was still and the moon was full. A beaver swims by. I feel compelled to offer a prayer of thanks. I know that is where healing lies. I have to be thankful for the years I got with Aaron and not ache for the years I don’t.
When a second beaver swims past I decide to play a game Aaron and I would often play in the hospital. In the hospital version we would go for a walk in the facility and find a window with a view and some chairs. We would then make a backstory for what we observed. “The two guys working at the construction site on a Sunday must be spies. In fact, there must be a secret spy lair hidden beneath the porta-potty. They must be watching for aliens who are interested in the power substation next door.” So I played “Back Country Back Story”. “The second beaver was the son and the first beaver was the dad. The son had big ideas on how to take the science of beavering to the next level but the dad would have none of it.” I smiled as the beavers swam out of sight.
After sitting and listening to that babbling creek across the lake I realized for the first time I had the entire lake to myself. That afforded me a unique opportunity. I could yell and no one would hear me. So I yelled to God and I yelled to Aaron. My words skipped across the lake and echoed back to me. The words were of love not anger. Even in a post-Aaron world there could still be things to be thankful for like still waters, a full moon, a lake all to myself, and memories of a son that I will forever cherish. This was a good last night.
Day 7 – Out of the Woods
Packing up was bittersweet. It always is on a Bdub trip but this was a little worse than usual. I attributed part of the trepidation to not knowing if leaving a day early was the right thing to do. More on that in a moment. Camp came down and packed up relatively quick. That hammock system sure is easier to pack than it is to set up. Of course, packing is always easier when the empty space in the food bucket can be used.
The last thing I did at the western campsite of Canoe Lake was again take advantage of being the sole person there. I yelled to Aaron one more time, “I love you now and forever.”
The winds picked up as I pushed off. I am a little over sensitive when it comes to winds on a canoe trip. My friends and I once tried to tackle big winds on Saganaga and lost. The good news is that I was headed directly into the wind most of the time. Yeah, the going was a little slow but I was OK with that on this final day. The only time I had to tack in order to avoid big rollers was on the middle section of Alder. The rest of the way I just had to stay focused and the Bell tracked great. I learned to read the pattern of the wind on the waves ahead of me and take corrective action before things got tough. It was actually a fun challenge but it didn’t allow for much free thinking during the whole trek out.
The portages went well too. I learned not to attempt a deep squat with a heavy pack. I had done that on the way in and tweaked my knee to the point where it still hurt months later. That is another of the little things you take for granted when there are fellow travelers on a trip = someone to help lift the heavy bags onto your back.
I passed a surprising number of paddlers for what was now mid-September. I passed two groups of nine paddlers each from a small college that uses the BWCA to help undeclared students find their major. I also passed another group of four paddlers. All of them headed for Canoe Lake. That is when it hit me that maybe something else was at play…
If you have hung on this long I hope you will indulge this one last spiritual detour. I mentioned earlier that I had worked things out with God prior to starting this journey. If you are wondering how an engineer father can ever forgive his God for the death of his son after he endured a horrible disease, here it is: I have come to believe that God does not reach down and give little boys cancer nor does he remove the cancer cells that nature places there. I think God whispers to us in order to help us get to the best possible place. I think he whispers to parents, doctors, even the kids themselves to help as much as he can, but we are limited to our own technology. To view it any other way would be to admit that God intended for Aaron to get cancer, or even if he didn’t give it to him, chose to not remove the cancer even when hundreds (maybe more than a thousand?) people prayed. Some have suggested that God has a plan that I can’t understand…and they are right. I simply cannot fathom a plan that has a ten year old die, one who would have saved others as a cardiovascular surgeon. So my God doesn’t have that kind of plan. Instead, he watches and he whispers and he cries with us and that brings sense to all this and gives me peace.
As those 22 paddlers headed for Canoe Lake I wondered if God had whispered to me that leaving a day early was the right thing to do. I wondered if God whispered to those other four campers that first day to have them leave the western site for me. I wondered if he whispered to others so that I might have the falls and the lake all to myself when I needed it most. I have my opinion…but I will leave you to yours.
Concentrating on the paddling as I was, and taking on a headwind, I noticed that East Bearskin is really a long lake and I chose the outfitter at the absolute opposite end of the lake from the portage. The lake wasn’t nearly that long on the way in, I was sure of it! I did finally make it and the wind badgered me all the way to the point I stepped from the canoe for the last time. Needless to say the outfitter was a bit surprised to see me. I was surprised when I walked up to the lodge and passed that other solo paddler I had met going into Paddle Lake. I finished up at East Bearskin Lodge by taking a shower and settling up.
My first meal prepared by someone else who was also willing to do the dishes was at My Sister’s Place. Great burgers…a bit expensive…but a really good burger.
The big detour south of Grand Marais was gone so that saved some time. I stopped in at Betty’s for a piece of pie.
I took my time getting home and that included staying at a hotel in Superior for the night. I found it funny that when I stopped at a store to pick up some supplies the mosquitos there were awful in comparison to what I had just faced in the Bdub.
The rest of the drive home was uneventful so I hope you aren’t still reading this hoping for a grand finish. My epiphanies are almost so obvious as to be clichés: -You can’t find God in a video game. -Never doubt a moose. -Life will not turn out as you planned so being flexible and enjoying the journey are keys to finding peace. -Life is short. We already know this so why don’t we act on it? -You cannot set a time limit on grieving. -It was time to focus on my daughter after more than a year of focusing almost entirely on my son.
Again, all of these seem so obvious now. Yet without this trip alone into the wilderness I am certain I would still be searching for these truths. Thank you for reading this. Thank you for your patience. I hope you find something of value here. Maybe you had always wanted to know just how rocky Rocky Lake is. Maybe you will vow to get your kids into nature. Maybe you just give them a hug. This trip was good for my soul and I sincerely hope that in some small way the read was good for yours.
Peace be with you,