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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


THIS LETTER IS FROM ROXANNE EGGERT. She was a student in my Ninth Grade Environmental Science Class many years ago. It really made me smile. Thank you, Roxanne!

Dear Cliff: I hope you will forgive the length of this email, but I must write to tell you what an impact you have made on the life of me and my family this past month. Since I’m a teacher myself and know how fun it is to hear that I’ve made a lasting mark on any student’s life, I feel I must reach out to you and describe how your name and your thoughts have been bandied about our house since I began planning the Boundary Waters trip I took with my grown children last week.

But first, let me introduce myself. I was a student in your 9th grade environmental science class back in 1979-1980. I was Roxanne Eggert then. Unless you have a very good memory, I doubt my name rings a bell because I was neither an outdoor enthusiast nor a very pleasant fourteen-year-old at the time. However, I was friends with Penny Carlson, student extraordinaire, so I’m hoping a shadow of me emerges when I connect our two names together. We distinguished ourselves by winning the class prize for fire building (1 match), a feat I repeated in college when I took a wilderness survival skills class (phy ed credit, anyone?). I haven’t won many contests in my life, so I have to claim what I can.

I didn’t go on either of the wilderness experience trips (BWCA or biking) in 9th grade, but I did go on a school-sponsored BWCA trip after my senior year in high school. I think you must have influenced the high school teachers leading the trips because one of your more unconventional mantras (ground cloth INSIDE the tent) was taught to us. The trip I took my senior year changed my life. Not one for discomfort or physical exertion, I was awed--frankly stunned--by the beauty of the BWCA and determined to return. After a second trip organized by an experienced leader, I figured I knew enough to put together my own group of friends and plan and execute my third trip. For several years during college and after, I did a yearly BWCA trip and loved it. I expanded my wilderness skills by taking some hiking trips in the Smoky Mountains in college and some bike camping trips up and down the Mississippi in early adulthood. However, after I married and had kids, the trips stopped. My husband is a sterling man in every other way, but he has no fondness for the outdoors, and once I had my own kids, my new-mother cautiousness turned into outright fear that if I brought my precious packages into the BWCA and something happened to one of them, I would never forgive myself.

I grew in other ways--I learned to knit and play the violin and built myself a career--and the BWCA faded into memory. This memory reawakened sluggishly this summer when my 20-year-old daughter Julia demanded that I take her and her two older brothers to the BWCA. COVID-19 had interrupted her sophomore year at Oberlin and forced her home to finish classes online. It had also knocked offline her Junior Year Abroad at the University of Munich, and she was looking for some consolation, I think, for all the sad consequences of the pandemic on her young life. She was miffed that I had taken eight BWCA trips but never with my children.

My daughter and I have a tradition of doing “adventure” things together, but a BWCA trip was the furthest thing from my mind, and my first impulse was to make excuses for why we couldn’t do it. For one thing, for the past five years or so I had been terribly out of shape. I hadn’t been exercising and was at least 50 pounds overweight. However, I’d made a spring project of chipping down my weight with intermittent fasting and had augmented the dieting with weekly biking--about the only exercise I find fun enough to do regularly. I’m a sucker for her challenges so I agreed and pushed up the training to get back into shape. By the first of August, probably from the sheer terror of undertaking an arduous journey I wasn’t sure I could handle, I was 35 pounds lighter and puffing a little less violently after climbing the stairs.

We pulled out all the old camping stuff--rechecked the stove, repaired the shock-cord on one of my Eureka! Timberline tents (just like the ones Hastings Public Schools purchased for the wilderness experience trips!) and started planning. I found my gear lists and menus from the early 90s in my unpurged file cabinet and things got real. In the process of googling answers to persistent questions: (how much toilet paper for a weeklong four-person trip?, what types of cheese do best without refrigeration?, do people still subsist on pocket bread or has someone invented a better cheese-and-sausage delivery system for lunches on the go?) I discovered your website, blogs, books and videos and rather voyeuristically caught up on your life. References to you began to populate my assertions. First it was: “Hey look, everybody. This guy is my old environmental science teacher. Turns out he’s an expert on canoeing and camping, has won a big award and written a bunch of books.”

As the gear for our trip began to accumulate in the space between the living room and the kitchen, I heard myself prefacing many an unsolicited piece of advice with:, “Cliff Jacobson says…” I decided to put your Boundary Waters Canoe Camping book on library reserve, thinking it would be a good way to review my wilderness skills so I didn’t lead us into disaster. As the days passed and I returned again and again to your blog, I regaled my husband with excerpts from your marvelous writing and spent time reading posts that weren’t directly helping me prepare for my upcoming trip. One of my favorites was the one about how your group gracefully changed the itinerary of your trip to help an older member who could no longer run rapids. Or the one in which I learned that your first wife had died young, leading you to the realization that, if forced to choose between the wilderness and people, it was the people who mattered most.

I realized that I had passed through the classroom of a wonderful human being and failed to notice his qualities. Sorry about that. A couple days before we set out on our trip, my daughter and I had ventured into Hoigaards to pick up the last items on our gear list. “You’ll love this place,” I’d told her. “They have everything we could possibly want!” My water boto bag had a leak and I wanted to replace it. Although most of our food was picked up from the boxed dinners aisle of Cub, I also wanted some dehydrated eggs and maybe one freeze-dried dinner (Turkey Supreme!) for an easy night’s meal. I also thought I might find a nylon tarp to replace the cumbersome Menards one I’d always used, and I needed some new Camp Suds. I can’t tell you the depths of dismay I felt to discover that Hoigaards, my revered Hoigaards, the bastion of canoe campdom, where you could count on finding every esoteric over-priced gadget your heart desired, was little more than a clothing store! Where once one could find a wall of freeze-dried food, now only racks of jackets, shorts, and pants remained. Displays of canoes had been replaced by bikes. Bikes! At least the Fischer maps were still there.

After wandering the store like disconsolate sheep, we bought our map of Seagull and left. In retrospect, I should have known that the camping supply world had moved online. At your recommendation, I had bought myself a set of merino wool underwear (the best!), making my purchase online. I’d added a bug hat and some Eddie Bauer hiking pants to my Amazon order, hating myself for settling for convenience at the expense of my desire not to give business to a company that doesn’t pay taxes and seems to pride itself on creating horrible working conditions for employees at its distribution centers. But Hoigaards to me was inviolable. Its degradation made me doubt my whole trip. How could so much have changed since I had last gone to the BWCA? If I was so out of touch, what else about the BWCA did I have wrong? What business did I have leading greenhorns into the wilderness. I went home to lick my wounds, disappointing my daughter by saying that I was done with planning for the night, that I would pick up the thread in the morning.

I only really recovered from my funk when your book finally arrived from off the reserve list. Here was friendly, familiar advice! Bombproofing my campsite--I knew how to do that. Building a fire--I had won some contests for that! On page 139, I saw an ingenious way to split wood with my camping ax. Now I wouldn’t have to worry about my clumsy but eager older son landing a blow to his shin on the first night. Tying up canoes. Who knew the wind could send them flying? I always thought bringing them up on land and turning them over would suffice, but I would put in a little more rope and it would be easy enough to tie them to a tree. Why had I never noticed the contour lines on my maps? I knew the 105 rod portage out of Seagull was flat, but now I could be informed ahead of time about the steepness of other portages by paying attention to the contour lines. Even the pictures in the book gave me comfort--I know this place, I thought. I can do this.

By the time darkness had fallen, I had my mojo back. While my kids did their last minute packing, I read through your advice, focusing on the thorny problem of the food pack and whether or not to try stringing it up in trees (something I’d never achieved with much satisfaction, no matter how enthusiastic my group members were for getting rope high into trees). I found it comforting that you recommended finding an unlikely hiding place away from the campground and that you said you’d never lost a pack this way. That’s what we’ll do, I thought, and save ourselves a whole lot of time and energy. When we left in the morning, I tossed your book in the backseat with my sons and told them to educate themselves on the way up. (I wasn’t worried about my daughter--she’d been combing the BWCA reddit thread all summer and I expected her to school me on a point or two once we hit the trail).

When we put in at Seagull, I gave the boys a quick tutorial on navigation and handed them their own map and compass. They hardly used it, preferring to just follow along behind the ladies. I was pleased to see how eagerly my daughter took on the task of navigating, allowing me to avoid something I’ve always found a bit anxiety-producing. The only instruction I had ever received on map and compass I learned in your class, and I had had a trial-by-fire navigation course on my first self-organized trip of inexperienced canoe campers. I had to sternly talk to my daughter about how crucial it was to get a compass reading (“No, you can’t just follow the shore and look at the shape of the land. You will be far more successful with a good compass reading and frequent checks to make sure you’re on track. Cliff Jacobson says so,” I added to give my words more authority). Using the compass as a guide, we expertly threaded our way through the maze of islands on Seagull and found our first campsite.

I was about to spend the night in the wilderness for the first time in exactly 25 years! My canoe-handling skills had effortlessly re-emerged. My sleeping-on-the-ground-and-feeling-rested technique did not follow suit. I knew from experience that the first night would be long and uncomfortable, but I assured myself that the next would be better. I was wrong. Apparently, when you’re 55 and not 18, you can count on as many as three bad first nights, and I spent most of them wondering if I had made a huge mistake. The ground dug through my Thermorest at hip and shoulder. When I laid flat, my lower back screamed. There was literally NO POSITION that felt comfortable enough to allow me to drift into sleep, and when I finally drifted off in sheer exhaustion, I awoke with such agonizing stiffness that I’d have to do a “rip the bandaid off” approach to shifting position. Night and day, the aches and pains were real, baby, and my lack of leg strength a humbling reminder that age does not improve one’s self-esteem or camping prowess.

However, by the fourth day, my bones seemed to have realigned through sheer self-preservation, and found myself in love with the wilderness again, thrilled to spend such quality time with my children, and counting the days we had left in our trip not as something to be endured but as something precious. Midway through our trip, a chance encounter with fellow campers informed us that we would have a splendid view of meteor showers that night. Instead of skulking into our tents at sunset to avoid mosquitos that no longer seem phased by 98% DEET, we covered up with loose clothes, climbed up some cliffs, laid on our backs, and marveled at the heavens.

How long has it been, I thought, since I stared at the heavens, contemplating the vast distances of time and space, and contemplated my own, my family’s, and the world’s insignificance? Why isn’t this a regular requirement for all adults, along with wearing a seatbelt and flossing daily? How often have I gotten out of the crack of daily diversions since I graduated from college? What am I going to do differently now that I’m reminded again that one should regularly contemplate the universe? Through the week, my kids and I explored more cliffs and picnic spots. I swam daily and sometimes more. I discovered that I can still portage a canoe (more slowly) and that my daughter can, too.

I visited old favorite campsites and found new ones, and on the first night, as if by magic, discovered myself camping on the first BWCA campsite I had ever experienced. I had always marked my campsites and taken notes on them after trips, but the exact location of my first-ever night in the wilderness, remained shrouded in mystery. On that first day long ago, I wasn’t looking at maps and I couldn’t remember how long we had paddled. After 37 years, I had only the vaguest notion of the layout of the grounds, but when I arrived on site, the unusual slope of the rocks leading from the water to the fire pit and the strange striations, which looked almost as if someone had brought a brush and a can of pink paint and gone to work painting them on, brought back a flood of memory. Although this campsite had stayed the same, Seagull itself was transformed.

During my hiatus from the Boundary Waters, I had heard about the derecho and, years, later, the fire that ignited all those downed trees. Scanning the landscape, we noted areas that had been burned, areas that now filed in with young growth amid the towering remnants of trunks that had withstood the fires, dead reminders of the former height of trees. Cliffs that had been hidden from sight on my last trip jutted out, uncloaked. I started to feel that the area and I had undergone parallel transformations. The years had burned through me but I had new growth, too. My daughter, engineering a double-tarp set up in the middle of pouring rain or sitting in the bow of the canoe, excitedly pointing out a portage or campsite, she was my new growth. I--gingerly stepping amid the rocks of a portage while my son dropped back to check me frequently--I was the tree sentinel, the remnant of earlier times.

The last night of our trip, as darkness started to fall and the wind picked up, I walked the rocky expanse of our campsite on an island in Seagull. I didn’t want to go to bed. I didn’t want to say goodbye to this beautiful wilderness. I roused my kids out of their tents for a ritual we somehow hadn’t completed all week--build a fire at dusk and stare into it as the sparks fly upward and die and the shoreline darkens. I remembered the sadness I used to feel at the end of every BWCA trip. Soon I would be home, would be able to sit on a soft coach and sleep in a comfortable bed, be able to draw water with a finger instead of fetching it from the middle of a lake and pumping it clean with a purifier. I was going to miss the sound of the wind through the trees, the racket of the loons in the water as they frolicked at night, the sound of the wind whipping the tarp. It was sad, but it was okay. I knew I would be back next year and the next.

Now, it was time for me to go home and figure out a way to get involved with the effort to forestall Twin Metals. My fire to protect the wilderness was lit again. My trip to the Boundary Waters would probably have gone all right even if I hadn’t discovered your works. I wouldn’t have been as warm and comfortable at night in my merino wool underwear if I hadn’t checked your packing list. I might not have invested in the lightweight nylon pants that kept the biting flies off me when we paddled on a calm day on Alpine. I wouldn’t have been as confident that my food pack would likely be okay where we had hidden it if I hadn’t known you’d been doing the same in your long and storied wilderness career. I would have had fewer practical tips about encountering bears at my fingertips (speak softly to them but make yourself look big and fight like hell if they truly attack).

The real contribution you provided me with was a more-experienced kindred spirit during a time of uncertainty when I wasn’t sure I could hack it. Your life’s work of prioritizing the wilderness and preparing people to experience it convinced me that my trip with my family wasn’t a fool’s errand. Thank you for your reassuring voice and accurate advice.

I hope my story reinforces for you that the wilderness doesn’t just touch the die-hard, rugged, in-your-face wilderness types. It touches the soft and squishy middle-aged moms, seeking to recapture their youth and connect again with eternity. Fair winds and pleasant shores, Cliff!

P.S. I almost forgot to mention that my kids want me to admit to you that I was wrong about the crocs they wore around the campsite and that I initially sneered at. I told them the wilderness was no place for crocs, but we discovered by experience that crocs had better traction on wet rocks than my expensive hiking boots. I was amused to get home and discover that you said “the perfect shoes for canoeing have not been invented” (I agree) and that “crocs are fine” for around camp. I’ll add that, if choosing between the boat shoes I brought for around camp and crocs next time, I’m going with the crocs.

*My book, "Boundary Waters Canoe Camping" contains a wealth of information about paddling America's favorite canoe wilderness.

*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too! Kids are entertained as they learn important canoeing and camping skills.

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