There we crouched, on our fourth day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota, under a tarpaulin tied to saplings, beside a smoky birch fire, in the rain. It had rained every day. Mid-September was really past the end of the season, but we'd risked the weather to avoid the summer mosquitoes. That wasn't all we'd avoided. On the first day, camped at Missing Link Lake, we'd caught two tiny rainbow trout. "Release them," said Sven, of Duluth, who had organized this voyage. "For good karma with the fish." We hadn't had a bite in the three days since.
We were six men, three canoes, 400 pounds of gear and a silent black Labrador retriever named Lucky. "If she ever barks," said Sven, "it means a bear."
We had come from Oregon, Minnesota and Delaware. Four of us had been in the Army together. Only Sven had ever been here before. He'd sold us with statistics. The BWCA is 1,400 square miles of wilderness managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The only sensible means of travel to and over its several thousand glaciated lakes is canoeing and portaging. Many of the portage trails between lakes are those used by 17th and 18th century French voyageurs, who themselves had adopted Indian routes.
We knew the rules. No bottles or cans. Camping only at Forest Service sites with fire grates and latrines. We had a permit. Only a few are granted per day for each entry point. The intent of such rules was clear: to reduce wear and tear on the land from the 170,000 visitors who paddle through it yearly. It has worked. Though we often passed other parties, we were treated to close views of beaver, osprey and marten. Northern pike and lake trout, however, remained rumors substantiated only by photos on Sven's refrigerator.
We'd begun at Round Lake. The taciturn rental agent couldn't be bothered with taking down our names. The receipt showed he'd rented canoes only to "Six Guys."
Who were we? Had you observed us hunched around the hissing fire four days into the trip, you would have named us much as we had. The Arafat-bearded guy in the Afghanistani camel-driver's hat would be Abdul. The Duluth doctor with scabrous Scandanavian jokes was Sven. The skinny, sleepy, boot-clumsy man who had brought an oversized lantern was Streetlight. The Oregon scientist who'd mistakenly carried the pack of a person in another party for half a mile of portage was The Saint. The Saint named his tentmate, the Oregon lumber broker, taking a graphic term from geology in reference, one hoped, to the broker's snoring. The broker was H.T., for Harmonic Tremor.
That made five. The sixth, a dark, thorough man who returned offended from each day's snub by pike, would have to wait. Nothing captured him yet. He had not once spoken.
A predilection toward the giving of new handles seems a natural reaction to wilderness, to the emergence of character not seen clearly in civilization. Surely, too, names try to make the wilderness fit into human categories. Our map was evidence of that. The names of the lakes that surrounded us suggested that a vast spectrum of associations, shapes and memories had been evoked by what were, after all, very similar bodies of dark water. There were Tame and Lawless lakes, Virgin and Ecstasy lakes, Howl and Meditation lakes. Jester Lake and Fool Lake were adjacent to one another. There were Cavity and Plug lakes, and Squish and Wish lakes. In contrast with Lucky Day Lake, there were Squat, Fungus, Swollen Ankle and Whipped lakes. There even was a Time Lake, and an Elusion. Someone must have tried to fish there once.
The name of the place where we sat wetly thinking all this, a granite island in three-mile-long Little Saganaga Lake, we didn't know. That too would have to wait.
We weren't deeply uncomfortable. The tents were reasonably dry under the evergreens and mountain ash. There was firewood. We had eaten well because our Duluth packs—canoe-wide canvas maws that could hold a bale of hay—were loaded with meat and vegetables and wine and even Glenlivet single malt Scotch whisky, enduring the indignity of traveling in a plastic container. That's the thing about canoeing. You can take a piano if you don't mind staggering with it over the portages, which on our trek of 21 lakes in six days were usually anywhere from 50 yards to 600. One of them, however, was a mile and a quarter. That made it viscerally understandable why the old voyageurs' most common cause of death was incarcerated hernia.
We sprang alert, but saw no bear. We looked at the dog. She was limping around in circles.
"Sorry," said The Saint. "I stepped on her foot."
We returned to our seats, each determined not to bring any gloom to the rest. Then H.T. rose, eyes alight. He walked into the rain to where the granite hump of the island became level before it dropped off into the lake. He spread his arms. He said, "Sweat lodge."
"This is a perfect place for a sauna." H.T. had lived for a year in Norway and had embraced the Norwegian outlook—indiscourageableness, a sense that even the gray days count against one's total, so savor them, too.
"I've seen it done," said Streetlight. His tone suggested it was hard.
"O.K.," said H.T., "you're in charge of heating the rocks." Soon, under his fevered instruction, we had lashed together an A-frame of poles and covered it with tarpaulins and rain suits and plastic bags. As night fell, the stones, a dozen of perhaps 20 pounds apiece, were glowing red in the birch and cedar pyre. Amid much shouting, we carried them with stout sticks and gloves to the log receptacle we'd prepared at one end of the tent. We sealed the thing and waited. About five minutes. Then we shucked off our clothes and got in the other end.
Already it was astonishingly warm, save for the stone floor, but when Abdul poured water on the rocks, steam shot up with such force that our lungs felt seared and visibility dropped to 18 inches. Those 12 rocks produced an amazing amount of steam, four saunas' worth, which was good because three of them escaped through our unsealed seams and out the top.
Abdul poured again, and we breathed a steam that must exist only in the pipes of a distillery. "Scotch on the rocks," he said.
In a few minutes we were heavy with the heat. We ran out and down the rock into the lake. There was thrashing, washing, giddy jubilation. "I hope I burn a fish," said The Saint.
Then, quickly cooling, we tried to get out. There was a hush. "Uh-oh," said Sven.
The rock was steep and slick with algae. We kept sliding back. Streetlight solved that by breaking his fingernails as he frantically scraped a trail. "I was thinking it would be a cold swim around the point to the canoes," said Sven.
At last we stood around the dying fire, burnished and tousled. The next morning, departing, we would look at what remained of our structure and wonder whether subsequent voyageurs would be able to identify its function from its bones of birch poles, its triangle of logs holding a pile of darkened stones, the claw marks in the lakeshore silt. Then it seemed to confirm that even with this rude method, we were technological men, rightly confined by wilderness rules to simple projects.
But as we passed the Scotch and reached to touch the still-hot stones, we had a feeling of triumph. Our unnamed member at last spoke. He regarded the fire, the treacherous slope and the whisky. "No question." he intoned. "We are on Steamy, Slippery and Soused Island."
Call him Triple S.