Reading Muir from kayak and trail
By Ryan T. O’Leary, Ph.D.
About five years ago, I purchased a beautiful volume of John Muir’s Wilderness Essays. Then I put it on a shelf. It had to be read. So it was that as I began planning my summer camping – said planning beginning in February – I knew that John Muir would have to come with me.
The Northern Highland American Legion state forest is a 232,000-acre state forest spanning three counties. It contains more than 900 lakes. I am heading out into the Bittersweet Lakes area, a chain of four small lakes with portages in between, off-limits to motor-boats (which I call “cheater-boats”).
I am accompanied by Dustin, a friend from graduate school at the University of Iowa, where we studied religion and drank more than our fair share of the town’s beer. Our conversation is studded with references to things like Cartesian dualism and the subjectivity of non-human life.
After a long drive north, we make base camp: my parents’ cabin near the Willow Flowage, a property they purchased thirty years ago, where I have spent countless hours. Severe storms are predicted for Saturday morning – strong winds and hail.
“I made haste to reassure them, telling them… that Heaven cared for us, and guided us all the time, whether we knew it or not; but that only brave men had a right to look for Heaven’s care.” – John Muir, The Discovery of Glacier Bay
In Muir’s The Discovery of Glacier Bay by Its Discoverer, he exhorts his Native guides to ignore the threat of storms and bravely trust in Heaven’s care. Dustin and I agree that we are not so brave. We will stay at base camp today and head out to Bittersweet tomorrow.
In the afternoon the storms have failed to materialize, so we take our boats out to the Willow Flowage, a 4,217-acre lake with 73 miles of shoreline, almost all of which remains undeveloped thanks to DNR management. It is located within a 30,000-acre scenic waters area filled with nearly impassible bogs and thick forest.
This is water I know well. I grew up here. Wandering, however briefly, across this familiar water I think about Muir, about wandering, and about home.
By all accounts, Muir’s father was a domineering man who subscribed to a domineering brand of Christianity. Granted, a person’s life can never be reduced to a single motive, but I have always thought that Muir’s obsessive wanderlust was – at least in part – a means of escaping the memory of an overbearing father.
For my part, instead of getting as far away from home as I can, I have become obsessed with exploring it. This is the landscape that has inspired so many of the great names in conservation and I have seen only the smallest fraction of it.
Dustin and I head out to Bittersweet on Sunday morning and weather be damned. These lakes are simultaneously new to me and familiar.
I am not John Muir, walking into unmapped wilds with only the clothes on my back and a bit of bread. As I explore – as I, yes, discover this place – I am also inheriting it from earlier generations. I am filled with a sense of gratitude to accompany my wonder.
On Sunday afternoon, the storms finally come. There is no hail, but the wind is strong and the lightning rings around us. I confess to being intimidated. But Muir was right: the skies clear and I lay in my hammock looking at the stars until the cold of night drives me into my tent for a short sleep.
“Standing here in the deep, brooding silence all the wilderness seems motionless, as if the work of creation was done. But in the midst of this outer steadfastness we know there is incessant motion and change.” – John Muir, A Near View of the High Sierra
One week later my wife, Doreen, and I drive back north to kayak the Willow Flowage. The first night is again spent at base camp, and the weather radio again calls for storms. On Tuesday morning, I tell Doreen all about how Heaven cares for us and how we need to be brave in order to claim Heaven’s care. She makes no comment.
The day is calm and the eagles soar above us as we set out from the north-east landing, travelling south and west. I am thinking about “incessant motion and change.” Each time I come home to this water, I come back to a place that is subtly changed. When we paddle back where cheater-boats cannot go, I marvel that these small inlets are worlds all their own. In a year – even in six months – they will be new again.
“You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a camp fire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature.” – John Muir, Twenty Hill Hollow
John Muir escaped a domineering father and his stern religion. Yet, Muir refused to turn his back on his father’s God. Instead, he found an inviting spirituality in the wild places, and he described himself as worshipping alongside of creation. His religion was a sort of nature mysticism expressed in monotheistic language.
Muir believed – as have so many others – that places where that sort of union with nature was most readily felt needed to be set aside, preserved. He was not only a conservationist, but an early environmentalist, a century ahead of his time.
“Nothing can be done well at the speed of forty miles a day . . . Far more time should be taken.” – John Muir, Yellowstone National Park
On the night before the summer solstice, I find myself at High Cliff State Park to do some solitary hiking. High Cliff State Park stands on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago. Unlike the rustic Bittersweet Waters, High Cliff is a much more developed park, with paved roadways, a marina, a general store and a concession stand. Yet, the visitor would do well to slow down and spend time walking here – there is so much to see, so much to learn.
There is a state park in Wisconsin for every type of explorer. If you need your RV or a tent larger than my bedroom to feel safe, there are places like Devil’s Lake or High Cliff to accommodate you… if you can find a place amidst the weekend throngs. Still, I should not denigrate these travels, for at any of our parks you can find enjoyable hikes for all skill levels, rocks to climb, scenic views or clean beaches for swimming and picnics.
It is true that at the more developed parks you will not watch loons fishing twenty feet from your camp, as Dustin and I did, or watch a mother mallard with seven small ducklings making hourly circuits thirty feet from your tent, as Doreen and I did.
Still, the more tourist-accessible parks have an important place. It is there that campers who are unsure of their camp-craft or their capacity for effort can begin to learn the skills to take them farther. There, such travelers can have a taste of nature, begin to learn its contours, and perhaps be motivated to go further the next time, and even further the time after that.
“Then, with fresh heart, go down to your work, and whatever your fate . . . you will remember these fine, wild views, and look back with joy to your wanderings.” – John Muir, Yellowstone National Park
So do not let any more of this season pass you by! Pack your pack, load your canoe, or just drive to the nearest state park for an afternoon hike over bluffs and through wetlands teeming with life.
As for me, California and Alaska will have to wait… there is still too much I need to explore here at home.
Important Names in Wisconsin Conservation
Increase Lapham (1811 – 1875)– Considered the founder of the Wisconsin conservation movement, Lapham was an early spokesman for the conservationist point of view and the first person to systematically investigate Indian mounds.
John Muir (1838 – 1914)– One of the most important figures in the national conservation movement, Muir’s nature writings expressed an environmentalist spirituality that has inspired generations.
Robert M. LaFollette (1855 – 1925)– A Wisconsin Republican and father of the Progressive movement, “Fighting Bob” LaFollette was a central figure in the national adoption of a leasing scheme for distribution of resources on public lands.
Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948)– Born in Iowa, Leopold did most of his mature work in Wisconsin, including the influential “Land Ethic.”
Gaylord Nelson (1916 – 2005)– A Democratic Wisconsin Senator and Governor, Nelson instituted the 1961 Outdoor Recreation Act, which helped secure more than one million acres, and was instrumental in establishing the EPA and Earth Day.