The Idea of North

The drifts were deep; I needed snowshoes to get to the hill on the far side of the island. I rushed the snow off of a hump of granite under a big old red pine and sat down on the folded wool blanket I’d brought along. 

After I caught my breath, the season’s peace descended. Not far from Minnesota’s border with Canada, on a 7-acre island in a lake on the edge of the Boundary Waters, I rested in the cold air and felt winter on my skin, the idea of North deep in my bones.

The wind blew, catching in the pine needles, and the whole forest made a long sad sound, like a thousand people sighing at once. The cold in that wind came from a long way away, down from the Arctic and across Hudson Bay and through the woods of Ontario, bringing polar tidings, the late January news.

My perch was on the edge of a cliff, more or less, and below me I could see the frozen lake, and in the middle of the ice, a heap of rocks supporting a tenacious, stunted pine. On the other shore, rounded granite hills – dusted with snow and bristling with sleeping trees – gave shape to the horizon.

I’d been alone and silent for two full days. I hadn’t seen a TV, looked at a computer or heard a radio, and into the blissful void that opened up in my skull, quietness bloomed.

Cold wind, sighing pines, stone hills: plenty of entertainment. When there’s no one else to talk to, it gets easier to listen.

Under the ice of Jasper Lake, walleye swam undisturbed in the cold, clear water. No deer came, but I could see their tracks in the snow around me, a trail of pinpoints on the far side of the lake. I didn’t see a wolf, either, but don’t doubt that one saw or smelled me. Wing feathers rustled somewhere above. Heard but not seen, the passing raven sounded a bell-like greeting.

By dusk, I was on the verge of shivering. Fading light turned the snow to the blue of summer twilight and reduced the trees to inky shadows. I got up and shook out the blanket. The crunching of my snowshoes seemed suddenly, unbearably loud.

It took about 15 minutes to cross the island again. I smelled the smoke from the woodstove before I stepped into the clearing. The windows glowed an incandescent shade of yellow.

Inside the one-room cabin, where I’ve stayed for a few days each winter for eight winters, a familiarity free of distractions embraced me. By the biggest window, two old steel office chairs and a table overlook the lake. An ancient blue rocking chair with a circular rag rug on the seat faces the woodstove, which was soon creaking and groaning with the heat from a fresh load of birch. Double bed, plaid comforter. Knotty pine paneling. Two propane lights and a stove. No running water. The outhouse, a short walk through the woods.

I cut carrots, kale and onions into a pot of canned chicken broth and added some green lentils. An hour later, I sat in the rocker and ate while I watched the fire.

Before I went to bed, I walked out onto the lake and looked at the stars, spread from shore to shore in the utter clarity of winter air. Orion, the hunter, peered over the southern skyline, tirelessly stretching his bow toward his perpetually fleeing mark. The Milky Way was not milky at all, but sharp and three-dimensional, like fabric knitted of light unfurled against the darkness of night.

I didn’t have a coat on, and the warmth of the cabin that clung to my sweatshirt dissipated quickly. The cold, big as the universe, pressed in from all sides. If I stayed out there, I’d be dead within a couple of hours, I thought. Knowing the safety of the cabin was at my back, I savored that feeling – it was like looking out on the ocean, endless and unfamiliar, with my toes gripping warm sand.

At 1:30 a.m., I woke up when the wolves started to howl. In the morning, I found fresh tracks between the cabin and the outhouse.

I was up north three days. When I think about it, nothing really happened. I ate, I slept, I watched the winter woods. It was the best vacation I had all year.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune. December 18, 2005