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Pagayez Chers Camarades!

Devan Baty

Devan Baty at a contemplative moment during the canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

SAIL 2017 seminar: Wilderness in the Anthropocene

On site in northern Minnesota on July 7-16, 2017

Blog post by Devan Baty, Associate Professor of French, Cornell College


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As we paddled out at the start of our four-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, a catchy song about rowing, camaraderie, and romance that I have taught many times to students learning French ran through my mind. "Pagayez" or "Paddle" by the Cajun singer and poet, Zachary Richard, recalls the early modern history of French "Coureurs des bois," renegade travelers who explored deep into the wilderness in pursuit of trade with indigenous peoples.

Pagayez chers camarades, pagayez
Encore loin pour faire la fin de la journée

Devan Baty and McKenzie Lamb

Devan Baty and McKenzie Lamb (Ripon College) during a break in the canoeing.

French Voyageurs hired by trading companies continued to paddle, hike, hunt, and negotiate their way across the North American continent, from the Pays d'en haut to the Pays des Illinois through the end of the 19th century. Their legendary history was a source of inspiration for the iconic 20th century defender of the Boundary Waters, Sigurd Olson, who believed that the best way to gain knowledge of their exploits was through experiential learning; putting paddle to water and tending an ear to the silence of the North Woods.

J'suis voyageur des eaux et coureur des bois
Depuis l'nord Manitoba aux Illinois
J'connais toutes les rivières, tous les ruisseaux
Depuis l'ile d'Orléans, jusqu'à la terre haute

Buoyed by the adventurous spirit of the Voyageurs, I began my first-ever canoe trip in the company of supportive colleagues. Our journey would lead us northeast along the line of waters that separate Minnesota from Canada into Knife Lake, looping back southwest through Vera, Ensign and Newfound lakes back to Moose Lake, our point of departure. The weather forecast accurately predicted wind and rain for our adventure, but we were well-equipped for the challenges awaiting us, having armed ourselves with a wealth of amenities available to the 21st century traveler: Gore-Tex apparel, Deet, sunscreen, coffee, and many, many Sharpie-labeled ziploc bags full of meals and snacks.


Camping, canoeing, and community

My limited experience with camping and canoeing before this seminar was in part due to growing up in a state more known for its miles of soybeans and corn than its wild spaces. Many of the students on our campuses have also not experienced outdoor activities like these nor have they spent much time exploring natural environments. Recreation is more likely to take place in virtual rather than natural spaces and asynchronous, siloed communication has increasingly become the norm for their daily interactions with others.

My experience on the water and in the woods challenged me to connect mind and body in new ways.

The opportunity afforded by this seminar to learn about wilderness on site and in community has been extremely powerful. The lack of Wi-Fi and cell phones was refreshing and made space for conversation and reflection I may otherwise have filled with news feeds and e-mail. My experience on the water and in the woods challenged me to connect mind and body in new ways. I have never felt more acutely aware of the need to "pull my own weight" than on this canoe trip. Taking turns at the bow, the middle and the stern, I learned through trial and error that paddling should be steady, smooth and in sync. My small improvements in technique paled, however, in comparison with the competence of others in my group who somehow managed to paddle, navigate, adjust for changes in wind and weather, AND spot birds at great distances — all while explaining the finer nuances of the landscape we passed.

Noticing and naming the details of my natural surroundings did not come as naturally to me as I had hoped. I relied heavily on those with trained eyes and ears to bring to my attention what turned out to be the spectacular highlights of our trip: a bald eagle perched at water's edge, the rare sight of a group of seven loons swimming together, and aggressive merlins dive-bombing an osprey in mid-flight. We saw a loon coast by with two babies perched on her back and another mother loon perched on her nest barely hidden in the spring-green grass — a mere paddle-length from the bow of my canoe as we floated through water dappled with sunlight and wine-colored lily pads. Glorious, teachable moments.


Consi Powell led a discussion of visual journaling during the second day of the seminar.

Portage d'Enfer

Despite my background in French studies, the French term "portage" meant little to me before this trip. While reading Sig Olson's poetic descriptions of the land bridges connecting one lake to another in a 1936 piece called "The Romance of Portages," I searched Google for images of what we might encounter and made hopeful choices when packing shoes for the trip. After the first couple yards of the first portage of our trip, however, I quickly learned that the crossings Olson ordained as "part and parcel of a priceless spiritual heritage, the old wilderness" would join forces with wind and water to teach me the physical limits of my own body.

Experience of this beautiful, wild place has now become a part of what I carry with me — a sensory portage of impressions, sights and sounds.

It is quite daunting to paddle up to the mouth of a portage with no clear idea of the topographical challenges that lie ahead. When we reached what many of my travel companions have now deemed the "Portage from Hell" on the third afternoon of our trip (a day intended to be slower-paced, with paddles on small lakes and time to breathe and take in the natural beauty of our surroundings), I anxiously witnessed my colleagues scale treacherous, mud-slick rock faces balancing canoes on their shoulders with impressive agility and strength. A week later, I am still stunned by the difficulty of the portage that joins Knife Lake to the green glass of Vera Lake. Rainsoaked trial by land. Portage fatal.

The experience of crossing that portage on the penultimate day of our trip has, however, left me with a deep, visceral respect for the physical and mental strength of the Voyageurs and their latter-day soulmate, Sig Olson, who carried a canoe far heavier than our own well into his seventies. The memory of this difficult portage will stick with me more than the others from our trip. I feel more connected to the place as a result and take some satisfaction knowing that the Vera Lake portage will continue to be as fierce as the day we crossed it.


Low Lake

Low Lake, near the Coe College Wilderness Field Station, which served as the base for the seminar.

Just visiting

Experience of this beautiful, wild place has now become a part of what I carry with me — a sensory portage of impressions, sights and sounds. With this cargo comes a heavy sense of responsibility to act, to spread the word, to carry forth and protect the natural wonders of the Boundary Waters and the North Woods. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines "wilderness" as an area "... where man himself is a visitor and does not remain." My brief visit to the region and participation in this seminar has reminded me of my temporary guest status not only in the Boundary Waters but also back in my home state of Iowa, where I am also just passing through at this particular point of the Anthropocene.

As a teacher of language, literature and culture, my first recourse for sharing what I've learned with others will be through words: the essays of Sig Olson, the poetry of Kim Blaser, the textual history of the Voyageurs and their interactions with native American communities. However, the opportunity the canoe trip provided to actually experience wilderness — or at least that which we name as such — helped me connect in a more intimate way to the landscape and history of northern Minnesota. I feel particularly invested in its past, present, and future, and hope to pass this investment on to others.

In gratitude to the ACM and the Mellon Foundation for making this seminar possible and to our seminar leaders and my fellow travelers for making this experience so fun and meaningful, I look forward to creating tangible opportunities for my own students to learn about our Midwest Wilderness and its rich, diverse heritage.

Allez mes braves, allez amis, allons, allez
Encore loin pour faire la fin de la journée ...