“Young Voyageurs,” New Era, July 1986, 20
Dust shifted in the windows and settled as a light film on everything. No one suggested closing the van windows. It was too hot without some air circulating. They would tolerate the dust.
Riding in a van following the trailer loaded with canoes, the girls of the Fargo North Dakota Stake, headed for a Summiteer adventure, were lost in lethargy, dozing a little. They had had an early morning getting everything packed for five days in the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota.
Suddenly Andrea bolted awake in her seat, yelling, “Hey, look! There’s a bear.”
Just then a black bear ambled casually across the road. Now everyone was awake. They watched the bear disappear into the woods, then looked at each other with a look that spoke eloquently. It was unspoken communication, but the message was clear. This really was going to be an adventure. Little did they realize then just how vivid the experience would be and how much this canoe trip would act as a symbol for the way they should live their lives.
The Fargo North Dakota Stake takes in parts of three states, including most of northern Minnesota. Included in the stake area is the Boundary Waters, an area crisscrossed with a series of lakes, rivers, and streams that straddle the border between the United States and Canada. It is often possible to paddle from one lake to the next by way of the streams. However, those lakes not connected by streams have portages, or trails, built between them over which the adventurous can carry their canoes and packs.
Nearly 250 years ago, French trappers used the waterways to carry supplies in to trading posts and ship beaver pelts out to the coast. These hardy men were known as voyageurs. They would shoulder two 90-pound packs apiece and carry them across the portages when the streams became unnavigable. Stories repeated about the voyageurs say that portaging was such hard work and the voyageurs were loaded so heavily that they took the trails at a trot just to get it over with that much sooner. After the first trip across a portage, the voyageurs dropped their packs and backtracked to the point where they left their canoes. It took four men to handle each 600-pound wooden canoe as they carried it to the next lake.
The van and the truck pulling the canoe trailer turned into the parking lot at the edge of the national forest. The big Duluth packs, specially made for canoeing and portaging, were unloaded. Next were the canoes. The thought of carrying everything the girls needed to set up camp, their food and clothes, and their canoes and paddles was a bit daunting. There was a lot to learn in a short time.
First order of the day was learning to carry the canoes over their heads. Even at 70 pounds apiece, the canoes were heavy and awkward, but the girls were grateful for modern technology that made possible sturdy but lightweight aluminum canoes. Brenda Crepeau and the Young Women president, Dawna Rice, were the first to try carrying a canoe. Together they picked the canoe up and balanced it on their hips for a moment. Then on the count of three they lifted it above their heads. Suddenly, it became apparent that this simply was not going to work. Brenda was facing one way and Dawna the other. Each thought she was in front and tried to walk forward only to be jerked to a halt. When they realized their problem, both started laughing so hard they had to drop the canoe.
With everyone and everything straightened out and heading in the right direction, the girls shouldered their packs with some groaning. Bug hats with mosquito net veils were put on for protection from the voracious insects, giving everyone a slightly alien look. The woods literally hummed with the sound of mosquitoes trying to find their way to human flesh.
When they reached the starting point on the Moose River, Sister Lamb, the activity specialist, showed the girls how to load the canoes and took her place in the first one. As the canoe began floating away, she called to Kim Barclay still standing on shore, “Kim, throw me a paddle.” At the same instant that Kim tossed her one, Sister Lamb added, “Make sure it’s one that floats.” It was too late to check. As the paddle slapped the water, it floated.
The six canoes started drifting down the river towards Nina-Moose Lake, and it was time to check the maps. Each boat had one in a waterproof bag. Quickly the girls learned that portages are measured in rods and that there are 320 rods to the mile. They scanned the map, mentally figuring the length of the portages that lay ahead—“25 rods, how far would that be? Oh no, here’s one that’s 120 rods.” At the end of the first day, after having made seven portages, ranging from 24 to 96 rods, the numbers on the map started to take on new meaning as the distances were measured in shaky legs and sore shoulders.
Soon the girls started taking on the same attitude that the original French voyageurs had about making portages. They were willing to carry incredible amounts, often carrying nearly their own weight in packs and equipment, rather than make two trips across the portage with lighter loads. Sitting on a rock waiting for the others to make it across one of the longer portages, Sarah Crompton said, “I thought I couldn’t make it until I got to the end. Then it didn’t seem so bad.”
In the evening, camp was set up in designated campsites, and the girls showed off their outdoor cooking skills. Instant pudding was prepared with red-tinged but safe-to-drink lake water. It was hard to mix smooth with just a spoon, but hunger makes for nonfussy eaters. Lumps were okay with everyone.
The girls could make a pan of boiling water into mashed potatoes and creamed chicken or spaghetti enough to serve ten. But there are limits to what a campfire can do. As Brenda Crepeau was reading the recipe from the back of the box of skillet lasagna, she asked, tongue in cheek, “How do I turn the oven to 400 degrees? I don’t see any knobs on this fire!”
Evening camp was a time to swim in the pure water of the lakes and just relax tired arms from paddling and tired legs from hiking. The sunsets made the water shimmer as it turned the surrounding forested hills into silhouetted sentinels. The loons, with their haunting cries, floated low in the water, their white speckled backs catching the last rays of light. As soon as the last blush of sunset faded from the sky, an annoying buzz rose like a cloud from the damp grass. The mosquitoes were better than any clock to indicate that it was bedtime. It was time to suspend all the food packs high between two trees out of the reach of marauding bears.
One morning, as soon as all six canoes were loaded and launched, the group met in the middle of the lake. The girls held on to the gunnels of neighboring canoes as maps were unfolded and the course for the day discussed. According to the map there seemed to be two choices. Either they could paddle across the lake, unload, and hike across a 120-rod portage, or they could stay in their canoes and attempt to paddle up a small stream to the neighboring lake.
To the girls there seemed to be no question—anything to get out of unloading the canoes and portaging. Stake President Hennebry, who along with his counselors were accompanying the girls as priesthood advisers, pointed out some potential problems. Nobody in the group had been this way before. No one was absolutely sure that the stream on the map would be wide enough to handle a canoe. The portage was steep and difficult, but it was a sure thing. It was the group’s decision. They would take a vote.
The thought of missing a long, hard portage was enticing. The majority was willing to take a chance on what seemed to be the easier route, the stream.
When the first canoe reached the mouth of the stream, it was blocked by a beaver dam. “No problem,” said Andrea Miles, Karen Johnson, and Ganine Conner, “we’ll pull our canoe over the dam and scout on ahead and see what the stream looks like.”
It was deceiving. Because of the beaver dam, the stream widened into a pond and looked at first like it was going to be the easy route everyone hoped it would be. All six canoes were lured in, and they followed the twisting, curving stream. Another beaver dam was crossed, then another. The stream was getting so narrow that the canoeists could hardly fit a paddle between the edge of the canoe and the bank.
The stream became shallow, and the girls had to get out and walk. At first, everyone tried to keep her shoes dry, but as one by one they slipped off of dry footing and into the sticky mud, they gave up and tried to wade. The mud was waist deep, and they had to tow the canoes behind them. The sucking, gooey mud pulled at each leg with every step. They abandoned any hope of staying clean and dry. But where was the next lake? Wouldn’t it be around the next curve, or the next? Finally their leaders said that it was hopeless. The stream was becoming nothing more than a swamp, and still the lake was nowhere in sight.
Tired, muddy, and discouraged, the girls turned their canoes around and started back the way they came. Only it was harder getting out than it had been getting in. They had broken the beaver dams during their entrance, and the water had drained out of the ponds leaving them high, but certainly not dry.
After slogging through a mile or so of mud, the last canoe was again back at the starting point. After rinsing off and climbing back in their canoes, the group gathered for a moment of thought. They had wasted the whole morning in a useless attempt to find an easy way. Now they would have to turn around and take the long portage, the trail so clearly marked that would take them to the next lake. The comparisons to life were only too obvious. As the girls tried to clean up a bit, rest, and eat lunch, they were subdued as they thought about their experience. Slowly, they began to draw analogies to their own lives.
Sister Rice, the Young Women president said, “Much of the time we think we can gamble and take the easy way, but it often gives us nothing but grief. We became mired down so we could hardly move, but we repented of our decision and turned around. It was hard just getting back to where we had started from. If we had been wise, we would have taken the ‘straight and narrow’ way, the portage, and been ahead.”
Later at the last night fireside, President Hennebry again reminded the girls of their experience. “You’ve experienced something you can relate to life. But on this trip you can remember the experience without remembering the pain. Satan has a map which marks what seems to be the easy way that will still get you where you want to go. It’s an attractive lie. Just like our experience in the swamp. At first the barriers were easy to cross, but it made it so much harder to come out. In life if you find that you have chosen the wrong stream, no matter how hard it is, repent and come back.”
The lesson on making decisions was a valuable one. The girls learned from it and remembered. Throughout the rest of the trip, if anyone jokingly asked, “Hey, there’s a stream on this map. Do you think we ought to try it?” they would be shouted down with a loud, “No, thanks.”
The trip of nearly 50 miles and 8 lakes was tough, but there were few complaints. Karen Chase noticed this especially, “It’s amazing to see people’s talents. It’s been great to be together, and I didn’t hear a single complaint.”
The trip was a confidence builder for Michelle and Brenda Schroeder. “I didn’t realize what we were getting into, but it’s beautiful,” said Michelle. Then with an arm around her sister, Brenda, she said, “And I’ve been glad to be with my sister before she goes away to college.”
Brenda had her own thoughts on the trip. “I thought I would die. I didn’t think I could carry any of that stuff, but I did. Then I knew I could do it again.”
On the last day as the group was heading back to the parking lot to meet the van and truck that were to pick them up, Sonda Donley, loaded with two heavy packs, one in front and the other on her back, was smiling but walking slowly uphill on the final portage. She said, “I feel fine. I just wish I could pick up my feet.”
After returning the canoes to the outfitter, washing their faces in the luxury of hot running water out of a tap, and combing their hair in front of a real mirror, the Summiteers spread out a map and mentally retraced their route.
When their fingers stopped at Gebeonequet Lake and the stream that went nowhere, they made a resolve. On future canoe trips and in their own lives, they would follow the correct paths. And because of their associations with fine leaders and advisers and by relying on their Heavenly Father, they knew that their feet would be guided as was promised in the scriptures.
“I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them” (Isa. 42:16).