Wilderness Reflections: Paths

Editor’s note: Laura Puckett led a group of five young women on a twenty-one day canoe trip starting at Gulliver Lake near Ignace Ontario travelling south through the Quetico Provincial Park and finishing by paddling the Pigeon River to Lake Superior. Ellen Saliares, a sixteen year old member of the group, reflects on her experience. Photo courtesy of Laura Puckett.

Along the most northern border of Minnesota, stretching from the Pigeon River to Lake Superior, is a path. The Pigeon River is shallow and very muddy. It marks the beginning of the Grand Portage, a path used by French fur traders. Thick stretches of pines line the nine mile trail. For many people the Grand Portage is a rite of passage, something you do the summer after you’ve turned sixteen. Maybe it is hard to understand; maybe it is simply something that you have to experience for yourself, but the Grand Portage is something that has changed my life. July 10, 2005— I woke up very early, so early there were no traces of sunlight through the green vinyl of our tent. It was dusky outside as the sun slowly began to rise. When we started, it was before six o’clock.

One of the things I remember best about that day was that everything
was extraordinarily green and alive. The heat was oppressive and, in the morning, the insects were incessant. As the day wore on we would remove layers of clothing only to need to add more bug repellent. Sweat dripped off our noses and ran down between our shoulder blades.

I wasn’t afraid of the Grand Portage, and neither was the rest of my group. After spending twenty days together I felt like we could take on the world. After traveling so far what was another nine miles? Every step I took was filled with wonder— I traversing the same trail the voyageurs did. I felt so much kinship to those men as I walked down the path
carrying my load. What really connected me to them was the feeling of indomitable strength and courage. Nothing could stop me.

As we went through our portage rotations, we grew more tired, and it was harder to continue our conversations. It would have been so easy to just give up and focus on the pain and exhaustion, but we didn’t. Each of us did what was needed to keep the other going, no matter the personal sacrifice.

We had heard that after we crossed the highway, we’d have a mile left. You can imagine our bliss when the faint roaring of cars was heard off in the distance. All of the exhaustion and soreness in my body was gone.
We crossed the highway quickly and continued on. Joy is the only word to describe what I felt. At the beginning of our trip a mile might have seemed long, but at that moment it felt like a walk across the street.

We prepared for our last rotation. The end was so near, and I could picture the great expanse of Lake Superior in my mind. Each step drew us closer to the end and the pride of accomplishing the Grand Portage. Near the end the trees thinned somewhat, and there was a rickety bridge over a small
gorge with a tiny creek. The sight of water nearly drove me crazy. Besides being very dehydrated, I knew that creek had to lead to Lake Superior!

The path just kept going and going until, bursting onto a road, the Grand Portage Monument stood in front of us. We screamed and crossed the road. Nine miles of toil and pain were behind us. The single focus of my being was flipping down our canoes in Lake Superior. We carried everything to the very end and threw down our packs. Following the canoe carriers into the lake, we flipped down. The frigid water soothed my hot, tired body. My heart felt like it would burst; I was so happy. I could hardly believe I had gone so far. The funny thing was that I felt like I could do it all over again.

My group signed our names in the Grand Portage guest book. It felt so good to write my name there with those who had supported and needed me; to have some testament of my strength and fortitude for all to see. It felt like I was a part of a group of voyageurs who had just finished the Grand Portage.

Even though I was very happy to have done the Grand Portage, I don’t think I was really prepared for the end. The minute we left the parking lot, it felt like everything was over. Suddenly it felt like I was very much back in the “real world,” a phrase that Laura hated. She said that being in the wilderness was as real as it got. I had been with these girls for almost a month and now it felt like life was tearing us apart. This “real world” created a tight feeling inside of me like something squeezing me from all directions. How could I ever explain? Soon we’d have to go home. Even Grand Marais seemed like a scary dream to me. It felt like I was just taking a break, like all of us would be heading back to Canada really soon.

I wanted to see my family, but I wasn’t sure if I was willing to give up being with my group to do that. That was it, plain and simple, we were a group. In the city, I was just me. I am more me in the woods than anywhere else, and my group helped me realize my strengths. Why couldn’t we just stay here forever? I didn’t have to go home, and neither did they.

Going home happened. We each had to go our separate ways, but I will never be the same. The women I spent those twenty-one days with
will forever be my friends, and I will always remember the strength and capability I had that day. I received this quote as a gift from Mary Gehrz during our trip and I feel like it completely describes my feelings:
“If I have seen farther than other men, it was because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”

The Grand Portage was not just another portage; it was an end and it was a beginning. I started out on the path, but it only led to another one. I hope that I can continue to traverse the paths of my life with the same courage and optimism as I did that day.

– Ellen Saliares
Camp Widjiwagan

This article appeared in Wilderness News Spring 2006



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