One doesn’t paddle into the boundary waters seeking human stories. Instead we seek what Thoreau called “the tonic of wildness,” or what Sigurd Olson described as “the antidote…of modern life.”
On the other hand, there are so few human signs in this wilderness that we often do search them out. The ancient ochre pictographs, for example, remind us of the human need to mark our passing.
One of my favorite boundary waters stories is set in the northern reaches of Basswood Lake. An abandoned Canadian outpost there was home to the last of the Quetico rangers, a man named Walt Hurn, memorialized by Olson in his essay, “Kings Point.” When Olson was a young guide in the 1920s, he writes, Hurn loomed larger than life, a part of the wilderness itself. Later, Olson learned that Hurn had a surprising secret desire; he longed to return to his native England, where he could devote his last days to…flower gardening. This archetype of the northern wilds was a secret lover of pansies and petunias.
I love to visit Kings Point, wandering through the old outpost and imagining Hurn saving vegetable scraps to make his precious garden compost. On this particular trip, I had my writing students search for the remains of Hurn’s garden.
Near the old cabin, we found something that didn’t belong to the wilderness at all. It was a patch of chives! Hurn and Olson, both long dead, would have seasoned their soups from this very patch! My students and I could not resist. We nicked a palmful of chives and paddled them back to our campsite.
That night, Walt Hurn’s chives flavored our soup, and even our walleye filets. My, they were delicious.
I’m Chris Fink and that’s my perspective.