In a remote wilderness, we are likely to encounter God

The Rev. Rick Sanders of St. Paul's Episcopal Church led five teens and an adult on a wilderness canoe trip this summer.

An adventure begins with a mixture of excitement and uncertainty. Earlier this summer, a group from St. Paul's Church picked up our canoes and packs and set out for the first half-mile portage.

The trail took us -- five teens, one other adult and myself -- into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota. Our journey of 43 miles in eight days carried us over beaver dams, across lakes, down rivers and through 28 portage trails. The first portage ends at Moose River, where we launched our three canoes and headed downstream with the satisfaction of having the first portage behind us. It was only a short paddle before I spied a chokepoint of river rocks marking the next portage. Everyone had to get quickly ashore and lift their packs out of the canoes and onto their shoulders while swatting mosquitoes.

Our pants were muddy and our boots were wet. Someone exclaimed: "I had no idea it would be this beautiful!"

We had entered the wilderness canoe country. A tent site cannot compare to the elegant room of a Disneyland resort, but I'll argue that a stay on the untouched shoreline of an isolated lake carries more comfort.

I also believe the wilderness allows God to touch us in the deepest parts of our being in a way that other vacations cannot.

I recall vividly our first pre-trip meeting. I asked for cell phones to be put away. The distracting beeps, vibrations and rings were only a pocket away, though. Multitasking has been embraced as normative behavior. Yet, our availability comes with a price. We lose the ability to focus.

That first portage took us into a world absent cell towers. Our solitude changed the way we relate.

It's said that there's a real freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you. Conversations change because we have the ability to be present to one another in a way that our modern world discourages.

It took nine miles of paddling and four portages to find our first campsite. We worked together to put up tents. Weather in canoe country is unpredictable. Even in July, temperatures of 50 degrees and rains driven by 30 mph winds are not uncommon. Help was far away. In our isolation we became dependent on one another and our bonds of affections grew deep.

Looking out of my tent at the stars and listening to the cry of the loon, I realized that I'm bound to the natural world in a way that running from the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned house denies.

On our last morning I asked everyone, "What did you learn?"

One teen, Emma, answered, "I learned that things get in your way. You have to push through and overcome those things."

"Emma, how did you come to that conclusion?" I asked.

She replied: "Remember the day we went down the river and we kept coming across beaver dams? The only thing we could do was to pick up our canoes and to pull them over their dams and to keep going!"

God's gift of the wilderness teaches us how to be his creatures.

The Rev. Richard Sanders is the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Augusta and a wilderness canoe guide.

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