Lutherans in Minnesota

Wilderness retreat offers women annual experience in “God’s great cathedral”

Tucked at the end of the Gunflint Trail, 54 miles north of Grand Marais, Minnesota, lies Wilderness Canoe Base. Located on the border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the site is a majestic place to worship and experience the wonder of God’s creation and promises “a rare opportunity for silence and growth.”

Every summer since 1973, a group of women has traveled to Wilderness Canoe Base for just that. The group originated from women involved in the Plymouth Christian Youth Center (PCYC) Women’s Auxiliary. They raised money for camperships for inner-city children. In 1973, the auxiliary group decided it would be valuable to experience the camp themselves. Thus began a tradition that lasts to this day.

For many of these women, the trek is much more than a summer getaway; it is an integral part of their lives. Shar Hauer has been involved with the annual trips to Wilderness Canoe Base from the beginning, and understands the groups as well as anyone. “I believe we are a very welcoming group of women. We are open to anyone that wants to experience the wilderness and Christian community,” she said.

The remoteness of the BWCAW makes it a place where special friendships can be built. Hauer said that when you go you leave a lot of things behind—both literally and figuratively. This lack of baggage gives women an opportunity for both community and solitude.

“The planners make sure it is a time of rejuvenation and renewal, both spiritually and personally. I think that is what this fellowship of women can do for each other,” Hauer said.

Also a founding traveler, Nancy Johnson said that the annual trips offer such “an exhilarating place and experience that I can’t help but keep going back.” “The Boundary Waters is such a preserved area of our country. I think it is the eighth wonder of the world,” Johnson said. “It is such a serene powerful, majestic cathedral of God.”

While Johnson said the trips can be physically grueling, noting the 100-mile canoe ride she once took from the Canadian side back to the camp, she notes that the women work together both in hand and in heart. It is these relationships in this special place that Johnson said keep many women coming back. “They often return to do it again because they realize [how] wonderful God’s great cathedral can be for you.”

Pamela Miller has a long history with the BWCAW and the Wilderness Canoe Base. She worked at the camp two summers while in college and honeymooned in the BWCAW with her husband. She called the experience of working at the camp “life changing,” and said it gave her the courage to go on to medical school.

So, when it was offered, she gladly accepted the invitation to join this group, which she calls “feisty, Christian women,” and has returned almost every year since the early 1980s. She appreciates that the only responsibilities of the trip include laughing and drinking coffee, and that it offers a chance for wonderful, heartwarming conversations. “It is a gift,” she said.

Spending time with a group of “always interesting women” and a love for the BWCAW has kept Maija Sedzierlarz returning since 1992. Based upon her experience, she invited her daughter, Alija, to join her with the hope that “everything would go perfect.”

“In spite of the cold and rain, she really enjoyed it,” Maija said. So much that this year, Alija even asked for the trip as her birthday gift, making it the pair’s fifth trip together.

Alija, a wife and mother of two young children, appreciates the time with her mom. “Being away from our responsibilities, it really has given us time to talk about things we don’t normally talk about — talk about random thoughts and moments. [There are also] times when we are with each other and do not talk that is just as memorable,” she said.

For Maija, it is not only a place where she can spend time with her daughter, but also where she can remember her father. “I was there when Dad passed away. Being there, I was able to process everything. I now find special places to remember him.”

The trips offer these women both solitude and community, as well as a chance for worship, which takes place at the beginning and end of each day. “The services at Wilderness are very special,” Maija said. “The chapel is open air. I relish the chance to sit on the benches, look at the trees and lake. A few years we did communion by giving bread and wine to the person next to us. That’s a really powerful experience.”

This year’s trip begins on Thursday, August 27, and concludes after worship and brunch on Sunday, August 30. It also includes an optional guided canoe trip for a few days after. Information is available at under the “Events” link