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Why BWCA is Holy for Me

Editor’s note: The chance that readers will be traveling to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in December is not great. The author’s reflections on this ‘holy place’ are, nevertheless, worth contemplating at any season of the year.
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The Boundary Waters Canoe Area, in far north Minnesota, is a holy place for me. To journey through the BWCA is to become “set apart” from anything else. I find my soul being tended. It holds a power over me. It compels me to participate in its gifts and challenges. I am a different person when present there. Life gets sifted and reordered. I feel purged, cleansed, and renewed when I am done. I am reminded of life’s fragility and also its ancient endurance. I am led to appreciate the beauty of the world and the beauty of my fellow travelers.
Why is it so powerful for me and many other travelers?
n Fragility. Any time I go to the BWCA, I recognize — and I feel it in my gut — the fragility of health and life.
I’ll never forget the feeling of the sideways pull of the falls as I was pushed off from shore by my brother. I looked to my right and discovered how close I was to the falls. I paddled madly and got to the opposite shore before I was sucked sideways and downward. But in my attempt to brake the canoe, as it rammed into shore, it capsized. My hand went down into the rocks and I emerged with a finger that looked like a Z. I could see the cartilage ends of my dislocated finger. After a few hard yanks, it was straight again. Throughout the rest of the week, I felt unnerved by how close I was to death or serious accident. I was a new father and I wanted to see my wife and daughter again.
The BWCA’s time and place pulls its travelers into an awareness of life’s fragility. As the psalmist wrote (Psalm 90), “Teach us to number our days.”
* Beauty. The BWCA beauty is unique. It demands a certain eyesight or discipline. Its beauty can only be discerned when you take the time to look at it. It does not shout at you like the Rockies. It whispers to you. It is micro beauty. The beauty is in the lichen, the angle of the rock, the stubborn cedar, and the haunting call of the loon, the unfathomably clear waters.
Who can deny that beauty is connected to holiness? Who can deny that beauty must be, first of all, discerned? It has to be acknowledged, seen, and discovered. This happens only after you take the time to look, to be fully present.
* Physicality. Boundary Waters Camping is hard work. It strips you down. It reorders the priorities of life. I find myself living in the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — I need shelter, water, and food.
Each day, and especially on grueling days, I feel very much alive, vigorous. I feel right.
Nowhere else do I actually experience food as energy. Who would ever think that peanut butter and crackers were rejuvenating? Or that water, plain water, was more refreshing than Pepsi?
The work involved is a welcome change to my sedentary lifestyle. Everything is lifted. Everything involves bending over. Muscles are used. Joints are exercised. This is good! It’s the way it should be. I feel heroic and true when working so hard.
* Partnership. Campfires have a mystical hold. They have a way of centering us. And, anyone who gathers around a campfire is friend, part of the circle. The best conversations happen there. The best quiet time happens there.
BWCA camping trains you to see the good in each other — the unique set of skills or personality traits that get the job done. No more superfluous layers; we all have messy hair. No more bragging about the kids or career; we are interested in how good you are at setting up the tent.
Manners count for a lot. Little words, like “thank you” and “please,” make a big difference. Curiously, things as “civilized” as manners become extremely important when working together, beyond civilization. It truly matters that you participate, treat each other decently, put the best construction on things, and encourage one another. This camping partnership, or teamwork, is how community looks and feels.
Journeying through BWCA reminds me of Paul’s words to the Philippians: “Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, think about such things.” (4:8) I find myself trying to reflect the admirable and noble when working side by side with my fellow travelers. I find myself cognizant of the pure and right when reduced to the basics of shelter and sustenance. I find myself focusing on the lovely when looking at the beauty of lichen. I find myself reminded of what is true when reminded of my mortality and fragility.
Bender is pastor of St. Stephanus Lutheran Church (LCMS), St. Paul, Minnesota.