In the annals of American nature writing, few stand as tall as Sigurd Olson.
As a young man in the 1920s, Olson was a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, and saw how city dwellers were rejuvenated by just a few nights in a tent. He became an evangelist for wilderness, and wrote a series of highly influential books on the outdoors, odes to loons and solitude, with titles like Runes of the North
and The Lonely Land
. Those books are full of epic canoe trips, where one rediscovers a “zest for living and joy on the trail.” Life is simpler in Olson’s boat; one can “iron out the wrinkles in my soul.” Olson would go on to win the John Burroughs Medal, the highest award for the literature of natural history, a distinction he shares with Rachel Carson
and John McPhee
In “Why Wilderness?,” his first great essay on the topic, Olson writes of a universal yearning, “men in need of unbroken country,” who long to escape their prosaic lives of quiet desperation. Olson calls it “a deeply rooted cancer gnawing forever” which is “more than can be borne with fortitude.” Olson is sympathetic, and provides the cure for this modern ill. “I know these men and the craving that is theirs; I know also that in the world today there are only two types of experience which can put their minds at peace, the way of the wilderness or the way of war.”
Well, I did a few combat tours in Iraq, and two summers ago I paddled a canoe 1,125 miles through some of North America’s last true wilderness, and I’m here to tell you that Sigurd Olson is full of shit.
Since Vietnam, a laundry list of American writers, many of us veterans, have steadily chipped away at this romantic view of war; the established Hemingway
edifice was strong. There are fewer hands demystifying the myth of wilderness, but it’s a trope that needs to go as well, if we are to see our planet for what it is, and finally admit to both our place on it and power over it.
Modern nature has become denuded...we feel at peace there because we have killed almost everything in it that might eat us.
I embarked on my canoe trip to retrace the paddle-strokes of Alexander Mackenzie, a nearly forgotten fur trader and explorer. In 1793, Mackenzie became the first European to cross North America, 12 years ahead of Lewis and Clark. And even before that, in 1789, he led the first recorded descent of the massive river that now bears his name, from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean. Mackenzie was looking for a route to the Pacific, a Northwest Passage, and when he was stopped by summer pack ice, he named the river “Disappointment.”
Mackenzie was a pre-Romantic, and as such saw wilderness as a dark and scary place, where one could easily freeze to death and be eaten by beasts, real or imaginary; the icy-hearted windigos stalked starving men. Wilderness was a barrier to progress, a force to be tamed, and certainly no tonic for the soul. As Robert Macfarlane discusses in Mountains of the Mind
, in the pre-Romantic age, the idea of climbing a mountain or crossing a raging river for fun was crazy. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when urban Europeans began sneaking off to the Alps to tip-toe out onto a glacier for a thrill, did the idea of nature as anxiety-salve come into being.
Modern nature has become denuded, a Potemkin village — we feel at peace there because we have killed almost everything in it that might eat us — and so this pre-Romantic mindset can be hard to conjure. In Mackenzie’s time, the most beloved of country was flat, tillable into farms, free of predators, and full of food; a place like the Grand Canyon would be considered a threatening wasteland.
The ubiquitous myth that life in the wilderness is simpler and more virtuous is the fault of writers like Thoreau
. But, as any visitor to Walden Pond can tell you, Thoreau was no isolated hermit. He lived just outside of Concord, and had access to all the amenities and conveniences that implies.
My canoe trip through the Northwest Territories — an area the size of Texas, California, and Montana combined, but hosting only 10,000 residents — took place far outside of Thoreau-esque nature. The remoteness did not bestow nobility, and it was not simple. It is not simpler to count calories to ensure you have enough food to make it to the next town. It is not simpler to swat clouds of mosquitoes away from your groin while squatting for your morning constitutional. It is not simpler to wonder where you’ll sleep at night, or to coax wet wood into a cooking fire, or to lie exposed on a beach during a lightning storm. Often, the only bit of muddy riverbank flat enough for a tent was crisscrossed with huge grizzly bear tracks; we went to bed simply hoping they would not return.
Americans spend so much time going to national parks, we confuse their domesticated allure with wilderness itself. National parks are the highlight reel of nature, places chosen for their extreme aesthetic beauty. But there is a reason the monotonous places in between aren’t chosen for park status, and on a 40-day, 1,125-mile journey, most of my time on the Mackenzie River was spent in those in-between places. That river is the second longest in North America, and we fought boredom as much as the weather and the bugs.
We saw a few towns, all materially poor, a desperation just below the surface; the alcoholism and suicide rates in northern Canadian indigenous villages are beyond alarming. One night, when we slept on a bluff above the local boat ramp, our canoe was ransacked, and much of our food and equipment stolen or tossed in the water and ruined. The local police officer blamed intoxicated scavengers, and said she had responded to similar incidents all night. Tell the residents of villages in Arctic Canada — with little access to quality employment, medical care, or education, after hundreds of years of colonial government policy — that their wilderness perch makes them idyllic, virtuous, and beautifully simple.
One of my paddling companions, David Chrisinger, is from central Wisconsin, close to Olson country, and loved reading his books as a kid.
“He said life is a series of campfires. That spoke to my sixteen-year-old soul,” David told me one night in camp.
“But that’s exactly what drives me nuts about Olson,” I said. “I feel like we’re struggling in the grime here, and he’s talking about the majesty of the canoe cutting the water.”
“It’s like Facebook,” David said. “His life looks perfect in his posts.”
Soon after I returned from my trip, I had a residency at the Chautauqua Institution, a summer arts colony and seat of learning in western New York. Chautauqua is full of historic homes and wealthy patrons, and one morning I woke early and went for a run along the lake. To my left, a broad lawn and the hill studded with Victorians. To my right, the cold water, a hint of fog, and the far green shore thick with forest.
I realized, as I ran, that the view across the lake looked eerily similar to my daily view on the Mackenzie River. Chautauqua Lake is long and thin, about as wide as the Mackenzie. Same flat chilly water and far wooded shore. There was only one difference: where I found the Mackenzie River a suffocating monotony of black spruce, Chautauqua Lake now looked absolutely beautiful. And that’s when I understood that my uplifted heart had nothing to do with the view itself, and everything to do with the cup of fresh coffee, spinach omelet, and warm shower that awaited me at the end of my run.
Nature is never more lovely than when couched in comfort.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Disappointment River
, All the Ways We Kill and Die
, and the war memoir The Long Walk
, which was adapted into an opera. His journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times
, and on National Public Radio.