Ten years ago, in August of 2003, I left the United States for the first time. My brother, his dog Jake, his girlfriend and I drove from our campsite at Devil Track Lake to Thunder Bay. We thought it was going to take longer—after we crossed the Canadian border—to reach the home city of Paul Schaffer, writer and producer of the song, “It’s Raining Men.” That’s because we forgot that the mile markers were actually kilometer markers. 70 kilometers is much shorter than 70 miles. We were glad for that.
It wasn’t exactly exotic or international travel. We had to show our licenses, not passports, to a Canadian border guard who looked like a cross between the Mountie from Due South and Robert Patrick in Terminator 2—he showed little emotion when he made us leave our firewood behind. The logs could carry pests or disease fatal to Canadian trees.
When I was in elementary school, around the time of the 1984 summer Olympics, I still believed Canada was a state. My sister corrected me. But I was determined that Canada not leave the Union, and it was a few days before I accepted their departure. In grad school at Northern Iowa, my best friend was Canadian mystic poet Mark Wagenaar. When I told him about my youthful mistake, he said that was funny, because he used to think the U.S. was a province.
It was over 90 degrees when we crossed into Canada, not exactly hockey weather. Around Thunder Bay, hills rose out of the water into the late summer haze. Across the lake it looks like a man is sleeping in a formation of mesas and sills.
We weren’t there very long. We did not even buy a souvenir, and lost our firewood to boot.
We spent most of our time that trip at Grand Marais, which is almost at the tip of Minnesota on the coast of Lake Superior. On the shoreline, volcanic stratum rises out of the waves, rusted into thin, vertical rectangles. The shoreline has been weathered smooth. Grant’s dog Jake liked to stand in the shallow coves and wade out as far as his leash allowed. This was on a peninsula east of town, if you followed the rocky path through evergreens to the far coast.
That summer, Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in quite a while, brighter than Venus, and we saw its reflection off Devil Track Lake, in the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota. Grant had bought an inflatable canoe. That trip was the only time we used it, because it was difficult to blow up and deflate, and it took great effort to paddle. We watched red-eyed loons pop out of the depths, and then steered the canoe as close as possible to the black birds before they dove again.
The northern lights flickered every night, as well. That early in the year it was mostly just white flames, but they covered the sky. It was not the first time I had seen them. The first time was from the north window of the home in which I grew up, in winter when the green ash tree had lost most of its seeds and there was snow on the ground.
We all wandered from our campsite next to the lake, blind through the woods to get a better view of the Aurora Borealis. Something about it makes you want to stand there forever and stare. Another part of you wonders what you’re watching, what’s the big deal. All I know is that the week after we left, someone got mauled by a bear at that lake, and we were fortunate to have missed out on that experience. If I had been mauled to death, I suppose basking in the Aurora Borealis would be a good way to go.
We took a break from roughing it for one night, and stayed in a relatively fancy hotel next to a different lake, one with plenty of rocky islands. With our stay, we received free use of a canoe you did not need to inflate, one that went fast when you paddled. The back door to our room led to the shore. If we had had more time, and if it had been allowed, I wanted to beach our canoe on an island and start a campfire.
Part of me wanted to get lost on those trips. That would be very difficult in southcentral Iowa. But very possible in the lakes and timber of the Boundary Waters. My brother had an innate sense of direction, better than my own. He was a good hunter and could find his way, walking or driving, out of any situation. I suppose he inherited it from my father, who survived a war by knowing his way. If I got lost with my brother, there would not be much of a chance of starvation, or not reaching the nearest town.
Of course part of me did not want to reach the nearest town. I wanted to leave, to understand why the northern lights held my fascination, when I could look in an encyclopedia and understand the scientific reason for their existence.
I imagined a myth—the Aurora Borealis was white in summer because the sky absorbed the snow to store until the next winter. Likewise, the northern lights were more colorful in winter because the sky took the colors of summer—of leaves and flowers—to hold until the ice thawed. I found as much meaning in this explanation as highly charged electrons and solar winds.