"Canoeing the Sky" by Robert Root (1993)

“Out looking for insight?” the ranger asked me, glancing at the other ranger behind the counter to see if she heard the joke.

I simply smiled without comment and asked about catching a ride down Rock Harbor to Mott Island. I wondered if some earlier artist-in-residence had started the joke by admitting he or she had been searching for insight. The rangers seemed well versed at describing the resources of campgrounds and the distances of hiking trails, at identifying plant life and animal life, at reciting island history. Insight, however, didn’t have an entry in the Sierra Club guide to the North Woods and, even if some of the rangers had stumbled upon it, it would be difficult to direct anyone else to the place where it was certain to be spotted.

Yet I suspect that insight in some form is exactly what artists-in-residence are looking for when they accept the chance to spend two weeks in a cabin on Isle Royale, free to hike and canoe, responsible only for presenting one campground interpretive program a week. We are, after all, not scientists but artists—a tag someone placed on my hiking gear when it was shipped to the island identifies me that way. I suspect we want something more than a picturesque patch of landscape to paint or photograph or provoke a poem. We don’t want to merely record; instead, we want to comprehend and to find some way to translate that comprehension into the art forms in which we work.

This was my first time as an artist-in-residence. I wasn’t exactly certain what an artist-in-residence does (though I certainly knew what one not in residence does). I’d come as an essayist. I mostly wanted to wander and to write, and I expected—hoped—that something would come of that. I’d also come partly as an editor-historian. I needed to do some research on Ruth and Columbus Douglass, who had lived in 1848/49 at the Ransom copper mining location (now Daisy Farm Campground). I wanted to browse the archives on Mott Island and wander around the mine site, just to glean whatever information I could.

Perhaps I presumed that, once I started wandering, I would stumble over all kinds of insights, lying across the trail. But it wasn’t going to be as simple as that. After catching one boat ride to Mott Island and another to Daisy Farm Campground, and spending time exploring both, I hiked the seven mile stretch back to Snug Harbor, where I waved at the ranger I’d talked to in the morning, and trudged the final two miles to Scoville Point and my cabin. By the end of the hike my knees ached and my feet throbbed and my brain felt numb. There had been no insight lying around on the trail for me to trip over—I would have noticed, because I was watching the ground for most of the hike.

A photo shows a person sitting at a table in a cabin
Robert at Dassler Cabin, 1993

One day, cabin-bound in the rain, I reread Thoreau’s essay “Walking.” It’s the essay that begins, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil.” It’s the essay where he declares that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” On the opening page he discusses the art of walking or “sauntering.” He derives the word from those who claimed to be going “a la Sainte-Terre,” to the Holy Land; thus a saunterer is a “Saint-Terrer” or Holy-Lander. He also tries out a derivation from “Sans Terre,” without land, which in Thoreau’s view means without “a particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” In the first sense the saunterer is a crusader, or perhaps less militantly, a pilgrim; in the second, he is comparable to a meandering river, seemingly vagrant but ultimately purposeful. I thought I could at least improve my sauntering while I was on the island.

* * *

One morning I canoed across Tobin Harbor and paddled an inner passage on its northern coastline until I reached the Duncan Bay portage. I dragged the canoe a little way up the trail to an out-of-the-way spot, then climbed the easy southern slope to the intersection with the Greenstone Ridge trail and set out west for Mt. Franklin, one of the higher elevations on the ridge.

At first the Greenstone passed through open areas filled with grasses and wild flowers. The ridge is the backbone of the island. As I walked I could gaze into the distance over both north and south shores. Then the forest closed in and the trail passed through a long continuous stretch of heavy undergrowth. I had to pay attention to the trail, not so much because it was treacherous or hard to follow but rather because, with broad thimbleberry leaves up past my waist, I was never certain of my footing. Yet the relative ease and sameness of the trail let me pick my way over it mechanically, and the lack of distraction freed part of my consciousness for rumination. I began thinking about the artist-in-residence presentation I would be giving in a couple of days, and I ended up rehearsing it, imagining it in my head as I hiked. The more I played with it while walking, the more it came together.

By the time I reached Mt. Franklin I was nearly bursting with ideas for the talk. I clambered onto a rocky outcropping a little ways off the trail and sat in the sun for an hour or more, scripting the presentation in my day book. The morning’s hike inspired me to take writing on the trail (“sauntering” a la Thoreau) as my theme. As I wrote I felt the sun on my shoulders and the breeze from Lake Superior in my hair, but in the middle of the day on the top of the island I wrote uninterrupted even by birdsong until I knew I’d composed a sentence to end the presentation.

Photo shows a scenic overlook surrounded by trees
Mt. Franklin Overlook

Lori Honrath

When I stood up on Mt. Franklin and looked off toward the Canadian shoreline, I felt exhilarated to have reached both my destinations, the one on the trail and the one in my script. The feeling kept me aloft on the way back along the trail. As if to confirm my sense of soaring, I spotted a young eagle gliding over the trees to the north above Duncan Bay and watched his flight as long as I could. Shortly after, just as I left the ridge, I located a myrtle warbler by tracing its exuberant song. His music followed me as I descended the trail.

It was already 5:00 p.m. when I launched the canoe again. Despite having been on the trail all day, I wasn’t ready to return to the cabin. Instead, I turned the bow toward the head of Tobin Harbor. The island seemed to keep rewarding me for coming to terms with my presentation. Almost immediately I encountered a family of mergansers gliding without apparent effort, and then a family of goldeneyes seeming to skim across the surface. Both times I stopped paddling and let the canoe drift, watching them as unobtrusively as I could.

A little further on I saw a loon ahead of me and heard his loud call; he dove, came up behind me, and called again. I recalled Thoreau playing tag with a loon on Walden Pond and paused in the water. When he submerged again, he seemed to curl and flow into the surface, all fluid silent grace. He emerged in yet another location and let me know where he was although I had already spotted him. I willed myself to turn away from him and scan the opposite direction with my binoculars. Sure enough, a female adult and a young loon were floating in the shadows of a nearby island—the male’s antics were merely an attempt to keep me from discovering his offspring. He dove, surfaced, and called again, but I didn’t want him to expend his energy on someone as harmless as me and so continued to canoe up the harbor.

As I neared the head of the harbor I remembered Keith Taylor’s poem, “Upstream on the Seiche,” where he sees the footprints of a wolf in the mud as he drags his canoe toward the water after being beached. I didn’t expect to encounter a seiche, to have the water run out from under me after lifting me over the shallows, and I had no hope of discovering wolf tracks, but I wanted to get a sense of the location of the poem. I found a channel into the marsh at the end of the harbor and followed it cautiously. It was narrow and shallow and I soon felt the paddle strike bottom. All at once I was startled by a great thrashing in the reeds, and a great blue heron lifted itself into the air. I watched it go deeper into the marsh and thought that I’d gone deep enough. I turned around before I startled a moose.

Having come up the north shore I headed back down the south side of the harbor, taking the channels between islands when I could. In one channel two white blurs in the trees materialized into a pair of peregrine falcons taking flight; hardly had I turned around from watching them disappear into the distance behind me when I saw a belted kingfisher in the trees opposite where the falcons had been.

By now it was nearly evening, the sun still high but lowering into the west to illuminate the sky from below. The waters of Tobin Harbor were calm. As I glided into the center of the harbor I realized that I could no longer see into the water. The smooth surface reflected only rich blue sky and powdery white clouds. I could see all the way down the harbor, and I had an uninterrupted view clear to the horizon with sky above and an almost perfect mirror image below. Even close by the canoe, to the eye the lake had become sky.

Photo shows the bow of a canoe on open water along the shoreline
Canoeing Tobin Harbor

Michele Devlin

The canoe drifted across sky; a seagull flew upside down beneath me, and higher above—or deeper below—a cormorant crossed the harbor. For a long time I kept the canoe on course for the distant straight line where sky and mirror image met, hearing only the distant tremolo of a loon, the cry of a gull, the splashing of my paddle, otherwise soundless, solitary, floating down the center of the sky. It was as if I were in flight, gliding with the effortless grace of the eagle, the falcon, as if I were flying through water silent and buoyant as a merganser or a loon. I felt as if I were the only person on the planet, canoeing home down the center of the sky, overwhelmed by the gift the island had given me.

I’d been canoeing about three hours non-stop so I landed at the seaplane dock and stretched my legs by walking along the marina. When I launched the canoe again, the channel was darkening, the surface overshadowed by the trees on the islands I passed. I missed the feeling of canoeing the sky and wished I had kept going as long as I could until the sky disappeared from the water. Suddenly, ahead of me, I spotted movement in the water and slowed the canoe to watch a beaver crossing from the peninsula toward Minong Island. He slapped the water and dove and I didn’t see him again. Below the cabin I beached the canoe and clambered up the path to the bluff. From the top of the trail, I saw two mergansers gliding across the cove on the side of the promontory. For a moment I watched them with weary pleasure, then I realized that a red fox was standing on the beach, looking up at me. When he saw my gaze turn to him he lingered a moment more, as if giving me time to start moving again, then nonchalantly went up the trail from the beach and disappeared into the woods.

After supper I slid the canoe back into the water and paddled across to Minong Island, where Mary Anderson and her family were staying in the Wolbrink cabin. When I told them about canoeing the sky, her husband, John, a kayaker, told me he had had a similar experience once with the Milky Way. Crossing from shadows into calm open water on a cloudless, moonless night, he saw sky and lake merge in a seamless sheet of stars, dipped his paddles into the stars, brushed stars aside to pull his kayak through the water. When I crossed the channel again in the dark, I only saw a few stars and the distant gleam of the Passage Island Lighthouse. I thought of John Anderson kayaking the Milky Way, remembered myself canoeing the sky. I felt charged with an almost mystical fervor, as if somehow a benevolent Spirit of the Island had been guiding me all day long.

* * *

No one asked me about insight in the days that followed, but by then I knew it was the wrong question anyway. I wasn’t looking for a way to understand the island but rather a way to connect with it, become part of it. The connection isn’t something you find, but rather something that finds you. You can’t go out on the trail and get it; instead you have to be prepared to receive it. Deliberately searching for insight activates all the barriers of self-consciousness and intellectuality that separate you from the natural world; it closes down your instincts, your intuitions, your receptors. You achieve connection not by aggressive search and seizure but by passive openness and acceptance.

So perhaps I located an insight after all. The insight is the possibility of connection. The connection, though, only comes by canoeing the sky.

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