Day 1 Late Morning
“Are you sure, Em? You don’t have to go if you don’t think you’re ready.”
“Christine, we’ve already discussed this. . . .”
“It’s fine, Mom. We’re already here,” I said from the backseat, watching the campers unload their gear in the gravel parking lot. They all seemed healthy. Strong and tan. Farm kids? City kids? The kind of kids whose moms probably had milk and cookies waiting for them after their varsity tennis meets or swim club. I focused on the back of one boy, lanky, shaggy hair, wearing a bright turquoise T-shirt and lugging a well-stuffed backpack over one shoulder. It was one of those serious models with a lightweight aluminum cage, waterproof ripstop nylon, and a million different hidey-holes. I had the same one.
I pressed my head against the window. “Besides, you’ve already paid for it.”
“Honey, that’s not important. If you don’t feel up to it . . .”
“I know, Mom. But Dr. Nguyen thinks it will be a good thing. So do I,” I tacked on at the end. What I feel is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything.
“Okay. Well, I’m just saying . . .” My mom stopped. Her voice was thin, stretched tight like a layer of ice over water. It wouldn’t take much to break it. But I couldn’t stand to see her start crying. Not again. Not here. You’d think a person would get to a point where they had nothing left. Like a well of water. Eventually you have to run dry, don’t you?
“It’s only a week,” I reminded her. “And when I get back, I’ll look into some of those college applications, okay?” There. That should convince her. It convinced my dad. I watched his shoulders sink behind the backrest, as if he was an inflatable device someone just stuck with a pin.
“That’s good to hear, Emma,” he said. “You could sign up for a few community college courses. Transfer in next semester.”
I put my hand on the door latch. “That’s the plan,” I lied, knowing the deadline had already passed for the local community college fall semester. Over the past year my lies were coming faster and easier, sliding out of my mouth like spit. “It’s cheaper to take the prereqs there, anyway.” My dad smiled and nodded at the rearview mirror as he opened his door, satisfied.
I got out too; I didn’t want my mom to see my face. My dad was easy to convince. He wanted to be convinced. He didn’t look too far below the surface of things—I used to
think it was because he didn’t believe anything was there, but now I know better. Some people just don’t want to turn over the rock and see the worms.
I stepped into the hot sun and stretched my arms over my head. Despite the heat, there was a smell in the air that reminded me of the inside of a freezer. The north woods had its own scent, and after a five-hour drive north we’d gone just about as far as you can go without crossing the Canadian border. Ely, Minnesota, to be exact. Population 3,471. Give or take. The gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or BWCA, as the locals say. Last dot on the map before the wilderness.
My dad handed me my backpack with a smile. I don’t know why he bought something like this; I never camp. Correction: We (the Dodd family) never camp. Have never camped. The closest we got was when I was ten and we stayed in a cabin at Jellystone Park.
But this whole thing had been my idea. I saw the BWCA brochure while I was waiting my turn in the counselor’s office. I suppose I could have done homework, but that would have been a responsible use of my time. Instead I went through the stack of pamphlets on the table next to my chair, or, as I called them, illustrated cautionary tales. STDs. Smoking. Drugs. Drunk driving. The entire “don’t do it or you’ll be sorry” catalog, fanned out for my perusal.
I shuffled them like a deck of playing cards, until a flyer on the wall caught my eye. It was bright yellow, with a large
outline of a bird on the top. A loon, I think. I could barely read the words, so I got up and walked over and ignored the sideways glance the receptionist gave me.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?
HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO TEST YOUR LIMITS IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS?
LEARN TO LIVE OFF THE LAND BY YOUR WITS?
Shit, no. Most of those pioneers died of dysentery. I like my indoor plumbing, thanks.
BE A LEADER IN LIFE?
Uh, I’m a pretty good follower.
THEN JOIN US FOR A WEEK THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!
Really? Only a week?
I stopped reading right there and ripped the flyer off the wall. I suppose I just could have written the information down and looked it up later, but some part of me knew that if I left the office without it, it would just be one more thing I failed to follow through on. I needed to steal it. Thankfully,
the receptionist was too busy on the phone to notice.
That night I typed the website address into the computer.
It looked to be a non-Jesusy vacation adventure in the Boundary Waters. Very Boy Scouty. Very Outward Boundish. It was for teenagers at least fifteen. I stared at the pictures of perfect forest landscapes, fiery pink-and-orange sunsets, an owl perched up in a pine tree, people paddling canoes over lakes that looked like mirrors. There, I thought. I needed to go there. I hovered the cursor over the reservation tab, already knowing the conversation I would have with my parents. What I would say. What they would say. How I already knew this was a good idea. It was a forgone conclusion, as they say. A done deal. I clicked the button.
But that had been back in the beginning of April, when there were still dirty scabs of snow on the ground. Summer seemed impossible. Now it was the second week of August, and I stood blinking stupidly in the sun, wondering where I had put my sunglasses, while my dad unloaded all the gear from the back, smiling like it was Everest base camp and he was my own personal porter.
“Got everything?” My mom climbed out of the passenger seat.
“Yep.” I didn’t have a lot. Tents were provided, as were our meals. According to the website, campers were responsible for bringing a sleeping bag, hiking boots, a canteen, flashlight, warm jacket, gloves, sweatshirt, sweats, quick-dry hiking pants, personal toiletries, socks, sandals,
swimsuit, sunblock, a hat, and of course (and probably most importantly) bug spray.
“Two cans,” I said. “With extra deet.” I slung my new backpack over my shoulders and buckled the straps across my waist and chest. Despite being stuffed to the gills, the thing didn’t feel very heavy. “I’ve got everything I need.”
“Almost.” My dad pressed something cold and smooth into my palm. “Take this.”
I opened my hand to see a faded red Swiss Army knife. A knife? I swallowed and looked at my feet.
“David.” My mom’s voice wavered.
“I don’t need this,” I blurted. “Really, it’s okay. It’s not like we’re going to have to hunt a moose or something.”
My dad laughed. “You’d need more than that for a moose.” My dad had hunted growing up. Hunted, fished, camped. But he was the only one in our family who enjoyed such things. My mom had always been more of a four-star-hotel type of person. Eggs benedict and bacon (extra crispy) for breakfast.
“And,” my dad continued, “You probably won’t need it. But you never know. . . .” He trailed off, looking over my head and refusing to acknowledge my mom’s ashen face. The past year had been bad between them—I was the only one in the family seeing a shrink, but I certainly wasn’t the only one who needed it. I wonder if they’ll get divorced. In some ways it already seemed inevitable.
Yes, they definitely needed professional help. Professional help. I personally preferred the term “headshrinker.” I always imagined some voodoo priest in face paint, his shaman stick dangling with a bunch of tiny shrunken heads.
I wonder what Dr. Nguyen would say if I told her that. Maybe want to give me medication. Then again, maybe not. I wasn’t crazy, technically. And I wasn’t suicidal, not really. I had bad thoughts. Dark thoughts. Horrible nightmares. Dr. Nguyen called it PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. Her words, not mine. Apparently I now had a disorder I thought was reserved only for soldiers who’d been in combat.
So the fact that my father was giving me a weapon and sending me off into the wilderness with total strangers made me think two things simultaneously:
My dad really trusts me.
My dad is crazier than I am.
“Thanks, Dad.” I didn’t open the blades but tucked it quickly into the back pocket of my jeans. “I know it was Grandpa’s. I’ll make sure to take good care of it.”
“From the war.” My dad nodded. “He said it was lucky. He said it saved his life.”
“Okay.” I didn’t know what else to say to that.
My parents hugged me hard, too tight and too long, but I let them, barely flinching when my mom kissed my cheek.
“I love you, Emma.”
“Me too.” It was all I could manage. I couldn’t bring myself to say the words even if I felt them. “See you next week.” I
shrugged out of their arms and turned toward the far side of the lot, to where a pack of kids had gathered in front of an older man with a salt-and-pepper beard, faded Twins ball cap, and mirrored aviator shades. He stood under a hand-painted sign (INTO THE WOODS) and held a clipboard. There was a shiny silver whistle around his neck, so I guessed he was in charge. That’s all you needed to look official. Sunglasses, clipboard, whistle. He could be a serial killer for all we knew.
I crunched across the hot gravel in my new hiking boots, following a tall, athletic-looking girl with a red bandana tied around her forehead. She’s probably done this before.
I was in decent shape, physically speaking, but I had never portaged a canoe. This girl had strong-looking shoulders, with well-defined arm muscles—she could probably portage canoes in her sleep.
“Welcome, everyone!” The bearded man waved us closer. “This is going to be some trip! The day’s a-wasting, so hustle up!”
Hustle up? He sounded like my JV basketball coach.
“My name’s Chris, and I’ll be your team leader and guide. Are you guys ready for the week of your life?”
Crickets. I looked around. Four boys, two girls, including myself. This is it?
“Um,” said the tall girl, saying what everyone else was probably thinking. “Where’s everyone else?”
“We can take up to nine,” Chris explained. “But there were a couple cancellations.”
“Great,” said the girl, almost to herself. She turned around and winked at me, probably as relieved as I was that there was at least one other female. “Looks like a total sausage fest,” she whispered, but loud enough for everyone to hear.
I liked her immediately.
Chris scanned the sheet on the board. “Are you Emma or Chloe?”
“Chloe Johnson,” replied the girl smoothly, not missing a beat. She stepped back so we were standing next to each other. “This here is my sister, Emma.”
Chris looked up, then down, then back up at me. “Emma Dodd?”
“That’s me,” I said, instantly hating how unconfident I sounded, as if I was apologizing for being there.
“All right,” said Chris. “Where is Isaac Bergstrom?”
“Here.” A tall blond boy sitting on the picnic table answered.
Wes and Jeremy stood side by side, obviously friends. They had probably decided to sign up together, which was a smart idea. Once again it hadn’t occurred to me to ask one of my friends, though my friends had been in short supply the past year. Only Shelly still called me to hang out, though I usually never did. Most everyone else avoided
me, socially speaking. Can’t say that I blamed them.
“That’s me.” It was the boy in the turquoise T-shirt. He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“Great, looks like we’re all here. Let’s go.” Chris turned and started walking, and we all stood there momentarily, as if the whole idea was just a joke. Isaac slid off the table and followed; the rest of us did the same.
“We’re going to the outfitters,” Chris explained as he walked us to a large white conversion van. Serial-killer van. “We’ll pick up our food and supplies, sign in, and go through a safety check.” He opened a van door and motioned us forward. “Time’s a-wasting! We got a lot of ground to cover in a week. Literally.”
The sun disappeared behind a thick cloud, and an icy breeze gusted down over the treetops, making me shiver through my sweat. A warning? I think in the movies they called that foreshadowing.
This is probably a bad idea. I couldn’t help the thought; it made me turn around and look for my parent’s dark gray Subaru. But they had already gone.
* * *
“I think I’m going through withdrawal,” Chloe said. “I practically got the shakes.”
“Phone?” I spread the nylon tent out on the smoothest layer of dirt and leaves I could find, checking for stones and pinecones, then glanced over only to see that Isaac and Oscar
had theirs up already. Wes and Jeremy were also done, now busy helping Chris gather rocks for the campfire.
Chris had let us send a farewell text to our contacts to let them know we’d all be incommunicado for the week. I sent one to my mom. No phones 4 the week. C u soon. Luv Em.
I figured she’d tell my dad. He wasn’t much of a phone person anyway.
Then we turned them off and put them in a blaze-orange waterproof zip sack, and that was that. It didn’t bother me too much. Nobody called me anymore anyway, and I dropped mine into the bag with a shrug. “Don’t feel like you’re missing anything, kiddos.” Chris smiled as if he knew exactly what we were missing. “You’ll survive without them for a few days.”
“Yep, total phone withdrawal. I miss my music.” Chloe snapped the telescoping rods into place, eyeballing the length of the two longest. “Does it matter which goes where? They both look the same.”
“Uh?” I shrugged. “I don’t know.” Chris had said that our first challenge was to put our tents up. No directions. Which would be easy enough if either of us had ever put up a tent before. “If they’re the same it shouldn’t matter.” I spread out a pile of six L-shaped metal stakes. “These must go in the straps.” I tugged on the black loops at the base of the tent. “Let’s do this part first.”
After twenty more minutes we had it done, more or less. The entrance was facing the opposite direction from the
others, but neither of us cared. After we put in our sleeping bags and packs, I crawled out to see all four boys watching us, curious grins on their mouths. Chris sat across the site, marking something on his clipboard with a pen. Maybe he was grading us. Either an A for effort or an F-minus for speed.
“You girls sure are slow,” Isaac said.
I blushed and pressed a rock into the dirt with my heel. We were slow.
“What’s your point?” Chloe asked.
Isaac crossed his arms and bobbed his head, smiling like a slimy used-car salesman, as if his point were glaringly obvious.
“Have you guys ever put up a tent before?” Wes grinned, but it wasn’t the taunting one Isaac had plastered across his face.
“Heck, no,” said Chloe. “And no directions, either.”
Wes ran his hand through a thick shock of sandy-brown hair. “Well, then, you actually put it up pretty fast,” he laughed. He wasn’t very good-looking, not like the other guys, but he had an agreeable bulldoggish manner that made me like him instantly.
Isaac stopped grinning.
“Thanks!” Chloe flashed him a brilliant smile, transforming her face into something even more gorgeous than normal.
“No problem.” Now it was Wes’s turn to blush.
“Okay, campers,” Chris called out, waving the clipboard
at us like a flag. “Time to go over a few small reminders.”
“Again?” Jeremy muttered. “I thought we went over all that at the outfitters.”
Back in Ely, we had stopped at the Big Loon Outfitting Company to load up our week’s worth of supplies, which were, in no particular order:
3 ultralight aluminum canoes
1 Kevlar kayak (for Chris)
7 life jackets and paddles
Camp stove and fuel canister
Eating utensils and a cookpot
Plus the huge cooler stuffed with three meals per person per day, including snacks. All packed according to park regulations, including everything from cereal and pancakes to pudding cups, hot dogs, marshmallows, and chicken enchiladas.
A massive map of the BWCA covered a wall inside the store. It was huge. Overwhelming, really. Hundreds of lakes dotted the green field in a constellation of blue blobs, an entire galaxy of trees and water in a universe of
wilderness. How can this be? I knew there were still remote places like this, but it somehow seemed pretend, a fantasy you saw on television. Something that existed a hundred years ago, now replaced by an endless sea of strip malls and Walmarts.
But it was still here.
Standing there in the store with my expensive new backpack and hiking boots, the actual reality finally set in. This was the real outdoors. The end of civilization.
Several route numbers decorated the map, arching up across the wide expanse of green, some extending all the way to the Quetico area of Canada. Chris said we would be signed in for Route #5—Fishing, Falls and Indian Tales. Whatever that meant. I found the spot on the map and read the little blurb underneath.
Days needed: 5+, Difficulty: Challenging. This route includes many lakes and several long portages.
“All right, let’s gather around the fire,” said Chris, snapping me back to reality. “Dinner’s almost ready. I hope everyone likes burgers.”
We all did. He could have said we were having fried cat with a side of squirrel, and I would have devoured it. I was hungry. Real hunger, not just ready to eat because it was a certain time of day, but hard-core, razor-blade-sharp-stomach-pains hungry. And we hadn’t even gone that far today.
Chris passed around the plates and utensils. No glass or aluminum cans allowed. Every piece of trash we had to carry out.
Chris slapped the meat patties onto the cookstove; the smell brought tears to my eyes.
“Who wants it Sconnie style?” Chris held up a packet of cheese slices.
Our hands shot up. “Good choice.” Chris laughed.
After a few minutes he flipped each burger and added a slice of cheese; we clutched our plates and drooled. “Y’all remind me of my dogs when it’s feeding time.” He grinned. “But that’s to be expected. We didn’t go far today—a few miles, but there were a few tough portages. And y’all did good your first day out. Real good.” Chris pointed his spatula at each of us in turn. “But you’re gonna be sore tomorrow, so I want each of you to drink at least one liter of water tonight. If anyone needs ibuprofen and doesn’t have their own, I have some. The important thing to remember is that we take our time. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.” He looked back down at the cookstove. “Time to eat.”
Don’t want anyone getting hurt. I bit into my burger. Melted cheese seared the roof of my mouth, but I didn’t care. Nobody ever wanted to get hurt. But it still happened, didn’t it? No matter how careful you were, no matter how smart your plans. It happened anyway. It happened all the time.