Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Camping’

Let us consider…

In Adventure, Books, Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on July 30, 2012 at 6:00 am

Mt. Keneo, Moosehead Lake, Maine

There is much to share with you. It’s been a two week vacation and a universe can collapse in less time.

Yet, I worry that perhaps I’ve exposed too much already. I came to think on this during my time away.

I took a few days, after family visits and guests, to go into the woods alone. Upon hearing this a friend mentioned to Carole that “he just wants to get away from everybody, doesn’t he?” The week before, in jest, I mentioned a long-term project I was considering whereby I would go into the north woods and live in a cabin–or camp, as they’re called here in Maine–for a year. I envision a coming-of-middle age sort of experience. Carole’s response was supportive: “There’s no reason you can’t. I’ll come visit you.” (It is not lost on me that my absence might be just the ticket for her.) I mentioned it to a friend as a possible book subject. His response was, “Why write a book? Just go do it.”

I am not a misanthrope. I like people. One of my few skills is my ability to get along with them well. But most of the time I’d rather not. I don’t avoid people–but much of the time I’d rather be without. In reality, I don’t think I’m too different from many people. I suspect being an only child made my stamp a little deeper. I’ll take a comfortable chair and a book over a party, a fire in the woods rather than a reunion any time.

Part of this conundrum, for that is what it is, a conundrum, involves my blog. I enjoy this form of communication a great deal. And from the bits and pieces I can put together, I am under the impression that many of you, my reader-friends, enjoy reading my missives. Yet there is toil involved, and eventually our natural inclination to avoid toil must be considered. Too, there is the pressing business of how much one reveals and invests in a forum such as this, particularly if disappearing into the woods is on your mind.

One of the activities I enjoyed during my absence from “…the house…” was hiking up Mt. Keneo in Moosehead Lake. Keneo tops out at almost eighteen hundred feet. The trail starts at the elevation of the lake, about a thousand feet above sea level. It is a mile and short change to the top. An eight-hundred foot vertical climb in a mile or so, is a good workout. It gets the blood going. I like that. The physical appeals to me. It was also appealing that one hundred and fifty-five years–and two days–previously, Henry David Thoreau made the same climb. That night when I returned to camp, after I’d filled my belly, after Lucy had turned in (on the trail, when she’s ready for bed, she stands in front of the tent), I opened Thoreau’s essay, Life Without Principle. My eyes fell to an underscored sentence, a note I’d made in a previous reading: “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.”

That, friends, is the mission at hand.

N 45° 41′ 12.57 – W 70° 36’35.80

In Nature on August 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm

N 45° 41′ 12.57/W 70° 36’35.80

N 45° 36’35.80/W 70° 21′ 50.09

Above: Coordinates for Eagle Pond and Horseshoe Pond respectively.

I was humbled by the North Woods last month. The Audubon Society and Trout Unlimited put a call out to members interested in volunteering for a study of remote ponds in Northern Maine which might hold native brook trout. It is estimated that 97 percent of all native brookies resident in the lower 48 live in the state of Maine. But no one knows for certain. One way to find out is to fish the ponds and lakes which have never been stocked. Hence the call to anglers comfortable in the backwoods. I raised my hand, packed my gear, loaded my dog into the Escape and headed north to Jackman, a lumber outpost a dozen or so miles shy of the Canadian border.

I did not leave home leave without committing the Google maps of my ponds to memory, not without my compass and a quick brush up of orienteering skills. I used to be pretty good with a map and compass. No more. Of the five ponds I was to survey, I could not deliver myself to a single one. I knew where I wanted to go, but I could not get there, which feels like a metaphor for (my) life. Apt metaphors aside, I found the woods impenetrably thick. The deeper I got into them, the less likely I was heading in the right direction and the more concerned I grew about getting out. Frankly, I bailed. Me and Lucy, tails between our legs, came home humbled.

The difference between pride and humiliation is a matter of a few degrees. Where I was proud of back country skills, I was handed up a meaty dish of humiliation. But that was then. Modern technology has a solution and I embrace it wholeheartedly. I now own a Delorme PN-60 GPS, loaded with the lastest topo map and, most importantly, keyed with the coordinates to my assigned ponds. No matter how deep I crawl into those wonderful 27,000 square miles we call the The Great North Woods, I should find my waters–and my way out! Old school be damned. Maps and compass are so very yesterday. So next week I’m off , as Twain said, to parts unknown, seeking redemption and tight lines.

An attempt to strangle-hold summer.

In Dogs, Nature, The Examined Life on July 31, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Boats come and go under my balcony all day long. Sometimes, late at night, after I’ve gone to bed I, hear them plying the calm night water, slowly going up and down the slip out to the Fore River and the bay. It is a pleasant sound and one that comforts me, as the sound of the fog horn in the winter comforts me.

It is summer in Maine and the water-ways are full of traffic. I sometimes envy the boaters, power or sail there is no discrimination to my envy. I don’t have a boat, nor will I get one, but I envy the ready access to the water a boat affords. The best I can do, is get in the water directly. I tried to swim off the East End yesterday. Usually I can get in a mile or even two mile swim and be better for it. But yesterday it was choppy and windy and the bay was teaming with white caps and I turned back after only a half mile. As I walked out of the water a boater launching his craft from a trailer said he was going to get wet in the chop, that I had chosen to get wet but he wanted to avoid it. I’m sure he got soaked.

A boat is a thing and I’m trying to avoid the accumulation of things now. I’ve had my run at “things” and now am attempting to shed them. Eventually you come to understand that the things you own end up owning you. “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” repeated Thoreau. I grew up with that phrase but forgot to practice it somewhere along the way. Now I attempt to make amends. I have a tattoo on my left arm, Om mani padme hum–the Tibetian mantra. Perhaps I should consider Thoreau’s admonition on the other arm, as I tend to forget it.

Regardless of all that, summer is the time to be out of doors. And even more so here, where summer has a short–but intense–life span. Last week I was in the Moose River region, near Jackman, a dozen miles or so from the Canadian boarder. It is a remote area. And the weather can be challenging, even this time of year. I had to put on a heavy fleece when I got out of my tent in the morning. And in a cold downpour poor Lucy, soaked and obviously not happy, looked at me as if to question this strangle-hold I seem to exercise on the summer experience. Like youth, summer is gone before you know it.  I recognize this. It is a singular wisdom that I now grasp. Soon enough you realize that sleeping on the ground and scrounging for firewood was easier before hip replacement. This truism I realized a couple of years ago, but am too stubborn to accept. It is my nature to nurture this stubbornness as long as I can.

“I need to go to Moosehead every afternoon, & camp out every night.” ~ HDT

In Memoir, Nature on June 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm

The phrase “cabin fever” was first coined in 1918, assuming one does not count the actual illness called cabin fever. That malady, a sickness related to eating watery potatoes in bad weather, can be traced back to Ireland in the early 1800s. No, I am referring to the cabin fever to which some of us succumb after a winter cooped up and hibernating. That cabin fever is manifested as an itching to radically change venue, or, to a lesser degree, a hankering to get out of the house or perhaps out of the town, to a park, for example. In severe cases one wishes to be removed from civilization altogether. When experienced in this fashion, a person will become disagreeable at the least, at worst miserable and misanthropic. I get this illness every spring like clockwork and I usually head it off before it blossoms out of control. No longer.

I write this after a couple of days of prophylactic treatment against this annual threat.

It is pushing the season to go camping in Maine in early June. If fortunate, one experiences a reward reserved for the hearty: crisp, cold even, evenings and mornings, crystalline days. If fortune does not shine on the intrepid camper, wind, rain, sleet, even snow will be the punishment. We were out only two nights, but we garnered favored rewards.

The problem is, like so many positive life experiences, one desires more. In my case, attempting to quell cabin fever only exacerbates the problem. A couple of good days on the trail, makes me yearn for a week or so of similar good days. It’s a slippery slope, for one such as myself. I spent a lot of my youth in the woods and on the mountainsides. Now, fully domesticated and past the prime of my physical existence (as painfully true as that is to write), I quietly nurture the germ of my youthful planting. That is to say, with the advent of spring, I leap with full abandon, into the chasm of irrational cabin-fever induced behavior.

There was a summer many years ago, where I lived out of a backpack, or in a canoe. I was at summer camp in upper Michigan, and returning from one outdoor adventure, geared up immediately the next day for another. Coming and going, into the woods, back to camp to resupply, and back into the woods. Another summer I went west and into the mountains and didn’t return for months, spending weeks above tree line.

Thus it is, I sit here with a map of Moosehead Lake in front of me and a copy of Thoreau’s The Maine Woods in my hand. I have outlined on the map his trip from Greenville to Northeast Cove at the north end of Maine’s largest lake. I have convinced my long-suffering wife to let me go out to play by myself, that a solo canoe trip into the vastness of what Thoreau called “the wildest country,” is in order. She has always been supportive. I suspect, however, that what is really at work here is her wish to be rid of me for a while. This annual fever business is messy and disagreeable and simply giving way to it probably makes the most sense.

Lastly, as we drove home this week, I shared with her the reality of my existence: I have, at best, barring the unforeseen, maybe twenty more fever seasons. After that, I suspect I will have learned how to cope with it accordingly. But until then, I count them down and truth be told, encourage them. I nurture the cabin fever through the spring and usher it into the sun with the care and tenderness it deserves. It is a calling, a distant barking dog across the water of a remote pond in an awakening wood. I paddle my canoe toward it.

“Andromeda! Sweet woman!”

In Memoir, Nature on April 16, 2010 at 10:10 am


More than a dozen years ago I was outside a hut in the Presidentials. It was night, pitch-black, ink-black, and Don, my hiking buddy, and I were  looking at the night sky. We heard the door to the hut open–I think it was Lake of the Clouds–a sliver of faint light escaping, then creaking close again. A fellow hiker joined us, clamoring over the rocks in the dark, proclaiming that he had to see the milky way at least once a year or he suffered dire consequences.  It was easy to spot, splashed across the sky like sprinkle dust on black velvet. He sighed and spoke of contentment.

Galileo proved in 1610 that the Milky Way consisted of stars. Two thousand years before him Aristotle called it “the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together.” The point being, the night sky and the Milky Way specifically, have been a constant through the ages. As a species, we have existed under that night canopy, traipsed and sailed by its iridescence,  studied it, written poems about it. But, me, I have lost it. Unlike the hiker in the mountains, I never considered it important. There is no prodding motivation for awe. Isn’t that what the night sky does? Instill awe? How can I not want that?

I saw my first meteor shower as a young camper in Northern Michigan. I remember having sunburned my back from a day in a canoe and trying to get comfortable in my open air sleeping bag, my back blistered, when the first rock screamed across the night sky. It was followed by another, then many, a flurry of falling matches from the heavens.  Such things stay with a person. And yet, they don’t. Again, how can I not seek that out?

I’m starting to plan some camping trips for spring summer, which is what prompted this stream of thought. At fifty-four I am taking stock. I am making lists. No more of this rambling through life, not realizing what is important and thinking what isn’t is. There is not enough time to keep loosely hopping down that path. On the list, near the top, is the night sky.

Pascal (Pensées) on the universe:

The Universe is an infinite
sphere, the centre of which is
everywhere, the circumference

House a’fire

In Family, Life, Memoir, Thinkers, Travel, Writers, Writing on July 2, 2009 at 8:32 pm

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

I recently asked some friends what they would grab from their house if it was on fire and they had only three minutes to escape. This question has intrigued me for some time. I can’t remember when I first thought of it—or maybe it was put to me at a dinner party by a host desperate to get things rolling. Regardless, I am cu

rious about what people find important, and this question speaks directly to the issue. It is too, I confess, a self-serving question, as I am trying to figure out what is important to me and am hoping someone will help me down that path. Anyway, my friends on this afternoon answered typically. Of the four, three said they would grab the family photographs. The holdout said he’d reach for his guitar. Guitars aside, in my unscientific poll, most people say they would most miss their photographs if all their belongings were irretrievably lost.

 Many years ago, I bought a video camera. Of course, with my usual lack of marketplace acumen, I bought a Beta video recorder, not VHS, but that is beside the point. Our kids were little and I felt compelled to record their every moment. It is a phase through which many young parents pass, particularly those boomers raised on “Kodak Moment” pablum. I dutifully fulfilled my fatherly obligation to posterity, recording holidays and birthdays, snow-fort building and summer beach fun. But after a while, a year or two, I stopped cold. I had watched a series of tapes I’d recorded, the kids being particularly little and cute, and it struck me hard and fast: I don’t want to watch this when I am old and they are grown and gone. I sensed a dark nascent warning, a potential for a wet-blanket-smothering depression. These tapes would prove to be an undeniable visual reminder of that which I no longer possessed: my youth and my future. My imagination, in my future viewing, delivered me to death’s door, and certain of the tapes would undoubtedly transport me, Black Dog in chase, across the transom. It is an admittedly contrary viewpoint, probably profoundly irrational, and I will likely regret my decision. But I’m not going to take the chance. No, no more videos. If the house burns, the videos stay. Same for the photos. My memory, unaided by even a photograph, will have to serve, as it should, being that much more exacting for its fragility.

 I read recently a comment the critic Frank Kermode made regarding a collection of his work, the compilation of which forced him to make some difficult decisions. He wrote that he had to confront “what ought and what ought not to be let go.” Precisely—and that is the troubling challenge. What ought to be not let go? To direct Kermode’s challenge to the world of the tangible, What would I pull from the burning house? Though not for lack of effort, I can’t think of a damned thing, leaving me to fear that I exist in a sub-human state, as to be so lacking in sentimentality that no thing has emotional value. Sentiment aside, to plumb the human desire for possession, is there no thing so essential that I cannot live without it? Again, I come up empty handed. The easy answers are not worth risking my life in the burning house. I would want my cell phone, because my wife and children call me on it. I would want my laptop because that has everything–some would say, “my life”–on it. And I would want my current reading material because I am a reader first. But these are all things that help me do the important stuff—they are not the important stuff—and can be replaced.

They are nouns and I long for verbs, active verbs.

I have on occasion lived out of a backpack. There is a wonderful simple elegance in having everything one requires on one’s

Walden, Thoreau

Walden, Thoreau

back. The unfettered freedom is palatable, and it does not surprise me, given the layered complexity of modern life, that backpacking is the most popular and widely practiced of outdoor activities. It is a relic, an unfathomable connection to a time when we as a species freely roamed anywhere and everywhere, Africa to the Bearing Straight, our only possessions the ones we carried. (It is a compelling thought that we, as a species, have walked at some time or another virtually everywhere.) The only thing I recall from my first reading of Walden is Thoreau’s admonition to simplify. (From the second reading, getting to know Henry David better, I thought: What a wild man. He would have been a curious house guest, an experiment of his own making, a site to see.) Buddhist monks are sent into the world with only their robes and alms bowl. That is simplicity.

Unencumbered is the word. An old woodsman I once met out in the Uinta Mountains of Utah said he could not conceive how a person could wake up in the morning and not see mountains on the horizon. He was someone who knew what was not only important to him, but necessary. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” wrote Thoreau. To be so compact and efficient, like a snail, or rather like my favorite amphibian, the common painted turtle, as to travel freely, wanting for nothing extraneous, is wildly releasing–and I think, close to an Absolute Truth, if such a thing existed. It is interesting that the painted turtle’s carapace is keelless, gaining her a range of motion subject to the least interference. The physicist and the code writer strive for the most elegant and simple equation or line. The architect and the draftsman seek elegance in an edge, a bend or radius that bespeaks simplicity in form. It is, I think, innately clarifying that life reflect the same principal. There is an entry in Camus’s notebook, not even a sentence: That wild longing for clarity.

 We have been educated, from Sunday school to Hollywood, that the prophets of old lived simply, by choice or divine edict, scratching out an existence, but living, at least in my imagination, a life of crystalline clarity. “The prophet is a fool, the man of spirit is mad,” wrote Hosea. I have visited the dusty expanse of the Middle East. There is good reason the desert breeds visionaries and madmen. Have we come very far? I am a struggling minimalist–they were beggars at the temple gate, voices in the wilderness. Mad fools, to paraphrase Hosea. The man who goes to the Seven Eleven for milk at night and turns up ten years later living on the other coast in another life is, I think, the most creative prophet imaginable—though likely a personal wreck. He starts over, creating a new self, like a snake shedding its skin, with the knowledge of the old, but free of it. I started a novel once whereby the protagonist walked away in the middle of a workday from a successful business, leaving a wild and brief note for his partner: “You’re in charge. I’m out of here.” He disappeared to everyone who knew him. Indeed, he walked right out of the novel and even I couldn’t find him.

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

Though likely the story teller in him, Bruce Chatwin claimed to have telegraphed Magnus Linklater, his boss at the London Sunday Times, “GONE TO PATAGONIA FOR FOUR MONTHS.” I used to illogically figure that if I were ever imprisoned I would be forced to live a life of stark anti-materialism and simplicity. I would become a sequestered monk. It, prison, in this warped fantasy, sounded an odd and freeing experience, albeit a dark one–a place devoid of human vanities and illusions. There is nothing to pull from the burning house where there is no house in the first place. In a moment of introspection, Chatwin recorded this thought: “Do we not gaze coldly at our clutter and say, ‘If these objects express my personality, then I hate my personality.’”

 Nature strives to complexity. Organisms, like government, never evolve into smaller, more basic structures. To the contrary. That is the principal of evolution. To strive in the opposing direction, to simplicity, is counter to what our DNA is orchestrating behind the scene. Advertising, Madison Avenue and consumerism aside, this is biology. Perhaps we not only derive satisfaction from the material things that fill our lives, but are also fulfilling our genetic obligation to complexity. Of course this is metaphorical and not what nature had in mind. You will never see a migrating bird with a fanny pack.

 It has been an insidious journey from the backpacking days of my youth. Some time ago my wife, daughter and I went away for a three-day weekend to the lake. They packed a bag or two. I loaded my bike on the overhead carrier, put my fly-fishing gear in the back, along with photography equipment, books, laptop and trail guides. Clothing too. They looked at me, the great yapping minimalist, their eyes challenging. My wife was miffed, my daughter humored. I was embarrassed. I advise against revealing such duplicity in front of loved ones; years of hard-earned respect will be snatched away in instant. Of course I was troubled in that way only self-reflection can trouble one. We can be hardest on ourselves. How had I traveled so far? So began my quest to answer the question of what ought to be not let go.

 In reality, I am no longer worried by my lack of personal interest in possessions, which I believe suggests progress. I am no less human because I have no sentiment for things–in contradistinction, I think I am more so. Maybe our things can get in the way of our humanity. I do have many things still, far too many, but find comfort knowing that none are essential. I relish the freedom I sense upon returning from a donation collected of yet more purged stuff. To purge is clarifying and releasing. When I travel for short periods now I carry everything I need in a daypack. Two recent trips abroad found me managing fine with a simple carry-on. We are escaping the big house and moving to a place with less of a footprint, to use a modern and descriptive word. I struggle to resist consumerism, and have got rid of the big SUV for a small import. I know environmentalists applaud my efforts, and though that is a side benefit, my motives are largely to protect my personal environment–that is, to find clarity in simplicity, and if not find it readily, then carve it out. It took a long time to get to this place from which I must start again, only in reverse.

 The house is on fire. My family and Maggie the dog are safely outside. I am running through the burning rooms one last time, sirens in the background. I pick up nothing but speed, rushing freely and without burden to the open portal.