Liminal Spaces, by Gwendolin McCrea
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
The summer that I was seventeen, I worked for my uncle and aunt at their rustic cabin resort in northern Minnesota. They gave me my own cabin that year, instead of a room in theirs, and I stayed by myself, shooing wolf spiders off the pillow at night and reading psychological thrillers for the rush of danger that wasn’t actually dangerous.
Two other young women worked there that summer. Mary and Carolyn were in their mid- to late-twenties, and I admired them in the way of teenagers, by imagining myself to be like them. As the nights grew cooler near the end of the summer (which comes on quickly that far north), they invited me on a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We planned to stay for two nights, putting in at one entry point, portaging and paddling to a different exit point. I had been camping with my family before, but this would be my first experience with wilderness canoe camping and my first experience as an equal partner in the endeavor.
The prospect of moving through a landscape that promised such beauty and adventure thrilled me. The BWCAW encompasses over a million acres of lakes and forests. I knew it as the destination of the people who paid my uncle to tow their canoes over to the Crab Lake Portage. I did not know it was contested space. Some people had still been living there back in 1964, when an act of Congress made it illegal to live or run a business within the wilderness. People lost their homes and livelihoods, and the locals’ hard feelings over that haven’t really gone away.
Access to the BWCAW is restricted. To get a permit for camping, you must submit a detailed list of entry and exit points, dates, and planned overnight stops. Motors and wheels are not allowed. Dog sledding is allowed, in the winter obviously, but in the summer you can’t get far without a boat. There are so many lakes and rivers that the only way through is with a canoe or kayak, which must be picked up and carried between waterways.
Mary had trained all summer, walking up and down the gravel road with a heavy aluminum canoe balanced on her shoulders. She was ready, as was Carolyn. They had experience. I carried packs and paddles along the portages. On the lakes, we took turns duffing in the middle of the canoe while the others paddled. We sang together, unembarrassed. The warm days made swimming (skinny-dipping!) during lunch breaks a treat. The air smelled of pine.
After the long days of the northern summer, our campfires kept the bugs and chill away. Meals cooked over a fire, following hours of paddling, tasted better than anything. If the days were movement and far-away lakeshores, the nights were small, defined by the light of the campfire with the darkness expanding in every direction. Until I looked up to see the Milky Way split the sky.
On the final afternoon we got lost. We saw the last portage clearly marked on the map, but even after paddling back and forth several times we couldn’t find it on the shore. The curving place where water met land never translated to the line on the paper. Finally, we saw a clearing and a wooden sign tucked back in a bay. We debated, then decided. That had to be it.
Aquatic plants filled the shallow bay. We paddled closer. My paddle touched the soft bottom. We all dug in and propelled the canoe forward—until we couldn’t. The canoe stopped, thirty feet from land. We tried going back—we were stuck. We had managed to ground ourselves on the mucky lake bottom. The few inches of water above the silt, stretching all the way to the shore, had fooled us.
There was nothing for it but to get out and drag the canoe. The skin-crawling sensation began as soon as I put my weight down. Because the muck didn’t come up to my ankle. It didn’t come up to my knee. Like a slow-motion scene in a horror film, I sank into the muck until it reached my hips. As my body descended into the soft ground, panic lodged in my throat. It felt dangerous, as in-between places often do.
Mary and Carolyn got out too; we all grasped the sides of the canoe and began to trudge through the semi-solid lake—slimy, viscous, smelly, distressingly warm on the top, and clammy on our feet. It tugged at our legs as we pulled the canoe and inched closer to shore. It squished through our toes in their Teva sandals. We coped by making jokes about wading through duck shit, and I tried not to think about all the crevices into which the muck was seeping.
Twenty minutes later we finally stood on solid ground, scraping the black-brown goo off our bare legs as best we could. But that did not lift our spirits. In the urgency brought on by the late afternoon sun lowering in the sky, we had convinced ourselves that the shape of the bay and the location of the trailhead on the map were near enough approximations of the space in front of us. Up close, we saw the faded paint and rotting wood of a very old trailhead sign in front of an overgrown path.
Years ago, decades perhaps, the sign had marked a Boy Scout trail. We saw no corresponding Boy Scout trail on the map. We turned in circles, consulting the map again and trying to get our bearings. Eventually, we gave up. This was not the portage, and we were still lost somewhere between the world of the map, the muddy bog behind us, and the frightening expanse of forest ahead.
Carolyn and I picked up packs, Mary picked up the canoe, and we all began to walk. Fallen branches across the path confirmed that we were not on a maintained wilderness trail. Eventually, exhausted, we stepped out of the forest onto a gravel road. The road did appear on the map, but since we didn’t know where we’d come off the lake, we didn’t know which direction to turn. So we left the canoe off to one side, planning to come back for it once we found the car.
When a pickup truck approached, I did not know how to feel. In my limited experience, and also in psychological thrillers, young men in pickup trucks on isolated roads in the middle of the woods were not 100 percent safe. His derision and rolled eyes didn’t hurt too much, however, and he gave us a lift (in the back, of course, as mud still covered us from the hips down). We arrived at the parking lot in less than five minutes.
Later that night, after a hot shower and the unpacking of only that which couldn’t wait, I returned to my cabin, took the wolf spider off the pillow and banished it outside, then sat in bed reading. I noticed the coolness of the sheets, the weight of the wool blankets, and the curve of the mattress under my body. My muscles ached in a gratifying trace of three days spent moving in new ways. The familiar cabin, windows cracked, warm lamp light making shadows on the logs, smelled of pine.
Gwendolin McCrea is a scholar, teacher, and writer who grew up in Iowa and spent many summers in beautiful and remote parts of Minnesota and British Columbia. She has a PhD in Geography and has published scholarly work on the relationships among humans, nonhumans, and their environments. She is now exploring other forms of writing, including creative nonfiction, essays, fiction, and poetry. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband, kids, dog, cat, plants, and probably more rodents and insects than she would like to admit. The spiders are fine, though. This is her debut creative nonfiction publication.
Marlene Yee was born, raised, and is currently living in San Francisco. She started out in pencil and ink illustrations and evolved to using the X-Acto knife as her tool of choice due to the additional layered textural elements.