Paul Andersen: Canoeing through the sacred realm of silence

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The lynx gave us a full broadside view as we paddled through a narrow channel on Insula Lake. My son, Tait, had heard the frantic chatter of a squirrel and glanced over to see the big cat just 30 feet away.

The lynx, with tufted ears and a dark brown coat, was nonchalantly lapping water from the lake as we paddled by in mid-September during a 10-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, a wilderness spanning over a million acres with hundreds of glacially formed lakes amid a vast boreal forest.

Unperturbed, the lynx watched us glide by, then, with one backward glance, disappeared into the thick understory of birch and alder. The only sound was the stirred rhythm of our hearts. Here, in this sacred realm of silence, we understood what the Ely, Minnesota author, Sigurd Olson, had so adroitly captured in his evocative book, “The Singing Wilderness.”

“Overall was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness that comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses. …Without stillness there can be no knowing, without divorcement from outside influences man cannot know what spirit means.”

Tait and I met other canoers at portages, the great crossroads of the Boundary Waters. One middle-aged woman said she had been paddling these lakes since she was a child. When asked what brings her back, she glanced at the blue sky, the coloring leaves, the rippling waters, raised her arms and smiled, “It’s so beautiful!”

When I asked the value of silence, her husband nodded, “It’s an effort we all make.” And he was right; most paddlers were soft-spoken and hushed.

Only in silence could Tait and I truly hear the call of the loon cast like a skipping stone over deep, blue-water lakes. That round, smooth whistle, like a well-played flute, rising in two- or three-octave yodels, punctuates the silence and the space that holds it with an ancient call of the wild.

“Silence belongs to the primitive scene,” Olson wrote. “Without it, the vision of unchanged landscape means little more than rocks, trees and mountains. … At times on quiet waters one does not speak aloud but only in whispers, for then all noise is sacrilege.”

The lakes and woods were wild and beautiful, the weather perfect, and the lynx was our great good fortune. When asked on a portage if we had seen any wildlife, we told of the lynx. “I’ve been coming here for 36 years,” said a weathered man, “and I’ve never seen a lynx. That makes your whole trip worthwhile.”

Tait and I hardly dipped a fishing line in a lake. We had plenty of food and there was no need. “The tug is the drug,” quips a fisherman friend of ours, but we were not there for that. We paddled, portaged, hiked and camped for something inexplicably separate from the human experience, and we found it from sun-glinted lakes to the starlit sparkle of the Milky Way.

Crossing one small pond, we watched an otter frolic on the shore. The next day, we looked skyward at honking geese migrating in V formations so high they were mere specks. Another time, we heard a different call, and far overhead came a winging formation of cranes. Bald eagles were a common sight, their huge wings casting fleeting shadows over their fishing grounds.

“More and more do we realize that quiet is important to our happiness,” surmised Olson. He warned against urbanity and “the constant beat of strange and foreign wavelengths on our primal senses which beat us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silence to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise which destroys sanity and equilibrium.”

All wilderness has been fought for, and many thousands of Americans will fight for the wild of the Boundary Waters as a place of constancy, beauty and spirit. These values are best found in sacred silence, where man regains primal peace as a reverent and respectful visitor.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at