Our canoe trip began from our outfitter’s camp near Ely, Minnesota. A canoe, two fishing poles, and three backpacks sat on the boat dock, along with our waterproof map. After my son and I gave our canoe a test spin, we put the packs into the canoe and slipped off into the BWCA. Our map had a disclaimer in the lower right corner, ‘Not for navigation purposes.”
That’s not a very comforting realization – “not for navigation purposes” – because the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is millions of acres of pristine wilderness. It is only trees and water as far as the eye can see, and there are no convenient road signs to direct you. Portages from one body of water to another are often obscured or hidden by the distant tree line, and we could only steer to approximately where we thought the path would be.
We had two goals for our trip. The main goal was to enjoy the beauties of the BWCA. The other was to make sure we succeeded in getting to where our outfitter had agreed to meet us, 4 days after paddling away from his camp. Both goals depended on our wits, perseverance, and following the map. A wrong turn or a misreading of the map would have would have caused us to be miles off course and lost like a needle in a million-mile haystack.
The four days were an exercise in “roughing it.” Bathrooms were merely box latrines hidden in the woods. Dinner was hot water and a bag of freeze-dried food. And bed was sleeping on the ground. Drinking water was dipped from the lakes in which we steered our canoes. A highlight of one morning was catching a Northern Pike, filleting it, and frying it up for breakfast. Near that campsite we found a huge moose laying in shallow water, watching over the lake on which we camped. At night we could often hear the serenade of a loon. These are things that one can experience only in a wilderness.
At the end of the 4 days we found our destination, and our outfitter was parked there in his truck waiting for us. A little cheer went up from our canoe when we were assured that we weren’t lost.
It’s not surprising to me that much of the significant “discovery” that occurs in the Bible, occurs in the wilderness. Self-awareness, overcoming obstacles, and perseverance are seldom learned in situations of abundance and plenty. Wilderness can also be places other than the outdoors – places like loneliness, dryness, or confusion.
Maybe that is why wilderness occurs so often as the place in the Bible where people experience powerful lessons: Israel learning to obey God, Moses receiving a difficult call from God, and Jesus grappling with the temptations that Satan offered him.
I don’t like wilderness because I prefer life without difficulty. However, it is only in the wilderness that I am forced to the extremes of effort, creativity, and endurance. And only in the wilderness do I experience incredible beauty like a moose laying in a creek bottom or a starry sky. Wilderness increases my taste, sharpens my vision, and increases my awareness. In the City my electronics dull my senses and insulate me from valuable lessons.
I think that is why John the Baptist began his ministry in the wilderness rather than in the City; he knew that distractions were minimized in the wilderness.