David Remnick: If you know the work of Alex Kotlowitz, you associate his work with the city of Chicago. He's chronicled urban life and poverty in books that include An American Summer, There Are No Children Here, and Never a City So Real. All of them are set in Chicago. When I think of Alex Kotlowitz, I don't necessarily think of him paddling a canoe, but at a young age, he found himself on a lake deep in the woods of the Northern Midwest, and he's gone back there again and again. On a journey last summer, Alex recorded this piece for us.
Alex Kotlowitz: I was 19 and had taken a break from college. I'd been working as a community organizer in Atlanta and I was unsure what lay ahead. A friend living in Minnesota suggested that he and I head north. We traveled 300 miles from Minneapolis to this remote road called the Gunflint Trail. Near the end of the road, within reach of the Canadian border, we rented a canoe and followed a snaking river into a series of lakes, each more beautiful than the last. My anxieties peeled away. I had never experienced such stillness.
Alex Kotlowitz: This is the Boundary Waters, a wilderness area bigger than the state of Rhode Island, home to over a thousand lakes, each connected by rocky paths or portages, as they're called, ranging from 80 feet to several miles. It feels mythical here, so pristine that you can drink directly from the lakes. The only way in is by canoe, and once you're in, if you don't have a map, forget about it. You're a goner, lost in this jigsaw puzzle of lakes, some so small you can swim across them, a few so large they could swallow Manhattan.
From that first trip nearly 40 years ago, I was smitten.
There's a line that I think about a lot from the conservationist and author Terry Tempest Williams. She writes, "If you know wilderness and the way you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go." I'm 67 now, and I know that these voyages will only get tougher and eventually impossible. I'm trying to get up here as much as I can.
Jim: Where is that chest Alex?
Alex Kotlowitz: I'm going to put it together. In late June, three friends and I arrived at a bunkhouse we rented from an outfitter. It was our jumping-off point for our trip. We woke early to get our permit and to load six portage packs with clothes, gear, and enough food for nine days.
Jim: This is really heavy.
Alex Kotlowitz: Chris, whom I've been paddling with for three decades, woke up with a sore throat and was feeling sluggish.
Chris: I can bring down the mood.
Chris: I can bring down a mood pretty easy.
Gary: If you have COVID, man-
Alex Kotlowitz: We assumed it was COVID.
Gary: -this is going to be really interesting.
Alex Kotlowitz: Then my wife Maria called. She'd tested positive.
Chris: It's like a funeral this morning. We haven't even started. [laughs] I'm like, "Come on, man."
Alex Kotlowitz: We hesitated for just a moment. We figured if Chris has COVID or if I get COVID, what the hell? There couldn't be a more curative place to be than on the water. Then the outfitter Andy warned us it wasn't going to be an easy paddle.
Chris: I know. The wind just looks like-
Andy: The wind is going to be straight into your face.
Gary: Oh my God. Are you serious?
Andy: That's the Southwest wind. You guys are going Southwest.
Gary: Can you do anything about it? [laughs]
Andy The next few days are going to be a little trying.
Gary: It's like we're in a Bermuda Triangle here. We just freaking got here. I've waited three years to get here.
Alex Kotlowitz: That's my friend Gary. He's a long-time backpacker, but this is his first time in the Boundary Waters.
Speaker 1: What?
Alex Kotlowitz: You feel okay?
Speaker 1: Yes. You just got to show me what to do, man. We're good?
Alex Kotlowitz: We're good to go, man. Our destination that first night was Ogishkemuncie Lake, which paddlers simply call Ogish. We paddled all day through three lakes into a fierce headwind.
Chris: Left or right?
Andy: Just straight.
Alex Kotlowitz: And so didn't get to Ogish until early evening. All 11 campsites were taken.
Chris: That's a good wind.
Alex Kotlowitz: This is the wondrous paradox of the Boundary Waters. Even though the campsites on Ogish were full, the lake felt devoid of people, and that's the thing. This is a really popular place to come to in the Midwest but after a day or two of paddling, you might not see another person for days. After nearly 10 hours of travel on that first day, we pushed on to the next lake, found a campsite, cooked some brats and green beans.
Chris: Red wine?
Gary: Yes, whatever there is but I'd prefer red.
Alex Kotlowitz: Then prepared to bed down for the night.
Andy: Just be ready to get dark in half an hour or so.
Alex Kotlowitz: I came here with my recorder hoping to capture what so envelops me here.
Alex Kotlowitz: The mournful wails of loons at night. The lakes telling stories. The skies shouting.
Alex Kotlowitz: It occurred to me that very first night that I can't really capture on tape the true splendor of this place. It inhabits me. It lives inside me. Besides, how can you capture the signature of the Boundary Waters, its quietude? One writer, Sigurd Olson, described being here as a time for silence.
Alex Kotlowitz: There's no way that rope is going to hold.
Jim: Come on, Alex. Don't be a gloomy gust.
Alex Kotlowitz: Every night before going to bed, we hang our food. We keep it from bears.
Gary: We make it harder for the bear.
Jim: That's the last obstacle for the bear.
Gary: He's going to say, "Oh my God, it's tied in knots. Forget it. Screw it."
Jim: Damn it.
Alex Kotlowitz: That's Gary again.
Gary: It ain't worth it. I'll go to the other campsite.
Alex Kotlowitz: He can't help himself. He's just naturally exuberant.
Gary: Oh my God, we're totally screwing this. You know that.
Alex Kotlowitz: We once were talking on a Chicago street corner in the early morning, and a man approached us. He scolded Gary. "You know you're talking really loud?" As if Gary didn't know. It's who he is.
Gary: He just pulls on it and he comes down.
Alex Kotlowitz: It's one of the things I love about him.
Chris: What's the laugh about?
Alex Kotlowitz: Nine days, we paddled and portaged, fished, and swam, but we mostly watched and listened.
Chris: What a beautiful morning? Clear sky.
Gary: Fantastic. The only thing you hear is the river.
Alex Kotlowitz: We watched a young eagle feast on a moose carcass in the shallows of a lake. We fended off an aggressive grouse. We ogled the peculiar abundance of butterflies. On past trips, I've spotted moose and mink and otter. One time, Chris and I heard a pack of wolves howling from across the lake. I've canoed past a snapping turtle the size of a car tire. Another time, past a pair of trumpeter swans swimming protectively alongside their two cygnets. Tent just filled with mosquitoes.
Gary: That's why we're out here. It's the fun.
Alex Kotlowitz: Needless to say, it's not all serenity here. Did you get them all?
Gary: No. There's s a shitload of them.
Alex Kotlowitz: Plus, the portages can be punishing. Carrying the canoe or a 50-pound hack over boulders and through mud, often up steep inclines, or paddling on a day when the windswept waters turn moody. The swells can get so high that if you're in the bow of the canoe, you can't reach the water with your paddle. Some days, even preparing wood for a fire is tough. The physical exertion, especially at our age, is wearing, but it's as if you're folded into the land. Honestly, it's nothing a few Advil and a good meal won't take care of.
Chris: I bet that trout is done.
Jim: It is.
Alex Kotlowitz: We ate well on this trip. Over four nights, we ate fresh lake trout and Northern Pike.
Gary: This is amazing.
Chris: I'm not going to lie. I like the northern better.
Alex Kotlowitz: We also had spaghetti and pesto, even jambalaya. Jim, who's an old college friend, and Chris are incredible cooks.
Gary: Chris, don't you think that's too much red pepper flakes in there? [laughs]
Chris: Always in trouble.
Alex Kotlowitz: Some travel the boundary of water solo, but I already live too much in my head, and days alone here, I fear, would only pull me further inward. Besides, I relish the company.
Gary: The one who should feel humiliated is Chris. He hasn't caught a fish yet.
Gary: Jim, how did that snag feel? When did you figure out that it was a snag and not a huge fish?
Alex Kotlowitz: Come on, Jim, don't let him do this to you. In the evenings, Chris made us gin and tonics. He uses flavored fizz tablets mixed in lake water.
Jim: Wow, look at that sunset over there, guys.
Jim: Look at the red up on the corner there. See how it just pokes through the clouds?
Chris: Just amazing. It's like the clouds are so close up here, you feel like you can touch them. Incredible.
Alex Kotlowitz: Around the campfire, we talk about family, about politics, about books, but most often, about really nothing at all.
Chris: Where do loons go in the winter?
Jim: That's a Wikipedia. We've got to wiki that when we get cell service.
Alex Kotlowitz: I've neglected to mention there's no cell service inside this million acres of lakes and woods and so we're off the grid, a rare time when we're disconnected from the world. Our last night on a campsite with a panoramic view of Tuscarora Lake, we take our last swim.
Chris: Oh my God. So sweet, so cold. It's freezing. [laughs]
Alex Kotlowitz: There was, quite recently, an effort to build a mine, a copper mine, along a river running into this wilderness, a river that feeds these lakes. Mining copper can be particularly toxic, and should any of the toxins leak, it would irreparably contaminate the waters. Who, I ask, would want to risk scarring this place?
Jim: I like what Gary said about this place, Chris. He wishes he could bring some of it back with him inside him. [laughs] How's that for being deep? It's true.
Chris: That's deep.
Jim: It is true. It's true, man. Don't you wish, Chris, you could take this home?
Gary: All right, we're going to put out the fire. Christopher?
Chris: No, I think you.
Gary: Me? You're the newbie.
Jim: The newbie, the rookie.
Chris: The MVP.
Jim: Of what?
Chris: Rookie of the year.
Jim: Rookie of the year. [laughs]
Chris: I'm the only rookie here, so I've got to be rookie of the year.
Alex Kotlowitz: The next day, after three more lakes and two portages, one a mile long, and paddling, yet again, into a strong headwind, we arrive back where we started. It's habit for me that the first thing I do is call my wife, Maria, to make sure all's well. This time, I especially wanted to know that she had made it through her bout of COVID okay. She usually preempts me and says, "Everything's good here." This time, she blurts out, things are really bad. She wasn't talking about her COVID. In the time we'd been gone, the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. They expanded the rights to carry a gun. They constrained the EPA. Nothing good.
That first weekend home in my city, Chicago, 10 people were killed, another 62 wounded by gunfire. Just north of the city, a young man with a semi-automatic rifle killed seven people at a July 4th parade. The country felt like it was shattering. I usually put my paddle away in the garage, but this time I've leaned it against a wall in my office. It's something to hold on to, to help me slip into that place where I can watch the sky sashay and where I can listen to the lakes breathe. That place where no matter the storms on the horizon, I can find refuge in the stillness. I'm unwilling to let it go.
David Remnick: Alex Kotlowitz. After we first aired this story, the Biden administration announced a 20-year ban on mining in areas upstream from the boundary waters. Alex would like to thank Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters, and Chris Walker, Jim Adler, and Gary Marks, who allowed Alex to record their vacation.
Alex Kotlowitz: They told me specifically to get people washing dishes.
Chris: Do you want to trade places, Alex?
Alex Kotlowitz: No. You don't know how to handle a microphone.
Gary: [laughs] It looks really hard.
Alex Kotlowitz: Can you just wash the dishes and leave the artist alone, okay?
David Remnick: I'm David Remnick, and that's our program for today. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.
[00:16:11] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.