Boundary Waters

At Dad’s funeral, I talked about our trips to the Boundary Waters.  How could I mention anything else?  They were the most meaningful experiences we shared.

Growing up, I always felt like my dad was distant.  What kid with a working father hasn’t felt that, I wonder. He would be gone all day, and when he returned home in the evenings, he would slump down in his armchair with a beer and not make eye contact.  Our conversations were brief, never straying from the mundane.  I would tell him that school was good, grades were good, sports were good.  He would let me know that work was good, ask about chores, and then drift into silence.

But every year, we would make our summer pilgrimage, heading north, just the two of us in our beat-up sedan laden down with tents and food and canoe paddles.  We would drive north for hours.  In the car, the silence would start to feel different.  As we left civilization behind, we also left behind the awkwardness.  We felt close, almost companionable.

By the time we would reach our starting campsite, we would no longer speak.  There was no need.  We would unload our canoe, pack our supplies, and set out, neither of us speaking a word.  Even on the lake, when we passed the occasional other boat in the wilderness, our voices would remain silent.

Instead, when we saw another boat, even in the distance, Dad would raise his paddle into the air.  Held sideways above his head, he would wave it back and forth, once, twice, three times.  I never knew why he did this.  Sometimes we would get a hesitant wave in return.  Sometimes not.  Dad never seemed to mind either way.

One time, on the ride home, I asked him about the name of the Boundary Waters.  Was it once the border between the States and Canada, I asked.  Was it on the edge of an old Indian territory.

Dad never turned to look at me; his eyes remained on the road.  No, he said.  The Boundary Waters are more than that.  Water has always been a boundary, between light and dark, between life and death.  Dad talked for close to an hour, then, telling me of Charon and Styx, of spirits and nature.  I don’t remember most of what he said, but I still remember his passion, his conviction.

His funeral was a quiet affair.  There was some crying, some sad speeches, but nothing too dramatic, too emotional.  I think Dad would have liked it that way.

That was one year ago.  Today, I went to the Boundary Waters with him for the last time.  He had requested that his ashes be spread on the water.  I was the one to do it.  I loaded up the supplies, the canoe, and drove, but the silence seemed emptier than I remembered.

I paddled out into the center of the lake.  The urn of ashes sat on the bottom of the canoe in front of me, held upright by my legs as I paddled.  The water was still, the woods silent.  Drifting to a gentle stop in the middle, I lifted up the urn.  I didn’t know what to say, if there was anything to say.  I opened the top and spread the ashes across the surface of the still water.

I don’t know how long I sat there, not drifting from the center of the calm waters.  I was roused from my stupor by a soft splashing, coming from the far end of the lake, where a channel led to the next body of water.  I looked up, and could see the faint outline of another canoe.  Someone else, another hiker, was passing by.

They must have looked up and seen me.  I didn’t announce my presence, but they paused in their paddling.  Then, as I watched, they lifted their paddle into the air and waved it to me, once, twice, three times.  What could I do but wave back?  Before I could call out, do anything else, they had drifted beyond my view.

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