Severson Dells Notes: A new section in my own life story: Canoeing the Boundary Waters

The story-makers: Scott, Dan and David Reithmeier, Don Miller, and Barry and Roger Reithmeier. (Photo by "one big muskie")
The story-makers: Scott, Dan and David Reithmeier, Don Miller, and Barry and Roger Reithmeier. (Photo by "one big muskie")

By Don Miller

Education Director, Severson Dells Nature Center

I consider myself an avid canoeist, and have paddled numerous rivers in the Midwest and some out West. But never the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.

Constantly, I’d run into other paddlers who’d chastise me and say, “How can you call yourself a canoeist if you have never done the Boundary Waters?”

Nothing against lakes, but my heart lives with the flowing waters. My life will not be long enough to run all the rivers I desire, BUT…early this summer, I was invited, and went on my first trip to the Boundary Waters. I was asked by the Reithmeier family. Roger, the dad, has been going there for 33 years. His sons, David, Dan and Barry, have made the journey dozens of times. Grandson Scott was on his third voyage. I traveled with a veteran bunch.

The Boundary Waters lived up to its reputation. It had all the history, beauty, wildlife, wind, great fishing, solace and solitude I expected. The only thing it didn’t produce was the hordes of bugs. No complaint by me. I was more than glad that very low night temperatures kept the stinging, stabbing and biting six-leggers away.

We saw majestic eagles at almost every turn of the head. We were close enough to a ruffed grouse that its drumming to its mate felt like it had control over our heartbeat. Loons danced and sang on a continual basis.

Mergansers and osprey were seen frequently, and one evening, a lone white pelican dropped in on our lake. Bears, otters and moose eluded us, but not so beavers, mink and pine squirrel. We spotted a wolf along the road on our shuttle to the put-in area.

Several orchids and other wildflowers were very showy. In between spectacular sunrises and sunsets, the swiftly-shifting cloud coverage, like a twist of a kaleidoscope, constantly changed our sky view. The night skies were moon-filled bright. Two dinner meals were freshly-caught lake trout. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better meal anywhere. It was all good.

Don Miller gives "thumbs up" while working hard during a portage.
Don Miller gives "thumbs up" while working hard during a portage.

Outside of one of our Boundary Waters’ campsites was a boat-sized, lichen-covered rock. I sat on it with my knees under my chin as a curtain of darkness fell over the northern Minnesota lake scene. The water was still, and it mirrored the granite, rocky bluffs that were covered in balsam, pine and arbor vita trees.  A stately pair of loons swam their last pass of the night through this beauty that was enveloping me. The loudest noise was the ringing in my ears. I closed my eyes, just as one does when they kiss a lover’s lips. What makes us close our eyes during intimate times of nearness with beauty? Is it to etch the memory in our brain, or are we afraid of a sensual overload?

The Boundary Waters group sat around campfires, paddled across lakes, carried equipment on portages, and shared stories. The Reithmeier family has been putting down accounts of Boundary Waters trips for a long time, and I was now a part of a chapter in that book. I also put a new section in my own life story.

A friend said recently, “It is not just the physical death of an individual that is so tragic, but it’s the 20,000 or more great stories that they take with them that’s a major loss, too.”

Isn’t it up to the survivors to keep those stories alive and, therefore, the individual as well?  When all is said and done, it is about the stories experienced, the web of tales we weave with family, friends and others, as well as landscapes. These are the stories that are our life.

Collectively, stories are what sustain us, entertain us, and inspire us. They make us who we are, and they keep other people and landscapes forever alive.

Don Miller is education director at Severson Dells Nature Center, 8786 Montague Road, Rockford. For more about Severson Dells, visit

From the September 2-8, 2009 issue

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