Spring 2008 Forward to a Friend

by Eric Persha


My lungs burned, bringing my progress to a crawl. The altitude was debilitating, and the lack of mountain experience was evident in my inability to move efficiently.


A few days later, I consulted the trailhead restrictions to climb Longs Peak (14,255 feet) in Colorado. I rented a set of crampons and disappeared into the woods by moonlight.

The darkness kept me alert and embellished every noise. I worked my way through the mountain’s ecosystems. As the trail came to a plateau, the sun illuminated the diamond-shaped east face of Longs Peak. I staggered over its northern flank and followed the keyhole route through a series of obstacles. My lungs burned, bringing my progress to a crawl. The altitude was debilitating, and the lack of mountain experience was evident in my inability to move efficiently.

It started to snow. Progressing by baby steps, I climbed the sloping rock face that brought me to the summit.

A surge of energy moved through my body and was equalized by the feeling of astonishment as I gazed across the snow-capped mountain range. The size and contour of our planet is astounding. Although my mind always has had a way of focusing on details, perfection, and efficiency, the small things seem to float away when viewing something of that magnitude in all directions.

While climbing, you maneuver methodically toward the clouds. The sea of green treetops below rolls into the horizon and exaggerates the sense of liberation. But, in a moment, a gust of wind can dispel the feeling of tranquility with one of searing exposure.

Dehydration and the effects of altitude spurred a descent laden with hallucinations and exhaustion. My mind turned a pile of trees and strewn boulders into a small but welcoming cabin. I turned off the trail for a hot cup of tea and a warm meal, but then understood what was happening.

While I routinely carried a pack full of climbing gear and backpacking equipment in the mountains, I didn’t fully expect the difficulty of carrying a canoe over my head during a portage.

I had stretched my body’s mental and physical capacities to their limits, but, at the same time, I had never felt so alive or revitalized. The accomplishments of that day were beyond anything I had experienced previously. They were not connected to the praise of others or academics. I depended on my instincts and perseverance to overcome an enormous obstacle. It was a journey that exposed capabilities and shrunk a number of life’s hurdles. I felt like anything was possible.

Since climbing Longs Peak, I have continued to chase similar visceral sensations – achieved through lofty goals and self-dependence. That chase has led to places like the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota.


Ely, Minnesota, is one of the main ports of entry to the western portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Ely is a small town that appears emotionally and economically connected to the lakeshores. Bars and restaurants combine with outfitters and bunkhouses to form the town’s coronary roadway. Although I envision the city is desolate during winter months, in the warmth of summer the streets swarm with vacationing tourists and the continual traffic of canoe-topped vehicles. The city calmed the boiling anticipation inside me, and I imagine it did for my three companions as well.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area covers a little more than a million acres of road-less, primitive land. It’s nestled along nearly 200 miles of Canadian border. The space is blanketed by a mixture of coniferous and deciduous forests interrupted frequently by lakes, rivers, and streams that provide approximately 1,200 miles of canoe routes.

Wildlife thrives in the Boundary Waters. The environment provides a mecca for waterfowl and sustains the largest population of the Great Plains gray wolf in North America. With more than three-quarters of the land prohibiting motorboat access, it provided the perfect backdrop to release my adventurous spirit and get back to the necessities that nature facilitates.


The beginning of our trip was marked by dry bags, paddles, and two canoes that we piled at the trailhead of the portage to Wood Lake. While I routinely carried a pack full of climbing gear and backpacking equipment in the mountains, I didn’t fully expect the difficulty of carrying a canoe over my head during a portage.

Eric Persha – Biography

While being raised and educated in southeastern Wisconsin, Eric Persha discovered that he had a passion for climbing, sailing, and anything outdoors. The mountains and Pacific Ocean lured him to San Francisco, where he works for a communications research firm. On weekends, Persha enjoys the mountains of the Sierras, the snow in Tahoe, or the water in the Bay Area.

Portages are measured in rods, which are equivalent to 16.5 feet or five meters – just two feet shorter than my canoe. Our first portage was about 196 rods. The beauty and excitement of the wilderness frequently confound the mind, causing you to underestimate difficulties that otherwise would seem logically evident. This situation was no exception for me.

Beads of sweat rolled down my face as I slowly maneuvered our canoe through the thickly wooded forest. Each step was delicate and deliberate. The uneven ground and the field of obstacles stretched the distance considerably. I frequently peered out from underneath the awkward load balanced on my head and expected – hoped – that water was within sight.

Carrying life’s necessities on your back is a fulfilling and rewarding venture. The canoe and the state-of-the-art backpack on my shoulders certainly were lighter than the equipment the French Canadian fur trappers carried through these woods in the 1800s.

The motions and expended energy felt essential. With each step my strength was depleted, but my enthusiasm grew stronger. This was a familiar feeling – the one first encountered climbing Longs Peak in Colorado.


At the end of our first portage, the canoes floated effortlessly in Wood Lake. We cautiously loaded our bodies and heavy equipment with strained precision and pushed off the security of solid ground. Water curled off our paddles as we fought to maintain a linear path. We continued the process of canoeing across open water and portaging across land throughout the day.

In our minds we were modern-day explorers, maneuvering across land and water in search of a soft patch of grass to lay down our fatigued bodies. A day of directional decisions and self-sustained travel made our solo claim to the lakeside plot on Indiana Lake well deserved. We quickly erected camp, and I took time to gaze across the lake. The solitude was unmistakable. Our first day had been a success.

Raw and uninterrupted nature has the ability to calm the body and mind in a logically meditative manner. It can engage the senses through fear and delight. Wide-open and seemingly endless landscapes wash you with feelings of ecstasy. The sky above is infinite, and the spaces around you seem to go on forever.

Nature provides an arena for mental and physical confrontation. Fear gives way to pleasure. You move in necessary and deliberate motions rather than reactively, and you approach barriers in a calculated manner. These vast expanses allow self-discovery.


My watch’s piercing alarm awoke me. I was blinded by the darkness and disappointed by the thought of our adventure ending. This was the first time since the morning we pushed off shore six days previously that waking up did not happen as part of nature’s rhythm. It was not the warm morning sun illuminating the yellow fabric of our tent, but an electronic tone that disturbed the night, telling me to leave the relative comfort of my sleeping bag.

I had spent all night twisting and turning in my goose-down cocoon, continuously sliding off my sleeping mat toward the waters that seamlessly merged with our bed of rock. At some point I slipped into dreaming, but now it was four in the morning, and someone needed to brew the coffee to activate our crew.

Our first hour of travel on our final day was a guessing game as we plied the black cutout shorelines lit by the metallic moonlight. The glow of our headlamps dissipated 10 feet in front of the canoes, deeming traditional maps useless.

During the last six days, we had paddled away from the edge of civilization and made a giant arc, grazing the edge of the Canadian border, while exploring this wilderness world. The trip had illuminated our primal senses and grounded each of us in the necessity of daily activities. The prospect of finishing our trip with a nighttime voyage strengthened our adventurous spirits and enhanced the taste of exploration.


SMACK! A beaver warned his relatives of our existence with an explosion of water, which was illuminated by the moon’s light. Our first hour of travel on our final day was a guessing game as we plied the black cutout shorelines lit by the metallic moonlight. The glow of our headlamps dissipated 10 feet in front of the canoes, deeming traditional maps useless.

Miles of water passed under our canoes as we paddled back toward civilization. As the world around us awoke, the solidarity of our adventure quickly evaporated. The motoring sound of a fisherman’s boat greeted our arrival at the end of the morning’s first portage. The boat’s wake wobbled our canoes and reminded me that our congress with the wild was over.

Later, revitalized, we sat huddled around a table waiting for breakfast back in Ely. The day had been a consistent yet slow reemergence to the world we had left behind when we pushed off from Wood Lake. My BlackBerry® rattled and shook itself slowly across the table as the e-mails and messages poured in. We had returned.

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Sara’s Outback – First You Have to Get to Ely

With the sun perched high in the sky and music filling the air and spilling out the open windows, wind rushed over my face on our way to the Boundary Waters.

Hours earlier, Josh and Sara picked us up from a diner near the Minneapolis airport in Sara’s Subaru Outback. The car looked full as they pulled up, and I wondered how we would manage to fit the necessities Ella and I had packed.

The four of us engaged in a Tetris®-like game of squeezing and maneuvering survival gear into the vehicle. We piled dry bags on top of each other, along with food rations and fishing poles. Everything fit. Then we repositioned the canoes on the roof rack and secured them with lines to the front and rear.

The anticipation of our journey had haunted me for days, but finally we were off!

Ella and I had caught a red-eye flight from San Francisco the night before and had spent five hours cramped in coach, attempting to catch some sleep. We were barely outside the Minneapolis city limits before Ella started dozing. Although I finally could lean back and let the blood flow down through my legs, the excitement of what lay ahead overwhelmed me.

Ample food and gear for seven days in the Boundary Waters backcountry along with two canoes on the roof tested Sara’s Outback. The car handled the weight and additional wind resistance while maintaining speed.

As the road miles passed and one hour turned into many, my doubts about fuel economy turned to disbelief. Somehow the Outback was unfazed by what we were putting it through. We refueled only once and pushed on toward the peace and serenity of the Minnesota north woods.

Gear List: Climbing

Climbing gear and equipment should be “light and fast.” I have handpicked my equipment based on necessity and multifunctionality. Beyond the standard rope, climbing shoes, harness, and a rack of gear, here is a list of items I always take along.

  • Approach Shoes: These utilize the same “sticky” rubber applied in the construction of technical rock-climbing shoes, but they provide the comfort needed to cover a 10-mile hike. They are also much lighter than the traditional hiking boot. Once I begin the ascent, I clip them to the back of my harness and hardly notice them.
  • Hydration System: Dehydration is a serious issue, and something you do not want to deal with 1,000 feet off the ground on a hot, sunny day. I use a bladder system that slides into my backpack and holds three liters of water. The bladder allows me to leave clumsy water bottles behind.
  • Polyester Layers: Alpine climbing days start before the sun rises and usually end well after it has set. I dress in layers to accommodate the changing temperatures and wear sweat-wicking polyester. I always pack a lightweight and compact rain shell just in case.
  • Headlamp: Navigating descent gullies or rappelling into the darkness is never fun, but it can turn into a horror show without a source of light. I always carry a headlamp and a spare set of batteries.

Gear List: Canoeing

Canoeing, compared to climbing or backpacking, is an activity of relative comfort. If you don’t mind carrying a couple of extra pounds on portages, you can treat a long canoe trip similar to car camping. Don’t spare the luxuries.

  • Backpacker’s Oven: A backpacker’s oven provides an indirect heating system similar to the oven in your kitchen, but at a fraction of the weight. On a recent trip, we enjoyed homemade pizza, corn bread, and fresh chocolate-chip muffins.
  • Water Purification System: Most canoeing areas lack potable water at the campsite, and drinking water directly from the lake or stream is not always advisable. A water purification system filters out commonly found viruses and bacteria that could turn your trip upside down.
  • Dry Bags: You spend nearly all your time on or near the water, and it has a way of finding its way into everything. Large dry bags are a necessity for carrying the majority of your equipment. Small cases and bags can keep your map useful and your camera functioning.
  • Fishing Pole: Not a necessity if you pack in your food, but certainly a great way to pass the downtime. A freshly caught dinner is always a delight.