I will be perfectly honest: I wasn't looking for much from Sue Leaf's new book, "Portage: A family, a canoe and the search for the good life," before beginning to read it.
We have plenty of books on how and where to canoe. Do we need one more? Would it be a long series of oohs and aahs about nature, how they played at being junior voyageurs?
Fortunately, I was really wrong. We do need this book, because Leaf has a way of getting down to the nub of why we canoe and the wisdom to be learned from the heat, cold, swamping, easy paddles and fast rapids, both in a canoe and in life.
It was a delightful read, and it was like a good canoe outing — you looked forward to what was in the next lake or bend (or chapter), you felt the joy of moving along and, at the end, you were both sorry it was over and thankful for the memories. You can read it a chapter at a time, like day outings in a canoe, or all at once, like a week in the BWCA.
I have to admit some prejudices in reading the book. Leaf and I have been to some of the same places and felt many of the same things. When she wrote about Nina Moose Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe area, or the Upper Iowa River, I thought, "Hey, I've been there." When she wrote about problems with hypothermia, I remembered how I also have been through my initiation into uncontrollable shivering. Like Leaf, I've felt the joy and fear of fast water.
Another welcome part of Leaf's book is her digressions into the history of an area, or, better, the environmental woes facing it. She weaves them in gracefully, with facts and with the passion of someone who sees the woes and worries about them.
You don't have to be a good canoeist, however, to enjoy the book. You just have to be willing to go along for the ride.
Leaf begins by telling us about her early canoeing adventures "BC" — before children. She ends as she and her husband, Dr. Tom Leaf, have become empty-nesters with the four Leaflets (their children) on their own.
The best part, however, was what she learned. Leaf has a delightful way of wrapping up an outing with the wisdom of the day. Here are some of my favorites:
• (After a cold May trip on the Cannon River) "I like to see to see the summer approach in leisurely fashion. I like to wait for it. So I was OK with the snow."
• "I hoped the kids had learned to love the world as it is, whatever face it presents. Sun, rain, snow, wind. Every day is a good day to be present."
• "Damage to whole ecosystems like Nellie Lake is no longer a new phenomenon. If I dwelt on such a fact, I would become incapacitated. I believe I could not function. Nellie's wounds, unlike ours from the portage, could not be healed, at least by us. Just like one should choose one's battles, one needs to choose the stories one anguishes over."
• (Following a trip on Lake Superior.) "After satisfying our need for color and beauty, the lake will provide a meal as well. Superior feeds us in many ways."
• (After paddling the Upper St. Croix and writing about the past logging woes as well as seeing cranes.) "When I see the cranes, I believe that the abusive last century did not have the final word in the St. Croix valley."
• "We can never regain the pristine forest. We cannot reenter Eden."
• Finally, Leaf ponders the question of "what is the good life?" Her answer: "Never wanting more. Never striving for more, never trying to accumulate stuff."
"The veracity of this statement is especially obvious when sitting in a canoe, making your way across the sparkling blue water, with everything you will need for the night and the next morning stowed in Duluth packs wedged between the thwarts," she writes. "One's needs and desires are bounded by what is, and surely that is good, beauty, and grandeur apparent at every hand."