Rita Garcia: 'The boundary waters stole my heart'

Rita Garcia went to the wilderness 57 years ago. In a way, she never has left.

Garcia is 69 today, but a fateful trip at 12 opened her world from the one she knew growing up in Virginia, Minn. Her parents dropped her off at Fall Lake (she waited there alone for a time) near Ely for a trip with a Christian group.

"The boundary waters stole my heart and then captured my soul with its amazing beauty, calm and earthly power," she said.

In the summer of 1969 and trained as a Girl Scout camp counselor and guide, she took six trips into the wilderness, including a backpacking outing. There'd be long weekend trips during college, too, at University of Minnesota Duluth. She and friends would steal away whenever they could.

Garcia left Minnesota in 1985 and didn't return for 15 years. A return to the BWCA happened in the autumn of 2002. It was a chance to introduce her husband, Ron Ibarra, to the water and woods. They entered in 70-degree weather at the Chainsaw Sisters Saloon on Mudro Lake. A "short" five-day trip pivoted to paddles through blinding snow and high winds to get to a campsite. Her husband wondered what they got themselves into as they braced for the weather.

"It was a moment for him to trust his wife — the woods-woman," said Garcia, of Lake Elmo. She embraced the elements — even anticipated them on the second day. Long trips inspired a confidence and intuitiveness, she said.

"You sort of become one with it. I've traveled the Boundary Waters, and I get a strong sense of where I am going. I feel like I have a true sense of magnetic north, and I can find anything. I use my maps in a minimal way. I can read the lakes by the shoreline, or the open bodies of water. I'm just sure of it."

She recalled a trip in ninth grade with one of her best friends, Jane Richards, where she began to absorb the effect of time spent in such quiet. They are hoping to return together.

Garcia hasn't returned to the BWCA for five years — owing to, among other things, back surgery and a hip replacement. They laughingly hope to find someone to maybe carry their gear, Sherpa-style.

"It's you and water and the silence," Garcia said, trying put the feeling to words. "It's just an amazing solitude that you can't find anywhere else."


Meredith Lis: 'I was so completely at peace'

When Meredith Lis was laid off from her civil engineering job last July, a COVID-19 business casualty, her first thought was "Head north."

So immediate, in fact, that even when her boss called to discuss her status, she and her best friend, Lauren Thornton, already were on the Gunflint Trail with plans to paddle and camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time.

Lis had wanted to go since 2017, after moving back to Minnesota. Now the opportunity had arrived. Mentally and physically, they were miles away.

Thornton looked for an available entry permit. The two drove to the end of the Gunflint and, after gathering up gear and some pointers from outfitters, they set out on Seagull Lake. The trip was short, only three days, but allowed a head space adjustment both needed, said Lis, of Minneapolis. Thornton is a busy physician.

Trips into the woods weren't new to Lis, however. She has ridden a bicycle cross-country, camped and hoofed it on the North Shore's Superior Hiking Trail in recent years. But the trip into the BWCA and its timing were singularly special.

Lis, 31, said there was a simplicity and rhythm to their trip that washed away any modern-day concerns — like what was next on the job market. Discussions were about sleeping or weather or lazy paddles with no agenda. Or there was no talking — they could just be.

"It was therapy being in the Boundary Waters," Lis said. "Not having to think about what was going to happen next. When your biggest problem is what you are going to cook for dinner or how you are going to get from lake to lake. … It was cool to not have anything next on the schedule."

Like during moments floating aimlessly to take in sunsets, Lis recalled feeling blessed for those moments.

"I was so completely at peace there," Lis said.


Lauren Damrow: 'A completely different world'

Fear gripped Lauren Damrow as she gazed across Cache Bay, a massive body of water on the Ontario border where she began her first wilderness canoe trip ever.

Then 29 years old, Lauren was raised in Minnesota, rode horses in her youth and always was comfortable outdoors. But this was unforgiving backcountry and she could only imagine tipping over in the countless waves, far away from shore.

"I was convinced that this is when I die," she said.

Instead, the four-day, 40-mile sojourn into Quetico Provincial Park recharged her life and spirits. Now a certified registered nurse anesthetist at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, she's devoted to visiting more wilderness areas whenever she can get away. Quetico imprinted her with glorious experiences of sweat, solitude and awe of nature.

"It's a completely different world and a level of beauty that you never knew existed," Damrow said. "It's incredibly grounding … spiritual almost."

Her boyfriend, Ryan Moy, previously worked at a canoe outfitting company on the Gunflint Trail. He guided them to areas where they didn't see other people for two days. She never fathomed that she lived so close to such majesty. The two are now engaged to be married. They've taken subsequent hiking trips to Isle Royale and Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park. Every other national park is on their wish list.

Damrow said her vacation paradigm has shifted away from "paying a bunch of money to sit on a beach." She'd rather unplug, leave the grind behind and immerse herself in the natural world. She's found that spending time in the wilderness unclutters her mind in therapeutic, cathartic ways. Her lasting impressions from Quetico are simple ones: Paddling across crystalline lakes, watching loons and otters, catching fish for dinner and resting aching muscles at the end of each day.

"It was hard work, but that's what made it so special," she said. "You're out there and sometimes the loudest sound is the wind blowing."


Mike Fellows: 'Clear out your mind and open it up'

For most of his life, Mike Fellows has been drawn to wild places that disconnect him from the world of cars, noise, work life and other humans.

At age 65, he retired last year from his career as a business analyst and said goodbye to his "vacation leash." From his home in Inver Grove Heights, he wandered northeast to the Superior National Forest and an array of shoreline trails along Lake Superior. One night on the Temperance River, he glimpsed a streaking meteor and listened to distant howling by wolves. He woke to the sound of the gurgling river and decided to stay for a while.

An excellent map reader, Fellows has honed a somewhat spontaneous style of camping and hiking meant to isolate him in nature without shouldering needless pack weight or pounding out the miles. When he was 33, he quit work and spent a whole year exploring public lands out West. Then he took what he called a "victory lap" by visiting nearly all of Minnesota's state parks. He sleeps in his van, cooks on a camp stove and hikes off trail.

"I might just sit down on a log and let the sounds and sights come in across me rather than hike all day," he said. "I want to disappear into the woods and not be on anyone's timetable."

A good hike might require 10 miles of purposeful walking to a certain perch for his hobby of nature photography. Or veering off a state park trail just far enough to lose sight and sound of people. He's in a good place when his senses awaken to cloud formations, flowers, birds, shadows and shifts in the wind.

"When you find that solitude you get into a different mind-set," Fellows said. "What I'm looking for is that Thoreau experience … clear out your mind and open it up to the healing power of nature."

Humans constantly change the earth, he said. He thrives on earth experiences that change the person.