Hitchhiking into Harmony

On a recent Sunday morning, I clicked open my electronic version of The New York Times and found that the most shared story from the previous day was about the Boundary Waters, Minnesota’s wilderness canoe park. Elbowed out of the way were news stories about insults and emails – aka the presidential election – the Cubs winning the National League pennant and the campaign against ISIL in Mosul.

One of those “shares” went from me to my brother since, in our youth, we had made a habit of visiting the Boundary Water’s Canadian twin: Quetico Provincial Park. Memories from those visits led me to wonder why so many readers responded to an article about a wilderness park.

These twin parks do not offer resort accommodations. Your comfort comes from what you can carry in your canoe, and then on your back as you portage muddy, bug-infested trails between lakes. No motors are allowed in either park – your arms provide the power to carry you and your possessions across wind-swept lakes.

Attempting to coexist with nature in these parks can be harsh and demanding. They will push you in ways you never thought you could be pushed. But for my brother and me, such coexistence was invigorating. There was something personally thrilling about

• finding our way with little more than a laminated map and compass;

• building a warming fire in the rain;

• giving an industrious beaver the right of way;

• carrying a 75-pound canoe and 50-pound pack on a half-mile portage; and

• lying on our backs at night and taking in the sheer magnitude of the Milky Way or the seductive dance of the Northern Lights.

Invigorating and thrilling for us, but not for everyone. My fellow New Yorkers are a rugged lot as they attempt to coexist in the often-discordant wilds of a crowded, noisy, and impersonal urban environment, but I do not see large numbers of them either going to or reminiscing fondly about an adventure in the wilderness.

So why might The Times piece about a wilderness park have been the most emailed story on one day in October 2016?

Judging from the readers’ comments section, maybe it was that many of the shares actually came from readers outside of New York – readers who had been to the park or were, at the very least, familiar with it.

Maybe it was the size and scope of the place – with more than 1 million acres of land left completely undeveloped, it looks much like it did 10,000 years ago.

Maybe it was the topography’s randomness – pattern-defying lakes and hills carved by the slow and steady hands of receding glacial ice and rock, and not by blueprinted steel and glass.

Maybe it was the romance of the cover photo – a solitary figure paddling into early morning sun-drenched fog on a placid stretch of water.

Maybe it was the writing that conjured up thoughts – not of vacationing to, but escaping from the ubiquity of “Trump” and “Clinton,” the unmatched ugliness of this election, and the curtain it has pulled back on our deep national divides.

Or maybe it was the story’s narrative, which is all about moving at a radically different pace of life, itself a cautionary road sign – “Slow. Down.

Leadership author, Kevin Cashman, notes in The Pause Principle:

Pause, the natural capability to step back in order to move forward with greater clarity, momentum, and impact, holds the creative power to reframe and refresh how we see ourselves and our relationships, our challenges, our capacities, our organizations and missions within a larger context.

Maybe it was for all of these reasons.

New Yorker or not, readers let their imaginations run wild as they vicariously entered a place, that in addition to its many challenges, is also peaceful, flowing, and organically beautiful – and vastly different from their day-to-day existence.

They stopped and reflected.

And maybe they hitchhiked into harmony.

“Boy, that story brought back memories,” my brother wrote back.

I am much older than I was when we paddled the lakes of Quetico. My then near-six-pack physique has given way to the one-pack icon of many senior men. But I am strong of heart and mind, and for a moment, I pause and wonder about paddling those lakes again.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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    • Laura, thank you so much for the read and comment. Pausing just seems so anathema to how most of us operate and in some cases are expected to operate, right?

    • Pausing such a practice and definitely not one most of us were trained in, Jeff. We were suppose to have the right answer in school, to stick our hand right up in the air when the teacher asked a question and lots of other moments of “training” to NOT pause. Yet, all the moments I drop into that deep place of silence I notice I create much better outcomes. Events + Response/Reaction=Outcomes What I know now in my bones is that all I have true power is in the “R” the response that comes out of me-even now in replying to your question! And the “R” can look like silence, waiting for a long time, and then speaking or even using my entire body to speak when words struggle to come.

  1. Jeff, thanks for sharing this piece. I read it this morning while waiting to see the nurse practitioner for my blood pressure check, and as I read your words, I could feel a sense of calm come over me. Then again, it’s one of the reasons I love nature so much. Even a long, deep breath of fresh air is enough to set me on a more even pace.

    It is good to reflect, especially in nature. I love to stop at the marsh along my running/walking route. It’s off the beaten path, and there is always serenity there. It’s my place to take some deep breaths, stretch, and be thankful for the day. We all need to recharge, and your reminder to do is a welcome one.

    • Laura — I think I had an earlier life in nature. My soul belongs to the waters and mountains. And where do I live? NYC! Thankfully I have a nearby forest preserve into which I can escape. Thanks for your note. We are kindred spirits.

  2. Jeff – Great story with a great message. Oh, if we would all stop and reflect on the really important parts of life in the solitude of natural beauty, maybe, just maybe, we could again be the nation envisioned by our founding fathers. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Len, there were times in the Quetico when all we could do was stop. The wind would just be too strong to be on the lakes or rivers. Then it was time to lie on the rocks and feel the warmth of the sun. And maybe nap. And dream.

      Re your last thought, I attended a discussion last night at the New York Historical Society, and the panelists were asked about the current political situation. Bret Stephens, the NYTimes columnist, made the interesting observation that the U.S. goes through these tumultuous times about every 40-50 years and comes out OK. I hope he is right.

  3. Breaks in life are fundamental. Filling every moment without ever taking breaks is a trend that affects all ages and often has to do with the fear of being alone with one’s thoughts and emotions. Yet the ability to stop, to give oneself a space of time between periods or situations in life is essential to give new meaning to one’s existence and to match one’s inner rhythm.

    • Thanks, Aldo, for your thoughts here and on LinkedIn. Love “match one’s inner rhythm.” At the very least, assess it.