BWCAW camper and family vows: “We shall return.”
The word retreat can have positive and negative meanings. In its positive form, a retreat is a term used by great-minded people who go on “retreats” to think, reflect, and sometimes create great works while removed from the distractions of their usual lives.
When Thomas Jefferson was charged with the primary responsibility of drafting a Declaration of Independence some 238 years ago, he went into retreat for several days until he was ready to have his version reviewed by four fellow committee members including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
In its negative form, a retreat is something that leaders must do when they are facing defeat or insurmountable challenges. Retreat, rather than face defeat, to live, regroup, and fight another day. Around the same time as the Continental Congress was debating that Declaration, General George Washington was about to retreat from New York while facing the largest invading force this continent has seen.
These terms have outdoor connections, too. Recently, my wife and I took our two young children on a retreat into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) for their first paddling and portaging trip. They have camped on the edge of the BWCAW before and motorboat camped into it as young as 9 months of age, but never taken a paddling trip.
We were off on a fantastic retreat from all the distractions and detriments of modern society when we were forced to consider a retreat of more negative connotations.
My “luxury” item on BWCAW trips is a small hand-crank powered radio that does a good enough job picking out the one or two radio station signals that permeate the wilderness. It also has a weather band that is the primary reason for packing it.
This item has helped us adjust on the fly since wind and weather conditions are ever changing. I’ve ventured deep into the wilderness without one and survived just fine, but I’d never go back without it. The unit has brought hope on gloomy days and the delivered insights when conditions were questionable.
The mechanized voice on the radio told me that the forecast for the next two days was nothing but torrential rain and temperatures in the 40s and 50s. Add to that winds gusting to 30 miles an hour, and the cozy camp we had set up suddenly became our last refuge against the elements.
What to do? Tough it out for two days? Try and continue our loop, risking getting caught on a big lake as wind and rain overcomes us? As my wife and I discussed, had it been the two of us, we would have stuck it out. But with a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old along for the trip, we decided that a retreat from our retreat was best. Hypothermia is no way to spend a trip and given those conditions, it was a possibility.
I would not have changed my decision if given the chance to do it over. That retreat from the woods meant my children have a desire to return to the wilderness. They experienced enough cold and rain to get tough, but not too much to get overwhelmed.
General Washington had to give up New York and literally sneak out of town under the cover of darkness rather than stay and fight. In today’s 24-hour news cycle he’d probably have been branded a coward, but he and his remaining troops lived to fight on for seven more years of war.
As I loaded our canoe on my truck, just before we drove off, I turned to the wilderness and thought of General MacArthur, another leader who was forced to retreat. As he hastily retreated from the Philippines, with Japanese forces hours from capturing the islands, MacArthur famously vowed, “I shall return.”
I echo those sentiments, obviously under much different conditions. We shall return to the wilderness. Tougher, and more experienced, ready for the good kind of retreat once again.