In French, deschenes means “of the oaks”; my name, then, can be taken as Michael of the Northern Woods, or something to that effect. The forests to the north, in Vermont, Maine, and Canada, are where I spent nine formative summers at my camp, Keewaydin, forging bonds and learning lessons only nature can teach. Because of how important these summers were in shaping my relationship to nature and humanity, I think the coincidence, my name’s description of the lands that have filled much of my childhood, powerfully characterizes who I am today.
In the summers from 2010 to 2018, I was a camper and Wilderness tripper at Keewaydin on Lake Dunmore, a rustic, all-boys sleepaway camp known for its hiking and canoeing trips. As campers get older, trips become longer, tougher, and more remote. In their last summer at camp, boys embark on the culminating experience of their time at Keewaydin: Verendrye, a 17-day canoe trip across La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve in Canada. In the following summer, campers have the option of completing a Wilderness trip, a 30-day canoe trek across northern Quebec. These trips were two of the most meaningful experiences of my life. With my camp, the primary community with which I engage with nature, I have witnessed and adopted numerous customs with respect to how I approach both the world around me and my community within it.
Much like other outdoors groups, Keewaydin staffmen encourage respect for, preservation of, and deference to the land. On trips, the language we use to talk about our experience reveals much about our relationship with nature. Recently, certain phrases have become a more prominent part of the Keewaydin lexicon: “Leave no trace” and “leave the campsite better than you found it” come to mind. I have no objection to the sentiments of these expressions. Indeed, they serve an increasingly important role in a global landscape torn apart by natural disasters and human pollution. The two phrases echo a common sentiment of today, which is that nature is something apart from, and threatened by, human civilization; therefore, we must go out of our way to protect it.
However, the foundation of Keewaydin tripping is a distinctly more frank and intimate relationship with nature, one not defined by absolutes. On the Wilderness trip, we used several saplings to fashion poles that propelled our canoes upriver, sawed down standing dead trees for firewood and one young tree each night to craft our firepit, and blazed our trails with small hatchet marks in the bark of a handful of trees along our path. We can sustain this relationship with the land by virtue of the distance that separated us from the nearest trace of human civilization and the relative infrequency of our actions. Our trip went far enough north that we could drink from the water without purification. At points, we were hundreds of miles from the nearest road. And only two trips of this kind depart from Keewaydin each summer. So, whatever mark we did make on the land will likely fade by the time any trip, Keewaydin group or otherwise, happens down the same river or lake.
This way of interacting with the land also preserves the way Keewaydin has gone about canoe tripping for more than a century. Keewaydin’s tripping style acknowledges a human's place as a small part of, rather than apart from, nature. Leveraging the natural landscape — sparsely, thoughtfully, deliberately — reaffirms humanity’s reliance on this world and our situation within it. Our ability to go on trips in the way we do is an immense pleasure, one that may not be feasible in the coming decades as our population grows and the swaths of untouched beauty like that of northern Canada recede. But, while it’s still possible, I hope to journey deep into the wilderness whenever I can, to again feel truly human. My sensation of unadulterated humanity on camping trips is wholly personal, and perhaps even paradoxical, given my isolation from civilization. However, the interdependence of a trip’s crew, as well as the independence of the canoer, makes me more fully cognizant of my place as part of a collective than anything I feel in the “real world.” If everyone were to, just once, partake in this sort of experience, I believe we all would have a much greater and more sincere investment in this planet we call home.
Keewaydin’s interactions with the land demand a thoughtful consideration of the resources at hand, how best to use them, and what circumstances have allowed for our accessing them. Outside of camping trips, these lessons retain their impact and, for me, unfold in myriad ways. A more realistic reckoning with the scarcity of fossil fuels and the havoc that they wreak on our planet could lead to a collective shift toward a more sustainable earth. A more thoughtful consumer base could ensure the integrity and morality of a global market. And, personally, I work to constantly acknowledge the unequal distribution of resources in both my country and the world and my wholly coincidental place within that striated landscape, as I think others should, too. Ultimately, the relationship that I have with nature demands empathy, sustainability, and decency, values that I think are immensely valuable in this increasingly factious world.
Michael Deschenes is 17 years old and lives in Pasadena, California. He enjoys writing, especially for his school’s newspaper, The Paw Print, for which he is the opinion editor. He also loves reading, camping, and playing badminton and basketball.
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