Valley Voices

Jerrold Jensen: Father-son sojourn speaks volumes about silence

Jerrold Jensen of Visalia
Jerrold Jensen of Visalia Ron Holman

“Well, Dad, did I pass the manhood test?”

It was a surprising question from my teen son. But our unguided father-son wilderness canoe adventure in Canada had been full of surprises. The next question would be even more unusual – more on that later. I hadn’t intended our trip to be a test, but we did find the adventure we wanted and rediscovered the calming silence of the wilderness.

My son was indeed brave to take the long road trip from our home in Denver to northern Minnesota that could potentially be full of my lectures on the dangers of drugs, alcohol, sex and rock ’n’ roll. I preferred listening to Willie Nelson; he liked Jimi Hendrix. So we talked – a lot.

Looking back, this was a rite of passage for both of us. He was 16, had a summer job, his own car and a number of pretty girlfriends. I knew the family hikes, bike rides and fishing trips would become less frequent with those distractions.

Through a Minnesota outfitter, we had landed one of about 45 daily admission permits into Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, better known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. More than 50 percent bigger than Yosemite National Park, there are more than 600 lakes to explore.

Our outfitter checked our supplies, provided us with a canoe and a detailed map of a recommended route that would cover 60 or 70 miles over rivers and across 16 lakes. There were more than 20 portages where we would carry the canoe and backpacks around rapids and waterfalls and from one lake to another.

Given possible weather delays, authorities would not consider a search until we were two days overdue for pickup at the Canadian entry and exit point.

This was a wilderness trip without a safety net – no electronic devices were allowed and help might be days away in case of an emergency. Our most serious crisis occurred when a sudden squall sent whitecaps racing across the large lake we were crossing and we barely avoided capsizing – and losing our supplies – before reaching the nearest shoreline.

The rest of that afternoon and night passed with pouring rain and howling winds along with an awe-inspiring display of lightning and thunder.

The waterfalls and rapids we portaged around were magnificent. Fishing was great; bears ignored us. The otters were inquisitive, the call of the loons at sunset provided our only entertainment and there were a million stars in the sky.

For one five-day period, we did not see another person. The silence of the pristine wilderness was good for both of us.

After one afternoon obviously spent in deep thought, my son remarked, “I have never been so relaxed in my entire life.”

This trip had occurred at a special age that could never be repeated. He had the solitude, time and space to consider a life path that would eventually lead him to graduation from the University of California, military service in the Persian Gulf and a truly interesting career.

Silence of another kind was recently puzzling as a friend and I were having coffee and noticed a young couple who sat across from each other for nearly an hour and exchanged perhaps only a dozen words.

Each was focused on their own cellphones. Were they exchanging text messages to communicate? What would happen to their relationship if they were suddenly transported to a wilderness devoid of electronic devices? Unfortunately, today’s constant bombardment of our senses makes it difficult to find the solitude that allows clear examination of our lives and relationships.

At the end of our canoe trip, multiple cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes beat the taste of another meal of fresh fish and freeze-dried food cooked over a campfire.

Then my son posed the question about the “manhood” test. Clearly our relationship had matured with the teamwork required to deal with the recent challenges from Mother Nature. Grinning, I agreed that “Yes, you passed.”

His next question was even more surprising: “Good. Can I get an earring now?”

My conservative reservations had indeed been overwhelmed. Of course, I said “yes.”

Jerrold H. Jensen is a resident of Visalia.