Fort Frances, Ontario…

smells like a paper mill. Which means that it either smells like someone just passed wind next to you or money if you happen to have one of the good jobs at the mill. It costs you six dollars, as well, just to cross a winding bridge through the paper mill to get to the Canadian side of the river from International Falls, Minnesota, on the US side. With the smell and the industrial mishmash of a bridge it makes for one of the least attractive ways to travel from one country to the other that I know.

Yet travel we needed to do because our hope was to make it to Nestor Falls near the Lake of the Woods some time around noon. Already we had snaked north and slightly west through the north woods of Minnesota. Now just one turn left through Fort Frances and a few kilometers, which apparently the locals call kill-oh-meters, and we’d arrive.

We’d done this before, of course, crossing in to Canada. It used to be routine, almost like a joy ride. Show the nice man in the Canadian uniform your driver’s license, tell him you’re not taking booze or guns into his country, and off you go. This time, though, the guy at the other side of the bridge was a young man, surly, with close cropped hair, speech, and apparently an itch somewhere he couldn’t scratch. A little slip of the tongue and out came the attitude. The crime was forgetting to mention we had a ten dollar light fixture we were bringing in to the country for the purpose of, well, replacing a light fixture where we were going. For this lapse of memory we were subject to a scolding about how we should pay attention to the questions and listen the next time we came into Canada. The whole thing seemed like the satisfaction of a little dog barking through the window of its house at passerby.

Yet we were off on our way and soon the miles, I mean the kill-oh-meters, rolled under our tires. In this part of western Ontario there are a few small towns that hug the border with the US and even a hundred miles north finds you in dense, nearly impenetrable, woods. Only a few mining roads provide some access and anglers need to fly into the remote lakes by float plane. Even power, or “hydro” as they call it, only goes so far and an hour north of the border cell phone service is nearly non-existent.

And that’s why, in part, we came.

Nestor Falls and its companion village, Sioux Narrows, hold no more than a thousand souls at the peak of occupancy and many of them simply go south and leave their homes and businesses to the cold in the winter. Mostly people work for the tourists and US dollars are standard currency. The ground is hard, rock with a slim layer of soil for cover, so homes and the necessary plumbing need to be spread out. No one has a basement. Almost everyone owns a boat.

When we arrived at the cabin on Big Pine Lake it was as it had always been, a large lake with one resort and a handful of cabins. The Crown owned the rest of the land and they weren’t in the mood to sell any of it. Trees, eagles, forest covered islands with no human touch, all of it was there as it had been for years. Less than a day from Minneapolis and it felt like the edge of the known world.The cabin had power and flush toilets, even satellite TV, but out there, just at the edge of the sky was wild land, places where you could get lost if you weren’t careful, places where the things you could take for granted elsewhere would be a source of struggle here.

And although we slept with a roof over our heads and a fully functioning bathroom just down the hall, it was good to be near those wild places. I can understand why monks and seekers of truth would shed all the trappings of urbanity and seek God in such environs Not too far from the safety of our cabin were places where simple truths mattered and a kind of wisdom could be obtained in the rigors of surviving in that world. To make a life in such places would require one to be fully alive, fully aware, and constantly surrounded by the immensity of creation and the smallness of humanity. Being even on the edge of it had a spiritual quality, being alive in it may have the quality of living in a temple.

It was too soon before the clock and life and the demands of money and civilization forced us back south again. Home is where the neighbors are close and we are not on the edge of anything, let alone a wild, untamed, and spiritual wilderness. I live here and try as best as possible to seek out God’s face, for He is truly present here as well. Still it was good, surly border agents and paper mill smells included, to be away for a few days on the edge of the forest. There are possibilities out there and possibilities for me as well if I can keep a sense of it within.

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