When I was younger (a time that now seems as far removed from present reality and recollection as racial memory) I believed that if faced with a terminal illness, I’d confidently take matters in hand at a proper time and paddle off to disappear in the Boundary Waters wilderness I loved enough to have let dominate decades of my life. I thought that was how I’d handle the end. Obviously, too, I left out the three-fourths of the year in northern Minnesota we affectionately term “not summer.” But maybe my addled mentality as a youth thought I’d always be able to hold off the reaper grim for nine months to make my escape with ice-out in spring, a time some of you call June.

My earlier naïve self was present to greet me the other morning when I stepped carefully onto the porch to begin waging war against a recent light snow with the destructive powers of a small broom and an easy-to-handle shovel needing only pushes to do its thing. I used to be quite able to lift a snow shovel and toss a whale of snow far enough to consider it gone. But a simple thing like a messed up shoulder gives painful proof I won’t be doing that again at any time soon. I’d have to create a one-handed shovel, maybe with a neck loop like a tump line on a portage pack. I rarely used the tump, but I greatly appreciated the solid Duluth Pack bearing one that was a close friend for many years. I confess, I grew quite attached to good gear. A reliable pack was on par with a trustworthy friend; you know when you can count on someone or something and when you can’t.

With one shoulder out, I have the option or easing off or of ruining the other side so I’d have a matching pair with the pain (which can be considerable at times) sort of equaled out in the Mark Twain fashion of a man being comfortable “on average” with one foot in boiling water and the other in ice. I never tried it. Don’t have to in order to get the picture of a compromised form of comfort you could compare to the happiness of a martyr when the fire won’t burn. That too came from Mark Twain. I  think he had a knack for taking accurate measure of pain and pleasure; neither is “pure” unless you’re a child making love to a creamy chocolate ice cream cone for the first time. The little one will be smeared from forehead to neck with proof positive of utter and complete joy. This might happen once in life, but usually there’s someone with a firm grip and soaped cloth ready to make darn sure it doesn’t last long. That was my general experience as a child. I was kept unnaturally clean, as if God might come any moment to check my hands and underwear for suitability in heaven. That was before I grew ideas of finding paradise on a wilderness lake with a canoe,  paddle, and A-frame tent as all I needed to experience the bliss of life lived simply but completely. I think of that as life lived well and I was darn lucky to have known it as often and thoroughly as I did.

Now back to the complaining shoulder. If I can’t shovel snow worth a darn, I’m sure not going far swinging a paddle through a full range of motion, as was my hallmark stroke starting a reach ahead of my body and ending well astern. My new form would be like switching from a broad end paddle to a butter knife instead. And by the way, that butter paddle wouldn’t be doing much reaching, straining, or pulling. I’m up to stirring a bit of whipped butter at room temp so as not to resist in any noticeable way. I’d dearly love to do another canoe trip, but the last time I tried I found not that the ground was any harder than I remembered it, but that it was a lot further down and harder to reach than my recollection. The good earth was way the hell down there, and sure as anything I promptly nailed one knee on a pine cone and had to roll off in agony, only to face the perplexity of trying to figure out how to get up without something to haul up against. I either need to pack a motel room in my Duluth Pack (I’d sure need the tump line for that load) or bring along some therapy folk to move me about like dead wood, the way I once swung my trusted Frank Powell paddle made on Saganaga. You might not believe the miles I went using that paddle. It served me from 1967, not too long after Dorothy Molter taught me her way to solo flip a canoe to portage. Dorothy was a lot better at it than me. She could get it up and down in a flash. But then, at age 15 I didn’t weigh too much more than the standard weight Grumman I was trying to pitch. I did get the hang of it, and for years after thought fondly of the great gift Dorothy gave to a scrawny kid who looked more fitted to life as a couch rat or bookworm than a canoe guide. Life has surprises. I was as surprised as anyone when canoeing ended up elbow to elbow battling literature for my spirit.

It’s a funny thing to look at a fresh fall of beautiful snow and feel fully stymied about what to do with it. A person has to be creative. My old Big Bertha LP torch would give that snow something to worry about, but first I’d have to get Bertha from behind the shed, where the snow lays deep as my old dreams. Maybe I’ll rethink this entire thing.