In 1978, 23 years old and married half a year, Naomi and I spent nearly 3 months living in a rough cabin, perhaps 6 feet by 8 feet in size, surrounded on three sides by the BWCA. The BWCA is a large tract of wilderness in northern Minnesota (about 1.3 million acres in size). It lies adjacent to Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, which is also quite large (about 1.2 million acres in size). That’s a lot of canoe country. I was the director of a small wilderness camp for boys called the Gunflint Wilderness Camp. In order to get there, we had to ferry down the river from a local outfitter. There was no electricity, and the outhouse lacked enclosure – making it an out-platform. A telephone line had only recently been dropped across the river and through the woods. We became acclimated to the feeling of wilderness. When the camp closed for the summer, we spent a few days at the mother camp on a lake near Bemidji. Even in this outdoor environment, we experienced a mild culture shock. It just seemed too civilized.
While directing the wilderness camp, Naomi and I took a small group of 12-year-old boys on a five-day canoe trip. The plan was to travel the boundary between Canada and the United States in order to visit Dorothy Molter, who sold root beer on the Isle of Pines in the heart of the BWCA.
Dorothy was a living folk hero. She was the last person to be allowed to continue living in the BWCA, and lived there alone until her death, at age 79, in 1986. Her root beer was legendary. For me, the setting was more remarkable than the root beer, which was not quite cold on the day I was there. I didn’t mind. I understood that she had to chop ice in the winter for summer refrigeration.
It was while returning back to the camp that I heard the water speak. We were two days and many miles from our brief visit with Dorothy (she already seemed like a distant memory). It happened on a portage. This particular portage was about a third of a mile in length. We had gotten all of our canoes and equipment across except one last pack, which I volunteered to get while the kids and Naomi enjoyed a quiet rest.
It was while returning with the pack, alone on the solitary trail, that a woman’s voice rose clearly and distinctly from a series of small waterfalls to my left. Above the sound of rushing water, I heard:
“Jim, everything is going to be all right.”
Crystal clear, and she knew my name. For a moment, the world opened.
I stopped, put down the pack, and scrutinized the air and water for further messages. There were none. I could feel the spell dissipating as I slowly walked over to the cascade that had so clearly spoken. I was aware enough to say thank you as I sat there for a long moment.
Then I began to think about the message. “Jim, everything is going to be all right.” It didn’t make sense. I was at the height of my confidence. This particular trip was almost over — of course everything was going to be all right. I was not the kind of man who required assurances – not from myself, not from others, not even from a waterfall. I wondered if there was more to the message. Maybe the waterfall had something more to say that would have clarified matters. Maybe my ears and consciousness were not properly tuned to water. I had no way of knowing, so I put the pack back on my back and continued down the trail.
Over the years the sound of that voice has echoed unexpectedly in my head many times over, not as simple reassurance, but as a sort of prophecy. I have had considerable pain and strain (the human condition generally requires that we confront obstacles). Throughout my years that message from the waterfall has, on occasion, flowed like unseen water — caressing my shoulders. It is but one event, taken necessarily out of context by writing it down, a moment when I was deeply connected to the nature of things. Water has always been sacred to me.
Since that time — I have heard voices in water, voices and celestial choir during drum circles, and voices during hypnagogic experiences. The hypnagogic experiences were clear, but dream influenced. In the other two circumstances, when I focused to hear words, something shifted and the voices were gone.
Shortly into the discipline of shamanic practice, I no longer valued or sought external voices. Consequently, perhaps, I have not heard them. Of more value to me are the distinct voices in the head – voices from compassionate spirits or Soul. The communication almost seems to come from a separate area of my brain, and is always polite, welcome, and instructive – never intrusive. I also “hear voices” in the course of a shamanic dream-journey. I’ve learned to pay attention, and to structure moments for communication. In other words, I am open to communication through intention or empathy, and I am more likely to be open when I am centered, empowered, or mindful. That may be a major difference between how I relate to the Universe now, and how I related as a young man in the BWCA. The only way for a waterfall to communicate back then was with words carried on the wind and into my ears. I’m thankful I was, and still am, willing to pay attention.
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