Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”
– Gordon Hempton
Spring might be the quietest season in Voyageurs National Park. The snow and ice have melted enough to prohibit snowmobiling, but fishing opener has not yet started. For a short period, the park is free from the drone of the boats and snowmobiles, and the wild qualities of this vast land can be sensed by sight, sound, and smell. I love spring in Voyageurs because of this.
In early April 2014, when I started my first field season working at Voyageurs, I arrived at park housing by the Ash River Visitor Center where I lived for a month. I quickly realized that there was not a soul around; there were never any cars at the Ash River Visitor Center parking lot, there was a foot of ice on the lake still, and when I hiked the Kab-Ash or Blind Ash Bay trails I never saw other footprints in the remaining patches of snow. Here I was in a national park and I had it all to myself!
Most nights during April, I would walk down to the rocky point by the Ash River Visitor Center and sit on the barren rock, watch the sunset, and absorb the sounds of spring. The warm glow of the sinking sun on my face during these calm spring evenings was reason enough to come to the point every night. Yet there was a stillness and silence across the land that was particularly intoxicating and satisfying. There is immense peace and contentment found when listening to the wild unimpeded, when detecting the minute sounds of the forest. Sadly, I have found so few places in the world that I can still experience the natural world without the sounds of people or their machines.
Often on the point there was a robin who would perch in the top of a tall, lanky spruce and sing with a joyful warble. The robin’s song would echo across the icy lake and far away I could hear several other robins adding their song to the silence. When the robin would stop, I could hear the soft tinkle of thousands of small ice shards dropping from the thick ice sheets that had been pushed up on the rocky shoreline. A few red squirrels over by Lost Lake seemed to argue with one another each evening, using their long high-pitched shrills and barks to state their discontent. During dusk, a saw-whet owl would sound from a shoreline across the icy desert with its eerie too-too-too call. Every once in a while, a sudden large crack would rip across the frozen lake as the ice sheets battled the spring thaw.
One evening, I laid down on the sun-warmed rock and closed my eyes just to listen and breath deep the cool northern spring air. All the cares of life just seemed to slip away for a few minutes, for a brief second I was part and parcel of the wild north. For a while as I laid there I became envious of the people who for thousands of years lived not separated from but in the natural world; I was envious of the Voyageurs who saw the lands of the park when the towering pines still stood and the caribou roamed. I wonder if these canoe men ever considered that the wild places they traversed might one day be irreparably changed.
After a while, I opened my eyes and far across the ice I could see a red fox dancing along the shoreline. Although the animal and plant life of Voyageurs might be different today, the protection of this land as a national park has preserved some of the eternal qualities—such as the silence and wildness—that have existed since the formation of this land eons ago. During the busy seasons of summer and winter these qualities can be elusive at times but in the spring the quiet can still be heard, but more importantly, it can be felt. One has only to come sit on the point near Ash River in April and be still. There you can experience the land of old, sense the majestic silence, and be touched by the glowing sun.
Article and photos by Tom Gable