Prose, Grades 10 – 12: Third Place

Into the Wild— Hannah Bernstein

The lake is so still that my dad and I move in tandem without a word, the strokes of our canoe paddles the only signs of life on the water’s surface. The wind in the trees beckons us forward, and I can’t help but breathe in sync with the world.
I feel a shift in the air, and it pulls me out of my self-reflection. Instinctively I square my shoulders and crook my body toward the bow. The sun slips behind gloomy clouds, and the blue water turns as gray as the sky, spitting whitecaps that starkly contrast the dark rocks lining the shore.
Suddenly I hear my dad yell for a crossbow draw, an emergency maneuver, and I dig my paddle into the deep. The squall hits the water up ahead, and rollers appear, waves threatening to tip us over if we get pushed sideways. It’s time to make a choice: cut across the channel to safety but miss the cliff paintings, or stay and risk hypothermia if we do tip. My dad and I both know there’s no opportunity to linger, and with unspoken finality, we head away from the cliffside.
In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, everything is about decisions. We never know if we’ve made the best choice or what could have happened if we chose differently — but it doesn’t matter. I’ve learned from this solitary, magical place that there is always a way out, always some sort of redemption, even if it’s not the one I expected.
I used to obsess over every crossroad, afraid one wrong turn would put my entire identity at stake. I was plagued by thoughts of “what if?,” and getting out of bed was an uphill battle every morning. I lived in a haze, terrified of my role in creating my future.
It was around this time that I went to the Boundary Waters for the first time. Immediately it began teaching me a very important lesson that I’m still learning: when those rolling waves beat against the side of the canoe, you just have to act. You have to make the best decision you can, and always keep moving.
My dad and I survived that windswept lake, and we made it to the campsite before dark. I remember trying to make popcorn and burning it, yet eating it anyway, and staying out late laughing and telling stories. Despite missing the cliff paintings because of the windstorm, I was happy. Even though the day didn’t turn out like we planned, the popcorn, jokes and bright stars made it worthwhile anyway.
As a Forest Service ranger once told me, it’s always storming somewhere, so it must be sunny somewhere else. All we have to do is keep paddling until we find it, even if it’s miles down the trail.
While it’s true our identities are created by our experiences, the storms we face don’t define us; the way we paddle through the waves do. It’s up to us to look for that redemption without giving up, even if it means paddling into the wind.
I’ve struggled for a long time with choices, because I never trusted myself to make the right one without seeing what’s ahead. But there, in the deep black night of the north, I found the answer. I learned that making the choice to keep fighting, even when I can’t see the sun, says more about my character, resilience and determination than any other choice I could make.