by Julia Ruelle

Finals week at high school is painful. Though summer is so close you can taste it, we are compelled to put in one more surge of cramming and memorization to prove we have learned something during the past nine months. And as these tests can sometimes tilt the scales for grades, they bring a lot of tension into the building. When the bell rings after the last test, the relief is palpable; the tension lifts and smiles creep onto our faces. The cherry on the top for three friends and me was that we would get to distance ourselves from everything-high-school just a bit more. We would soon drive up to Ely and paddle away in two canoes without parents, drama, or assignments to cause stress. 

In a way, this adventure all started when I was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer in December, after suffering from extreme headaches and nausea. Chemo treatments began almost right away and were concluded in February. Following chemo, I received daily radiation treatments two hours from my house, which we drove each day so that I could remain in school. Still, throughout much of this struggle, I had something to keep my spirits up and to look forward to: my parent-free trip to the Boundary Waters. In February, I had read in the newspaper that Ely Outfitting Company was giving an essay contest, with a grand prize of a completely outfitted, parent-free trip to the Boundary Waters. Giddy with excitement, I wrote all weekend about my love of the outdoors and the way it has helped me cope with adversity. While in an elevator at the Mayo Clinic, I received a call from Jason, the owner of Ely Outfitting Company, notifying me that I had won the contest. I spent the remainder of the school year dreaming of the Boundary Waters, especially while laying completely still getting radiation treatments. 

The task of choosing just three friends to take with me to my absolute favorite place was both exciting and daunting. Shockingly, the friends whose parents I thought would surely forbid them from going were somehow allowed to come; perhaps the "cancer card" may have played a part in their decisions. Before long the dates, general route, and menu had been selected while permits were purchased and transportation arranged. We were ready. 

Upon our arrival, Jason walked us through a meticulous orientation. We spent hours reviewing the gear, food, and map to ensure we would know what to do once we were let loose in the wilderness. Sleeping in the bunkhouse the night before launching, I felt some anxiety about the next morning, questions running through my mind - What if one of us gets hurt? What if we get lost? What if we get in an argument and don't talk to each other the whole trip?

Of course, when we pushed off the shore and paddled into the wilderness, I knew at once that we would be alright. As we got the hang of steering, navigating, and communicating between the two canoes, it was clear that we would learn a lot on this trip while having a lot of fun. During our five days in the Boundary Waters, we developed a loose routine. We each adopted jobs, making setting up and tearing down camp faster each time. Each day, we'd arrive at our campsite before lunch, leaving the rest of the day to set up camp, eat, chat, swim, read, make friendship bracelets, and lounge in hammocks. Unfortunately, we missed out on stargazing due to the combined forces of relentless mosquitoes, cloudy nights, and tiring days, but that didn't keep us from enjoying our evenings in the tents. There, we would talk about anything and everything and I realized how many little things I didn't know about their lives, thanks to the flurry of stress and the many distractions of social media. Because we didn't see the stars, I guess we'll have to come back again next year.

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