It was October in the Boundary Waters. It had been raining for two days. We were three young guys hunkered down in a leaky tent on Lake Agnes, just south of Lac le Croix.
There is only so much hunkering down you can do with two other guys in a leaky tent. If the monotony doesn’t get you, the soggy sleeping bag will. Sooner or later, for sanity’s sake, you have to get up and get out. So I pulled on a cheap plastic poncho and crawled out to have a look around.
On a path near camp, I came across an old robin. He was hunkered down too, huddling in the roots of a huge old white pine, and I squatted down to say hello.
He was a bedraggled little guy. His face feathers had gone gray, and there was a far-off look in his beady little eyes, as if he were thinking about the warm weather at the other end of the flyway—weather he would never experience again. He was obviously awaiting the inevitable.
I told the other guys about him when I got back to the tent, and we thought maybe we could pack him out with us when we left. Maybe we could find a shoebox and some cotton batting in Ely. We could put him in it, along with some birdseed and water, and give the box to a bus driver headed for Florida. The driver could release him when they got there.
But we forgot him. We stayed too long and had to pull up stakes in a hurry. We were three miles and two portages down the river toward Ely before we remembered.
Every so often, I find myself on one of those paths that wend through the north woods, up a hill, around a curve, over the roots of an old white pine. I look down and see the ghost of that robin looking up with accusatory disgust.
“You left me,” he seems to be saying. “I could have seen Miami one more time.”
The guilt is not insurmountable. But it’s feathered and frumpy and wet with cold October rain. I should do something to put things right.
So if you see an old robin around let me know. I just looked online. Bus fare to Florida is ninety-nine bucks one way.