"What I didn't expect was to feel so completely in the moment," Laura said.
My friend and I were walking along a forest path and had stopped to photograph lichens on a fallen branch. Behind us, the Cross River burbled toward Lake Superior. The sun broke through clouds. We'd just spent nearly an hour on a rocky beach watching salmon spawn and gulls fly.
"I'm not thinking about work, or my to-do list, or my kid," Laura said. "I'm just here, fully present."
And that, I thought, is the point.
For three days on the North Shore, I'd been hiking, watching waterfalls, cooking over a fire and stargazing as part of a nonscientific experiment copied from Sweden. The nation's tourism bureau sent five tense people with various nerve-racking jobs to remote lakeside cabins for 72 hours. They hiked, kayaked and fished. They turned off their phones. For maximum exposure to the outdoors, participants stayed in glass-walled cabins.
The central question: Could three days outdoors help tightly wound folks calm down and, through reconnecting with nature, also reconnect with themselves?
"We can replicate this in Minnesota; the North Shore is the perfect place," the Minneapolis Star Tribune travel editor said, adding that she just needed to find someone who is super-stressed and can write. Then she looked straight at me.
I'm an editor who manages nine print sections a week, daily digital content, the quarterly Star Tribune Magazine and a staff of 26. I'm the mother of a high school senior, two older kids seeking their life's path and a new, high-energy dog. And while I know that plenty of other people have more hardships and pressures than I do, I also know I tend to rev high -- my mother has long accused me of trying to, as she puts it, "always fit 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag." Worrying is my main hobby. And yes, I'm medicated for high blood pressure.
As, admittedly, the perfect candidate -- akin to the London journalist and Paris taxi driver the Swedes roped in -- I packed my bags.
There were a few simple rules. In Sweden, researchers asked participants to rate their creativity and closeness to nature at the beginning and end of the study, and measured their blood pressure and heart rate daily. I would do the same. Also: No Wi-Fi. No devices. Keep a journal with nature observations. (Full disclosure: I cheated the Wi-Fi rule once, when my friend needed directions to the cabin. Also, I carried my phone, using it to take photos for this story.)
I booked a rustic, 1920s cabin (alas, not glass) at Lamb's Resort and Campground in Schroeder for a Thursday through Sunday during peak fall color.
Next, I looked for fellow guinea pigs. I mentioned the trip to a couple of friends. Laura is the head of labor relations for a government employer and a cancer survivor. Heidi is a writer who suffered a devastating house fire 10 months ago, shortly before she was to start a new job. They both said yes. My husband, Steve, despite work deadlines, joined us. My friends couldn't arrive until Friday, so Steve and I drove north by ourselves Thursday.
Before I left, I measured my blood pressure and heart rate on Wednesday at work (my numbers were predictably elevated) and rated my feelings on nature (midrange) and creativity (midrange). I felt ripe for the experiment.
On the ride up, MPR was live-broadcasting the latest political theater. I found it hard to turn off the news and switch to music. We hit traffic slowdowns. The sky was an annoying bank of rain clouds. We reached Lamb's at 4 p.m. -- almost as wired as when we'd left home.
We fretted aloud if we'd packed the right shoes, if we should go buy firewood now or later, if we would find any agates at the beach.
We hurried to look at the Cross River falls roaring behind the cabin, then marched a path through woods to where the river meets Lake Superior. We peered into the water, looking for the pink salmon that the clerk at check-in had told us were spawning there, but couldn't see any. Disappointed, we followed the Lake Walk linking Lamb's campsites, taking frequent detours through uninhabited sites to get different vantage points on the water.
There was so much to experience: crashing waves to watch, rocks to climb, dogs to greet. At the end of the trail, we reached Big Beach, where we skipped stones and finally sat to rest. Just then, the sun brightened the sky. A rainbow appeared above the vast lake. It felt like a reward.
That night, we cooked inside as a steady rain fell. I watched the shower from a cabin window before falling asleep to its pattering on the roof.
The next morning, I checked my blood pressure: down 10 from Wednesday! My heart rate was lower, too.
After breakfast, we took the river path again, and this time, after standing quietly and carefully watching the water, we spotted the salmon. Dozens lined up across the river's mouth, tails swaying as they held their own against the current. Every now and then, one would break the surface of the water, making a silvery splash.
After lunch, we took advantage of the crisp, clear day to take a fall color expedition. The desk clerk at Lamb's said that inland offers the best color. We drove a few miles, stopped at a remarkable beaver dam, drove a little more and stopped to hike an old mining road.
Already, my senses felt keener; I noticed the deep red of leaves, the mustard yellow of trailside flowers, and alarmingly, what looked like a pile of wolf scat. We came upon a marshy pond, surrounded by evergreens, maples and birches, with rolling hills in the background. During our outing, we saw no one.
We drove farther inland to a ridge, where a palette of perfect autumn colors rolled out before us. We pulled over to simply stare. Breathtaking.
Shortly after we returned to the cabin, Laura arrived from the Twin Cities, bringing political news, rapid-fire questions about dinner and a palpable sense of stress. I thought: That was us just 24 hours ago.
Without realizing it, Steve and I had spent the hours outside slowing down, talking less and watching more -- unwinding.
I took Laura inside for a blood pressure measure, then we toured the falls, the river, the lake. Later, we dined on hot dogs and salad, then nibbled cheese and chocolates. We drank wine and looked up at a sky full of stars, the Milky Way lit against the darkness. We wrapped ourselves in blankets, settled into camp chairs, tipped our heads back and soaked it in.
Close to bedtime, Heidi arrived. I took her blood pressure, too.
As we rose on Saturday, I measured our blood pressures and heart rates. Mine had ticked up a point (too much excitement?). Laura and Heidi's numbers had already improved.
After a leisurely morning, we packed snacks and water for a day hike. Across Hwy. 61, we followed the Gitchi-Gami State Trail to Temperance River State Park, where some of Minnesota's waterfalls provide a never-ending show. After marveling at nature's force, in no hurry, we began the climb to Carlton Peak.
I noticed that as Heidi and Laura talked and laughed on the trail, I craved silence.
Steve had hiked far ahead, and I followed his lead. Alone, I could more easily notice the sound of the falls and the rustle of leaves. I could focus on the bright blue of the sky and vibrant colors of maple trees.
Nature's vignettes sparked my imagination, like the sprawl of evergreen roots that looked like a faerie city, or the row of green mushrooms that reminded me of a fall runway show. I paid attention as the path changed from wet, compact earth to a softer sand, easier on the feet. I watched a black-capped chickadee land near a patch of tiny pink flowers, and heard squirrels chattering high in a distant tree.
Eventually, Steve stopped to wait, I caught up, and we smiled, silently. Laura showed up next, and she seemed transformed. She was carrying a hunk of bark, and she said, "It's beautiful. This is a perfect day."
"I had a showdown with a squirrel back there," Heidi said when she arrived. "It was yelling at me, so I stopped, and we locked eyes." We were all laughing. "I stared it down," she said.
Higher up the trail, we saw hints of Lake Superior through the woods and then, at a blowdown area, a phenomenal view of the water stretching on the horizon. We decided we were too tired to reach the peak, but that was fine; we were content.
We stayed until the color seeped from the sky, then enjoyed a simple meal in the cabin, another bonfire, another night of stargazing, another night of solid sleep.
As we made breakfast on our last morning, washed dishes and packed our things, we were calm and cheerful, but we all felt reluctant to leave. When I re-rated my connection to nature and creativity levels, both were higher. The numbers from our blood pressure and heart rate readings showed we had slowed down internally, and our outer movements seemed more relaxed, too.
After we checked out, the four of us returned to the lake once more. We collected and balanced rocks. I watched a blue jay for so long that it stopped watching me back, returning to its business of preening. Laura made her comment about being fully present. And we watched the salmon, making videos of their mighty fight against the current.
As we were saying our goodbyes, Heidi had a brilliant idea.
"We should do this every year," she said.
Now that I've returned to work, to busyness and pressures, I'm remembering her words.
When I need to deeply relax, I now know how to find my way to being unhurried, delighted, awake and aware -- somewhere, for just a few days, in Minnesota's nature.