Outdoor Adventure: A look back at a trip to the Boundry Waters
It rained enough the first evening that mosquitoes were not an issue; the raindrops beat them down, sent them to the ground. We ate fresh fish for appetizers; steak for the main course; crawled into tents early and slept like stumps. Sometime after midnight a loon yodeled its wild call; then silence.
Next morning; cool, damp. Smoke from campfire rose reluctantly under the drizzle as if pushing against a weight. We stood, huddled under a tarp, shoulders hunched, forlorn; hot coffee our only comfort. Someone said, “Welcome to the Boundary Waters.” Nobody replied.
We had started the morning before, a gloomy day. Dawn gave way to low-lying clouds and the air was thick and humid and gray. There was no daybreak on that morning. We ate breakfast at a local diner, hearty portions and endless coffee and outside the rain came down hard. Two adults at the counter watched like herding dogs over eight teenagers who wore rain gear; compasses dangled like ornaments on lanyards. Boundary Waters bound.
Then to the shuttle; a van pulling a trailer, canoes stacked like cordwood, gear stuffed in back. We drove on backwoods blacktop for 20 minutes then turned onto a gravel lane; the van bounced and rocked and windshield wipers whipped their metronomic rhythm. Miles on gravel then a gleam of water, of stream and lake and the van pulled over and stopped. We unloaded. The rain had let up; we took it as a good sign.
And so the trip began. Into the Boundary Waters, that million plus acre expanse of what is as close to wilderness that most of us will ever see. The Boundary Waters; pressing up against the Canadian boarder, 150 miles wide, east to west, lakes scattered like blue beads from a broken necklace.
It’s rugged country, the Boundary Waters, with stark rock outcroppings that rise high over the lakeshore. Home to wolf and moose and loon and eagle and bear it’s rugged and wild and beautiful and stern all the same.
Scattered through it all are campsites, not so close to intrude one on another, but accessible. Accessible, that is, if you can paddle; no motors are allowed in the BWCA.
The trip was courtesy of Bergan’s of Norway’s U.S. division, an opportunity to both test some of their gear and socialize. We would be paddling a packable canoe they distribute, a seeming Rube Goldberg mix of aluminum ribs, gunwales and chines, covered with a flexible synthetic skin. I look at the canoe with some trepidation; I’m a fan of the hard shell craft. But in the days ahead we will paddle the canoes under heavy load and they will perform well. We use them hard, bang them around some, drag them over beaver dams and across rock and they hold up and come back for more.
The guide originally looks at the canoes with some skepticism but later paddles next to us, checks his GPS, notes that our cruising speed is the same as a good Kevlar canoe.
On that morning, we loaded the canoes and dipped paddles in the running stream of a small river then onto a lake strangely named: Mudro.
We paddled where we could and where the lakes ran out we portaged on narrow trails made greasy with mud and wet rock. At each portage we unload the canoes, shoulder pack and paddle and fit canoe yoke to our shoulders. Then we walk cautiously on the slick surface, heads bowed like penitents. The walk is never easy; uneven footing, puddles and mud, jumble of rock and on one, steep climbs and descents.
On one portage, we meet a foursome heading out after a week. “Bugs just came out in the past day” they tell us, “and they’re thick.” They pass us, the bitter scent of DEET in the air behind. The guide tells of the previous two weeks, paddling more than 200 miles and never, until the last night, having to deal with mosquitoes.
But for us they are thick and voracious.
We paddle into a large lake, Fourtown Lake, and the man who is guiding us sees a campsite, says, “I like this spot” and we glide to shore. The bugs greet us in clouds and the first thing we do is string up a tarp with screen sides and in this have, in a few minutes time, shelter from the swarm.
We pitch tents, stake out tarps over cook area and for gear storage. We unpack; we slow down; we relax.
We bring all manner of water filters but the guide waves them off. “Giardia sinks.” he advises us, “Paddle out to water over 4 feet deep and you can fill your bottles and drink the lake water.” I, cautious, fill my bottle but then use a purifier. There are, one knows, exceptions to every rule.
We catch fish that afternoon; smallmouth bass, northerns, walleyes, rock bass. We stop when we have enough for a meal. The guide fillets them, dusts them in seasoning, cooks them over an open fire, the sizzle of fish frying overpowers the whine of mostquitoes.
[On the last day he boils a catch, mixes up a spicy sauce, serves it as appetizers. Over the pot of boiled fish mosquitoes circle, descend, bite the cooked fish. And the guide says, “In 35 years of doing this I’ve never seen that”. We shake the bugs off, dip the fish in sauce, enjoy every bite.]
The sun clears by late morning of the second day and we shed layers like snakes shed skin; off with the rainwear; off with the light, down jacket; off with the long-sleeve shirt. Then we paddle along the shoreline, casting for bass and northerns. Eagles call and soar; loons surface, regard us with suspicion, dive and are gone. We have fish for lunch and dinner both.
On the third day, we paddle and portage, paddle and portage, through lakes, past bogs and piney forests and along steep rock faces that rear up as moss covered walls. We leave Fourtown Lake, cross Boot Lake, then Fairy and Gun and Bullet (yes, real names). We stop for lunch on Moosecamp Lake; sandwiches and sausage and cheese; lounge in the sun of a June afternoon. Then paddle to a small, meandering river that connects on the north end of Fourtown and soon back to camp.
The trip lasts for four days but the days are made of moments and in the moments come the memories. Memory of fishing from shore; a northern pike follows and I see the head, large and menacing behind the lure as if a dream, then the lure comes to shore and the big fish turns, tail swirls, water ripples. Then the fish is gone. The moment passes. Memory remains.
At dawning, sunrise over the big lake; fog lifts and in the distance a lone canoeist paddles, cast in gold in the early light, gliding like a phantom through the wispy smoke of rising fog. Then he is gone and the moment is gone and soon the fog is lost and the sun rises high and warm but the memory remains.
At sunset the kerhonk-kerhonk call of trumpeter swans heading north, 20 of them in a perfect V and the lowering sun glows on the birds’ undersides and they show pearlescent white. Just a moment in the perfect light. Then they are gone.
It is in the moments that pass as this that memories are made in the firmament of the mind, falling on the rich duff of our souls and remaining there as if etched on glass long after the moment is gone.
As we are gone, four days into it all. Gone without a trace in that vastness of wood and water and high sky. Gone save for memories and gone save for the vows to return.
We retrace our paddle path; paddle and portage and repeat. Lakes pass, streams; then back where we started. Unload canoes; swat mosquitoes. Sound of vehicle on gravel road; our shuttle van. We load gear, tie canoes snug, settle in for the drive.
On the way back it rains, hard and straight-down and the windows of the van steam up as if a fog has moved in and clouded our eyes and left us only with the memories. But the memories are bright as early sun, vivid as late light on swans, powerful as a large fish, solid as ancient rock. And in the memories we find comfort.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.