Minnesota’s Boundary Waters: A million acres of solitude
By Mitch Mode
Sally says, “I need a little help” and I turn to see her fishing rod bent in an arc and hear the ratcheting whine of the reel’s drag under strain; it sounds like a small insect. I walk to her across rock and moss and as she holds the rod high I turn the drag adjustment tighter; the whining sound slows.
We are on a rocky outcrop on Fourtown Lake in the Boundary Waters. It is mid afternoon and the temperature is pushing 80. The sky is clear blue; there is a sweet scent of pine in the air.
We put in a few hours earlier. We stayed in Ely the night prior then drove to the put-in at Mudro Lake. We used a packable canoe; a tough fabric skin, aluminum stays and ribs that, unassembled, fit in the back of Sally’s car. At Mudro we lay the aluminum and fabric out on the asphalt; the aluminum shiny in the sun, the red skin of the canoe vivid crimson.
We assembled the canoe in half an hour then loaded it and pushed off, into the million plus acres in northern Minnesota that make up the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
It was sunny and the temperature on the rise. We paddled a small, meandering river, swamp on both sides. Fifteen minutes later the river opened up into Mudro Lake and we headed the canoe north and east to the first portage.
We had three portages; one short and easy, one short and difficult, one long and hilly and burdensome. Then Fourtown Lake; all 1,900 acres. I knew of a campsite, north and west, and we pointed the red canoe in that direction.
It was a wonderful day to paddle; sunny and mild, a breeze; easy going. The campsite was open; we stepped out into shallow water and pulled the canoe up. We set camp; tent up, tarp over the cook area, a tarp/screen to hold the mosquitoes at bay. We carried packs from the canoe, arranged them as needed; cook gear and food pack near the fire; backpacks with sleeping bags and clothing in the tent; fishing rods and camera gear in their own place.
The day prior at the check-in station we’d asked of bugs. The young woman rolled her eyes dramatically and informed us they were “Bad, very bad.” Ticks? Again the drama queen look: “Worst in years.” We were unsettled by this news but prepared; bottles of DEET, head nets, clothing sprayed down at home with Permathrin; we were ready for bugs.
We did not need any of it for the woods were nearly mosquito-free. We did see a tick; one. Blackflies? A few buzzed around Sally’s neck one day. And that was it for the bugs.
On that afternoon the sun rose with a heat unexpected; it had snowed a week before and the forecast was sketchy but on this day, and the ones to follow, it was near perfect.
We took fishing rods in hand, walked down the shore to the west and cast from a rocky ledge, typical of that county, unlike home. Five minutes into it Sally said, “I need a little help.” The fish ran deep; Sally worked it back. It surged again; again back. Closer; shadow moved in the water.
Then the fish is near and I can see if for what it is: northern. I reach down, get a firm hold behind the gills and lift it into the air. Good fish, broad across the shoulders, solid in hand. I spread my hand wide knowing the span from little finger to thumb is 9 1/2 inches; hold it to the fish three times and near four; 35 inches, give or take.
The moment of truth in hunt and in fish: Keep or release? A meal and then some, fresh and perfect and we’d planned on fish for an evening. Or put it back.
Sally says, “Let it go” and I do, kneeling and easing the fish into water. A pause; then power and speed and the fish is gone.
It will be the largest fish we see. We fish, casually; take enough for a dinner. I catch a small northern, hold it to release it and it twists and drives a prong of a treble hook into the web between my thumb and first finger. Sally cuts the line, manages to unhook the fish, release it. I push the hook through and cut it off.
But a reminder; things can change fast in the Boundary Waters. It is beautiful but unforgiving.
We spend two nights at the camp site; two days of 80 degree temperatures. We eat steak one night, fresh fish the next. We paddle and portage to nearby lakes, eat lunch on the shore under a high spring sun; laze in the warmth. We have no place to go to; only a place to be. We have no agenda; being there is enough. We take dozens of photos of this wild and rough land, a land of rock and spruce and water, always water. A land of beauty and a land of wildness and isolation.
Each night the moon rises in a cloudless sky; loons wail their wild call. Darkness falls; fire embers glow orange then fade to dark.
In time we break camp and paddle, portage, paddle; repeat. We find a rhythm in the paddling and the red canoe takes life and moves into breeze. We cross lakes large and small; loons watch, eagles soar, sun shines bright.
A final brutal portage under hot afternoon sun; a staircase-steep trail of rock and stone that takes what is left from my legs. My knees will ache for days. Then back into Mudro Lake where we’d started; to the landing.
We take the canoe apart, load all the gear into the car, settle in.
The car is filled with the scent of pine and woodsmoke. The outside air is fresh and clear. We drive out of the woods, from dirt to gravel to blacktop. And home.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.