Boundary Waters offers brief break from reality
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
In the time near midnight the sky went to haze and the stars, crystal-sharp at sundown, blurred; weather was coming in. Sunset had been perfect; western sky washed to dark rose, silver clouds backdrop the treeline silhouette; sun rays reached out like arms of gold. Then darkness came. Stars pin pricked the sky.
The breeze was west and north; kept the mosquitoes at bay. Campfire burned to red-orange coals; then gone. We zippered the tent shut. The night was quiet; later, a rattle of rain.
Sally woke me at 3 a.m., “Do you hear them?” I asked, “What?”And in the pitchness of night she said “Wolves. They’re howling.” I strained to hear and then, yes, very faint, wolves. Then I fell asleep and slept until sunrise.
I left the tent, boiled water over a camp stove, made coffee, watched the drift of steam from the hot coffee. It was still. It was quiet. I sat in the camp chair, sipped coffee and breathed deep of the clear air of northern Minnesota. Boundary
Waters air; clean and pure under a soundless sky on Snipe Lake.
Snipe Lake is a smallish lake with an air of enchantment about it; steep stone walls rise from waterline, moss-covered and ragged. In other places lurk huge boulders, hunchbacked, round shouldered, as if some prehistoric beast that we cannot name and cannot place, as if messengers of a time gone to ages. The beast-rocks gather in herds along the shoreline.
Boundary Waters. It is a harsh land of rock and spruce. But a land of beauty and peace, welcome at any time but even more now in these troubled days.
We camp on Snipe and then paddle and portage south to Long Island Lake, a sprawling lake of scattered islands that make navigation a challenge; from water level islands and mainland look the same. We make tentative probes with the canoe to find the gaps between islands and mainland, maps on our laps, compass in hand.
By mid afternoon the wind has stiffened; small whitecaps run determinedly ahead of the freshening breeze and we dig deeper with our paddles. The canoe moves slowly but steadily. The canoe is named, appropriately enough, North wind.
We bear to the lee side of an island, consider and reject a campsite there; we want a breezier site to keep the bugs down.
We paddle along the island and from the dusky greenery a shadow moves and a form comes from the shadow and takes shape and for an instant it reminds of the prehistoric stone-beasts on Snipe Lake; a creature from times before memory.
Then the shadow comes clear; moose! The cow is dusky gray, the color of the rocks on Snipe Lake, its fur like a ragged old carpet. More movement, shape and form and color; two calves, golden of the color of a retriever, big eared and dark eyed, looking at us. We stay the paddles; the wind pushes us; it is quiet save for the splash of wave on canoe.
The cow looks across the waters, gazes dispassionately; the calves crowd closer. The cow’s legs are improbably long, spindly in comparison to her blocky body. For a moment all is still. Then the cow moves slowly into the cover of trees and the calves, taking one final look back at us, follow. Then the forest closes behind them and they become lost to the shadow.
We camp on a stony point that faces into the wind and the wind blows the mosquitoes into the trees and they do not bother us. I hike into the forest and find a downed cedar tree and cut it to firewood. I build a fire because I like the smell of cedar smoke and because the warmth feels good. A campfire brings more than warmth and the dancing flame draws one in contemplative silence.
Sally catches northern pike from shore, six or eight. There is something forbidding in the look of a northern pike. The sneering line of the jaw, the stiletto teeth, the hooded eyes; all I see in a pike is a look of meanness and malice. Sally fishes. I watch. The wind blows cool across Long Island Lake.
The wind does not drop with the sun. I watch the sun set, sip my Scotch, feel the wind in my face and see the darkness fall across the land. I am chilled; I zip the jacket up snug, pull a hat low. I sit and think of nothing. After a time I walk to the tent; day is done.
After dark, it rains but in the time before the rain comes I hear a barred owl call. I lie in the sleeping bag and listen to the owl and later, listen to the rain. Then I sleep.
We paddle north the next day and set camp in late afternoon on a high rise overlooking the water. The campsite faces east and the rise of land is bright with spring green but scattered coal black tree trunks spear the sky, remnants of the Ham Lake Fire that burned 75,000 acres in 2007.
The night brings chill and, again, rain. We find shelter in the tent and fall asleep to the sound of the rain. In the morning clouds roll across the sky and the breeze has a bite to it. It is in the high 30s. I drink my coffee with my back to the wind. A solitary moose comes from the cover 300 yards away, wades into the water and swims to the far side, shakes off and walks into cover.
We paddle out that afternoon and drive to Grand Marais and book a room at a motel named, appropriately, the Mangy Moose. We have been out of contact for the days we were in and turn on the TV, wondering what’s new, find news of fires in Minneapolis and turmoil across the land and overreaching COVID.
With that, back to reality.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.