Beautiful and unforgiving: Paddling in a land of contrast
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
Towards sunset on the second night the clouds began to break and the wind went calm. The sky, a somber study in muted grays all afternoon, showed flashes of sun to the west, shafts of sunlight rising up from behind the tree line. The clouds shaded to violet, deep blue and charcoal.
We had set the tent on a flat, grassy area that led to a west facing rock outcrop on a campsite on Cherokee Lake. As dusk lowered we sat on small camp stools and looked to the west. I sipped a metal cup of rye whisky from a distillery in Bend, Oregon that a friend had sent. A small cardboard box had arrived; bubble wrap, a bottle, a card: “BWCA. Enjoy”.
In the drifting time before dark the underside of the clouds flared to deep rose and the silence was as if a physical force. We sat in the darkening and looked at the fiery clouds and were transfixed. We had not seen a canoe since late afternoon. If there was anyone else on the lake we did not see them, did not hear them.
The color of the sky became as embers of a summer fire, glowing with heat. Then to nightfall. We watched the darkness come. We may as well have been alone in the world.
We went to the tent, zipped shut the door and settled into the overwhelming quiet of the vastness of the Boundary Water Canoe Area. Sleep came easy.
A day earlier we had stopped early, set camp in light rain and chill. The rain was never heavy but persistent. The day never warmed. The grayness drew in the horizon; the world compressed. At times the weather is an emotional force as much as a physical presence. This day was one of those, a day of diminished energy and gloom, bereft of springtime optimism.
We portaged two times on the first day. One portage ran close to a small but powerful stream and tangled on the brush along the far shore was a canoe, upside down and pinned by the current; yellow-green of Kevlar stark in the spring woods. Sally had read a week earlier of a paddler who capsized and nearly drowned, had to sleep in cold woods and walk miles to the road. This was his canoe.
Darkness settled early the first night. I coaxed a campfire to life and we sat next to it, rain suits hooded against the drizzle. On the far side of the lake a river cascaded through a valley in the trees and we could hear the steady murmur of rapids and the rush of water.
We had no visions of an epic journey or heroic feats, no expectations of high mileage or long hours at the paddle. We had come as we are wont to come, come to the big woods and waters, and come in a spirit of respect and in the hope of a renewal. Come to the Boundary Waters looking to the balance of two questions: Does one go to the Boundary Waters to escape the humdrum? Or does one go to return, return to something elemental and rewarding, a basic need unfulfilled too often in our daily lives?
Some go to the Boundary Waters as pilgrims on a spiritual journey. Some go to fish. Some to rack up miles and cover ground. We just go. We left fishing gear at home; too often it becomes a distraction and at worse devolves into score keeping. We cared not of miles covered; we’d do what we felt like doing on each day. We had no schedule, no agenda, no goals other than to be there in the presence of big water and big woods and solitude.
Spring had come late; ice held on, temperatures balked at any rise, May seemed more as April. We took it as it was given to us, paddled the first two days under cloud and rain, camped in snug tent, built campfires against the dark and the chill. We had no complaints.
We saw a moose, improbably large in the new growth where a forest fire had laid the ground black not many summers ago. We saw late migrating waterfowl, saw loons and geese. We heard birdsong and loon yodels. We paddled bluewater lakes and portaged on trails slick with mud and fragrant with pine scent.
It is a land of contrast, the Boundary Waters. Spruce and cedar and pine crowd the landscape. Lakes are scattered everywhere, sinuous rivers surge with spring runoff. Hills rise and fall to the horizon. Harsh rock walls hint at the turmoil of eons ago when the land was in the torment of forming. It is a land of beauty and quietude, a land of peace and rest.
But it is an unforgiving land as well. It is nature at its most primitive and pure. One must always be mindful of that.
It is a landscape large and expansive, seemingly endless and boundless. Humans in this land are insignificant and unimportant. To spend time there is to realize that. Human ego falls to dirt and decay in this land. One cannot get too full of oneself in this country. One must fit in as best as one can for in the end nature will always prevail.
On the third day the sun came to the land and the temperature rose to the 70s. We paddled in the glory of that day and in the vastness of the Boundary Waters. We paddled past high rock faces and in the small cracks and seams of the rock spindly trees had sometimes taken root and grew, against all odds. In the fragile trees and unforgiving rock, warblers flitted and called; small birds as jewels in the hard world, singing songs of optimism of spring.
We made camp, set a fire, waited for the sunset. Sparks lifted from the fire; sweet smell of cedar wood smoke. Loon call. Then dark. Then silence. And in that, the peacefulness we sought.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.