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Paddling Through the Wilderness
A day in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota
Today’s newsletter is a little different.
I spent most of the last week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a million-acre protected area in Northern Minnesota along the Canadian border. In the Boundary Waters, you travel primarily by canoe, with intermittent portages to carry your canoes and gear across the land between bodies of water. You sleep at campsites around these lakes, and limits on how many people can enter each region per day, running into others is rare.
It was a wonderful break from modernity, and I thought I’d share one day of my journal with you, with slight edits for clarity. I hope you enjoy it, and that it inspires you to find your own breaks from the plugged-in life of screenworld.
Monday, August 15th, 2022.
Today we left South Lake to head to Rose. Barry wanted Al to take the solo canoe, but the solo canoe was at Barry’s camp, so the day started off with a shuffle to get Al to their camp so we could do the canoe swap.
In our camp was me, my future-brother-in-law Max, my dad, his sister Peg, her husband Steve, and their son, my cousin, Al. In the other camp was my uncle Barry, his son-in-law Danny, Danny’s son Sebastian, Sebastian’s friend Adley, and Adley’s father Aaron. In the Boundary Waters, you can’t have more than nine people and four canoes in a group, so we had to split into two, which made our camp site searches a little tougher than usual.
Al and I had to break down our tents and pack our gear first, canoe over to Barry’s camp, put Al in the solo canoe, and then I would paddle in one of the three-seaters with two of their group members.
But first, breakfast. Since today was a travel day we kept it simple, opting for a light fare of coffee, oatmeal, and pop-tarts. I fired up the JetBoil to get the water going for the coffee and oatmeal, and the consensus was that despite the extra time required, we ought to toast the pop-tarts as well. They’re just better that way.
Al and I had no time to dilly dally. The other camp was the designated scouts for today, which meant their job was to paddle ahead as quickly as possible to grab the best campsites before any other campers might arrive. The daily limit on new entries to lakes meant we were unlikely to meet many people, but there were only three great campsites available on Rose. We needed two, so if we ran into a couple of other campers, we would be in trouble. Getting there as early as possible gave us the best shot of an ideal setup for the next three days. Since I was paddling with the other group, I needed to get there as soon as possible so they could leave.
Al and I finished packing as we stuffed the last bits of pop-tarts into our mouths, and slid the Limo out from its perch on the shore.1
We paddled out into the lake heading North East towards their camp. As soon as we left the cozy enclave of our camp, the weather began to shift. What had been still, calm waters around our site, gave way to a choppy windy current, pushing our canoe back in the opposite direction of where we’d be traveling the rest of the day. We had seven miles of canoeing and portaging ahead of us, and a gusty current was the last thing we needed to secure an early campsite. So we put our heads down, dug in our paddles, and did our best to get there quickly. Barry’s camp was a short ten-minute paddle away. The rest of the trip would take much longer.
When we rounded the point marking their camp a few minutes later, we saw them just sitting down for breakfast. We’d finished breakfast over half an hour ago, how were they this far behind us? But when we pulled up along their shore, defined by a spacious sloping rock crawling out of the water, we realized they’d just done their morning in reverse. They finished packing everything else earlier, and breakfast was their reward. Now it was our reward, too, as Danny poured us some leftover coffee while we helped them finish putting away their kitchen gear.
From South to Rose
Barry, Danny, and Sebastian took the smaller three-seater, while Aaron, Adley, and I took the Limo. The sky kept getting darker and the chop was pushing the canoes back towards shore as we packed them, so we were feeling antsy about getting underway. But we managed to load them without too many scrapes against the rocks, and soon set off towards our first portage on the Eastern tip of South Lake.
As we carved through the current, tracking the US Canadian border, our luck started to turn. The storm clouds that felt so inevitable this morning were clearing, leaving us a clear sky and little wind. Aaron was in the back of the canoe, steering our course, while I was in the front, helping paddle and navigate.
After what must have been nearly an hour of paddling, we rounded the small wooded island off the East coast of South lake and saw the first portage of our day. This was one of the special portages that ran along the American Canadian border, so it had a small obelisk noting where the border line was, and a helpful “no snowmobiling” sign on the Canadian side making it easy to spot from the canoe.
This portage was only 60 rods or about 0.2 miles. The longest yesterday had been 80 rods, and we’d done portages of over 300 rods in previous trips, so 60 was a breeze. For the first trip across I loaded the canoe onto my shoulders, tightened down my day pack, and set off on the short hike to the next lake. Adley walked ahead of me with our paddles and life jackets, and we talked about our favorite subjects in elementary school, which both happened to be math.
Two trips were all it took to get our gear across, and we were soon paddling again, headed for the next portage a few hundred yards ahead of us. Brief paddles are a little annoying since you lose so much time loading and unloading the canoes. But the best campsites and the most remote experiences are always at the end of a tough journey. The more frustrations you’re willing to put up with in transit, the greater your reward would often be at the end. I just hoped we would make it to the sites in time to get a good one.
As we paddled out of the portage, we heard a rustling of feathers off to our right. Two swans had spotted us and were shooing us off, as they worked on building a nest for their fluffy cygnet in tow. One was patrolling between us and the nest, while the other ripped reeds off the bank and placed them into the growing bed. I was surprised they’d nest so close to the portage. But perhaps the steady stream of canoers scared away predators.
We’d barely gotten into our rhythm before we arrived at the second portage. A frustrating four-rod interruption, barely long enough to justify unloading the canoe. But the break between the lakes was rocky and steep, so there was no way to try to slide the canoe over it. We would need to unpack everything once again and carry it the 60-odd feet to the other side.
The unloading zone was spacious and sandy, ideal for lifting the forty to sixty-pound packs out of the bottom of the canoes. But as I hoisted up the bear-resistant food barrel, one of the handles ripped off the side, causing my hand to rocket up with the suddenly weightless handle and punch myself in the mouth. In the moment of shock, mouth tingling from the pain and a taste of blood inside my lip, I rested the heavy food vessel on the edge of the canoe and nearly capsized it. But I regained my sanity at the last moment, saved our gear from being tossed into the lake, and managed to carry it to shore, grateful no one had seen the embarrassing maneuver.
The portage was quick from there, only a few minutes to get everything across. And while the reloading zone was muddy, steep, and cramped, we managed to get everything loaded back in, and were soon off down the river to Rose Lake.
We paddled along the two-mile stretch of river, weaving around its rocky wooded bends and spying the occasional metal obelisk marking the national border on the shore. The water was shallow, and Adley would call out that there was a fish, or big log, or other aquatic sight below us. We were still paddling into the current, but the weather had stayed clear, and it was nice to be so close to shore instead of in the middle of the lake. The woods of the Boundary Waters are thick and mysterious, and you never know what you might see between the trees rising out of the rocky coastline.
A few turns of the river later, we knew we were approaching the mouth of Rose Lake. Its entry was shadowed by a looming vista of rock and iron rising out of the trees, the sudden cliff seemingly pressed up by some subterranean beast. Its sheer rocky face was dotted with patches of orange where the iron ore running through it had oxidized and painted the facade with natural graffiti. It was the highest cliff I’d seen in my trips to the Boundary Waters, and surely a magnificent view from the summit. Barry had said there was a hiking trail near our target campsites. I hoped that view was where it led.
We soon rounded the final turn in the river and saw it open wide to Rose Lake. Now we’d discover if we had gotten here early enough to secure a site, or if we had a long night of canoeing and paddling ahead of us. I dreaded the thought of all the sites being taken and us having to do an unexpected portage to another lake in search of somewhere to sleep. But for these more popular lakes, anything was possible.
There were three highly rated campsites on Rose that we hoped to get two of, but there were really five that were options. Possibly six if we were willing to go farther down it. The first was right at the mouth of the lake and should be coming up soon, but it was supposedly a terrible site. It had the lowest rating on the lake.
The second was right by the portage we’d have to do in a few days to get out of Rose, and while it was a nice campsite, being by the portage meant an unusually high number of people canoeing by your camp during the day. Not the worst fate, but the feeling of remoteness is one of the perks of visiting this beautiful wilderness. If we could avoid camping there, we wanted to.
That left the next three sites that bordered the southern crest of the lake. Hopefully, two adjacent ones would be available and we wouldn’t be too far apart.
As we approached the mouth of the lake, I felt a small pit in my stomach. The first campsite, the worst one, had a canoe in it. Someone was camping there. If they’d opted to take the least nice site, were all the good ones were taken? I tried to scan the far side of the lake and I couldn’t see any sign of campers, but I knew how well the thick brush could conceal a tent and canoe. I handed Adley my binoculars to look closer, while Aaron and I picked up the pace towards the south side of the lake.
Our plan was to get towards the fourth and fifth campsite and start from the back, while Barry hugged the Western shore towards the second campsite by the portage, and then on to the first of the Southern campsites. We didn’t want site #2, the portage one, but if it were open and the others were taken it would be a fine fallback.
“I think I see something,” Adley called out from the middle of the canoe. “It’s hard to tell though, the boat is too bouncy.” I took back the binoculars and rested my elbow on my knee to try to steady them. Adley was right. There was an orange tent and canoe at one of the southern campsites, so one of the good sites must be taken as well.
At best, there were only three campsites left. I looked to our right to see how Barry was doing with getting his canoe to the portage site, and let out a quiet “shit” under my breath. Barry seemed to have passed the site without visiting it, so it might have been taken. Worse, there was another canoe right behind him coming off the portage and heading straight for the southern campsites. We had competition.
Aaron and I started booking it towards where we thought the fifth campsite must be. Based on my map, the orange tent was in spot four, so if Barry found three and we found five, and we beat the newcomers to them, we’d be set. But if Barry paddled past three and missed it, or we paddled past five and missed it, and the other canoe took one of them, we’d be in for a long night.
A few minutes later, my first sigh of relief. Barry’s canoe had pulled into the shore, and Danny was out walking around on what looked like a campground. They’d found their site and claimed it. Then a few paddle strokes later, a second relief. I had spotted it. A break in the trees, lined with rocks, leading up to a plateau of dirt setting the base for a wood and stone staircase carved into the earth behind it. The cover of trees was so thick that I couldn't see up the stairs to what lay above, but it was surely the campsite we were looking for.
We pulled up alongside the natural dock and I hopped out with my day pack, unworn rain jacket, paddle, life vest, and mine and Max’s camp pack. Aaron and Adley headed back to meet up with Barry’s camp, and I was left to explore our new home for the next three days. I tied my rain jacket to the tree at the mouth of the docking point so the others could find me, then grabbed my day pack and climbed the steps to our camp.
At the top, I was greeted by a gorgeous woodlands recluse, worthy of advertising the secluded beauty one might discover after a hard day of paddling. The fire pit was horseshoed by three massive downed tree trunks, providing natural seating for everyone. The tall pines that accented the site every five or ten feet stretched high to create a shady canopy, protecting us from the heat of the sun while leaving a clear patch around the fire pit for our nightly star gazing.
But perhaps the best surprise was the tent spots. After two nights of sleeping at a ten-degree angle, I was unrested and cramped, so I nearly cheered at the sight of perfectly flat tent sites. I scampered back down the stairs to grab mine and Max’s pack and pitched our tent in the spot that looked the flattest. I’d never been so happy with the knowledge that I’d be sleeping on a level plane.
With the tent pitched and our gear unpacked, I decided to steal a few moments for myself. I took off my heavy soaked boots, strapped on my sandals, and brought my snack bag down by the lake. I rolled up my pants and waded into the water up to my knees, eating my trail mix, while feeling the rise and fall of the cool water on my mosquito-devoured legs. Enjoying my salty snacks and some cold relief from the incessant itching, I could take a deep breath, and appreciate the fruits of a hard day's journey.
In my excitement, I’d nearly forgotten about our rival canoe. The whole unpacking and tent pitching hadn’t taken more than ten minutes, so I scanned the horizon to see where they’d gone.
It took only a moment to spot them. They’d pulled up at spot four, the one between Barry’s camp and mine. They weren’t a competitor, they were with the camped group I had already spotted. Our mortal race for shelter was a fabrication of my competitive imagination.
There was no sight of the rest of my group yet, so I unpacked my journal and sat down by the water to record some of yesterday’s and today’s adventures. I found a nice log by the shore where I could keep my feet in the water and watch the mouth of the river for any sign of canoes. I became so immersed in my writing though that I didn’t notice when they emerged, and looked up sometime later to see them nearly arrived at the camp.
They too were delighted to see we’d claimed one of the target campsites, and I helped them unload their canoes while teasing them about their slow progress. Peg unpacked our lunch from the food pack, and I fired up the cast iron to make us some sausage and cheese quesadillas on the camp stove. We even broke out my dad’s espresso maker for some coffee mixed with Swiss Miss for an afternoon mocha.
After a prodigious serving of meat and cheese melted in a crispy tortilla, with a side of espresso and chocolate, our spirits were high and we settled into a relaxing evening at camp. My dad found two trees to string up his hammock and was excited to have the floating nap pod he’d been denied at the previous campsite. Max joined me back by the water, where we squeezed in more journal time while minnows darted around my toes in the shallows.
For dinner, we made an Indian potato and chickpea curry, with couscous and naan as the grains, and a cucumber salad to accompany it. Yes, couscous isn’t exactly Indian, but we were feeling adventurous with our camp culinary combinations. We cooked the curry in a large pot, poured it over our couscous, and wiped our bowls clean with the naan. There was even a bit of vanilla pudding for dessert.
No one wanted to do dishes in the dark, but the sunset couldn’t be ignored. With our camp on the south-eastern corner of the lake, we faced almost perfectly towards where it was setting off to the west. We dug the happy-hour platypus bags out of the food stash and poured ourselves some scotch and tequila, then climbed back down by the water to watch the sun descend. A lone dragonfly joined us, patrolling the shore of camp for his dinner of mosquitos who had started to emerge to hunt our patches of bare skin.
When the sun had set, we knew we had thirty minutes before it was too dark to work without headlamps. Max and Al set to work on the dishes, while I tried to get our fire going. The previous guests at this campsite had left an ample supply of wood, which was sitting dry by the fire, spared from the storm that never arrived. Al laid the last dish out to dry as the light faded to dark, and I blew our fire into a roaring little stove we could gather around to end the night.
Final nightcaps were poured and passed around as we sat by the fire and searched the sky for satellites and constellations, the occasional member of the Perseid meteor shower streaking bright white overhead. And as we watched, Dad cracked open Listening Point by Sigurd Olson, to read us the essay on the Laughing Loon, as we heard their distant call across the lake.
“… the time had come for the calling, that moment of magic in the north when all is quiet and the water still iridescent with the fading glow of sunset. Even the shores seemed hushed and waiting for that first lone call, and when it came, a single long-drawn mournful note, the quiet was deeper than before.”
We sat and laughed by the fire as it burned down until sleep could no longer be ignored. I stifled the fire, put my dishes away, and made my way to our tent.
As I climbed into my sleeping bag, I kept thinking of that gray and copper cliff we’d paddled by this morning. Tomorrow I’d try to reach its summit.
The “Limo” was the bigger of the three-seater canoes, and the one that ferried people and gear back and forth between camps.