We set up camp with our ancient, canvas, umbrella tent. Blue and gold and, as we learned over the four days, not as waterproof as it once was.
A hundred yards to our east was the Brule River. The falls where the river drops to near Lake Superior level is known as the Devil's cauldron. Up above, the river splits in two. One flow is the falls that reforms below as the river and froths its way into the big lake. The other drops into a hole and comes out God knows where. Over the years a myriad of floating stuff from ping pong balls to inflatable, full-side stegasaurus' have been dumped in only to disappear forever. Spooky enough to provoke a 'that's interesting' comment from the dozens who have cared enough to give the cauldron more than a passing thought. Can't say for sure me and Al went and took a look while we were there but we might have.
Once camp was set up we did the only rational thing I could think of, get back in the van and head up the Arrowhead Trail to the Little John Lake access.
The trail starts as pavement then a block inland turns to gravel. That's the way a trail should be. Gives it a touch of the primitive that suits a fishing expedition to the boonies. Twelve miles in there's an overlook of the Portage Brook valley. Nice spot with a vista of a hundred square miles of pine spruce and birch with nary a building in sight. Down below is the little stream where Rod and I lucked out on a pair of chunky, foot long brook trout twenty-six years earlier.
Approaching McFarland Lake we came upon the bluffs that rise three hundred feet above lake level. Those hills are about as spectacular as things get in Minnesota's Sawtooth Mountains. They're not the Rockies or even the Appalachians but, give 'em a break, they're more than a billion years old.
A half a shoreline winding mile ahead we came upon the access parking lot. For the BWCA it's a pretty elaborate affair on the one hand. On the other, it's a scraped out piece of rock, sand and gravel with room enough for a half dozen vehicles.
Rod and I had launched from that same Little John Lake access back in '66. At least I think it was. The access I remembered looked nothing like the one Allan and I were at. Could be the put in was once a half mile away on John Lake. After all John wasn't in the BWCA until '77. Things change. Might have once been a road out there.
The little Alumacraft we had was short a portage pad. Well, some of the pad was still there, the rest I suspect was part of a mouse nest back at the cabin. Ever resourceful, and ever lazy, I tied a towel on the yoke. Wasn't an elegant solution but it did the job.
Little John is a narrow, banana shaped stretch of water lined with cedar and pine. But it was the sweet smell of the cedar that brought me back to that day with Rod. Back then we were under blue skies. Me and Al were passing beneath a low hanging gray. Looked like we could start a downpour with a well flung rock. Rain be damned. We had rain jackets and a rendezvous with destiny. A small destiny maybe but a destiny nonetheless.
There's a small set of rapids connecting the John Lakes. Might even sneak up on bein' a number two but it's short. As I recall we exited onto John in reverse. I don't think that's the way the Voyageurs did it. In all the pictures I've seen the bow of the canoe is generally facing down stream. Seein' as how we were dry and upright I figured bein' backwards didn't matter and we set off down John toward the portage.
It'd been a generation since I'd seen the portage but it was right where it should have been. There was nothing on the hundred-eighty rod carry that came as a surprise. The wet first five rods, the long gradual rise, roots, rocks, sharp descent and finally, the basalt slab from which I caught my first Boundary Waters smallmouth. It was like the intervening twenty-six years hadn't happened.
I carried the canoe and paddles. Allan had our rods, tackle box and anchor. The anchor and box were in a day pack. Wasn't much of a load but the sharp edges of the contents worked a tattoo in his back. To Al's credit he didn't say a thing.
Once on the slab we dropped our load and took a couple of out of focus photos with the lake to our rear. I could wax all philosophically about that moment but I won't. All I'll say was I'm glad I needed that summer job back in '66 and Rod had one for me that carried a hitch with it.