Wednesday, September 17, 2014


     Can't say I slept well.  The anticipation of what was to come wouldn't leave me alone.  Somewhere in the middle of the night I conked out for a few hours.  Brian had his alarm set for 6am but I'd already been lying there for a while in the growing light.  Years earlier I learned there was rest value simply by remaining in bed.  So there I laid keeping company with visions of whatever might come to be.  When the alarm fired I was up and at 'em like a sprinter (more or less).
     Before falling asleep I'd become convinced our bottle of stove gas was back in the garage in Minneapolis.  After showering the first order of business was a trip out to the truck to rummage through the food pack where the bottle would be if it had been packed.  No bottle.  Second order of business, buy a quart of fuel.  Doing so turned out to be a new storage bottle and a gallon of Coleman gas.  The joke was on me, I'd actually packed the fuel in the food pack but didn't dig deep enough.
     Breakfast - to include blueberry pancakes  - was at the Bluewater Cafe then up the Gunflint Trail toward Clearwater Lake.  The Gunflint was once indeed a trail, maybe even started as a caribou track, now it's a paved road.  Brian wondered if the name should be changed and figured it to be much more charming being called a trail.  Yes it is a charming road.  Two lanes passing through tight, towering forest, swamp, river and lake.  The Arrowhead region which it cleaves still has its share of moose, wolf and bear.  No caribou anymore, they all moved north back when the region was clear cut but, what the heck, it's about as close to a wilderness as us Yankee Doodlers have these days.
     After the prerequisite missed turn - not our fault, the number on the sign was different than the one on the map - we headed up the gravel side road to our put-in on Clearwater.  A handful of empty canoe rack topped cars greeted us.  We parked beneath a sign saying 'No Parking - Snow Plow Turnaround'.  A portent of what was to come?  The forecast was for highs in the fifties and frost in the morning, but snow?  Hoped not.
     Clearwater and all the other lakes of the area are the gifts of glaciers which passed through the region over the last couple of million years.  The Arrowhead itself is home to the Sawtooth Mountains, an ancient range formed by a rift in the earth through which bubbled up molten rock.  Must have been a lot of magma to make mountains.  These aren't anything like the Rockies or even the Appalachians but are much older.  From Lake Superior to the top of Eagle Mountain the rise is only sixteen hundred feet.  In another couple of billion years even the Rockies will be worn to hills.  Stay tuned to see what happens.
     Our brief paddle would pass along a series of bluffs rising three or four hundred feet above the lakes.  They even have scree along their steep slopes just like the real deal.  Undeniably beautiful but a little off the beaten path.
     The canoe loading took fifteen minutes including the 'selfie'.  We didn't really want to shoot the photo but laws are laws.  Besides, we suspected the 'selfie' police might be lurking in the hazel brush.
     Though it was still chilly the winds were down, way down from Wednesday, an important thing on the lakes we'd be traveling.  All in this area are west-east oriented, hill lined and notorious wind tunnels for for building rollers and whitecaps.  Usually the wind is out of the west, a tailwind for us this morning.  Thankfully we were looking at a northeaster which Clearwater was nicely bending into a perfect but mild, headwind.  I recall saying something to Brian as we pushed off along the line of, "Headwind out and for sure, a headwind in."  Yup, a prophesy and a certainty.
     Turned out the paddle was a pleasure.  My j-stroking was up to snuff and Brian a workhorse up front.  Since learning how to properly control a canoe from the stern seat my flailing has gone way down.  There are times I never switch sides from one end of a lake to the other.  Almost makes me think I know what I'm doing but don't want to say that out loud for fear of irritating the lake gods.  Those little guys and girls are there alright lurking below the waves and sunning themselves on the rocks.  One wrong, overconfident word from me and the canoe's going down baby.  Sink like a stone.  So I'll simply say, Brian and I enjoyed our paddle from the access to the Clearwater-West Pike portage.
     Our portage reminded me of my age.  But first it offered a reward.  Hanging from a cedar's branch was a dark green, in apparent good shape and reeking of campfire smoke, rain jacket.  We'd paddled past another canoe about a half mile back and figured it to be theirs.  Reason and honor told us to complete our first carry.  If the jacket remained unclaimed on our return, it was mine (all mine).  In one sense an overlooked hundred dollar jacket is not something I'd pick up.  Hell, it's not mine and the owner might return in the morning.  But this was the BWCA, if they weren't back in the next half hour they weren't coming back.  Also, the jacket was as much litter as campsite trash.  It was our civic duty to carry it out with us.  Yes, washed and aired out, the jacket now hangs in the front hall closet.  I'm considering having it mounted by a taxidermist to be hung on a wall at the cabin.  Fair game is close enough to wild game for me (for those of you in Europe that's a play on words).
     Back to the bear of a portage.  Allan and I had done this carry back in the mid-90s.  I recalled it as long and flat but no big deal.  The hundred foot hill in the middle seemed to have been lost in translation and the two hundred, seventeen rods of carry had definitely stretched.  Wet brush, roots, rocks, mud and our three layers of clothes made it a minor misery.  Might as well have been raining since I sweat through each and every garment on my upper body.  Foolish, old man in the woods.  And it hurt.  Not after a half mile as it had a decade earlier but right from the get go.  Top that off with me puffing along like a steam cog train engine (that's what it sounded like to me as I trudged along).
     Boy was it quiet.  The four loudest sounds in those thick woods were my heart, labored breathing, creaking leather boot strike and finally, a small stream off to the right.  When the wind's not up the far north is a land of silence on the far edge of a continent of noise.  Can't say I mind hearing my body when out of doors.  Lets me know I'm alive and kicking. is a useful tool when preparing for a Boundary Waters trip.  In it you'll find discussions on gear, fishing, campsites and essays on trips taken.  Reading it removes a little of the joy of personal discovery but also reduces a lot of the mistakes all of us make.  Figuring we'd camp on West Pike I'd read the discussions on campsites.  There I'd learned the location of the two best, both of which sat on the north shore.  Also learned the island campsite had little to recommend it.  Small tent sites and open to the ever present west winds.
     I explained this to Brian as we paddled along.  A mile into the lake he simply said, "Let's go for the island."  Truth is I'd wanted to camp on the island since passing through West Pike twenty years earlier.  A small site would fit the two of us perfectly and since the wind was down the openness would give us a view.  Turned out to be perfect for us.
     No rain in the offing, the first order of business was food.  In the past I'd pooh-poohed the amount of calories burned while paddling and portaging.  I mean, how much exercise is in a leisurely paddle and a few short walks?  Then I remembered the weight loss and exhaustion of all the previous trips.  We fired up the stove.  A smoking panful of grilled cheese sandwiches slathered in butter washed down with a quart of filtered water.  Can't say I recall them on many healthy eating lists but it was all I could do to keep from swallowing then whole.  Damnation they were fine.  Dessert followed once the coffee was brewed.
     Our fire grate was perched upon a basalt altar.  Looked like a lot of big boys had themselves a fine time hoisting and setting the hundred pound plus blocks.  Alongside the altar sat what could only be called a multi-tiered, basalt table for our stove and kitchen gear.  How nice indeed.  Our campsite mouse had a home within the boulders.  He/she seemed to enjoy a warming fire in the evening and feasted upon the crumbs of our droppings.
     The tent site sat a dozen yards inland from the kitchen.  It could have been a foot wider but posed no problem for our four man Eureka!  None for us either so long as we remembered to place our heads on the north side.  A half hour after eating all the gear was up or stored, we were home.  Dinner was eggs, sausages and Texas toast.  No shortage of cholesterol for us.  Conversation, as usual was a babble on inanities.  Witty, borderline profane - of course I stepped over the line now and then into the realm of disgusting -  and of no long term consequence.  In short, usual boonies banter.
     All well and good but we were there for the fishing.  Over the years I've learned fishing in the Boundary Waters is no better than it is around the cabin.  Odd but true.  Could be thirty years of experience fishing the waters of Cass County has something to do with it; home field advantage.  On the other hand BWCA fishing is no slouch and the smallmouth bass fishing is as good as it gets.  West Pike is noted for its lake trout but we had no expectations along that line.  Mostly we just wanted to bring some fish to the boat.
     As usual, what can you say about fishing?  For the first fifteen minutes it was a bass every other cast.  Then it stopped cold.  Brian picked up a couple an hour later to break the spell.  The last half hour was a trolling search for lakers in deep water of near summer warmth.  On the upside we weren't expecting much and weren't disappointed.
     I no longer listen for outside noises when laying in a tent.  About all I ever hear is the serenade of the loons.  Even that's only background noise.  Whether it's there or not it doesn't matter.  Don't know when my obliviousness began but one day, years ago, it did.  Regardless, I didn't sleep well that night.  Even brought two self inflating mattresses to put three inches between me and the rocky ground.  Such is life. Five hours of deep sleep will get me through most any day and that's about what I got.
     Must apologize at this point.  I want to get the details of this trip written but am not getting much joy from the attempt.  It'd be more fun to start making stuff up; add a little weirdness.  Or if strange, magical or tragic things had actually happened to us.  But they didn't.  Guess the problem is most of our mundane lives are filled with mundane happenings, even in places like the Boundary Waters.
     Maybe this is more to the point:  On this year's trip with Brian we passed a dozen canoes and heard voices from other campsites.  It was nice to see people but we were never more than a mile or two from others.  Simply put, I never felt alone in the wilderness.
     Five years earlier in northwest Manitoba with my son Allan we briefly attempted a mile and a half bushwhack to an unnamed lake.  A hundred yards into those woods I began to feel we were standing on the edge of the world.  When Allan disappeared for a couple of minutes looking for a way around a swamp I was borderline terrified.  Like he'd been swallowed up by the unknown.  If anything had happen to him or me we'd have been totally screwed.  We were off the map and no one knew where we were.  Sure, we'd probably have figured something out, probably.
      Simply put, the Boundary Waters isn't like that at all.  It's kind of like a civilized wilderness.  Sure, bad things can happen but it's also possible to be shot in your back yard by total strangers.  Can't say I'm right about my feelings but they are my feelings and I'm stuck with them.

No comments:

Post a Comment