I was losing sleep over this impending trip
I had committed to canoe the boundary waters for the first time. I like being out in nature but no one would consider me a pioneer woman. As the time grew closer, I had serious reservations. How was I going to do off the grid for a week of paddling through the US-Canadian Boundary Waters, officially known as The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW or BWCA?. It is a 1,090,000-acre wilderness area of north woods forests with 150 miles of glacial lakes and streams that make up the U.S.–Canada border in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota. I don’t even like cold water – I have a hard time jumping into the Guadalupe River in the middle of a blazing Texas summer. What was I thinking?
How I got “roped in”
Our son Shane had become an Eagle Scouts with Troop 211 in Houston. We had developed close bonds our fellow Comanches, the adult leaders and volunteers who helped with the troop. It was at our annual 2012 Comanche Christmas party that a couple of glasses of wine lulled me into committing to a Boundary Waters trip over the 2013 Labor Day break.
What are the Boundary Waters?
While efforts to preserve the BWCA as a wilderness had begun in 1900, it was the historic homeland of the Ojibwa people who navigated the waters in birch bark canoes. A pictograph on a large rock wall overlooking North Hegman Lake has been credited to Ojibwe. It appeared to represent Ojibwe meridian constellations visible in winter during the early evening, which would have been useful for navigating the deep woods during the winter hunting season.
By 1730s, Europeans had opened the region to trade, mainly in beaver pelts. and soon organized into canoe-paddling groups working called Voyageurs. The voyageurs became legendary in their abilities to paddle and portage and were celebrated in folk stories and music.
What we packed
On our trip, pictographs would be replaced by laminated charts and compasses. Our canoes were Kevlar instead of birch. In case of a real emergency, we had a satellite phone. For warmth during the cold nights, skins and furs would be replaced by nylon, gore tex and fleece. During the warm days, sun-resistant shirts and pants and moisture- wicking underwear would keep us comfortable.
In early July, we went to REI to start buying and breaking in gear. For me, two pairs of Columbia zip-off cargo pants, over-sized vented sunscreen shirts (2), water socks (1 pair), Merrill water shoes, Patagonia rinse- and- wear underpants and two sports bras. A couple of pairs of wool socks and silk long johns for sleeping. When I tried on a cap that flattered the shape of my face, Hank over-ruled me and had me buy a drooping wide-brimmed hat. I wandered over to the backpack section but Hank told me the outfitters would supply that equipment. It was still a few weeks until he elaborated on what we would use to transport clothes – gallon ziplock bags!
Understanding Camp Routine
Turned out that a gallon ziplock bag of clothes proved sufficient because we would only wear two outfits for the entire time on the water – one outfit to paddle and portage all day and an another to change into after we stopped each night and set up camp. Making camp meant unloading canoes, putting up tents, gathering firewood, paddling out into the middle of the lake to fill up our seven liters of water and treat it with tablets, bushwhacking the path to the latrine and unloading our cooking supplies, building the fire and more. After all the tasks were completed, we would hang up our wet paddling clothes on lines strung between tents and put on our second outfit. We would wear those dry clothes until time to go to bed when we would strip down to the long johns.
What about grooming?
What about shampoo, face wash, creams and ointments, deodorant? The next shoe dropped. We could rinse off while still in our paddling clothes but we could only use a special type of environmentally safe soap. A quick, soapless swim was the most popular choice. Most of the crew who had been on past trips said the key was to shower really well the morning we left the outfitters and then expect to have greasy hair and a very ripe odor when we got back to the lodge in a week. These guys sounded like they were really looking forward to that part.
Learning about the latrine
I asked if there was anything else I should know about. “Have you ever used a latrine before?” someone asked me in one of our last planning meetings. “Well, of course!” I answered. Wasn’t latrine another name for porta-potty? Having been on dozens trail rides and rodeos and hundreds of cookoffs, I figured I’d used roughly 40% of the porta-potties in Texas. “You might want to check it out on the internet”, a former scout master suggested. Incredibly, on Youtube.com, I found a video on boundary waters latrine. And it was helpful. This trip was going to test my mettle in new and unique ways. A Guy Clark lyric kept running through my mind:
Life is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape
Getting to the Border
We left our house at 5 am to meet the Houston-based/ Boundary-bound crew members at Hobby Airport with all our gear. Connecting at Chicago’s Midway, we met the rest of the crew and flew together to St. Paul, a place I never thought I’d visit. Driving through the city on our way north, I delighted in how beautiful St. Paul was. An unexpected pleasure. It changed the way I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion”. No wonder he spoke with such affection about Minnesota.
We traveled four hours to Ely, Minnesota in a 15 passenger van. I’m 5′ 4″ and rather nimble and so I was stashed in the hardest to reach seats. I curled up like a cat in the last row, popped a dramamine and cushioned my head with my felt jacket against the window. One of the crew had curated a mix cd with music to honor Minnesota’s favorite son, Bob Dylan. Between the dramamine and the early morning flight, the conversation of the other passengers and Bob’s laments lulled me to sleep.
Canadian Border Outfitters
We arrived Canadian Border Outfitters (CBO) just north of Ely, MN a little before 7 p.m., which was the cutoff for dinner. CBO took pity on us and found some steaks, potatoes and Lost Lake Lager. Veterans of past trips were disappointed that Pig’s Eye Lager was no longer available but at least we were able to celebrate our arrival with one last cold beer.
We met the leaders of the Voyaguers at the outfitter. At this point, I didn’t know the significance of that crew’s name and what our crew was going to call themselves.
We spent the night at the outfitter’s very basic motel. Each room had 2-3 twin beds in an anteroom, a very small bedroom with a double bed, and a small bathroom. Gathering in one of the rooms, we spent time deciding on what food to bring and what to leave behind. Food was a big consideration for my crew. Our motto could have been work hard, eat well. We paddled under the moniker The Happy Forks. Things were looking up.
Getting on the Water
Sunday, September 1 on BWCA (Ely MN Weather: High 66 – Low 50)
After breakfast, we watched the required Boundary Waters Wilderness Area video, which explained the rules of visiting the wilderness area and gave advice on topics like how to handle bears if they enter your campsite.
The Voyageurs left first , transported to Snowbank Lake by the CBO van to get into the wilderness quicker. By the time the van returned for the Happy Forks and transported us, it was 11am and the weather had deteriorated. The Voyageurs were racing off to do their namesakes proud and had long ago left Snowbank for Disappointment Lake. We had a hard time even finding the first portage.
Intermittent rain and wind, exacerbated by some newbies manning the “oars” pushed back our arrival until after dusk at our first camp on Ima Lake. The hardy Voyageurs found two adjacent campsites and signaled us in with a blazing campfire. We were merely “Forks” on that first night, too tired and cold to be “Happy”. And I still needed to experience my first encounter with the latrine. What had I committed to?
First Day’s Coverage: Snowbank Disappointment (140 rod portage. 1 rod = 16.5 feet or 5.5 yards) Ahsub (25 rods) Jitterbug (15 rods) Adventure (40 rods) Cattyman (10 rods) Jordan (long channel ending with 5 rods) Ima (camp) (courtesy of Jim Russell)
The Wildlife/Food Tour Begins
Monday, September 2 BWCA (Ely weather: High 63 – Low 43)
Our expedition leader, Jim R. let us sleep in until 7:30a. A constant cold wind slowed us down around camp. In the three-man canoe that Hank and I maneuvered, the center section was loaded with supplies including a heavy nylon backpack, big enough to carry a couple of bear cubs. It was filled with cooking supplies – dutch ovens, sauce pans, pots, etc. Alas, on that first morning, we discovered we had no frying pan and had to make do with a cake pan to make breakfast tacos.
The Voyageurs had stopped by our site on their departure at about 9:30 a.m but once again, we didn’t push off until 11 am. The wildlife/food tour began.
A small snake shared our picnic spot on Thomas Lake. Bald eagles and mergansers appeared. On the food front, we rewarded ourselves after each portage with a handful of M&M’s from a two-pound bag. That soon morphed into chocolate poker to see what “hand” you pulled -3 blues, 2 reds, etc. Dinner was minestrone soup and cocoa mocha bars backed in the dutch oven. Jim R was not only our expedition leader but also our passionate camp chef who made each evening’s meal something special.
In a triple play, Jim also claimed the spot as the first one to accidentally slip into the lake while exiting the canoe- a box we would all check off by the end of the trip. Jim and Lisa M decided to rinse off with long swims in the cold lake. I was not going there yet because I had quickly learned that our paddling clothes did not dry overnight. That first morning, I wiggled into those wet clammy pants, shirt, and soggy socks while the cold wind blew. That had replaced the latrine trek as the most unpleasant part of the trip and would remain so.
Or maybe the most unpleasant part was the inadequacy of our two man tent. Because it was still warm during the day, Hank and I had packed a spring tent and spring sleeping bags. The first night I was cold because the weather was so inclement but by the second night, limitations of the tent were clear. Each night I wore more and more of my limited amount of dry clothes – gloves, hat,jacket and still I shivered. By the fourth night, we had zipped our bags together so that I could steal some body heat.
Second Day Coverage: Fraser Hatchet (50 rods) Thomas (multiple portages through a very mucky area. On the map, three portages are listed and two distances are given, both 10 rods) Fraser (narrow channel, but no portage)
Always wear your bear whistle
Tuesday, September 3 BWCA (Ely weather – High 77 – Low 36)
By this second morning on the water, we were getting into a morning routine; up at 7 a.m. to breakfast on oatmeal, jerky, dried fruits, tea, coffee, and cocoa. That morning, we saw the Voyageurs the last time at 9 a.m. until we would reconnect on Friday evening.
The rest of the day would prove anything but routine. During the first portage, we became separated from the third canoe in our little convoy. That canoe and its occupants were grounded on a rock in the middle of the lake. Jim R. and Hank paddled back and got one of the passengers off the stranded canoe in a ballet of balance that lightened the caught canoe enough to float free.
The third canoe hadn’t signaled us their distress because they were not wearing their bear whistles. Over-cautious by nature, I had not taken off my bear whistle since instructed to put it on in the BWCA video back at the outfitters. I wore it every moment of the trip, sure that Yogi and Boo Boo were just waiting to catch me in an unguarded situation. The black plastic whistle is still in my MacGuyver makeup bag and goes with me on most trips.
The day was warm, the paddling pleasant and the portages tolerable because it was a chance to stretch our legs and load our backs. I had quickly learned that the boundary waters was more portaging than paddling so time on the water was something of a break. At lunchtime and while the sun was strongest, Dr. Kathy sensibly decided to swim in her clothes. This would would keep her cool through the afternoon and her clothes would be fully dry when we made camp.
The abandoned campsite
Our walkie-talkie sounded around noon with a unintelligible message from the Voyaguers about a campsite. We were now completely on our own without our advance team. At 3:30pm, we started to search for a evening campsite but found all occupied. The map indicated one on the far west end of Kekakabic Lake but all we could find was an overgrown path. Running out of options, we paddled back to the overgrown area to investigate and discovered it was an abandoned campsite that hadn’t been used in at least a year. Bushes covered the fire pit and tent areas. Two plants growing in the latrine indicating nature had started to reclaim even these rudimentary comforts. After an hour of bushwacking and clearing, we had enough room for three tents and cleared an steeply ascending path to the latrine, which offered a beautiful view of the lake. I was becoming fond of the latrines.
False Bear Alarm
We came up empty in the search for ample firewood and the mosquitoes took advantage of fresh victims. Our tents provided some protection from the bugs. Sometime after early lights out, we heard a series of “kerplunks” that sounded like a bear tossing our gear into the lake. I instinctively grabbed the bear whistle hanging around my neck, hoping I would have enough breath left to sound an alarm when the bear’s claws ripped through the fabric of our spring tent and down the back of my skull. False alarm. It was the sound of loons diving for their dinner.
Our dinner that night was chili mac soup. All I needed was a TV tray and an old RCA tuned to Bonanza to feel like I was ten years old again. In spite of some of the discomforts, I was enjoying myself – especially being unavailable to work or family via the electronic leash of my cell phone, locked up back at the outfitters. Life was becoming simple. Eat, paddle, portage and discover.
Third Day : Fraser Gerund (15 rods) Ahmakose (30 rods) Wisini (90 rods) Strup (10 rods)
Kekakabic (85 rods)
A magnificent day in camp
Wednesday, September BWCA( Ely weather: High 66 – Low 45)
We were up early and on the water by 9 a.m., a Happy Forks record. We used up this extra time by losing Hank’s paddle during the portage into Pickle Lake. After a lengthy search, it was found floating about thirty feet from the portage, obviously knocked off into the water during transfer of supplies. I took the fifth when questioned.
At noon we found a roomy campsite with a western exposure. It was too nice to leave, so we made this our camp. The weather was beautiful and the lake was inviting us in to swim. There were little depressions formed by tree roots on the low rise that were perfect for settling in with a book or a sketch pad. “Here was the promise of canoeing in the wilderness – free time and peace in nature’s beauty,” Jim R wrote in his captain’s log.
Dinner was grilled polenta with tomato sauce and ginger nut bars baked in the Dutch over. While the Voyaguers shook their heads when they saw our intention to lug the oven into the wilderness, the promise of its sweet rewards drove me on each day.
Fourth Day Route: Kekekabic Pickle (80 rods)Spoon (25 rods)Bonnie (25 rods)
Payback for the Loons
Thursday, September 5 BWCA (Ely weather: High 75 – Low 36)
After recharging with a long, leisurely day in camp, we were on the water by 9:30a. Today, the boundary waters would reveal some of her best gifts. Early in the day, we came to Thunderpoint, a 100-foot high bluff with spectacular views in every direction.
Throughout the day, we traveled along the international border. On the Big Knife portage, we carried our canoes into Canada. We lunched on Robbins Island, where a I saw a mound of digested berries that looked like bear scat close to the latrine. It’s hard to pull down your pants while clutching your bear whistle. I felt vulnerable here on Robbins.
Underway again, we all stopped paddling to watch a loon struggle to swallow a nine-inch fish that it had caught. The loon was trying to turn the fish around to swallow it head first. The loon eventually prevailed but I’m glad the fish made the bird work for the treat. Payback for the bear scare on Kekakabic Lake.
A flat rock for stargazing
We didn’t find an unoccupied campsite on Birch Lake until 5pm but it was a fitting spot for our last night in the wilderness. The site had the coveted western exposure with enough light to read and sketch. It was a clear night and there was a wide flat rock big enough for five of us to lay on and watch the stars come out. Summer sausage leftover from lunch was grilled and brought out for an appetizer. Dinner was chicken and dumplings and a cake with coconut and chocolate chips baked in the Dutch oven. I would miss the Happy Forks dinner menu surprises each night.
My “Bear” scare
Of course, I had one last bear scare. One of my camp setup jobs was to supply the latrine with toilet paper and hand sanitizer and find a suitable tree to use as an “occupied” signal. We would lean a paddle up against the tree. When you headed up to use the latrine, you laid the paddle across the path. After placing the latrine supplies, I heard a loud rustling behind me. I froze, put the bear whistle in the my mouth and looked around slowly. Nothing at eye level but as I lowed my gaze I stared into the curious face of an enormous rabbit. His nose was twitching as he smelled the air to see if there was anything edible in the ziplock bag that held the paper and santizer. He seemed unafraid and friendly. My sole encounter with a mammal on the BWCA. What a waste of a whistle.
Bonny South Arm of Knife (33 rods) Portage (75 rods) Seed (15 rods) Melon (15 rods) Carp (25 rods) Birch (40 rods)
The last hours on the Boundary Waters
Fifth Day – Friday, September 6 BWCA (Ely weather: High 81 – Low 55)
We broke camp and were on the water by 9:15 am. Lunch was near the top of Moose Lake and then we stopped to get selfies at the Boundary Waters sign at the edge of the wilderness area. By 2 p.m., we were paddling up to the dock at the Outfitters. The staff welcomed us back with a cold beer. I’ve never had a better tasting brew.
The ever-adventurous Voyageurs arrived around 4:30. I was already in the shower scrubbing off a week of dirt and grime in a flood of hot water.
Celebrating with dinner at Grand Ely Lodge
We reunited with the Voyaguers and dined at the Grand Ely Lodge, reacquainting ourselves with things like ice water, wine, fresh vegetables, salad and ice cream. That night, I took a second shower at the outfitter’s hotel just to assure myself it still was available. Before I went to sleep, I retrieved my cellphone from the office. I had six messages waiting from Kelsey-Seybold, where I had had a mammogram on the day before I left for my adventure. I’d listen to those when I got back to Houston. I wanted nothing to cloud the sense of wonder and accomplishment I was feeling. I had spread my arms and held my breath and trusted my cape. Life is just a leap of faith – no matter what the future holds.
Birch Sucker (5 rods) Newfound (no portage) Moose (no portage)
Kathy Strong says
What an adventure we had! I’ll always treasure the memory of that trip and each of the people, including you! I do hope to return one day.
Funky Texas Traveler says
Kathy, we hope to return again too. It was a once in a lifetime trip. Linda