Into The Wilderness – Are we too Old? Chapter 1 of 3
My hubby’s wish for his 60th birthday was to make one more trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of northern Minnesota before we were physically not able to pursue such strenuous activities. (I think we were a little delusional even now.)
The BWCA is a wilderness area of lakes, and forests, and rocks into which people go to seek out solitude and time away from society. The only means of transportation allowed is by canoe or on foot. Camping is allowed only in designated, first come, first serve camp sites. In addition, everything that is taken into the BWCA must be brought back out, including trash. Many of the lakes have rivers flowing into them that are unpassable by canoe so one often must portage, or get out of the canoe and carry all supplies to the next body of water, before getting back into the canoe. This can make for interesting challenges.
Our three day BWCA trip began on July 7. The outfitter we were using set us up with the food, tent, cooking utensils, and everything else needed except our clothes and personal items. One tries not to take more than one set of extra clothes and the minimum of everything else that one thinks they can’t live without. We still managed to end up with three large Duluth backpacks, a bag with camera equipment, and fishing gear. All of this needed to be packed along with two people into a fifteen foot aluminum canoe. We chose aluminum because we have a habit of crashing into the rocks at portages and didn’t want to worry about damaging a Kevlar canoe.
We were taken to the launching area at the Cross Bay Entry point to the BWCA and soon were skimming though the lily pad laced marsh headed for our first portage. The challenges of portaging are many. First, one needs to find the portage entry as they are not marked and they don’t just jump out and say, “Here I am.” We were given a map by our outfitter of the lakes and rivers and established portage routes. I noticed as I stared at the map of the contour of the winding waterway attempting to determine where our first portage might be, little lettering in red at the bottom, “Map is not intended for navigational use and is not represented to be correct in every aspect.” Oh, that made me feel so much better. We did find our first portage hidden amongst the rocks and trees just off to the side of the rushing rocky river that makes its way into the transitional lake where we were headed. The second challenge of portaging is landing the canoe, usually on a rocky shoreline, without capsizing the canoe, dropping the packs in the water, or falling in oneself. I soon realized that our old knees do not bend as far or as quickly as they used to and we leaned towards being tipsy, like a drunk, even though we had not consumed any alcoholic beverages. A very heavy rain had fallen the night before so interspaced between the rocks was soupy mud. The first portage was about 800 feet long and traversed up several 16-20” steps before leveling out and trailing through randomly spaced rocks and trees. Over this, one must hoist and carry 40 – 50 pound packs and, at some point, the canoe. By the time we had each made two trips, my knees were protesting vigorously about the extra stress being placed on them.
Then it was time to launch the canoe again onto a very small but beautiful lake covered in lily pads of white and yellow flowers back-dropped by evergreen trees. We paddled for only a short distance before it was time to portage again. After a “shorter” 640 foot portage of equal strenuousness, we found ourselves in larger Ham Lake. There were four campsites on this lake, only one of which was occupied. But this lake is not actually part of the BWCA so motorized boats are allowed here. We were looking for peace and quiet so we tucked this knowledge away in our minds and decided to portage over one more lake to Cross Bay Lake before procuring a campsite. According to our map, the portage to Cross Bay Lake had been moved about 100 feet from the original due to problems with that portage. We noticed a group of 3 – 4 canoeists landing at the old portage. They, apparently, were unaware that the portage had been moved. We hurriedly unloaded, portaged, and reloaded because we wanted to get ahead of the other group in choosing a campsite. We could hear voices as we floated onto Cross Bay Lake and as we looked back towards the river, we could see the adventurists dragging their canoes upstream through the rocky rapids. That did not look like loads of fun. Apparently, there is a good reason why the old portage was abandoned.
There are only two campsites on Cross Bay Lake and we had high hopes of making claim on one of them. After paddling the full length of the lake, we were disappointed to discover that both of them were already occupied. We were so hoping to be able to camp on this lake and did not want to do another portage. But now, we needed to make a decision. Should we paddle back to Ham Lake and take one of those empty ones or portage again to Snipe Lake in the hopes that one of those four would be available? As we paddled toward the Snipe Lake portage, we met the “river canoe draggers.”
“Hello,” we casually greeted each other.
As we glided on by, my hubby said to me, “They are doing the same thing we are, looking for a campsite. Why didn’t you tell them that one was occupied too?”
Slyly, I replied, “I know they are doing the same thing that we are. But I want them to spend the time to find out for themselves so that we have a little more time to get ahead of them.”
I think my motives were suspect and maybe unkind, but I was getting very tired of portaging. Our original intent was to portage into the BW only one or two portages at the most. I didn’t know what one was supposed to do if he couldn’t find an open campsite.
We paddled through another lily pad-lined marsh towards where we believed the next portage was located. The lily pads became denser and the peat bog moved when we bumped into it. Our water channel narrowed down to about ten feet. Then, we passed a beaver house. As we rounded a bend, we spotted the opening to the portage in the distance. But our friends, the beavers, had been very busy creating an environment perfect for their own living arrangement. We were faced with two separate beaver dams across our path. This discovery brought back memories of our last trip to the BWCA and we knew how to deal with this situation. There was nothing else to do except run the canoe up the beaver dam as far as it could go until we were stuck. Then I hopped out on the narrow little dam and pulled the canoe up as high as it would go. There went my dry feet. Then I hopped back in and my hubby needed to get out of his end of the canoe so that it would tip back into the water. As we were struggling with this task, we heard the voices behind us. Oh no, our competition, “the river draggers” were behind us. But the beavers had actually done us a favor as our competition gave up in the face of the dams and left. “Yes!!” I was delighted. Just around the corner on Snipe Lake was an empty camping site which we promptly claimed. It was not marked on our map as a good one but we didn’t care. We were tired and ready to set up housekeeping.