“I never want to do anything like that again” were the words I spoke to my father after my first paddling day trip into the Boundary Waters at the age of 14. Growing up we would stay at cabins on lakes around Ely and fish out of motorboats and the concept of the adjacent wilderness was absolutely foreign yet captivating. My local lakes around the Twin Cities were ones that I had gotten accustomed to and assumed all lake shorelines were choked with docks and their waters constantly frothed with limitless motorboat traffic. With this as my only frame of reference the idea of a road-less, motor-less, untouched wilderness was something I could hardly picture and the curiosity sent us out on a motorized day trip into South Farm Lake. The amount of untouched green and blue that afternoon is still an image that I can conjure in my mind when I think of that day and upon leaving knew I needed to see more.
The next summer we stayed down at the end of the Fernberg Road outside of Ely at a resort on Snowbank Lake, which is almost entirely inside the BWCA wilderness but allows motor usage up to a certain horsepower. Even after just the slightest taste of what the area had to offer I had spent the year in between trips signing up for free maps and brochures from area resorts and outfitters to be mailed to me and knew that just south of us was the “real” wilderness, or at least to me it was. This was the point where the imaginary line was drawn to keep out motors, roads and development and I needed to see it, and this meant getting in a canoe. Our day trip out to Parent and Disappointment Lakes looks like nothing on the map to me now, but at the time it felt like an eternity of paddling under a sun seemingly out for vengeance only to reach the death march portages that exacerbated my burning arms and shoulders, and my god the bugs. As a teenager I think it is common to focus in on the extremes and I spent the whole day burying myself in the arduous pain of paddling and hellish weight of the canoe on my shoulders and this tunnel vision kept me from seeing what was actually around me. Whatever level of interest in the concept of wilderness and its picturesque beauty I had built up in my mind over the course of the previous year was dropping faster than the 75 pound Grumman canoe from shoulders at the end of each of those godforsaken portages. It is still one of the most vivid memories I have and the physical pain on that day was almost as unbearable as the emotional realization that I had come to hate something I was so sure I would love. Those are hard things to process for anybody but especially tough for the hormone addled youth. I was disappointed in myself and angry at the woods for making me feel that way and it would be four years before I returned.
As with anybody at that age my whims and interests changed on an almost daily basis and before long I was back in the canoe lazily trolling and casting area lakes around the Twin Cities in search of huge largemouth bass. Over a few summers these afternoons built up a new confidence in paddling and a group my high school friends and I decided to put together a trip into the Boundary Waters. We weren’t planning just any trip into the vast wilderness, we were planning an overnight camping trip into an area that only one of us had any experience with camping in. The planning process of teenagers putting together a trip of this nature still makes me laugh to this day as the piles of hand me down camping equipment grew so did the handles of cheap alcohol. An onlooker at the grocery store the day we shopped for our trip might’ve thought we were a plucky collection of young doomsday preppers planning for the inevitable nuclear winter, or more likely that we were just a bunch of clueless teens who had no idea how to feed ourselves. Our cart overflowed with the staples of course; 10 pound bags of both apples and potatoes, cases of ramen noodles, a pillow case size bag of macaroni noodles, drums of peanut butter and jelly, multiple six packs of 20 oz. cokes for mixing and general hydration, and a pragmatic block of Velveeta cheese the size (and weight) of a car battery for snacking. With our clown cars packed with food and camping gear packed we headed north towards the Gunflint Trail.
The seven of us who planned our inaugural BWCA outing for the first week of August had done so under the assumption that we would be able to effortlessly meander in our canoes on placid waters under postcard skies, after all it was August what could possibly go wrong. What we thought would be guaranteed blue and harmless popcorn cloud skies turned out to be quite the opposite. Temperatures begging to reach 50, a persistent drizzle, low swirling gray clouds and a ferocious northwest wind are what greeted our group of greenhorns at the landing on our first day of the trip. With everything that we couldn’t fit into our bulging backpacks zip tied to the outside of them (including the six packs of refreshments) loaded up into our dangerously low riding canoes we pushed off into the maw of the great howling wilds. After struggling across West Bearskin and Duncan Lakes we came to the stairway portage where we encountered our first fellow Boundary Waters campers who after giving us some funny looks and raised eyebrows at our appearance told us Rose Lake was a roiling mess of white caps and to be very wary. They weren’t lying, Rose Lake was absolutely terrifying, but we had like over 4 hours of experience under our belts and we were pretty much grizzled experts at that point and scoffed at what the lake thought was big waves. Our overconfident arms quickly tired and we made sluggish progress along the south shore of the lake only to find all of the campsites on the American side to be occupied and after discussing our options with the couple at the last campsite determined our only option would be to head north to a campsite on the Canadian side of Rose Lake as the light was fading from the day. After all of our planning and effort to get there we just ended up setting up camp on some random rocky point in Canada across from the Boundary Waters.
After the hodgepodge of duffels and external frame hiking packs from the 1970’s we had one legitimate Duluth Pack and it was filled with only one item; a massive multi-room car camping style tent most likely also from the 1970’s. Not that you would have needed to get very close, but any passing canoeists would have thought the circus was in town, or that a pack of boreal gypsies had carved out a nice little off the grid lifestyle for themselves and had been living at the site for some time. The rain persisted as we set up our two(!) tents for the first time in our lives on jagged rocks and roots that all seemed to collect water in great ankle breaking pools. An effort to collect firewood was called off before it even began as nobody had legitimate rain gear to successfully attempt plunging into a soaking wet forest with only one small hatchet and eventual we ended up huddled under a flimsy construction grade tarp around the propane cook stove like cavemen around humanities first fire, grunting in a similar manner. Our ground beef tacos were consumed and we filed into our cathedral style tent with one sleeping pad between the seven us only to quickly realize the old bastard leaked like it was designed to do so. We had a good time reliving our adventures of the day in the ten minutes between getting in the tent and our sleeping bags becoming soaked with rainwater before spending the rest of the night sharing the few dry patches of the tent and fending off hypothermia. The next morning, we woke up to discover the rain has mostly abated but it was still cool and gray. Anything that could get wet was soaked and with the sun behind a blanket of dense clouds the potential for quickly drying anything was not there. We all looked like we had just run marathons as we shuffled around with tired eyes wrapped in foil emergency blankets trying to make the best of it. On top of all that one of us came down with a 24-hour flu-like sickness from the exposure and one of us mentally checked out and spent the day mindlessly hacking at a huge downed pine with a hatchet, staring with dead eyes out into the middle distance. It was a spectacularly terrible way to start a trip and we got very close to throwing in the towel on the whole ordeal.
I often wonder where I would be now if we had called it quits early on that trip. If we had I would have only been left with memories of fighting a nonstop wind, portaging an endless amount of gear, struggling through a sleepless night in a cold wet tent all while trying to keep the tempers of the group from cause irrevocable damage. Pair those potential memories with the painful ones from my first day trip into the park four years prior and I don’t think anybody would have blamed me if I never returned. Fortunately, we stuck it out and the next day the skies opened up and we enjoyed four perfect days and nights paddling and camping the big beautiful border lakes north of the Gunflint Trail. We caught and ate fish, we swam and lazed about in camp for hours, we sat around the campfire until the sky dazzled with more stars than any of us had ever seen, and we even managed to eat that car battery size hunk of cheese. The most important thing that occurred during those few halcyon August days almost fifteen years ago was forging of memories and the planting of a seed. The days immediately following our days out in the woods were spent at a cabin reminiscing about our harrowing start to an awesome trip, talking about what we would do differently next time, and pouring over maps planning out the next 500 potential trips we wanted to take. The years following that trip found us on a number of annual trips with some or all of the people involved in the first until we started to inevitably go our separate ways. It was around this time that I decided to look for a job in the great Northwood’s from where I could continue to quench my thirst for more of what the park had to offer. Up to that point my relationship with canoeing and camping had been a tad tumultuous with most of my enjoyment coming from the comradery and memories made with my fellow paddlers and campers; the actual act of paddling and camping efficiently was always an after thought, if I even considered it at all. At the time my attitude towards paddling was close to those of the kind of people who don’t have an opinion on food and only see it as fuel. Whatever it took to get me from point A to B was good enough for me. It wasn’t until I began working on the Gunflint Trail that I become more interested in the finer details of paddling a canoe. Over those first few summers I mastered the “J” stroke and with it came an ease and enjoyment of paddling which had always seemed like work and the water ways of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park opened up to me in a new and incredible way. At that point my once casual relationship with paddling and exploring the BWCA and beyond had transformed into one of respect, adoration and obsession. Now, there isn’t a trip I take that I don’t finish with “I can not wait to do that again!”