(State #34/50) Shane and I laid in the tent at 7 a.m., trying to sleep through the passing roar of eighteen-wheelers — turns out the country road we had pitched by wasn’t as lonely as I had hoped. We heard the sound of a vehicle pulling off the highway and crunch of gravel as the wheels drew near. “Ah-ohh,” said Shane. The engine cut, a car door opened and a voice called out in that distinct Minnesotan accent, “Sheriff’s Deputy here, step out of the tent please.” Perfect, I thought.
Unzipping the tent, we emerged to a cloudy morning and a man in uniform. After we learned we couldn’t camp there, the officer asked what my Texas plates were doing all the way up in Minnesota. I explained. “All fifty? Well, oh boy, gee, what-a deal.” said the officer, if only in my imagination. But, Captain Hoppe was interested in my trip and shared his pictures of wolf tracks, walleyes and ice fishing. Then, as Shane and I packed up the tent he said, “here’s a donation to the cause.” We turned around and the deputy was holding out a big bottle of OFF! — a kind gesture that we’d appreciate even more, come evening.
On the road, Shane and I sat in silence until someone said, “Damn Sheriff… run me out of town.” We laughed and agreed it was the nicest way to get asked to move along. Happy for the friendly encounter and early start, we headed north towards The Boundary Waters, America’s Canoe Mecca.
July continued its impression of April as we packed up Rider at the Homer Lake launch. We donned long sleeves, shemags and raincoats, bundling up as much for the mosquitos as the light rain and cold. We coated any remaining skin in the bug spray provided by the Chisago Country Patrol Division. The next hour and a half was far from the leisurely; it involved us canoeing out on the lake, making camp on one island, discovering a better island a half-mile away and, in a move of admitted stubbornness, deciding to move camp at 6:45 p.m.
“We’re really going to go back, take it all down and put it up again?” Shane asked, pointing out we’d waste a lot of the evening. “Yep!” I said, promising we’d be swift. Well, being swift turned into a near-panicked frenzy when we spotted a red canoe a half-mile away, bearing down. Worried they were headed for our new island and wishing to avoid an awkward encounter, we scrambled to break camp and re-load. When we hit the lake the red canoe was upon us, paralleling our position a few hundred to the left. Without acknowledging each other, we paddled in hard, silent, sweaty competition towards the island. After an exhausting half-mile sprint, we edged them out. I know we should have wagged our genitals at our conquered adversaries, as Minnesotan custom dictates (or maybe I’m thinking of Scotland). But, instead we remained stoic as the canoe turned into the second site on the mainland, likely where they had been heading the entire time. No matter. We were triumphant and our reward was setting up camp, again.
The rain ceased as swaths of light blue broke up the ceiling of uniform gray. But, daylight was fading, so Shane and I rushed back to the water with the first aid kit, flashlights and beer. At almost eight, we headed into the canoe wilderness. The Boundary Waters, if you’re unfamiliar, is an undulating sprawl of boreal forest, pocked with slivers and chains of glacial lakes and streams. You have to portage, or carry your canoe, between these lakes. Maps detail the length of each portage using the measurement of “rods” — length of a 16.5-foot canoe. Some require trekking overland for miles. In short, it’s not a preferable place to be lost in the dark.
We consulted the map, found a doable route and headed for our first, short portage, where we simply slid the canoe down a little stream into the next lake. We arrived at a longer one around eight forty. “We’ll be back here at nine.” I told Shane. “Seems like a lot of work for twenty minutes.” He wasn’t wrong. So, we decided to go a little longer, pushing the envelope of daylight. This time the North Woods rewarded our gamble.
After carrying the canoe over a path the length of a football field, we paddled out into East Pipe Lake. The sun emerged and turned the pine ridge to the east red as we floated on the still waters. Then, Shane told me to hush and listen; he heard something in the
brush to our left. As quiet as possible, we canoed towards the shore where we saw bushes moving. I caught a glimpse of black and whispered “that’s a bear!” She caught our scent and stood up on her hind legs, rising above the bushes to check us out. Unimpressed, she dropped to all fours and the black bear lumbered up the hill and back into the woods. Apparently I hadn’t used up all my bear luck in Wisconsin.
Heading back to camp, we floated below and above a pink sky and towards the band of black, which separated the two sunsets. We portaged at twilight and canoed on our home lake as the placid waters reflected the final light of the western sky. We arrived back at ten, having exhausted every last bit of day. We had more beer, a roaring fire and made ghost pepper brats at eleven-thirty.
We awoke to the sounds of a loon and a sunny sky fit for a relaxing morning. At noon, with most of our stuff stored on the bank, we got in the canoe to explore further into the Boundary Waters. “Are we going to bring any beer?” Shane asked. “Nah,” I said. Then I thought further… It was a lovely day and, well, why the hell not? A beer turned into bringing five and the bottle of crappy, crappy grain-neutral Canadian “Whiskey.”
The sun was warm, bordering on hot and there was nary a cloud to be seen, a wonderful departure from the gloom and dreary drizzle of the previous day. We portaged to Whack Lake, a name that, as you may imagine, we had fun with. Then we found the route to the longer Vern Lake. We brought our gear first and then carried the boat over a hill to the lake. Scanning for wildlife, we discovered a distant, but clearly naked middle-aged woman, bolting for the woods. It was, after all, quite a day for skinny dipping.
We turned up the lake, canoed a half mile to a group throwing the football around in the water near their camp. We passed it back in forth with them and chatted about our trips and the glorious day before continuing on towards the lake’s end. The sun beamed from high on a blue lake, surrounded by Boreal forest — Christmas trees and quaking aspen. Ridges of granite rose from either side of the narrow chain of lakes and the easily frightened aspen shook at the sight of our muscular physiques. We were all alone out there and not a spec of human trash, noise or other pollution. The Boundary Waters, unlike, say, The Alamo or Mount Rushmore were all they were built up to be — expansive, endless wilderness. With enough time and supplies, you could canoe and portage a string of water until you were half way to the Arctic.
Not wasting the warm afternoon, we put on life jackets and swam out into the cold tannic water. Shane and I floated out of a little cove in Whack Lake, wondering how deep it was as we looked down at our dangling, orange-tinted legs. We bobbed under the afternoon sun for thirty minutes, goofing about and wondering how large a sturgeon would need to be to pull us down (surely that would get us on an episode of River Monsters). Slowly, we made our way back to the Homer lake landing and loaded up the car around seven. Then we headed towards the Canadian border, Quetico Provincial Park and then Voyagers National Park for more canoeing — all wild, gorgeous and teeming with mosquitoes.
A few days after I dropped Shane off at the airport, he had texted me that he hung The Boundary Waters map on the wall at his work. It had gotten wet in the rain, so we dried it over the fire that night on the island. Somehow the smoke clung to the eliminated paper and then abandoned it to fill his workspace in Las Colinas, TX. “Now my entire office smells like campfire,” Shane said. Perfect, I thought.
Lake Stats and Fun Facts:
- The Boundary Waters, Minnesota (Homer, East Pipe, Whack and Vern Lake)
- Miles canoed: 12 on the Boundary Waters + 6 in Voyageurs 18 total for the state
- Dates Canoed: 7-13/14-2017
- Weather: Drizzly in the 50s to sunny, cloudless in the mid 70s!
- Elevation: 1814 Feet Above Sea Level
- Launch Point/Takeout Point: Home Lake access ( 47.904494, -090.659974)
- Campsite: Island in Homer Lake on the Boundary of the Boundary Waters (47.900242, -090.687895)
- Furthers Point Reached on Vern Lake ( 47.914821, -090.744474)
- Songs Sung on Lakes: IF you Ain’t Got Love by Mason Jennings, So Young by Portugal. The Man, Stolen Dance by Milky Chance and First by The Cold War Kids (but, quite notably, we sang our friends Bobby’s version that goes “first you get a cat and then it goes raaaaaaaer”)
- Thanks to Superior National Forest Rangers at Visitor centers. Big Thanks to Captain Hoppe for the OFF! and not throwing Shane and I in camper’s prison. Thanks to Dave Boucher for getting pictures of Shane and I canoeing and emailing them my way!
- Great Local Radio Station: Fiddling with the radio, we found a wonderful Duluth-based station playing mo-town, indie and Americana. Shane found the 103.3, KUMD number and I called to put in a request. Ten minutes later we heard the DJ say, “We’ve got another request with kinda of fun story along with it…” She went on to give an accurate account of my trip and then played If you Ain’t Got Love by Mason Jennings. One line begins… “In a little wooden cabin, in Northern Minnesota…”
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: 2 Bald Eagles, Common Loon, Vulture, hawk, raven, many songbirds
- Mammals: Black Bear (which we believe was a Mother with cubs, by the odd noises we heard her or the unseen cubs make… almost seal-like), mink (1st of trip!), chipmunk, red squirrel
- Reptiles/Amphibians: Small water snake, Painted Turtle (crossing the parking lot on return), Leopard Frog, tadpoles
- Noted Species: Wolf, Moose and Black Bear
- Dominant Vegetation: American Beech, Northern Red Oaks, Sugar Maple, White Pine, Yellow Birch, White Birch, Hemlock and other conifer species
- Ecoregion: Northern Lakes and Forests, (50n) Boundary Lakes and Hills
- Current Threats: Copper and Nickel Mining — A Threat American Rivers raised awareness about and helped halt!
- Trash collected: few scraps of trash from camp, but hardly a spec to be seen!
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2666 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign