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My Canoe Trip to the Minnesota Boundary Waters

September 17-25,2017
Beryl’s Canoe Trip to the Minnesota Boundary Waters 

After six days in the Minnesota Boundary Waters and the requisite high fives and the “We did it!” selfie, we pulled out of the water at 9:30AM Sunday morning and got picked up by our outfitters at our designated pick up time of 10AM.  Amazing.  Six days, 30-35 miles of paddling, 15-20 lakes, 25-30 portages, and with no way to contact the outfitter at any time during the trip, we make it back to the pick up 30 minutes early!!  After loading the canoes into the trailer and all our stuff into the River Point van, we shuttled an hour back to the Lodge.  It was a gorgeous warm and sunny day and although we had an extraordinary trip, everyone was pretty beat and looking forward to a hot shower, and glad to be back in civilization!  Unpacked all our stuff, re-organized, showered in fabulous hot showers, and then my paddle buddy, Laurie Levknecht, and I drove from Ely, Minnesota south-east to the North Shore of Lake Superior (which contains 10% of the worlds fresh water- huge!!).  Laurie is a fearless, powerful outdoor woman and yogi, and kayaker extraordinaire – kayaked the Grand Canyon – 16 days – with 15 other people, in early June, two years ago!   Yes, seriously!

We checked into the Cove Point Lodge, a spectacular location right on the lake.  Lake superior is mind blowing.  If you have never been to that part of the world, it is a totally different and powerful eco-system.  Northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – incredible landscapes and terrain.  Giant granite rocks everywhere – Pretty impressive work done by the glaciers (10,000 years ago?).  Laurie walked half a mile out to the point of the cove. I was totally exhausted and headed straight to the bar for a beer!! Laurie wasn’t too far behind me.  I passed out at 8:30 on a glorious queen size bed with fabulous, white, cotton sheets and cozy north woods blankets, gazing out the window at Lake Superior and slept like a rock til 5:30 Monday morning.  Nine hours of sleep, which was more sleep than the total for the entire previous week, I’m sure!  This morning we hiked back out to the point at 6 AM to watch the sunrise.

Our “put in,” a week earlier was at Snowbank Lake in northern Minnesota.  On Monday morning our outfitter drove us from Ely to Snowbank, dropped our packs and canoes, and said “Adios, see you Sunday.”  Yikes. We for the most part, had no cell service, no phones, no internet, and no contact with the outside world for 6 days, so there wasn’t much point in taking a cell phone.  But I wanted to have photos of the trip, and in retrospect I am so happy I took my Nikon. I took hundreds of photos, kept a journal, and became the unofficial documentarian of the trip.  If you have never canoed, let me explain the routine!  Every portage between lakes requires the Duluth packs and the canoe to be carried from one lake to the next.  The Duluth packs are the name of the huge, duffle like packs given to you by the outfitter that you use to carry your stuff on your back.  We had five  (1 equipment, 2 food, & 2 personal) which ranged from 50-80 pounds each.  I couldn’t have carried them if I wanted to, and I didn’t especially want to!  Thanks to three very strong and fit team members, I didn’t have to.  On the long portages, the canoe is carried upside down on the head of one person, and on a really short portage, it is carried right side up by two people.

The work load is relentless, even without the shuttling, from one lake to the next, of packs and canoes on the dozens of portages, .  There is simply a tremendous amount of work to do nonstop.  Every day – take down tents, pack up tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, cookware, rope bag, food, water bags, stove, propane, filters, tarps etc. then load all of it into the canoes, paddle for 2 -3 hours, sometimes with a portage or two where you unload everything & carry it to the next lake.  The portages are anywhere from 50-100 yards to half a mile, are uneven and can be steep, rocky, wet, muddy, slippery, sandy, and/or overgrown. When you get all your stuff moved from one lake to the next (2 or 3 round trips), you then load everything back into the canoes, shove off, then paddle another one to three hours, or sometimes only half an hour, another portage, land, unpack the canoes, portage to the next lake, repack the canoes, and paddle into the next lake.

Then it is time to find a campsite, which are well camouflaged on the shores amidst pines, firs, hemlocks and thousands of birch trees.  Once you find the damn thing, you cheer, then land again, unpack the canoes, drag everything up to the camp site, find tent sites, put up tents, find firewood, build a fire, find tree to hang food bags, climb tree 20+ feet to hang ropes (and risk killing yourself by falling out of the tree) OR tie rope around rock, pitch it up and over tree limb (and risk killing yourself from getting hit in the head with a rock ), set pulleys, get out the kitchen equipment and the food, find the latrine, put up the water bags for filtering, put up a tarp (if you think it will storm during the night), decide whether you want 3 bean chili (cooked on the camp stove) or lentil soup from scratch ( cooked over the fire) for dinner.  While someone is tending the fire, someone else drags the canoe back out into the water, paddles out a ways into the lake ( for clear water) to fill the collapsible water buckets, then paddles back in, drags the canoe back in, and empties the water bucket into the water filter bag that has been hung up already in a tree.  Then it’s time to fill water bottles, get water on stove for cooking, make dinner, eat dinner, heat water for dish washing, wash pots and pans, and pack up ALL food and kitchen equipment.  Then haul bag to the tree where you rigged the pulley system, and then 3 or 4 people (one or two on pulley rope, pulling down, and two under bag, shoving up, and hoping the bag and 200 pound pine bough don’t come crashing down on your head ) manage to tow the food bags (Two of them!) up into the tree about 10-20 feet so the bears don’t get into the packs and eat all the food.  It was endless – incredible!  I think I lost 5 pounds (ed.note – only lost one pound)

Speaking of bears, there were bears, lots of them.  We didn’t see any because we really busted our collective asses to keep a pristine campsite (we even strained dish water and put the residue in our garbage bag) and hang our food bags.  We passed a couple paddlers, on our next to last day, as we got closer to the pick up point and back into more heavily populated (by people) portion of the boundary waters, who told us that several groups of campers had been “hit” by bears and had food packs dragged off.  One group apparently abandoned camp at 2:30 in the morning when the bears refused to be chased off.  Funny.  The more people in an area, the more bears, the bears aren’t dumb.

We did see a bald eagle three times – once on our very first morning out – a great omen.  Then once on the day we paddled 8 straight hours after getting “lost” on the biggest, most complicated lake with the most islands.  The eagle flew right over head in a very obvious direction and we all took it as a “sign” that we were supposed to go in that direction, despite the fact that the eagle was followed by a very vocal and squawky raven, who set up a huge fuss.  But we had a magnificent tail wind and we sailed easily into this enormous bay looking for the portage.  The problem was, there was no portage, only a bog, and we had to paddle back, a mile and half, into a pretty strong head wind.  We should have listened to the raven.  Our last eagle sighting was, for me, the most inspirational.  We spotted him at the tippy top of an enormous white pine.  He just sat there and we paddled over to be close to the shore.  He waited.  We sat.  I took dozens of photos, totally zoomed in.  I waited for him to fly and when he did, I was set for continuous shooting and the shudder just clicked away as he flew overhead.  Breathtaking.

These lakes are not your nice, mellow little Berkshire lakes.  These lakes are part of some serious frigging, massive wilderness. The portages, as I said, but worth repeating, are rocky, jagged, uneven, and craggy (not unlike some of the Berkshire hiking trails), and covered with slick slippery rocks, sometimes up-and-down and up-and-down, and hundreds of years old.  They have been walked by animals, voyageurs, traders, Native Americans for centuries.  Carrying the 40 pound canoes, on your head, over what was completely improbable terrain, seemed to me a Herculean effort.  Our two canoe carriers, Mike and Laurie, were astonishing in their agility to navigate these treacherous, ankle busting trails like mountain goats.  We should’ve made a movie – it was extraordinary.  For me it was enough to just make it back-and-forth a couple times on the portages, and carry my camera, the paddles and a few bags of everyone’s extra stuff.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention one small point – navigation. All this while trying to figure out on the topo maps where the fuck you are and where the fuck you need to be going. It was a fantastic experience, kind of like that reality TV show, Survivor.  I, gratefully, survived, but I don’t think I’ll be doing the Boundary Waters again. Maybe another canoe trip – in Bali.