(Published in the Boundary Waters Journal, 2006).                                            

It was on my “list”:  Kawnipi Lake, one more time, while I could.  I’ve got a lot on that list, each year trying to check off a couple items.  A while back, I took my wife and father to see the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte.  Other items still undone include the Death March portages, seeing a wolf in the wild, visiting the Brooks Range and paddling the Churchill River.  The list reminds me not to squander good years.  I once practiced medicine and know too well the bad things that can happen to people and how quickly they may happen.  Last winter, a voice in my head told me, “Get into Kawnipi again, while you still can.”  As soon as I could, I obtained a Quetico permit for mid-May. 

I’ve been fortunate.  Despite living in the Sonoran Desert, 2000 miles from canoe country, I’ve logged more than 50 Quetico-Superior trips.  It’d probably be easier and cheaper to live in Minnesota, but 21 New England winters were enough.  In 1992, I worked as a volunteer wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in Ely, spending an even hundred days in the woods, the most content I’ve ever been.  I’ve had a lot of formal education, but that year I attended the University of the Forest Service, Boundary Waters Campus. 

My body has suffered wear like a heavily used Wenonah.  I have three pins in a hip and a deformed clavicle from a past bicycle accident.  Occasionally, a pinched nerve in my neck dating from a Forest Service trip bothers me, but never while canoeing.  It may require surgery some day, but not yet. 

I’ve been to Kawnipi five other times, for which I feel blessed.  IMAP SHOWING KAWNIPI LAKE just wanted another chance to see the lake and spend a night there, refreshing my memories.  I’ve had great fishing in McKenzie Bay, seen moose in Kawa and McVicar Bays, soloed into Lemay and paddled from Atkins Bay to Shelley.  I didn’t have any logic for why I wanted to go back.  I just did.  Those who have been there understand. 

My wife prefers late season BWCA trips, so I contacted Pieter, a good friend from Ottawa, who introduced me to the Yukon and Nahanni Rivers.  We’ve also traveled the Quetico several times, the last being a “Triple K” trip in ‘97 — Kawnipi, Keefer and Kahshahpiwi — using his heavy Old Town Tripper.  He agreed to come (I convinced him to use a lighter canoe!), planning to meet in Ely and leave from Moose Lake.  Neither of us had time for more than up and back, but that was enough. 

Unfortunately, about a week before the trip, Pieter had a sudden emergency and had to cancel.  I’ve soloed nineteen canoe trips and the southern quarter of the Appalachian Trail (finishing that is also on my list), but those were many years and a couple of health problems ago.  Still, I wasn’t going to give up, but my time at Kawnipi would be further limited.  I organized my gear and flew north, always feeling a little odd as a mid-50ish guy carrying a canoe pack through an airport.  Some have told me at my age I should be playing golf, but I’d rather swing a paddle than a club, and the white I want to see is on an eagle’s head, not a ball. 

It was good to again see the Ely water tower, having fond memories of living at the Service Center on S. Central.  I rented a canoe, got a tow to Prairie, waited in line to clear customs, and was on Inlet Bay at a reasonable time and with fair skies.  An hour later, I reached the sand beach at the Burke portage, having camped near there on my last Quetico trip.  I’ve tried bent shaft paddles, but fairly set in my ways, I prefer the straight shaft better for tracking, especially solo.  I also tied in a spare paddle, which I once had to use in ‘91 when I dumped in Basswood River.  Fortunately, I was solo then as well, so nobody witnessed my error. 

I could probably still single carry some portages, but I don’t have anything to prove, and a lot I could really hurt.  My hip is fine, but carrying a canoe and pack together seems to be asking for trouble.  Besides, a walk in the woods back to the beginning of the carry is just fine by me.  Solo, I’m a pure traveler, not having fished in several years.  I like to cover water, lots of it, every day.  I’m the guy in one of Sam Cook’s articles, staring at the map, looking at where he’s been and wondering how he is going to see all that country before he dies. 

In 2015, I also want to be one of those few 66 year-olds he’s seen in the woods.  But there are no guarantees.  Go when you can. 

My first day plan was to reach the great campsite on the point of Agnes, at the end of the narrows, where the lake widens and one can see the broad sweep to the north.  But paddling Burke and Sunday and the two long carries from Sunday to Agnes took their toll, so when I spotted a small site on the west shore not too far north of Louisa Falls my arms told me I had covered enough water for the day.  Solo trips require few campsite amenities.  After I pitched my tent and laid out a kitchen area, I leaned up against a convenient rock, sipping cider, writing in my diary and enjoying the view of the nearby cliffs, seeing two soaring bald eagles and a broad-winged hawk.  I wish more Americans could see their national symbol in the wild.  When the wind died down, I heard the distant roaring of the falls, a remarkable spectacle in spring.  Living in the desert, I enjoy North Country greenery, trees without spines and rain.  I have simple tastes and eat well, having learned from my Forest Service “University” friends what works well for wilderness cuisine. 

I was pleased by the lack of bugs.  I prepare by treating my clothes with Permethrin®, but even so, it appeared that I beat the hatch.  Solo trips are unique; you get to do what you want, when you want, so long as you do the work.  If you need something, you have to do it.  Period.  There is no splitting up chores.  You also must be careful, really careful, never once deviating from your planned route, including any possible side trips.  It is of course essential somebody know your itinerary. 

The biggest concern I had was wind, for that, current and muck are three things that can stop a solo canoeist cold when two can continue.  I was therefore fortunate the next day to find clear skies and Agnes like glass.  I proceeded north, paddling close to shore,AGNES LIKE GLASS safer when solo and better for seeing wildlife.  I stopped at the pictographs well up the lake, especially liking the one showing two people in a boat.  I sure would have been faster with a second person!  Continuing, I encountered two young men at the portage leading to the East Channel of the Agnes River.  They asked if I knew anything about the portages.  It had been years, and my memory hazy, but I remembered the second carry as wet, full of blow downs and generally messy.  When I landed at the portage, I walked it first with a pack, rather than a canoe, so if I found trouble spots, I wouldn’t get hung up trying to change direction.  I learned that technique the hard way. 

My memory was unfortunately accurate.  There was a hundred yard stretch of flooding and serious muck, along with several blow downs.  I was real happy I hadn’t taken the canoe over first!  If the worst price I would pay was wet feet, it was pretty cheap.  After that slog, I carried three more times before reaching Murdoch, noting how quickly the sky had become overcast.  Where I live, it seldom rains, and the weather changes slowly.  Up North, I check the sky often.  Concerned, I ate a fast lunch and continued across the lake, larger than I remembered, finally reaching the outlet.  Back in ’89, I lost a large bass in those rapids. 

Once I cleared them, I was in Kawnipi.  Another half mile with a right turn, and I was in the main channel, where I stopped paddling and drifted, happy to have made it back to such splendid country, every bit as beautiful as I remembered.  I slowly continued east, passing the opening to McKenzie Bay, recalling the campsites and a side trip where I accidentally stumbled upon an old grave of a man, similar to ones I had seen in the Yukon.  I quietly departed.  Continuing in the channel, I eventually camped on a small, sheltered spot on the south shore, well above the water, with good views in both directions down the lake.

That afternoon, sitting on ledge rock, I saw only one other group, far off.  Early spring trips show the land full of promise and waterfalls on many of the cliffs.  The male mergansers are striking black and white, pollen is on the water, lining the shore and the loons seem to be constantly calling.  At times, when the wind stopped, I was surrounded by what I call “pitch quiet,” something, as unpolluted lake water or dark, dark night skies, many have never experienced. 

The clouds lowered further by dinner, and that night it rained, the morning greeting me with leaden, threatening skies.  With another person, I could have explored more, but I wasn’t sure what the wind would be like back on Agnes.  Always happy traveling, I turned south into McVicar Bay, photographing the inlets, one with a reflection reminding me of a huge hall of mirrors.  I entered theHALL OF MIRRORS burn area at the first portage; at the second, into Anubis, I passed through a large forest of young jack pines, which needed the ’95 fire in order to germinate. 

I left the burn at Bird and took the nasty, rocky, slippery carry into Agnes, the first drops of rain hitting me as I loaded for the long paddle ahead.  I could hear and see the waterfall on the uphill Dack portage, recalling my May ’92 solo into a small island on that lake, where the morning temperature was in the low 20s. 

There was no wind, and Agnes like pockmarked glass, the rain pelting me for several miles.  Fortunately, the point campsite I hadn’t reached on the way up was open, and after dozen years, I was back on it, although views up the lake were mostly of fog and rain, which this desert dweller had a full day to appreciate.  The next afternoon, I traded rain for a southwest wind, so I was unable to paddle the opposite side of the peninsula to East Lake, where I’ve seen moose.  I split up the two long portages out of Agnes, camping on Meadows, a lake that I had previously always wanted to get in and out of quickly.  I found it empty, other than two pair of loons, a sheltered campsite, plenty of firewood nearby and a good view for sunrise.  How could I have not appreciated this lovely lake all these years? 

Again, I was surrounded by pitch quiet interspersed with occasional loon calls, wishing I could package both for my return to “civilization.”  Absolute quiet, where one’s ears ring, is not uncommon in canoe country — if one is patient.  Portaging back to Sunday, I encountered a group coming the other way.  First asking permission (I’ve never been turned down) I carried some of their gear across when I doubled back.  I’ve had a lot of help in my canoeing career and it is good to close the circle. 

When I reached Singing Brook portage I remembered the time my wife and I camped there, on our first Quetico trip, trading quiet for running water, and seeing what looked like a large house cat, which of course turned out to be a pine marten.  Years later, solo, an east wind was so strong I actually couldn’t move out of the small bay by the portage into the rest of Burke.  I had to backtrack to the longer North Portage, struggling further to get out of Sunday Bay.  This time, the weather cooperated, and I set up camp early on Sunday Island, close enough to easily make my pickup the next morning.  I had never camped there, enjoying the large tent sites and the “big water” views of Bayley Bay.  There was a loon nest on the southeast end of the island, which I avoided on my afternoon paddle.  Hearing loons is a big reason why I keep coming back.  It is important that we canoeists stay well clear of their nests. 

I paddled to Prairie the next morning in dense fog, navigating by the sound of the falls.  It’s good to check something off my list, but now I want to do this trip again, although not solo, and spend more time up there.  So “a few days on Kawnipi” was added to the list, which will never get completely checked off. 

I think that’s called life. 

                             Solo Trip Tips        

  • Always, always, always leave your route with somebody, including expected camps and when you plan to be out of the woods.
  • A satellite phone might be worth having for emergencies, although the very thought is a travesty to some.
  • If you have never soloed, your first trip should be short, easy and around people.  Ensign, the numbered lakes, Basswood, Sawbill or Seagull come to mind.
  • Of course, wear a PFD.  Of course.  Sure you can swim.  What if you are unconscious?
  • Tie a spare paddle inside the canoe.
  • Everything that is worrisome for canoeists is much more so if you are solo.  Keep an eye on the sky; avoid paddling far from shore and factor wind into your trip.  Experiencing a thunderstorm, deep in the wilderness, solo, is both memorable and humbling.
  • You want it, you do it, pitching and striking the tent, cooking and cleaning up, hanging food, loading and unloading.  Plan to work hard.
  • Even gently moving water may be impossible to paddle against.  Thick weeds and muck can cause havoc.
  • A solo trip is an excellent time to think deeply about life; it can also be very lonely.  Many should not solo.  And that’s fine.
  • Use caution walking, both on portages and in campsites.  Use care when obtaining wood and using a camp saw.  Lacerations, a sprained ankle/fractured wrist from a fall or back sprains from lifting are all potentially life-threatening.  Carry a good first aid kit, remembering you have to diagnose and treat yourself while injured.  Read this again.
  • Swimming alone is not a good idea.
  • Expect everything to take longer.  Unloading the canoe and pulling it up on shore to portage is hard work, which may be lessened somewhat if you don’t mind getting wet.
  • Place the pack in the bow, especially on long paddles over open water.  It will help with tracking, even if it is more difficult to unload.
  • You may find you are unusually chatty when you encounter another person.
  • A solo trip is a unique experience in our crowded society.  Your chances of seeing wildlife are better.  Enjoy it, and of course, leave no trace of your passing.
  • Finally, remember:  There are no guarantees in life.  Go when you can.


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