SEASONS OF THE CANOE COUNTRY….AND LIFE


“Come on in,” called Dorothy Molter, as I had paddled up to shore on her island home on Knife Lake and knocked at the door.  Dorothy was a legend on Knife Lake.  She left nursing and Chicago around 1930 and lived on an island in Knife Lake, which straddles the border between Minnesota and Ontario.  Called “The loneliest woman in America,” Dorothy had hundreds of visitors every year.  She was grandfathered (or mothered) and allowed to live the rest of her life on Knife Lake after the Wilderness Act of 1964 required resorts to be taken down, power boats removed, limits on numbers of people who could go in, and even how low planes could fly overhead.

Dorothy was a legend.  She gave me some of her famous root beer, and as we talked, I commented that it was a little more difficult to canoe trip when I was 32 then it had been when I was 18, guiding canoe trips in Algonquin Park, wearing the coveted red neckerchief that only guides wore.

“Yes,” Dorothy replied, completely straight-faced, “I don’t paddle and carry as well as I once did, either.”  Dorothy had forty years on me and she would live for 5 more, her statement a lovely put down to my complaint about age.  I never forgot that.

In the ensuing 31 years and twice as many trips I have taken into the Quetico-Superior, not exactly easy from Arizona, I can count lots of things–wildlife sightings, fish caught, bear charges (1), aurorae seen.  What has fascinated me the most, however, has not been the three seasons in which I have paddled, but the changing seasons of my life with the canoe country.

I first put a canoe on my head 50 years ago, in the spring of my life.  I was an apprentice guide, and I carried wooden Old Towns, slept in canvas tents or under a canoe.  Nobody practiced Leave No Trace camping.  We had can pits, cut live balsam for tent stringers every night, and washed dishes in the lake.  I carried up to 140 pounds, dragged reluctant canoes down rivers, and fought waves so large they hurt, when the bow crashed down on the other side.

In my 30s and 40s, in the summer of my life, I discovered and then explored the Quetico-Superior, covering as much distance as I could.  I had a map on the wall in my office, and after each trip there was new ink on the blue and green splotches.  Miles mattered, new routes mattered, single carrying portages mattered.  I was up early, paddled hard all day, and slept well at night?  Rain?  I got wet.  Headwinds?  I worked.  Portages?  They were a chance for me to show what I had.

When I was 43, I volunteered in Ely for the Forest Service, spending six months away from my medical practice and 100 days in the woods between mid-May and mid-October.  I was a third again older than the guy who visited Dorothy Molter, in far better shape, but I now learned about the trees and the plant life that I had walked by, cut, and burned.  I learned that giving back to the wilderness was more important than having my own personal proving ground.

As I approached 50, I brought my wife along, a previous non-camper, and taught her how to travel.  She in turn taught me how to enjoy the woods–together.  I stopped single carrying portages in 2001, when I was 52.  I had nothing to prove and a lot I could hurt.  I enjoyed walking back in the woods for a second trip.

When I was 56, I soloed into Kawnipi Lake one more time.  Many of us who ply the canoe routes of Hunter’s Island feel Kawnipi is the most beautiful lake on either side of the border.  I may go back again, but it doesn’t matter now whether I do.  I have been there six times, love the place, and am thankful for what I’ve seen there.

“Bowling alley.” Kawnipi Lake.

The northern sweep of Agnes Lake, on the way to Kawnipi.

The year after, my wife and I sponsored a scholarship at Vermilion Community College (VCC).  We have no formal tie to the school, but Ely has given both of us a great deal, and we get great pleasure from helping the next generation of wilderness enthusiasts, many of whom not only live at the edge of wilderness but at the edge of poverty.  These young–and older–men and women are doing great work, and each year at the spring banquet, I meet them and hear their stories.

After 2003, my wife and I started base camping in Lake Insula.  I never thought I would base camp, but I enjoy the day trips where we explore side bays, sometimes finding trails that lead to interesting views.  It is nice not to have to set up camp every night and break it down every morning.  Do I miss the long days and the multi-lake trips?  No, I look back on them with fondness.  My pictures have faded; neither the diaries nor my memories have.

We’re now well into our 60s, the autumn of our lives, and every autumn we come up and base camp somewhere else.  We find a nice place, explore, relax, and forget about the “road, steel and towns” that Sig Olson wrote about.  We are in his “back of beyond.”  We enjoy canoeing and we work well together.  The lakes are old friends; the campsites second or third homes.  Every year we can come up is a gift–one more chance, one more trip, a few carries, the automaticity with which I put a canoe on my head, or deal with a 2 foot chop.  I have watched with great joy my wife become an excellent canoe tripper who also loves the woods, and helps me make a comfortable camp, in all sorts of weather.

Fall colors on Jackfish Bay.

We established a second scholarship at VCC and contribute to a third.  VCC has become family.  I come up for the banquet in April and take a solo trip for a day or two.  I don’t go far, I just want to be out there, alone, thankful for those who saved this wilderness from damming, clear cutting, and roads.  In the autumn of my life, I get to see others in the spring of their lives and canoe in spring, too.

We don’t know how long we will be able to canoe.  The autumn is a brilliant time in Ely, and it is a brilliant time in our lives.  This past trip, I saw Lesser Sandhill Cranes fly high over me on Pipestone Bay.  Next March, I will be in Nebraska, at Rowe Sanctuary, showing people these same birds during their spring stopover along the Platte, one of the two great North American migrations.

We will camp as often as we can in the Boundary Waters.  We know there are no guarantees reagarding ability or longevity.  We hope to canoe into our 70s.  I dream of going out in the winter of my life when I am 80; I took my father into the Quetico when he was 78.  We hope there will be enough of those with sense to guarantee the future of this region to those whose lives are not only drawing to a close, but those whose lives have yet to begin.

Eventually, we will die, like every living organism we have seen in the wilderness.  Our ashes will be spread in the area, finally being part of the wilderness we have travelled, loved and supported.

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