I remember the date well: it was September 15, 2001, and we were among the few who had no idea what had happened to the country, 4 days earlier.  After portaging our gear around Wheelbarrow Falls, on the Canadian side of Basswood River, we saw two young men, early 20s, getting ready to shoot the rapids, without packs in an aluminum canoe.  They also had wore no helmets, PFDs, hiking boots, and were sitting upright.  This violates five rules of safety.

No, I said, unsuccessfully to these two, you should not do this, because portages up here exist for a reason.  People die in the Quetico-Superior shooting rapids.  Within 10 yards of launch, the canoe shipped water, then swamped, the two fortunately floated down the rapids and survived.  The canoe broached on a log and filled with water, and I later learned it took six hours to right it.  The two were lucky, something one doesn’t want to have to depend upon in the woods, lucky one didn’t get a foot caught under water and drowned.

I got a call the other day from another Obsidian hike leader, wanting to run some things by me.  The Obsidians feature hikes, climbs, bus and bike trips, and last year, after being a member for all of 2 months, I led my first hike.  I’ve now led 18.  I’ve gone on the caller’s hikes; she has gone on mine.  Leading hikes is work.  One has to organize the hike time, meet up place, describe the hike, deal with those who call wanting to know about the hike, but not wanting to register to read about it online, know how to get to the trailhead, know the trail itself, and decide whether a person is capable of doing it.  The online description should be sufficient to tell someone whether this is suitable.  If one wants short walks, a 12 miler of mine with 2500 feet of elevation gain is not suitable.  Don’t laugh, I’ve had people say, “I’m on my feet 10 hours a day,”  as if that helps climb Mt. Hardesty, 3400 feet vertical.  On hiking day, I arrive 30 minutes early, hoping everybody who signed up shows, but invariably, some don’t. We leave no later than 5 minutes past the start time, carpool to the trailhead, and hike.  No shows without cancellation delay departure.  Me generation.  Lots of technology to communicate, yet communication has worsened.

The two of us talked about recent hikes, where I finally added a statement to future hike descriptions stating that “training” was not allowed; I would not allow an individual to carry extra weight on the hike to get into shape.  This rule occurred because of two incidents: on one hike, a lady carried barbells in her pack, holding everybody up for 30 minutes, because the hike had a steep climb at the outset that she could barely manage. I let that go until the next hike, when a man lagged far behind the whole time and fell because of exhaustion.  We divvied up his pack between us.  We hike where cell phone reception is poor, and while we were lucky, depending upon luck in the wilderness is a bad idea.  Perhaps I’ve lost friends by my attitude, but I can’t lead a 12 miler with 2500 feet elevation gain and a 2 hour drive each way, and still return at a decent hour if people photograph everything in sight or need frequent rest stops.

Eventually, the caller asked me about a person on her upcoming weeklong backpack trip who had dislocated his artificial hip on a recent hike but got it back in the socket himself.  Luck.  She told him he couldn’t go; he was very upset with her.  I agreed with her decision.  He has no business hiking until given the green light by an orthopedist.  Maybe nothing will happen.  Those four words are often said before a cascade of bad things concatenate in the Cascades.  Things go wrong on backpacking trips.  We plan for many emergencies.  Hip dislocations are rare, but once somebody has dislocated one, he is at high risk for a second; it doesn’t make sense taking him.

Sometimes, one just has to say no, no to going backpacking with a hip that may cause trouble and no to “training hikes,” where others are inconvenienced.   Most of these “no’s” can be stated quietly: “I’m sorry, but as leader, I can’t take the risk of your hip’s dislocating, which will disrupt the entire trip should you not be able to reduce it.  I am responsible, and in my judgment you should not go.”  “No, please don’t carry extra weight.  This is a difficult enough hike with a day pack.”

No, I said on a November hike last year, we aren’t going to take a detour to see a place where nobody is exactly certain how to get to, because it’s going to snow later today, we will lose valuable time, and if we get into trouble, we are in the high country where early darkness and cold are life threatening concerns.

I wish I had been present to say “No” to a 15 year-old’s leader at the other end of Basswood River, when they decided the portage was too long and they would shoot the rapids.  Six hours later, most of which the leader was holding the 15 year-old’s head above water, because his ankle was wedged on an underwater rock, a helicopter, a Beaver float plane, and a lot of brave men put their lives at risk to rescue him.

I wish I could have said “No” to the 78 year-old who shot Upper Basswood Falls in high water shortly after ice out in 2013.  The river had changed, and he wasn’t wearing a PFD when they found his body well downstream.  His wife barely survived.

No, I told my wife on Lake One in a pouring rain, I do NOT want to camp after only two miles, but we ARE STOPPING ANYWAY to camp here, because we aren’t yet too wet, and we aren’t cold, but if we continue, we will be.  We stayed dry and safe that night.

I say a lot of “Yes” to life.  I say, yes, I am going to hike solo, because I want to see that country this year.  Yes, I said in 2005, I am going to solo into Kawnipi Lake because I know the route and have several backup choices if the winds are high on big water.  Yes, I am going to solo winter camp at 63, because I know the trail, and I just want to get into the woods.  My route and time of exit in all instances was known by my wife.  I don’t ever deviate from it.

Canada’s Kawnipi one last time and my snow camp on the Angleworm Trail, were smart, wonderful trips.

I likely will never see this again, but I saw it many, many times, and loved camping on the lake.

I likely will never see this again, but I saw it many, many times, and loved camping on the lake.

Kawnipi Lake, 2005. Many, including me, say this is the most beautiful lake in Canada’s Quetico. I have been on it six different times and consider myself blessed.


I call this “bowling alley,” Kawnipi Lake, 2005. I’ve soloed to it twice, and it is 3 days’ paddle from town.

Author on the Angleworm Bridge, late April 2013, BWCA Wilderness

Author on the Angleworm Bridge, late April 2013, BWCA Wilderness

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