The 2015 Canoe Trip has been like the last twenty or so.  We fly to Minnesota, drive 4 hours north to Ely, get the gear we rented, drive to the entry point, our jumping off point, and the next morning, regardless of the weather, enter the wilderness, for entry permits are day and place sensitive.

We are both old now, although we do note with some pleasure a few more folks like us on the water than in years past.  I think it’s because the gear is better, lighter, and more convenient than it once was, and a lot of our generation grew up in the outdoors.  I don’t do the long travel trips that I once lived to do.  Instead, we go in a dozen miles, find a site we like, usually one we have stayed at before, pitch the tent, and settle in.

Fall Lake from the Fall-Newton portage, BWCA, 2015

Fall Lake from the Fall-Newton portage, BWCA, 2015

I like base camping.  It’s nice to pitch the tent and not have to take it down the next day to do another dozen miles.  Yeah, we could do it, but we’d pay for it a lot more.  The site we have is really nice.  It’s not one people go to by choice, I suspect, because there are only two tent sites, neither of which is great.  The one we use has me slide slowly towards my feet during the night.  I can live with that.

Down a bay is an isthmus site where I stayed in 2013.  It’s pretty, being ten yards from water to water at its narrowest spot.  There are a lot of tent pads, a decent kitchen area, and great sunsets.  I liked it and thought in 2014, when my wife was again well, we’d stay there.  She had seen the site once before with me when we were exploring and in 2014 we fully expected to stay there.

The isthmus campsite from our site on the point.  They get the sunset, we get the "Ross Light," a special light at sunset, coined by the great wilderness author Sig Olson.

The isthmus campsite from our site on the point. They get the sunset, we get the “Ross Light,” a special light at sunset, coined by the great wilderness author Sig Olson.

However, the site was taken. Bummer.  We paddled back out the bay, deciding to look at a site on the point.  It rises up some ledge rock from the lake, only 20-30 feet, but elevation matters in the Canoe Country.  We immediately noted the view down the lake a couple of miles to Canada and back to the isthmus site where we had just been.  Yeah, it’s work bringing the packs up, but we only have to do it once.  We get here in 4 1/2 hours and we often just sit for hours, watching the water and an occasional traveler.

Evening view down the lake

Evening view down the lake

We have learned that by sitting still, we see a lot more.  This is basic to observing nature, but in the past, I’ve been in a hurry to see what’s out there, not as conducive to seeing wildlife.  Last year, we were treated to a nightly show of beavers swimming into the small swampy inlet next to us.  This year, we had no beavers, although the beaver house was still nearby.

No matter, the weather was rainy for three straight days, so we got out for some short paddles and spent a lot of time in the tent, sleeping.  We sleep a lot out there.  The autumn colors were better last year; this year they are just beginning, although they were going to peak the week after we left. We get what we get.  The last full day out, we awoke to mist everywhere, threatening rain, figuring we’d take another day trip with the canoe.  The weather cleared, but then the wind came up, strong enough that we decided just to sit in camp the last day, reading, writing, looking down the long channel, or over to the isthmus.  We had a long paddle out the next day and wanted to save our arms.  At least that was our excuse.  Neither of us was looking at anything, just the trees that had changed color, the sky, the shadows, and the.….otters that suddenly appeared right off shore, three of them.  The day before, we watched one play with a stick on a rock face, before he ran down into the water.  We had missed the beaver show, but the otters played right below us, diving, allowing us to see them underwater, come up by a rock, by each other, and then disappear again.

IMG_6094 IMG_6097

Otter, Basswood Lake, BWCA, September 2015

Otter, Basswood Lake, BWCA, September 2015

By remaining silent, we saw a hermit thrush walk through camp, a Hairy Woodpecker and a Three-toed Woodpecker work on a dead birch tree near us.  Sometimes you see this stuff when you are traveling fast; the chances are greater you will if you sit still. I have long had the philosophy that wildlife viewings are a gift.  I never expect any, so if I see something, I feel blessed and grateful.  The otter viewing was the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of otters.

We talked about what we would do when either of us or both of us can no longer do the work to get up here, or if the benefits don’t outweigh the effort, which can be considerable.  We can see those years in the future now.  It could be next year.  For my wife, 2013 was such a year.  On the other hand, we are able to do the work, and we hope maybe we’ve got a few more years out at this site until we need to move to a place that closer in, but still keeps us in the wilderness we’ve grown to love.  Eventually, we may have to stay in a cabin and canoe from there, not in the wilderness, but close to it.  That is how we hope our lives may play out.

There are many who say that age is just a number, but they are young and not wise in the ways of probability and genetics.  Things happen as we age.  The work necessary to get into this country requires strong enough arms to paddle long distances, often against headwinds, legs and body to carry packs and a canoe, decent balance to walk in camp, and ability to take care of oneself in the outdoors.  I’m relying heavily on experience these days.  On the trip in, the canoe went up on my head automatically, without my even thinking of it.   I can still move a canoe in any way I want it to go, I can read the sky and try to travel smart.  There are no guarantees, however.  I want to come out here as long and as I safely can.

I spend only a few nights every year up here.  They have now added up to more than three hundred in the border lakes country.  The special places I’ve seen are where I go in my mind when things are bad, life is difficult, and I need to mentally separate from the present.  Like the otter, I appear there, spend some time, then go, glad for what I experienced.

Eagle near the Canadian Border, BWCA

Eagle near the Canadian Border, BWCA


  1. steve nash Says:

    Great essay, as always

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