“Is the site open?” I asked.

“I can’t tell from here,” said my wife in the bow of the canoe, as we entered a small bay with a low isthmus separating it from another part of Basswood Lake, forty-five square miles that  straddles the border between the US and Canada.  I looked with binoculars and couldn’t be sure whether I was seeing a rock or some part of a person’s camp.

We paddled a little further until we found to our dismay that the object was a tarp.  Site taken.  Damn.  We had walked on that site in 2012, and I had camped there solo a year later.  Not this year.  We turned back to another site that we had passed, second choice, at the mouth of the bay and still out of the motorized zone, for while we were in wilderness, concessions were made in 1964, one of them allowing parts of Basswood Lake, a national treasure, to allow small motors.

We landed on Second Choice, walking up from the narrow beach landing on ledge rock to the fire grate, part of every Boundary Waters (BW) campsite.  When we turned around, we had a splendid northeast view down a channel to Canada, two miles distant.  A little elevation makes a significant difference in what one can see in the BW.


View from the top of the ledge rock.  Canada in the distance.

That first year on the site, we stayed five nights, with a nightly parade of three beavers, two adults and a young, swim by getting food, branches from trees they fell in the adjacent swampy area.  We heard and saw one tree fall. We saw the northern lights twice, heard wolves, and had a moose visit.  Second Choice?  This place was a gem, and with two small tent sites, it probably didn’t get much use.


Beaver with stick, 2014


Moose, 2014

We returned in 2015, but while the beavers were gone, we saw three otters playing. Every sunset, we marveled at the lovely way the light appeared on the isthmus site and the rock face across the bay.  We returned again this year, where we didn’t day trip much because of wind, so I sat and read, looking at Canada in the distance, realizing that Tru- as a leader really meant Trudeau, and seeing things I had never noticed before, because I had more time to look.


Otters at play, 2015


Sunset on the isthmus site

I saw a chipmunk, an occasional pest, climb up on a wild rose bush and eat rose hips.  I didn’t know they ate them.  A flock of eight common mergansers swam by, not uncommon for the BW, and we saw them again nearby on a day trip.  This was clearly their territory.  An otter walked on the shore one afternoon, swam across the swamp, and disappeared among the rocks.  Many times, a raven announced itself by the WHAP, WHAP of its wings over us.  I watched an altercation between a Broad-winged hawk and a raven.  Twice, looking high in the sky, we saw an eagle soar, easily 1000 meters up, a dark spot against a white cumulus cloud.  These things you don’t see on high mileage trips.  They matter to me now.


Chipmunk eating rose hips



There was more.  For the first time in my wonderful outdoor career, heavy dew and morning fog did NOT presage a wholly sunny day.  It rained that morning, only later becoming sunny.  I had never seen that before.  I had thought the channel led north, until one night, I saw the North Star 45 degrees to the west of the channel.  It led northeast. The North Star doesn’t lie.

I found myself studying little things: the waning gibbous Moon each day, a long curvilinear cloud one evening, and its stunning reflection, which appeared like disturbed water in a calm lake.  We twice found a rock where turtles hang out, and noted the one’s shedding part of its carapace.  We know all the campsites up the lake towards Canada.  They are nice, but they aren’t Second Choice.  We may be the last on the site this year, for all we know.

One morning, we heard Basswood Falls, a mile or two distant across forest in a straight line, considerably further by canoe.  We had never heard the falls before on our prior two visits, but on a quiet, calm morning, they were unmistakeable.  I saw orange hawkweed, one of my favorite flowers from my boyhood, right next to our tent. It has the most wonderful smell.


Orange Hawkweed

Second Choice has become for us one of our most special places we can go.  My wife has reluctantly said good-by to the area.  If she doesn’t return, I may go by there, but I don’t know if I will go on the site.  Not alone.  It’s hard to say why.  Only that I don’t think it is a place for me alone.  Once, when severe illness visited us, I paddled into the bay alone and stayed on the isthmus site.  I can stay there again, if it is open.  If not, there are other sites.

Every year, it gets more difficult to canoe.  I threw my back out the day we left, and my dominant elbow was inflamed.  Somehow, I was able to paddle and carry, and we paddled to the site in just over 4 hours, due to a tail wind that we had not planned on.  We don’t assume good weather for our trips.  That’s a recipe for trouble.  Because of a falling barometer, we decided we would spend four nights there, not five, and come out most of the way to a busier lake near the entry, avoiding heavy rain, thunderstorms, and strength sapping headwinds.

On clear nights, the Milky Way is bright, brighter than nearly any American can see on a given night.  We told time by the moonrise, for this trip coincided with the latter part of the Harvest Moon.  As I type this, I just heard the crash of a tree fall across the bay. Yes, if a tree falls in a forest it makes a sound.

Second Choice taught us that sometimes less visited sites have value.  In such places, I can learn a little about the neighborhood, see things that I have seen before, learn something new, so long as I sit quietly for a few days, foregoing the high miles that once appealed to me, back when I once wanted to know what was out there in the Quetico-Superior.

Second choice sites do that.  I may not physically return, but I will often go there in my mind.






Evening sky

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