A PLACE EVEN BETTER


I really wanted that isthmus site on Basswood Lake, an international treasure where the Canada-US border runs for 14 miles through the middle of it.  Basswood was part of the main fur trade route two hundred fifty years ago.  Spanning the border from Prairie Portage to Basswood River, its 45 square miles and 14 named bays makes it “big water” in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  The lake is so special that when the BWCA became one of the first wilderness designates after the Wilderness Act of 1964, there was a compromise made on the American side, allowing 25 hp motors on a large portion of it as part of the deal.

Basswood has over 150 designated campsites on both sides of the border.  When my wife and I were looking for base camps for our annual trip, we spent two autumn trips in the motorized zone, finally taking a long day trip outside the zone to find a beautiful isthmus site, a narrow strip of land between two quiet bays.  We planned to stay there in 2013, but severe illness prevented my wife from canoeing that year, so I went solo with her blessing and stayed on the site, enjoying 5 days of sunrises, sunsets and profound quiet.  When I returned with my wife in 2014, we paddled out of the motor zone, turned the corner around a wooded, rocky point, and the isthmus looked open, at least with binoculars, from a half mile.

As we got closer, however, we saw a tarp flapping in the wind, and our dreams of camping there were dashed.  Somebody else was on the site.  We turned around, went back to a site that we had just passed, and pulled in.  We had also scouted this particular site two years earlier. Neither of us thought too much of it, but we decided to take another look.

We were glad we did.

I now have the site labelled on my GPS as “Hidden Gem.”  During our five night stay in 2014, we were treated to incredibly dark skies, northern lights, wonderful sunrises, a moose, beaver swimming off the campsite every night, and wolves howling.  We would have missed almost all of that from the isthmus site.  We returned to the same site the following two years, no longer caring whether the isthmus site was open.  The beaver were no longer there, and no moose came, but the views were those that I still think of when I need to go deep into myself to get away from the world.

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View to the north and Canada from the site.

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Moose, from the “Hidden Gem” site, 2014

This past year, when I took a friend of mine into the area, I hoped again for the isthmus site.  It had a small beach, and he liked to swim.  We left the motor zone, turned the corner, paddled by “Hidden Gem,” where I would not stay at without my wife’s being along, and the isthmus site looked open.  I was pleased, as we paddled right up to the landing and got out, walking up from the beach a few feet to the site.  I turned and looked to my right, at the kitchen area.

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The isthmus site from “Hidden Gem”

Hidden in the trees was a tent.

Oh well, I thought, we wouldn’t stay there, but there was another site down in a bay about a half mile away.  I didn’t remember the site as being too nice, with a lot of blowdown trees and not much room, but that had been three years ago.  Besides, I reasoned, I once thought “Hidden Gem” wasn’t all that great the first time I saw it, either.  We paddled along the shore of a quiet, moderate sized bay with a high cliff on the west side and two nearly bare, small islands out in the middle, rocky but interesting.  The whole place was quiet, except for a couple of nearby ravens.

We landed and walked uphill on the rocky path.  The site wasn’t large but it did have enough space for two tents.  The views were great to the north where we could see Canada. Nobody was on the lake, and I doubted we would see anyone, for we were well off the travel routes.  Most importantly, my companion said he liked it.  I did, too.  We had room, quiet, and we later explored the two islands, climbed the cliff, and in the evening had a visit from migrating geese, which landed by the islands, staying the night.  In all my years in the Boundary Waters, I had seen a lot of geese flying overhead; I never had camped with them nearby.

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“Hidden Bay” campsite as viewed from the cliff

We didn’t have wildlife, other than a couple of chipmunks, which were more interested in the plants than in us, but we had clear skies one night, with some of the best dark skies in the Lower 49.  We paddled the next morning to the outlet of Basswood, where the rapids began, the international border’s being in the middle of the rushing water.  We walked on the portage a short distance to places where one could be near the roaring rapids that continued for several miles to the west, ending at Crooked Lake. Other than a pair of eagles, we had the place to ourselves.

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Beginning of Upper Basswood Falls; Canada across the water

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Eagle pair

I no longer go to the Boundary Waters to cover miles and quench my desire to see new country.  I have done it, enjoyed it, happy that I was so fortunate to do so. These days, a base camp in a nice place is enough.  I can get in there in a few hours, if the weather is cooperative, I have a quiet place to stay, hardly see anybody,  and I can get back out easily.  Hidden Gem is still there, should my wife be able to travel with me again.  So is the isthmus.  It’s a nice place.

I’m lucky.  I can pick among several beautiful campsites on a lake whereI have spent more than fifty-five nights on twenty-three different campsites.  I didn’t look all of these numbers up on a map; I have them all in my memory, the year I was on them, and in some instances the actual date.

I sometimes think how interesting it might be to have spent a night on every one of the 107 campsites on the US side, and the half again as many on the Canadian side.  Realistically, however, I would never do that.  Getting to know a place well means more to me these days, second only to having the ability to get there.

Isthmus, Hidden Gem, and now Hidden Bay.  Nice places.

Basswood Lake: an international treasure.

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Closeup of isthmus site at sunset

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Sunrise from “Hidden Gem”

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Fall colors, September 2014.

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Beaver, 2014

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