SEVENTY BEFORE SEVENTY


“He is thirty-three years old. He’d like to think the next thirty-three years will be like the last ones.… Besides, he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of sixty-six year-olds he’s seen in the woods.” from Sam Cook

I stood on a large area of granite and quartz that I last visited 26 years ago, the summer I was a volunteer Wilderness Canoe Ranger in the Boundary Waters. I even remember calling this the “purple panty site,” finding a broken bottle of wine and a pair of purple panties at the base of the cliff. The old fire grate had been set on the granite, when rangers used to fly in and use air drills to fix the metal grate in place. There were now four small pieces of metal protruding from the rock marking its former location, the new grate set in soil a few yards away. We had picked up a literal boat load of trash from the 51 campsites we visited on West Basswood, using a boat with an 8 hp Yamaha motor to patrol the large area. The Fourth of July that cool, rainy summer, nobody was out here, and we camped half mile to the southeast of where I camped this year. We even were able to float the creek from Jackfish to Pipestone Bays, saving 8 miles of motoring and felt really good about doing it. That creek hasn’t been navigable for years and must be portaged around.

Twenty-six years ago, I could paddle all day long, pitch camp in an hour and break camp in the morning, including breakfast, in 40 minutes. I could hit shore, have my back pack on, the canoe on my head in a half minute and load the canoe at the other end in half that time. I wanted to see all that country, and I did pretty well at doing so, more than three hundred lakes and an equal number of nights spent out there.

This year, I was solo, like many times back then, but now needing two trips across the portage, not one, using more care to unload and load, but doing it wearing rubber boots, which allow me to stand in water to load and unload. I wore more clothing, too, not only because it was cold, but I get colder more easily. I stopped single carrying portages in my fifties, stopped wearing shorts in my sixties, My seventies may be when I lose the battle, for even as I age, and the gear gets lighter, I am going to eventually lose. Just not this year. I took my father in the woods when he was 78. Maybe someone will take me. Or maybe I’ll be extraordinarily lucky and go solo.

I like to think I’m more sensible. I wanted to go to places further up the lake, where I had camped the prior 5 years. They mean a lot to me. One is a place I take myself to mentally when the world seems too much. But I looked at the weather maps before I left, as well as watched the sky often when I left the jumping off point at Fall Lake. The forecast was for rain, cold, and wind, a difficult triad to deal with. My reality was a canoe with 8 inches of freeboard and real tippy, and after a few thousand miles in a canoe, I don’t use “tippy” lightly. If I paddled as far in as I wanted to go, I might face a headwind and rain on the return, and that was a significant possibility. The day I was to come out, I would be 70 before 70, days before years, and I felt damn lucky and blessed to just still be able to come out here. Retired Duluth Herald-Tribune columnist Sam Cook wrote the words above, and I’ve been coming out here since 1981, the year I turned 33. I am not as fast, not as strong, but far more experienced, use my gear more efficiently, and know very well that things can go south in a big hurry. I’ve never tipped over on a canoe trip, but I’ve literally been thrown out of a canoe on small rapids, and that was extremely sobering as to the power of moving water.

The solo canoe I rented had a sticker about safety, the sixth bullet point’s being “Never canoe alone,” which seemed odd on a solo canoe. I know what was meant, but I hike alone, and I have canoed alone many times. My wife isn’t coming out here with me any more, although she would love to if all the preparations and travel weren’t so difficult. I understand that. I’m going to reach a point where I can’t do this, but my goal is to be like the guy we saw lying back in his canoe floating down the Nina Moose River towards Lake Agnes, back in 2004. My wife said, “that’s you twenty years from now,” and while I laughed at the old guy back then, I kind of got a bee in my bonnet and turned the laughter into a 2024 goal. That guy was doing it right.

This trip, I made it a point to canoe along shorelines I had often eschewed for the straight shot down the middle of the lake to get up on the border. Exploring a small bay this year, I encountered a pair of tundra swans and a raft of mergansers. I hadn’t noted tundra swans here before, and I saw five more the next day. They were magnificent white painted against the gray sky when they took off. Coming around a point on Newton Lake, I saw an otter come out of the water, head profiled against the background light, one of those moments where I was looking in the right place with the right frame of mind. That happens a lot when one stops eschewing stuff. The first morning’s sunrise was spectacular, even if the red sky in morning was warning this canoe man to stay in camp the next day. A leaf with a few drops of rainwater was worth a picture, as well as the nearby asters, the lovely end of summer flower.

Sunrise from the first campsite.

Leaf with water droplets

Asters

My camp had a path to the next campsite, unusual in this country, but the two sites were not visible from one another, which is the norm. On the windbound day, I walked laps between the two sites, noting the 3 inch depth of white pine needles and also noting, for the first time, how the adult bark starts to appear, from ground level up a meter or two, rather than immediately on the tree as it grows. I had a lot of time to think about the past thirty-seven years I have been coming up here, and how fortunate I have been to have seen the country far beyond where I can now physically go—or wish to go—for that matter. I know what’s out there; I have good trail and lake memory. My last Quetico trip, in Canada, was in 2005. I said goodby to Kawnipi Lake back then, occasionally hoping maybe I’d get another chance—but knowing that I will not.

The trip had all the challenges—wind, rain, cold, thunderstorms. I packed wet and I set up camp in a pouring rain. I didn’t talk to a soul for four days, and I had a day when I didn’t see a boat anywhere. I wasn’t sure if solo tripping would still appeal to me. It does. I looked at things without judgment, only interest.

Maybe 2024.

Wearing High Cascade Volunteer “Scorpions” hat. Pipestone Bay, 2018

Below, leaves on a trail

Leaves along the shoreline

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