Mark and I paddled up to a small island on Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters, where four people were starting to take down a tent.  Mark was a seasonal ranger in the Superior National Forest; I was a volunteer wilderness ranger for the summer.  We were patrolling a large stretch of the Kawishiwi Ranger District, a working canoe trip.

The four were two young couples, and they were not camped at a designated campsite. That was a rule violation, but before writing a ticket, Mark suggested we learn what happened.

The canoe scraped the shore, and I hopped out, steadying the canoe for Mark.  

“Hi there, how’s it going?” Mark said, getting out and looking around.

“Not very well.  Didn’t sleep well,” one of the men replied.  We looked at the tent, noting it was pitched over a bunch of one to two inch diameter roots. There wasn’t a tent pad on the island.  They couldn’t have slept well.  A pad on a rock would have been better.

“This is not a designated camping site, so you will have to move. Why are you here?”

“We were on another site, but a bear came, so we paddled over to this island last night for safety.”

The two men had traveled together in the canoe country before and thought this would be a great trip to go with their wives.  I thought back to the previous afternoon, when a large thunderstorm complex drenched us and thought of how that might have felt to the women.  

“Oh, bears are excellent swimmers,” Mark told them, and I saw one of the women wince.  “When are you coming out of the woods?”

Simultaneously, one man said, “Tomorrow,” his wife said, “Today.” 

What works for a couple of guys going out in the woods often won’t with their spouses, or the rest of the family, either.  One can have the greatest weather for a trip and then the same time next year have the worst possible canoeing weather.

* * *

Another time, out with the late Mike Manlove, we pulled on to a campsite in a heavy rain, just to check permits.  A monstrous storm had hit the night before, dumping three inches of rain, and Mike and I were fairly wet. We found a family of four in a decent size tent, dry and warm, at least to me, but the adults didn’t look happy, the kids looked bored out of their minds, and all I could think of was “Hey, you guys are dry.  I’m out here soaking wet and will be this way the rest of the day. You’ve got it great!”  They didn’t see it that way.  His wife was doing dishes, cooking, and trying to keep the place clean, mostly what she probably did at home, only in a tent, not clean herself, and had fewer conveniences, like running water where she wanted it.  The kids wanted to be hanging out with friends.

* * *

Solo, I have nobody to blame other than myself for anything that goes wrong.  Weather forecast in error? My problem. Read the map wrong?  My fault.  Or the mapmaker’s, which I occasionally used. Trip on a root? Pick up your feet. Knock over a pot full of boiling water, putting out the fire? Only me to blame. 

The first time I took my wife into the canoe country, it was too difficult a trip. We stayed on schedule for two days before I finally got sense enough to realize we weren’t going to continue that way. I was still new enough to the area that I let the outfitter route us into Kahshahapiwi Lake, a beautiful lake, except the only easy way in and out is from the north, and we were coming from the south.  I still remember seeing my wife slide down a beaver dam in the mud near a swamp that was the outlet of the lake.  We later did some rerouting, salvaging a decent trip.

We did annual trips for about 25 years, during which time we kept a list of what we needed to take and what we didn’t.  Our packs got lighter, and our meals got better. Experience makes one faster and more efficient. Before we both got too old, we could single carry a portage. Then we started
“one and a halfing” them, where I would carry over and come back half way. She would carry half way, then go back to the beginning and carry all the way. Finally, we just double carried. How we did the work changed; the enjoyment remained the same.

Getting the line up to hang food. Lake Insula, 2006. Below, the one clear day on the 2007 Insula trip, where we had to report on the condition of all 43 campsites.

I took a few friends into the woods. One went on three good fishing trips with me, even including Kahshahapiwi (from the north); we saw a lot of nice country and caught some fish, too. Another was a scoutmaster, quiet, but liked being out there. 

The last time I took a friend there, it didn’t work. I should have been aware when he texted me a couple weeks before the trip with the long range weather forecast. “Rain and wind equals misery.”  

I don’t think that is the case, unless one is not dressed for the conditions and has to keep moving.  I won’t say travel in wind and rain is exactly exhilarating, but it is memorable, and I have vivid recollections of such weather in Algonquin, Temagami, Alaska, and the Quetico-Superior. To be able to travel for days packing wet, unpacking wet, and trying to stay dry and warm is a challenge.  Being able to accomplish it is rewarding.  

Wet day in Alaska. Aichilik River backpack in the Brooks Range, 2009.

He had done more backpacking than canoeing.  I’ve done a lot of both.  The two are different in terms of gear—one can carry a lot more on a canoe trip, and one is usually a lot wetter on one, too. To make it easier for him, I unloaded the canoe from the water, wearing boots, so he didn’t have to get wet.  I’m used to wet feet on canoe trips.  He, like so many I’ve met in Oregon, didn’t like wet feet.  The two of us had different viewpoints of the canoe country. I think to him, it was another place to check off on his outdoor list. He asked at lunch one day if it were OK to throw the apple core into the woods.  No, it isn’t. Leave No Trace means just that. He liked whiskey in the evening. I didn’t drink.  He wanted to sleep late; I don’t.  Late starts mean having to deal with more wind.  I learned that the single most important question I can ask a travel companion is, “are you a morning or an evening person?”

Things came to a head the last full day, when the prior night’s rain and wind left his tent wet, and he didn’t want to pack it that way.  I’m used to doing that, and this was a three hour day to a campsite where we could soon get everything dry.  No rain was forecast.  I got him moving, but he wasn’t happy about it, and finally just threw the fly in the canoe, very uncharacteristic for someone who was quite neat.

We got to the campsite with plenty of time to dry everything. Yes, we could have waited to leave, but then campsites get taken and things like wind and dark happen. That was the beginning of the end of our friendship. The next year, I went solo, with a lot of wind and rain. 

I loved it.  Great trip.  


Hidden Bay, Basswoood Lake, 2018.



  1. Jasodhara Batabyal Says:

    Awesome write-up. Please visit my blog as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: