Archive for the ‘BOUNDARY WATERS/QUETICO’ Category


November 20, 2019

I was in the Anchorage airport late one night on my way home from my tenth trip to “The Great Land.” I stopped in the men’s room, and before I saw the pair, I immediately recognized the smell that to me characterizes one thing: “we’ve just come out of the bush.”  

I call it The Scent.  Capitalized.

The Scent is difficult to describe. It is not evident when I do trail work for a day or hike a 20 miler.  I sweat, I’m dirty, I come home and smell, but I don’t have The Scent. The first day out in the backcountry, I don’t have it. I smell clean. The Scent is days old sweat on clothes that have been worn far too long, unwashed, in places where there is usually a lot of dirt, rain, flowing water, skin that hasn’t been cleaned in several days, the combination’s often being mixed with woodsmoke from cedar, pine, birch or hardwood. Biologically, it is created by bacteria’s breaking down oils plus burned carbon, but I think some of it may be a special compound formed when hard work is performed in places where there are no signs, the rivers run free, people are few, and the sounds of traffic are ravens, eagles, hawks, hermit thrushes and flickers, marmots, wolves, and beaver tail slaps.  The Scent requires tens of thousands of paddle strokes, dozens of miles under a pack or paddle, bug bites, sunlight, rain or dew, a few cuts, walking through muck, tripping on a root, fording a river, reaching a difficult summit, watching sunrise over a lake with mist, warming or talking by a fire at night or on a cold rainy morning, kneeling on the ground pitching a tent, watching an eagle fly, or collecting wood from a downed jack pine.

The Scent is not the smell of a men’s locker room.  Nor is it the smell when one gets ill and doesn’t bathe for a few days.  Long spells in wild country appear to inoculate the nose to ignore The Scent.  But when I am on the last portage, the last mile of a trail, I can recognize a day tripper or a person who has just left the jumping off point. There is no trace of The Scent; they smell clean, soap and shampoo clean.  They haven’t worked enough yet.  Some of them will, and days later, they will be exiting  the way I am and have The Scent.

Once out of the bush, I notice The Scent immediately.   My wife and I weren’t able to shower once after we came off the water after a week out on Lake Insula in the Boundary Waters, with a lot of time under pack and paddle, near eagles, ravens, a wolf, nobody else for six days, a bit of rain, lots of flowing water, all the requirements. The outfitter changed out a propane tank, but something was wrong with the heating element, and he was really sorry, but there was no hot water.  We ended up driving five hours without a shower.  The next year we used a different outfitter. The Scent is that way: it is the smell of wild country and is foreign to cities, highways, crowds and buildings.

Lake Insula, 2007, before the fire. Le beau pays of Sig Olson

Walk through a trail town sometime, and by smell and sight, you can spot three different groups of people: those who are getting ready to go into the woods, on whom their clothes look normal and they aren’t self-conscious.  The Scent is absent. The second group has just showered and put on clean clothes, looks scrubbed and are self-conscious and maybe a bit bewildered by being back in a strange world. No Scent on them. The third group has just come out of the woods and one can smell them yards away—or when opening the door to a men’s room. When I come out of the woods, I know I have The Scent, and I try not to get too close to others.

These two men were in the third group. They were self-conscious about The Scent, both wanted a shower, and they were trying clean up in a men’s room, knowing that they had several hours ahead of them on the redeye back to the Lower. Nobody wants to get on a plane carrying The Scent.  It belongs in wild country.

As I washed my hands and turned from the sink, I accidentally brushed the pack one still wore.  People in the backcountry for many days feel at one with their pack.  I know thru-hikers on the AT and PCT feel that way, and when I section-hiked the AT, I discovered one day that getting ready to move meant I automatically put the pack on, like a shirt.  I didn’t feel right without it.  Anyway, the young man apologized. He probably forgot he had the pack on.

“Been there a lot,” I replied.  While I’m shy, I know well both the country and the work required to produce The Scent. These young men were kindred spirits.  “Where did you guys go?” I asked. I knew I wouldn’t hear “Anchorage” but the Chugach, not “Juneau” but the Chilkoot, not “Homer” but the Kenai, not “Fairbanks” but Denali. 

We started to talk.  They were young, at least 35 years younger than I, and this was their first trip to Alaska, where they spent 2 weeks, first in Denali and then the Kenai.  They had wanted to do this trip now, while they could, because their lives were going to be busy in the coming years.  They did it.  They had The Scent to prove it.

Good for them, I said.  I mentioned my then 5 trips to the Brooks Range, Up North even by Alaska standards: Arrigetch Peaks, twice in the Kongakut drainage, and a backpack/paddle on the Noatak. I didn’t say much more, because they were busy trying to get clean, but I suspected that when I used an Up North name, a lot of communication took place. There is a magic to certain words in the North Country for those who make it part of their lives. My last trip in the Brooks was where my guide and I got hauled up to the south end of Atigun Pass on the Dalton.  We had stopped in Coldfoot for a break, and a lady who was a volunteer at the Visitor’s Center asked me whether I was going north or south, for the Dalton only goes those directions.  I pointed west.  She laughed.  She knew.

We bushwhacked in to the Gates from the Dalton was about all I said, but perhaps my tone of voice unsaid told them the rest of the story. I used a few words like “Oolah” and “griz”, “tussocks” and “Boreal.”  We had climbed over a thousand foot divide, camping at what seemed like the top of the world, then traveled for 3 days in the rain in and by rivers, past Oolah Lake and more rivers, finally hiking six miles in flooded tussock country to Summit Lake.  We saw a griz. I finally got to see Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain—the Gates of the Arctic that Bob Marshall named.  They had that look in their eyes—maybe I should call it The Look—which others have seen from me. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers that run free and few people in the Lower have ever heard of, like Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Alatna, Hulahula, or Kobuk.  It’s mountains and remote valleys, wild country, open horizons, where the Sun in summer travels in a circle above the treeless tundra.  It’s slogging through tussocks, rivers, swamps, and in bear, caribou, Dall sheep, wolverine, and moose country.  It’s hiking on residual ice, or aufeis, and bugs in June, blueberries and crowberries in July, rain, autumn colors and the return of night in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that I have encountered, also the most beautiful.  It is a country that kicks one’s butt, until finally one accepts it with the simple words, “It’s Alaska.” Everybody up here who has worn The Scent understands that.

Oolah Lake

Normally, I don’t talk much to strangers, but if I’ve been out in the bush for a while, I find myself pretty talkative.  These guys were me when I was a young man.  Then, my dreams took me every year to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, “le beau pays” of Sig Olson, to get into the backcountry, away from people, civilization, only me, the wild lakes and rivers, loons, beaver, otter, eagle, moose, bear, and wolf.  I went into the country scrubbed and clean, explored it and came out with The Scent.  Eventually, I knew that area as well as my home town. Maybe better. I sure loved it more. Always will.

It was much later that I discovered Alaska. Oh, I did the Chilkoot Trail in ’84 and ’87, paddling the Yukon as far as Carmacks; I paddled the Nahanni in the Northwest Territory in between those two trips. I didn’t camp above the Arctic Circle until 20 years later.  By then, I knew if I didn’t start to make my dreams come true, I never would. First on the list was the Arrigetch Peaks in the Gates, spending four nights at the base of the mountains, close enough to hike up and place the palm of my hand on the granite.  We tried to get back into Aquarius Valley, but the rain made it too slick and unsafe to see the whole thing.  We got to the glacier that is the headwaters of Arrigetch Creek. On the eight mile hike back to the Alatna River, there had been so much rain that we had to detour upstream a mile to finally cross in fast water that was mid-thigh in depth, then walk a mile back down to move forward a net ten yards.  

Base of the Arrigetch Peaks

Afterward, I said that if there were a guarantee I could see Aquarius, I would go back. But there was too much else up there.  I never did. I returned to Fairbanks with The Scent, took a quick shower and the redeye to Seattle.

The next year, I came back to see ANWR, and we did a loop hike from the Kongakut River that got us into Drain Creek, bordered by mountains called Bathtub Ridge, with a mountain to the east called “The Plug.”  This was the ANWR I was looking for, with huge vistas, miles of tussocks full of caribou, and a braided river.  We went in early June to beat the bug hatch and camped at the base of a cliff that was a salt lick for Dall Sheep. I remember being up at 1 am watching them in bright sunlight, high on the rocks above, moving on the near vertical face more easily than I could move in tussocks. 

Dall Sheep on a salt lick.

I thought once to ANWR would be enough, but that Christmas I got a letter from the guide saying he planned a special ANWR trip to the Aichilik River.  I went into the garage, smelled my pack, which had some residual of The Scent, and decided I had to do that one, of course, because, well, I had to.  I knew there was a longing in my eyes. I could see Dall Sheep and Caribou, another braided river and maybe a griz, so I went.  

We landed on semi-flooded tundra and my boots were soaked for the next 11 days, temperatures most of the time hovering at freezing. I packed four pairs of wool socks, kept one pair for night, which meant after three days my dressing began with cold wet socks. It mostly rained or rain-plus— hail, graupel, or sleet. We crossed and recrossed the Aichilk, walking on ice by caribou, as we headed south into the Brooks Range.  One day, we sat down on the tundra for lunch near the entry into the mountains and had caribou walk close enough to touch, between us  and the river.  That afternoon, we hiked underneath rock faces where Dall Sheep stared down from us from thirty feet up.  I had a wolverine run right by my tent one morning and a caribou calf do the same one evening. The last day, in sunshine, we saw a griz rolling on ice and  then hiked over a mountain rather than take a chance on a valley with a rain-swollen stream. 

Caribou on ice

Dall sheep

A year later, I backpacked the upper Noatak and kayaked a couple hundred miles downstream to Lake Matcherak. I saw another wolverine and we saw a dozen grizzlies, including a sow, two cubs and a yearling that walked right through our camp and another that we had to encourage to turn around on the shore of Matcherak.  I flew back to Bettles with others in a float plane loaded with gear, flying past the Arrigetch in clear weather.  It was fabulous, except the poor pilot had a planeload of The Scent.

Boreal Mountain, part of the Gates of the Arctic

I thought I had seen all I wanted to up there, except I still haven’t.  Probably never will.  I wanted to see the Sheenjek Drainage in ANWR, but things happen and I never got around to doing it.  When I write about this, I know I have the look in my eyes those young men had. I can still see the Noatak far upstream from where I stood one day, when we climbed a mountain and stood on the summit in the wind, astounded by the beauty of the country. 

I didn’t tell the pair to follow their dreams, as I have tried to follow mine.  They were already dreaming. They had The Look.  They didn’t know how they were going to get up here again, where they would go, or what they would do, but they were going to do it.  

They will see the Brooks Range, ANWR and deal with all the issues Alaska throws at those who go into the bush.  They will come out of the country with The Scent, of course, not mixed with woodsmoke, because they will have been north of the treeline, where darkness doesn’t exist in summer.  Their speech will be peppered with Up North words, and they will again take the redeye to Seattle then the Bay Area, where they live, thrilled to have done the trip, already planning the next one.  They will have adventures the way I did, and look back later with fondness at their good fortune, as I have.

Maybe they will travel together, alone, or have company—spouses, children, other friends— who will discover these wild places and carry The Scent.  Maybe some day they will meet a traveler outside the bush with The Scent, ask where that person came from, and share some of their memories of the back and beyond. 

If for some reason they never go back, they went once, saw it, came out with The Scent, and that mattered.

Caribou without telephoto.


October 1, 2019

I had never triple carried a portage before: 5 trips across, 3 carrying gear and 2 backtracking to the start to collect another piece.  Fall-Newton, the portage named for the lakes where it started and ended, was only about 90 rods or a quarter mile, but that was still a lot of walking. There was some time pressure this first day out, because of a possibility of significant rain later in the day or evening.  Still, I got an early enough start and a late day would occur only if I were choosy about campsites. 

I was operating with one good hand, and I didn’t want to push matters on the first carry.  I got the canoe up on my head with a sharp pain in my left wrist and carried it across the portage, getting the same pain removing the canoe from my head.  The large pack was carried across without incident. On my fourth trip across the portage, to get the last pack, I encountered a group of young men, three to a canoe, a guy at each end, the third presumably spelling one as they walked across.

I’ve never portaged that way, preferring to flip the canoe up on my head and shoulders and carry it that way, pack at the same time or separately.  For a brief moment, I wondered if I should tell them how canoes ought to be carried across.  Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut, after I saw what was in the canoe.  They had all their gear, unsorted, in the vessel, plus each guy was wearing a small backpack with more gear.  Given their strength, it certainly appeared easier to walk the canoe across than to be “pure” and do it my way, especially since they were going to make one trip across, and I was making five.  With all that loose gear, they would have taken five trips, too.

I looked into the last canoe and saw my food pack.  The last group noted it at the end of the portage and put it in the canoe.  How nice of them!  That saved me a bunch of time.

Newton Lake, my canoe in the upper center.

I’ve certainly done a similar thing for other people when I have been on a portage and a group was coming the other way.  I picked up loose stuff and carried it across.  It’s something you do for others in the woods, if you have the ability.  You help someone; some day someone helps you.  It’s a circle.

It was on this same trail, seven weeks shy of ten thousand days prior, that this particular circle began, the summer of ’92.  I was working with the Forest Service as a volunteer wilderness ranger, and we were camped at the end of the portage, on the Fall Lake side.  While we had lunch there, we heard a crash in the woods.  I got up and went to look, finding a canoe in the middle of the trail, almost exactly where I was standing in 2019.  There was nobody around.  

Figuring the person was headed our way from Newton Lake, I picked up the canoe, put it on my head, and took it the rest of the way across the portage.  It was a 75 pound Grumman “AlumaPig,” as we called them, and that summer I had no problem carrying 75 pound canoes.

Ten minutes later, after I was back finishing my lunch, the presumed owner appeared.  

“Oh my God, thank you thank you thank you!” He called.  I waved. 

“Need any help?”

He did, so my partner and I walked the portage back to Newton Lake and we decided what gear to take. On the walk, we learned the man was from Florida, and this was his first—and last-trip to the Boundary Waters.  He had had enough.  The conversation went something like this:

“This place is awful.”

“Really?” I responded, “I’m a volunteer.  What went wrong?”

“The lakes are huge, and it was windy the whole time.”

“Yes, that can be an issue.”  Builds character, I thought, but decided not to say it. 

“And the fishing sucked.”

“It has been a tough summer for fishing,  It has been very rainy, but we did get some walleye in Basswood the other night.”

“And it’s so rocky on these PORT uh ges or por TAJES, whatever you call them.”

“Builds character.”  I couldn’t resist.  Shame on me, but hey, I was carrying his stuff.  

The man stared at me.  “And the bugs!!”  He paused, staring at me.  “Or are you into them, too?”

I’m truly sorry he had a bad trip.  I have had less than ideal trips, too. Still, I helped the man from Florida, and it was fitting that on the same portage, years later, I was helped.  That’s closing the circle.

Even the difficult days in the canoe country—especially the difficult ones—are memorable.  I remember fighting two foot waves in the rain on large Agnes Lake on the Canadian side.  We camped on Silence Lake that night, and I told my partner to get into his sleeping bag and warm up, while I got wood and made a fire—one match even.  I have few other recollections of that trip.

The same partner and I made it through a swamp to Silence Lake from a different side a couple of years later.  It poured that night, and neither of us had dinner.  We were beat, mostly dry and weren’t about to get wetter again trying to make it.

Or the 20 mile day down Basswood River on a late September day in 1992, standing up at times because I was so sore sitting.  I got hissed at by an otter in Wednesday Bay on Crooked Lake, and reaching the main body of the lake, my arms about ready to fall off, the Sun was a large red ball appearing to bounce of the white pines somewhere over Friday Bay.  I put up the tent, ate dinner and went to bed.  That was the night I heard the wolves.

Or the day my wife and I went down the Frost River and fifteen portages later, reached Cherokee Lake, We had been a bit behind schedule, but we were smart to leave the river for the beginning of the day.  I’ve never before or since put a canoe on my head that many times in a day.  As we paddled out to look for a campsite, some people hailed us and asked what the weather was going to be.  I said, “Rain.”

“How come?”

“New south wind, and up here that means low pressure is coming.”

It rained the whole next day.  It was fortunately a day of rest for us.

There are also the days like the one on Museum Bay in Lake Insula, a decade ago, when after dinner, we heard “clop, clop, SPLASH,” and spotted a moose, half mile away, walking along the shore.  That’s the reward for all the hard work; indeed, the hard work IS the reward, as every outdoors person worth his or her salt would say.  Wilderness writer Sig Olson wrote that eighty years ago.  

Thanks, guys, for bringing my pack and making my day easier.  I appreciated it.  You closed a circle for me, and some day someone will close it for you. For the one guy who noted I was solo and said he wanted to go solo, may you do it and enjoy it thoroughly. Thank you for showing me that the way you portaged, gear in the canoe, can work quite well.  I was wrong all the time I thought that was silly.

It’s just not for me.

Red sky in the morning.


October 3, 2018

I began to hear a gentle tapping on the tent fly.  Then it stopped for a minute or so but began again and increased.  It was raining, and judging by the way the clouds had looked all day and this evening, it was probably going to rain for some time.

Fine by me.  Great, even.  I was in my tent, warm, had a book, a light, no place to go, and nobody knew where I was, other than on some lake in the Boundary Waters. The tent wasn’t going to leak, water wasn’t going to soak the floor, and I was at total peace with the world.  I’m not sure what that is worth, but in the woods, where puddings are currency, tundra swans on the wing are news, loon calls are music, and I can turn my full attention to a single leaf with interesting drops of water on it, a rainy night after the day’s work is done ranks high on my list of good things.

It was a gift, I concluded, a wonderful night in the woods.  I turned off the solar charged light I had and just lay in the dark.  I would later drop off to sleep, awakening some time after midnight to no sound.  When I went outside, there was a dense mist just this side of rain, but not so dense as to let me hear it on the tent.  

That night brought back memory of a similar experience–“gift”–on the Nahanni River, a beautiful wild river in the Northwest Territories, west of Great Slave Lake, that I ran with a Canadian group back in 1985.  I said several times I’d go back but knew I probably wouldn’t and never did.  It wouldn’t be the same anyway, now having been “discovered.”  We had camped above the 96 m high Virginia Falls one evening, after having had time to view it in bright sunshine. I still see myself as a strong 36 year-old, shirtless, standing near the falls at the top and in rain gear at the bottom, because of the heavy spray.  We would portage 3/4 mile around the falls the next day and shoot the rapids, camping on an island well downstream from Fourth Canyon.  After dinner, the canoes were pulled well up on shore and tied, for losing one would have been death out there.  Cleanup complete, we settled in our separate tents, rain starting, barely audible over the roaring rapids nearby.  It is one of the nicest memories I have of the trip from Rabbitkettle Hot Springs to the Liard River.

To be a “gift,” the rain can’t start before dinner.  Heavens, not that.  I can think of trips where heavy rain did occur early, and we dined on a granola bar. One memorable rainy night followed a day where a friend and I left Kahshahpiwi Lake in the west central Quetico, which has no easy way in or out, and after negotiating a nasty swamp that was too wet to walk over but not wet enough to paddle, found our exhausted, sweaty selves in the pouring rain on Silence Lake lucky enough to have a place to pitch our small two man tent, neither of us with either the energy or the initiative to make dinner. 

Another time was a decade ago with my wife, when a thunderstorm brewed up in the afternoon over our sand beach camp on Lake Insula, a beautiful spot, but with the fireworks starting just as we boiled some water.  We retreated to the tent while the storm continued for several hours, one lightning strike within probably 100 m of the tent. I finally had to go out once to get a water bottle and to leave behind my own water, and I didn’t feel a bit safe doing it. True, the odds were against my being struck by lightning, but luck and hope as a safety plan are considered bad form by accident investigators, coroners, and other such parties.

Rain’s beginning just before one awakens doesn’t qualify, either, because a major day’s decision needs to be made quickly while one is still half asleep:  “Do I get up, dressed, rolled, packed and get the tent down now before everything gets wet, or do I take a chance, sleep in, and end up both being wet and packing wet?”  “Or do I stay put until it stops?” An hour before, I had heard wolves howling out on Crooked Lake. I remembered the strong south wind the day before that pushed me 20 miles north, and noted, when I was trying to find the wolves, clouds moving up through Orion’s belt, showing a continued southerly flow in the upper atmosphere. That meant rain.  At least I had the good fortune to already be awake, but still had to decide on a plan.  Sometimes, like that day, I made the wrong decision: I packed and moved on, and neither my gear nor I remained dry.  It was about the only time on a lake I had to pull into an island to empty rain water out of the canoe.  

Thunderstorms are another matter.  From a sheltered, safe place, I love watching them.  It is one of the things I miss about Arizona.  When I was a volunteer ranger patrolling with the late Mike Manlove, I would spend the first night outside of Ely in the “Belfry,” a wood shack that Mike built predating his marriage, and where he and Becca first lived.  They then built a log cabin, leaving the Belfry for their kids, and later a for a guy like me who was headed out the next day with Mike to patrol. One night, I could hear the roll of a line of thunderstorms, a menacing celestial growl, counting seconds after each bolt of lightning, tracking the progressively decreasing number associated with progressively louder thunder. I love being in bed in a nice shack listening to that.  Two nights later, on Ima Lake, a flash of light entered a dream I was having, and the loud CRACK made sure I was awake, so that we could rescue our canoe–without needing a flashlight– that had been blown into the lake.

A thunderstorm when it is still dark, and one is solo, brings a sense of foreboding, especially if the boomer is part of a squall line coming through.  I awoke on my Oyster Lake site one September, far from anywhere or anybody, to a thunderstorm in the pre-dawn hours.  It’s primal. We feel we can control our environment, but a thunderstorm shakes me to my core. With another person, one can at least discuss it, even if holding the tent poles to keep the tent from being blown down, which my father and I had to do in one storm when I guided him and my brother into Canada. 

I listened to the patter of the rain, thought back over dozens of canoe trips, hundreds of days out in the woods, thousands of miles under pack and paddle.  I sometimes wonder what I did with my life, and then I realize how fortunate I have been to have spent so much of it out in the back and beyond.  Nearly sixty years ago, I was told that one remembers the difficult days on the trail, and I do remember those hard days in Temagami, Algonquin, Boundary Waters-Quetico, Gates of the Arctic; I have fond memories of difficult days on Lady Evelyn, White Partridge, Agnes, This Man, and Takahula lakes. These places, that weather, those who came along were all part of my experience.

I would have two more “gifts” on this solo trip, which was worth all the work, all the wind, all the rain, all the difficulties of being an old man soloing in the woods, to have more memories to cherish.  


December 22, 2017

I arrived home from the hardware store just in time for the rain.  Note: I didn’t say I just beat the rain home, but rather I arrived home in time to enjoy the rain.

Rain has a bad rap, and since I like rain, it means that once again I am on the wrong side of  conventional likes and dislikes in society.  I live in the city but love the wilderness, but I don’t fully belong in either.  I am an introvert in a society that extols extroverts.  I don’t like the idea that everything has to be set to music, which puts me at odds with conventional likes. The other day, I was sent a YouTube video of the Geminid meteor shower, which was a collage of pictures set to music.  I commented:  “Nice.  Nicer without music.”

I think summer is overrated, too.

I’ve felt this way most of my life about rain.  I enjoy being inside reading a book, while listening to the rain.  But lest one think that being indoors is somehow cheating, I love nothing better than being warm in my sleeping bag and listening to the rain on the roof of the tent.  Oh, I’m sure I will have to get up in the middle of the night and go out in it, but then it’s that enjoyable to be able to go back inside and hear it as I again get warm.

I led a hike to Heckletooth Mountain outside of Oakridge, Oregon, last October, when we had an atmospheric river hit us the night before.  An AR is a plume of moisture spreading from places like Hawai’i, Saipan, or Japan all the way in a continuous feed to the Northwest US.  Recipients can get several inches of rain.  I had some cancel that morning, calling me to say how they were staying home and not coming.  I initially envied them a little, but when we started hiking, the rain gear worked just fine (October hikes are great for testing rain gear), fall colors were beautiful, and while we were wet on the outside, we were warm.  Sure, we had to be careful about hypothermia, but hiking uphill helps warm one up, and so long as one hikes back down steadily, cold is not a problem.  Great hike.

Several of us hiked into to Kentucky Falls last January on what has been the wettest hike I’ve been on in Oregon.  We ate lunch standing up, in rain that managed to get to the forest floor through 600 year-old Douglas fir trees.  Hiking back out, we were totally soaked, and I loved it.  I knew I would dry off eventually, I wasn’t going to get hypothermia, and we were getting what we needed in winter—a long, cold rain.


Part of the Kentucky Falls area


Eating lunch by a 600 year-old Douglas fir


Kentucky Falls, one branch.  I stayed so long that when I turned to leave, the rest of the group was long gone.  Rain makes for beautiful waterfalls.

I’ve backpacked during a 6 day rainy spell in Alaska’s ANWR when the temperature never went past 40, our boots were completely wet, our tents, too, but we stayed warm by hiking, then pitched those wet tents and got into our mostly dry clothes.  The cook tent we set up had enough shelter for eating.  We saw snow on Bathtub Ridge in Drain Creek in June.  Yes, I had to put on wet wool socks first thing, but it was only cold for a few minutes, then my feet were warm.


Alaska’s North Slope, ANWR, shortly after being dropped off to hike south through the Brooks Range (2009).


Hiking through fog.


Brown bear rolling on ice, Drain Creek, ANWR.


Snow on distant Bathtub Ridge, after climbing out over a pass.  The prior picture was taken far down the valley and to the right.  

Years ago in the Boundary Waters, out on the waters of Crooked Lake, just south of the Canadian border, I got packed up, while everything was dry, then on the lake got hit with a downpour  I had to pull ashore on an island to empty water from the canoe, and I was really wet, but since I was paddling and portaging the whole day I stayed warm enough.  Once I reached my campsite, I had a dry tent—at least briefly—and dry clothes awaited me.  I had a quick dinner and got into bed, staying warm, listening to the gentle, steady rain.

I remember rainy days on the trail better than sunny ones.  I remember the cold rain in Temegami, when rain gear wasn’t as good, but our young bodies were able to deal with cold. I wasn’t as happy with it back then.  A quarter century later, and ago, I remember the Fourth of July week on Basswood Lake with the Forest Service, where it rained every day, and I worked to have dry socks each morning.  The woods were empty that weekend, the lakes were beautiful, and we patrolled a vast wilderness alone. That was the weekend I learned how to stay fairly dry during days of rain.

I missed the rain when I lived in Arizona.  We had summer thunderstorms, and if I were lucky, we had at least one nighttime boomer, where I could watch the lightning, hear the thunder, and hope the desert would soak up the water.  I hate droughts, and the 22 year one in Arizona was something I complained about often.  The few times it did rain, I heard weathermen and newscasters say that it was a “bad day,” as if we could live our lives with no water at all.

Before I moved to Oregon, I was at a party talking to somebody who heard I was moving.  He began berating me about its climate.  “It rains all the time up there!” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Great, isn’t it?”

After I moved, we were in a drought for 18 months.  I heard how it would rain all winter, but we got a third of what we needed.  When it was 80 in the mountains in January, an acquaintance told me how “spectacular” the weather was. I stayed quiet. I was told that March could be rainy, but it wasn’t, and that spring could be very wet, which it wasn’t, either. I was told that hot weather was not common, but that summer we broke the record for number of days over 90.  In October, my neighbor asked me how I was, and I replied, “nothing that 10 inches of rain can’t fix.”  In December, the “fix” came, not all at once, and never for 24 consecutive hours.

In November, a woman said on the radio that soon it would be cold, but it wouldn’t last long, and before we knew it March would be back, then spring, and then summer.  We had just gone through a summer with multiple days over 100, no rain for three months, wildfires that burned a quarter of the huge Three Sisters Wilderness and the Gorge, 20 days of bad air quality in Eugene, requiring special masks.  No thanks.  I can wait a long time for summer.  It’s overrated, at least in the American West, where it starts a month or two sooner than formerly, lasts a month or two longer, drier, and with more fires.  Arizona and southern California now have 12 month a year fire seasons.

I like rain.  I know it’s possible to get too much of it, but I have not had that experience in decades.  I had forgotten how many different shades of green there are in the Pacific Northwest.  In the desert, green is washed out by comparison.  I like flowing water, just to watch it, in the wild, not in some fountain.  I like the Sun when it comes out after a good long rain.  Then it is nice.  I enjoy it.

But only for a while.


Storm coming in, Lake Insula, BWCA, 2009


After the storm, next morning.


April 30, 2013

There is serious possibility of opening a sulfide mine in the Boundary Waters watershed, with politicians on both sides supporting it, because it will create jobs.  I haven’t heard much about the costs of such an mine.  Costs are different from money.  For example, we have spent more than a trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That’s money.  The cost, in dead, maimed, displaced, and ruined families is uncountable, but I would submit it is enormous. Because we can’t place a value on a human life, we don’t, so the money we were told we would spend–a laughable $1.7 billion–was at least four if not five orders of magnitude too low.  Before going to war, costs should be understood, but few in Congress understand costs.

Without doubt, the mine near Ely would provide jobs, although mining is more than pick and shovel work these days.  Mining requires engineering skills, knowledge of geology, and more important, knowledge how to do it safely, which means disposing of the waste in such a way that the environment is not polluted.

There are a few of us who think this mine is a bad idea.  A really bad idea.  One company that may be involved is not American; while that doesn’t make it necessarily bad, they don’t have the deep connection to the Boundary Waters that some of us have.  Worse, these types of mines have in every instance been shown to have left toxic metals on the surface that leach into the water and pollute it.

The name of the most beautiful wilderness in the Lower 49 is the Boundary Waters.   Connect the dots.  This region has some of the cleanest water on the continent.  I have drunk from the lakes on every one of my 62 trips up there. How many places can we still drink water out of a lake?

Fish live in water, too.  The second Saturday in May is a special day in Minnesota, for it is fishing opener.  I wonder how people will feel about the possibility of far fewer fish, should the mine pollute the watershed.

But the mine won’t be a problem, I have been told.  I will hear the good-looking young men and women, who sound so sincere, say that there is nothing to worry about.  The executives, who have so much money to gain from the mine, will say technology will make this mine safe, and there won’t be a problem.  The jobs that will be created will be so important to the Iron Range communities, where many are short on money and long on clean water and forests.  Everything will be just fine.  Listen to the reassuring voices.  Look at the handsome young people.  Watch the pictures of cute deer drinking out of a lake near the mine site.  Everything will be fine.

Until it isn’t.  Let me repeat that in a different way.  Everything is safe until it isn’t.  That goes for Challenger, Columbia, Tenerife, the Comet, Electra, and DC-10, shipping oil out Prince William Sound, pipelines through Arkansas, Deep Water Horizon, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and I suspect Keystone XL.

When the you know what hits the fan, suddenly people will be sorry.  “It’s an Act of God,” “we couldn’t have possibly foreseen this,” “we will do everything we can to make you whole.”  And the company will file for bankruptcy.  I wasn’t born yesterday. I could name dozens of other catastrophes.

But then it will be too late.  It will NOT be an Act of God, any more than rheumatic fever or tuberculosis was, death from infected hangnails, or acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Complex systems will fail.  It is a matter of statistics and probability, and there are not many who understand these concepts.

The questions I ask are quite simple:

1.  How much is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness worth?

2.  What is the probability that the mine will pollute, and how are you computing that probability?

The first  question has no answer, and the second is difficult to compute.  We could do an Expected Value analysis on  the Boundary Waters.  We could add up the tourism dollars, the cost of the timber, the fresh water, the campsites, and multiply it by 1, since it already exists with probability 1.  We could have the money the mine puts into the hands of the people of northern Minnesota (not how much ore is there, but how much money goes to the locals, which is a much smaller number) and multiply it by the probability it will cause no problem, which from past experience, is fairly close to zero, and get another expected value.  We then compare the two.  But the first expected value is too low, because no price can be placed on the Boundary Waters. We can’t place a cost on certain things, like people’s lives, unless we want to use human trafficking as a means.  Is this what we’ve come to?

Because these mines have ALWAYS had problems, it is incumbent upon those supporters to show why THIS mine will be different.  But let’s get back to what we can’t measure–the  value of wilderness that is nowhere else this accessible, this pristine, and this transformative of people.  No, we can’t say what that is worth, but it sure is worth something.  It falls into the category of “It ain’t for sale at any price,” and that is what some of us are saying.

There are a few other things that ought to be pointed out as well.

First, Ely, one of the towns that would be impacted by this mine, was once populated by miners, whose kids went to work in the mines.  There is a community college in Ely–Vermilion Community College–where the last Thursday in April is a scholarship banquet, where $42,000 is donated to students.  I am responsible for 3 of those scholarships. 

In 2007, I gave a scholarship to a young woman, whose parents came to the banquet.  Her father worked in the mines on the Iron Range west of Ely, where the mine tailings are, for lack of a better word–ugly.  He was so proud of his daughter, whose education would have her not go into the mines, the way he did.

Now we are offering jobs back in the mines.  We seem to be going backward.

Second, many call the Boundary Waters “God’s country,” a term used for unspoiled wilderness, Up North, in Boreal Country.  I wonder how many believers up there think that mining in a sensitive watershed is in keeping with Creation.  Just a thought.  BOUNDARY WATERS_2007114

The third issue I have is one that we don’t discuss in this country, because the major religions don’t believe in it, and many people don’t either.  We need to have fewer children.  If we had fewer children, we wouldn’t need to find so many jobs for them.  The notion that somebody can finish high school, go into the mines for good money (so long as the mine keeps working), buy a truck, a snowmobile, a boat, have 5 or 6 kids, lots of debt, and expects the kids will be able to do the same thing–and their kids, too–just doesn’t apply any more in this country.

I’ve got skin in this game, although I have no kids.  I think we leave some areas off limits to mining, just as we limited the dams in the Boundary Waters, even though it was a matter of cheap power.  Really?  Cheap?  What would the cost have been had we destroyed Curtain Falls and flooded Crooked Lake and Lower Basswood Falls?  It almost happened.

Crooked Lake at top; Iron Lake at bottom.

Curtain Falls today:  Crooked Lake at top; Iron Lake at bottom.


The Friends of the Boundary Waters, of which I am a member, is going to fight this mine tooth and nail.  So is Steve Piragis in Ely, for whom preservation of the water resource is his livelihood.  I will support them.  The Friends wants to expand its scholarships too, so that more young men and women are trained to do jobs that wilderness management requires.  That is where the money ought to go.

It’s a harder slog to fight this mine as it was recently for me to get into Angleworm Lake in 3 feet of snow. IMG_3096 I’m not young, handsome, or have a reassuring voice.  I am in the minority who dares say we have too many people and that polluted wilderness will not return.  I’m looking at 10-100 years, not next week’s pay check.  I’m thinking of those like me, who need wild country to find themselves and to think thoughts that can only be answered in God’s country. I may not win.

But I am going to the mat on this one.


September 27, 2012

My wife and I got spammed on Jackfish Bay on our last canoe trip.  No, I didn’t have a computer; I saw a plastic bag in the forest behind the campsite, and it had three full cans of SPAM, the real deal.  Minnesota is the Spam capital of the world; for those who don’t know the etymology, it is shoulder of pork and ham.  When I first canoed, 50 years ago, Spam tasted pretty good.  Then again, in the woods, most things taste good, even pine needles.

On the same campsite were two empty beer cans and a burned out can in the fire area.  We carried all of this garbage out, along with our trash. The white pine in the center of the campsite had dozens of scars from people who had to chop at it.  Despite that, the tree was tall and had no signs of blister rust, unusual for a tree this age.  White pines are the most beautiful tree in the woods; the wood from them is prized.  Why anybody would deliberately chop at a tree that was likely a sapling when the Voyageurs came through 225 years ago is beyond me.

White pine (Pinus strobus), scarred by prior campers.

But, give a guy (usually a guy) an axe, and everything in the woods becomes fair game.

On the way out of the woods, we passed a campsite where somebody had cut a few dozen balsam pine boughs for a mattress.  There was a time, half a century ago, when we cut balsams down for tent stringers, used their boughs for mattresses, put cans in the campsite can pit (or in the lake), and threw axes at trees.  These days I thought were gone.  Having cleaned some 500 campsites in the Boundary Waters, those days are not gone.  Note to campers:  aluminum foil does not burn completely in campfires.  No, it does not.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 establishing the Boundary Waters (BW), made most of it, except for a few lakes, including Basswood, non-motorized.  Cans were not allowed, green trees were not allowed to be cut (they don’t burn, and there is no reason to do so), permits were required (and were free for more than three decades), and the number of people who could congregate at one spot was limited to 9.  The BW was and is the largest roadless area in the contiguous states.  This did not sit well with some, and Sig Olson, one of the first great wilderness writers, was burned in effigy in his hometown of Ely.

Sig knew, far before many, that wilderness was no longer something to be conquered or to be lived off but something to be protected.  It was a massive shift in thinking that many still have not embraced.

We now have lightweight and safer gear: air mattresses, chairs, small saws, rain suits, good tents, barbless hooks, food packaged in plastic, but not metal, that it ought to be easy to travel in the wilderness without harming it.

I write this to those who do not know the rules but wish to abide by them; I hope maybe a few of the others might think about what they are doing as well.  The BW is not pristine America post-glacial era.  Most has been logged, about a century ago, and it has been burned by natural and human-caused fires.  I’ve seen a third of the campsites with hot ashes or frankly burning fires and no inhabitants.  I’ve seen many other fires built outside the fire area.  Given the dryness of the soil–dig a latrine, as I have and you realize this fact–fires can spread underground.  Fire is a natural phenomenon, lightning sparked fires, such as the Pagami Creek Fire last year, clear the forest for new growth.

The debate should be about whether we let naturally caused fires to burn.  There should be no debate whether somebody should be allowed to leave an unattended campfire.

The BW is open to fishing and hunting.  Fishing has to change too, from a half century ago.  Catching large stringers of fish–or one huge fish, a breeder–has to stop, and catch and release, except for a meal, with barbless hooks should be done.  Is this inconvenient?  Sure.  But what about the upcoming generations?  BW lakes are not sterile, but the northerly climate makes them far less productive of fish than many lakes at lower latitudes in the US.

The world changes.  We are no longer voyageurs with canoes in an unmapped wilderness.  We are a quarter million annual visitors in the wilderness the size of Rhode Island.  While there is much room, large numbers of people put pressure on the wilderness with human waste, human trash, and other impacts.  Humans belong in the BW, but as our numbers increase, our impacts must lessen.  Even the best camper may break rules when caught out in severely inclement weather.  I’ve seen hundreds of pounds of abandoned gear.  The late Mike Manlove referred to this as “being out of one’s comfort zone.”

Wilderness is not only subject to attacks from within but from without.  Fish have mercury, lakes become acid.  Water quality may deteriorate from sources far from the wilderness.  Careless boaters can transfer invasive species from one infected lake to a previously normal one.   Heavily log or burn much of the forest, and streams and lakes will become muddy.  This affects fishing.  Eventually, such damage may clear.

Mining, on the other hand, is forever.  A sulfide mine, planned near the wilderness, is a huge concern.  Communities need jobs, but sulfide mines are particularly toxic to watersheds, and the BW is a watershed if ever there was one.  Another pillar of the local economy is tourism.  Destroy the watershed, and tourism will disappear.  I am told the mine will be safe; things tend to be “safe” until they are suddenly not safe.  Then, everybody is sorry, the money made, the rich folks gone.

One hundred fifty years ago, the virgin pine stands of northern Minnesota were thought to be inexhaustible.  Forty years later, the state was importing lumber.  Log enough, and the jobs eventually end, along with the forest.  Mine enough, the jobs eventually end, along with the surrounding area.  If we have an unemployment problem, one good solution would be for many families to have a lot fewer children.  The US population has more than doubled in my lifetime; we have one of the highest birth rates in the industrialized world.

This is the 21st century, and we need natural resources, wise use of land, and a lot fewer people than we are producing.  If we continue to act the way we did in the 18th century, nearly exterminating the beaver, the 19th century (the buffalo and the forest), and the 20th (treating wilderness like a playground), there will be a large emptiness in the 21st.

Nature can recover, but within limits, and often with very different outcomes than even the best biologists can predict.  Enjoy the wilderness, carry out what you brought in, and maybe a little stuff that others brought in, too.


September 25, 2012

“Come on in,” called Dorothy Molter, as I had paddled up to shore on her island home on Knife Lake and knocked at the door.  Dorothy was a legend on Knife Lake.  She left nursing and Chicago around 1930 and lived on an island in Knife Lake, which straddles the border between Minnesota and Ontario.  Called “The loneliest woman in America,” Dorothy had hundreds of visitors every year.  She was grandfathered (or mothered) and allowed to live the rest of her life on Knife Lake after the Wilderness Act of 1964 required resorts to be taken down, power boats removed, limits on numbers of people who could go in, and even how low planes could fly overhead.

Dorothy was a legend.  She gave me some of her famous root beer, and as we talked, I commented that it was a little more difficult to canoe trip when I was 32 then it had been when I was 18, guiding canoe trips in Algonquin Park, wearing the coveted red neckerchief that only guides wore.

“Yes,” Dorothy replied, completely straight-faced, “I don’t paddle and carry as well as I once did, either.”  Dorothy had forty years on me and she would live for 5 more, her statement a lovely put down to my complaint about age.  I never forgot that.

In the ensuing 31 years and twice as many trips I have taken into the Quetico-Superior, not exactly easy from Arizona, I can count lots of things–wildlife sightings, fish caught, bear charges (1), aurorae seen.  What has fascinated me the most, however, has not been the three seasons in which I have paddled, but the changing seasons of my life with the canoe country.

I first put a canoe on my head 50 years ago, in the spring of my life.  I was an apprentice guide, and I carried wooden Old Towns, slept in canvas tents or under a canoe.  Nobody practiced Leave No Trace camping.  We had can pits, cut live balsam for tent stringers every night, and washed dishes in the lake.  I carried up to 140 pounds, dragged reluctant canoes down rivers, and fought waves so large they hurt, when the bow crashed down on the other side.

In my 30s and 40s, in the summer of my life, I discovered and then explored the Quetico-Superior, covering as much distance as I could.  I had a map on the wall in my office, and after each trip there was new ink on the blue and green splotches.  Miles mattered, new routes mattered, single carrying portages mattered.  I was up early, paddled hard all day, and slept well at night?  Rain?  I got wet.  Headwinds?  I worked.  Portages?  They were a chance for me to show what I had.

When I was 43, I volunteered in Ely for the Forest Service, spending six months away from my medical practice and 100 days in the woods between mid-May and mid-October.  I was a third again older than the guy who visited Dorothy Molter, in far better shape, but I now learned about the trees and the plant life that I had walked by, cut, and burned.  I learned that giving back to the wilderness was more important than having my own personal proving ground.

As I approached 50, I brought my wife along, a previous non-camper, and taught her how to travel.  She in turn taught me how to enjoy the woods–together.  I stopped single carrying portages in 2001, when I was 52.  I had nothing to prove and a lot I could hurt.  I enjoyed walking back in the woods for a second trip.

When I was 56, I soloed into Kawnipi Lake one more time.  Many of us who ply the canoe routes of Hunter’s Island feel Kawnipi is the most beautiful lake on either side of the border.  I may go back again, but it doesn’t matter now whether I do.  I have been there six times, love the place, and am thankful for what I’ve seen there.

“Bowling alley.” Kawnipi Lake.

The northern sweep of Agnes Lake, on the way to Kawnipi.

The year after, my wife and I sponsored a scholarship at Vermilion Community College (VCC).  We have no formal tie to the school, but Ely has given both of us a great deal, and we get great pleasure from helping the next generation of wilderness enthusiasts, many of whom not only live at the edge of wilderness but at the edge of poverty.  These young–and older–men and women are doing great work, and each year at the spring banquet, I meet them and hear their stories.

After 2003, my wife and I started base camping in Lake Insula.  I never thought I would base camp, but I enjoy the day trips where we explore side bays, sometimes finding trails that lead to interesting views.  It is nice not to have to set up camp every night and break it down every morning.  Do I miss the long days and the multi-lake trips?  No, I look back on them with fondness.  My pictures have faded; neither the diaries nor my memories have.

We’re now well into our 60s, the autumn of our lives, and every autumn we come up and base camp somewhere else.  We find a nice place, explore, relax, and forget about the “road, steel and towns” that Sig Olson wrote about.  We are in his “back of beyond.”  We enjoy canoeing and we work well together.  The lakes are old friends; the campsites second or third homes.  Every year we can come up is a gift–one more chance, one more trip, a few carries, the automaticity with which I put a canoe on my head, or deal with a 2 foot chop.  I have watched with great joy my wife become an excellent canoe tripper who also loves the woods, and helps me make a comfortable camp, in all sorts of weather.

Fall colors on Jackfish Bay.

We established a second scholarship at VCC and contribute to a third.  VCC has become family.  I come up for the banquet in April and take a solo trip for a day or two.  I don’t go far, I just want to be out there, alone, thankful for those who saved this wilderness from damming, clear cutting, and roads.  In the autumn of my life, I get to see others in the spring of their lives and canoe in spring, too.

We don’t know how long we will be able to canoe.  The autumn is a brilliant time in Ely, and it is a brilliant time in our lives.  This past trip, I saw Lesser Sandhill Cranes fly high over me on Pipestone Bay.  Next March, I will be in Nebraska, at Rowe Sanctuary, showing people these same birds during their spring stopover along the Platte, one of the two great North American migrations.

We will camp as often as we can in the Boundary Waters.  We know there are no guarantees reagarding ability or longevity.  We hope to canoe into our 70s.  I dream of going out in the winter of my life when I am 80; I took my father into the Quetico when he was 78.  We hope there will be enough of those with sense to guarantee the future of this region to those whose lives are not only drawing to a close, but those whose lives have yet to begin.

Eventually, we will die, like every living organism we have seen in the wilderness.  Our ashes will be spread in the area, finally being part of the wilderness we have travelled, loved and supported.

BWCA, 2012. TRIP 60. SOLO TRIP 20.

April 29, 2012

I needed to get my head on straight.  Really.  I am one of those who needs to get into the woods, the wilderness, or take a long hike periodically.  How long I can go in between varies.  But I know all the signs.  I get angry easily, I am short-tempered, I get upset at minor issues, and there is a part of me that says “get away from all of this.”

In 2006, we established a scholarship in our name at Vermilion Community College, a 2 year school in Ely, MN, on the Iron Range, at the end of the road to the Boundary Waters.  VCC students live on the edge of the wilderness….and poverty.  I was at the age where leaving a legacy–the woodpile a little fuller than I found it–mattered, and the scholarship was awarded at the annual VCC scholarship banquet, held in Ely.  I have attended 5 of the last 7 banquets.

In 2009, I partnered with the Friends of the Boundary Waters , one of those small organizations that has a few dedicated staff and leverages a lot of volunteers, to create a second scholarship.  I offered to pay for the scholarship myself; the Friends matched it, and this year, with a new employee in the Northland, he would present it, and I no longer would, which suited me fine.  The Friends kept a tall cellphone tower away from Ely, so it would not be visible from the wilderness.  Unless you have spent time in wilderness, it is difficult to explain how sounds and sights from civilization can degrade the experience.  A cell tower would degrade the wilderness, where cell phones read “No Service,” and one is on his own.

Worse, PolyMet is trying to build a Molybdenum mine in the area, which is of great concern to the water supply, due to the toxicity of the element.  It is jobs vs. wilderness, except the wilderness gives jobs.  The outfitter got money from me, and so did restaurants and motels I used, before I went into the woods.  We are going to risk the cleanest water in the US for mining something that is safe until it suddenly isn’t?  (Prince William Sound, 1989, Chernobyl, 1986, Fukishima, 2011, Challenger, 1986).

The third scholarship was the Brekke/Langhorst scholarship, named for two brave young men, cousins from Moose Lake, Minnesota, who died in Iraq…or as a result of Iraq.  One died 7 April 2004, which was almost certainly in Fallujah.  The other died from complications of PTSD, which should have been anticipated before we went to war, which was unnecessary and probably illegal.  But that is another story.  Young men are often the pawns of old white men, most of whom have never spent a day in uniform or served in harm’s way.  As a veteran, I wanted to contribute to a scholarship for veterans, and the family honored me by allowing me to do so.  No family member has presented the scholarship; I and a few others have.  This is a very deep honor for me.

So, I had plenty of reason to go to Minnesota in late April.  In 2010, I took a short trip, stayed about 3 hours from Ely, and in the space of one day drove to Ely, rented a canoe, did an eleven mile day trip in to Pipestone Bay, came out, presented the scholarships (there are about 50, now), and drove 3 hours back to my hotel.  That was a bit much.

In 2011, I wanted to go into Basswood Lake, and the ice went out the day before I arrived.  However, the weather was not at all cooperative, with high winds, big waves, and frigid water.  Not being in paddling shape, I thought in unwise to go into the woods, and camped at Fall Lake Campground, where I was alone, did some day hikes in snow, saw a Pileated Woodpecker, among other birds, and enjoyed myself.

This year, I decided to go in overnight and look at the results of part of the Pagami Creek Fire.  My wife persuaded me to spend two nights, in case of inclement weather, which turned out to be a wise idea.

I flew to Minneapolis, did the usual 4 1/2 hour drive up north, and got settled in Ely for the night.  The next day, I got the rest of the equipment I needed, put it on the car, and drove out to the Lake One landing.

I got on the water on a bright 60 ish day (16 C), and in an hour found a decent campsite about 3 miles  (5 km) in  .  I was going to rest that day, but the forecast was good for that day and not so good for the next day, so I had lunch, hopped in the canoe, and portaged twice into Lake Two.  I expected a wasteland, but it was a mile before I saw any sign of fire.  But there were signs.  The campsites at the west end had some burned areas, and the beautiful white pines on the west end of the channel into Lake Three were no more, as that area had been subject to a back burn.

Channel between Lakes Two and Three, with tall burned white pine.

I paddled into Lake Three and was pleasantly surprised again not to see a wasteland but a significant part of the forest was burned.  There were mosaics of green amid blackened trunks.  The water was more turbid than usual, especially by the campsites, but also along the shore in general.  It will take some time for this to clear.  Some of the islands were scorched, others were completely untouched.  The south end was heavily burned, although campsites survived fairly well, in large part because most of the fuel in this area has been picked over by campers for their evening fires.

The wind was a little worse than I liked, and although a 2 foot chop is not difficult to handle, I needed to realize I had about 5 hours to explore, including time to get back to my campsite.  Wind, muck , and rapids are three things that can stop a solo canoeist, so I turned back to the north end and started to head back, stopping at one campsite that bordered the fire area.  The wind abated, so I took an open channel at the north end of the lake, which I had never before seen open, and went into the northeast bay.  The one campsite the late Mike Manlove and I had stayed at in 1993 was in the middle of a heavily burned area, and the north shore was fairly heavily involved.

Northeast Bay of Lake Three, heavily burned.

I had told everybody I would not go into Lake Four, and I believe firmly in never deviating from one’s itinerary, when one is solo. A lot of bad things can happen in the woods, and solo, what may be minor can become life threatening.  I looked around, took some pictures, and then headed back to the campsite on Lake One, the whole 13 miles (22 km)  or so taking me a little over 4 hours.

I had nothing to do when I returned so lay in the tent, not sleeping, but actually encountering a few mosquitoes, at least five weeks earlier than I am used to.  After dinner, the lowering clouds suggested that the next day might not be so nice, and I was really glad I got into the burn area when I did.

Indeed, I was awakened to the sound of rain, and I awoke under darker skies although no rain.  It was noticeably cooler, too.  I hung around the campsite for a while and then paddled about 1 1/2 miles down to Pagami Creek, far back in the depths was where the fire started.  I took a look at the western sky, and while the barometer had not changed, I did not think going further was a wise idea.  I turned around and paddled back to camp, arriving about 10 minutes before the first onset of rain.  It rained off and on through dinner.

I was really, really glad I hadn’t gone into Lake Three that day–wind, rain and cold weather would have made the trip a bad idea.  I have long learned never to squander good weather in the woods, be it 5 minutes or 5 hours.

I spent the evening looking along the shoreline for anything I could find.  Such scanning has found moose, beaver, otter and other animals.  This time, it was a raven and two crows who provided the entertainment.  The raven flew across the lake and landed in a jack pine across the small channel.  Two crows were beside themselves and called at him, each other, and probably to the general universe.  Periodically, the raven called, too.  I videoed the event, catching the raven flying off, still harassed.  Random scanning is often interesting.

The next morning, the tent was hard, as like a rock, and I went outside to see ice on the tent and snow on the ground!

Spider Web with frost

The stove was out of fuel, and while I had another cannister, it was cold, I was coming out of the woods anyway, and I had enough to eat.  I broke camp, got in the canoe, and paddled back to the landing.  The hardest thing I had to do was horse the canoe up on the car and tie it down.

I got my head back on straight.  I was out 2 days, and it felt like a week.  I saw the burned area, and next year, I have to go back one more time to Lake Insula, as sad as seeing the south shore will be for me.  I haven’t given the lake a proper good by, and who knows?  Maybe we can do our September trips there again, if I find the area isn’t too depressing.  One thing is clear–I need to tie the scholarship banquet in with a camping trip.

The banquet went well.  I met Ian Kimmer, the Friends’ person in the North Country, who presented the Friends scholarship.  I presented my two, stayed for the whole banquet, then headed south.  We’ll be back in September, headed out Fall Lake into Jackfish Bay on Basswood.  It will be a good trip.  All BW trips are.

Burned area.

Canoe with snow on it.

BWCA, 2010

September 29, 2010

This was my 58th trip and Jan’s 16th.  We went into Lake Insula for the 7th year of base camping, again on Site #26 up in Museum Bay.  Again, we had a great traveling day in, with an early start and a tailwind.  We got to Insula in 6 1/2 hours.  Unfortunately, the barometer began falling, it started to get cloudy, and by the next afternoon we had sprinkles.  The next two days were spent in the tent with rain, high winds, and generally good hypothermia weather.

However, when the rain stopped, radiational cooling gave us a beautiful morning mist on the lake.  We had a chance for a couple of day trips on the lake and again, for the second year in a row, saw no people during our 5 nights on Insula.

We had a nice travel day out and decided to go all the way to Lake One, to avoid the traffic on the campsites on Lakes Two and Three.  All was fine until about 3 a.m. on the last morning, when my stomach felt queasy, and I said, “I think I’m going to barf.”  No, I didn’t use the word “think.”  I KNEW I would.  Got the tent unzipped and retched right outside.  Nice.  Really, really nice.  First time in 4 decades that has happened on a canoe trip.  But whatever I got in disappeared, and we departed Lake One seeing the beautiful fall colors in the North Country.  These were the best we’ve ever seen in a lot of September trips.

People ask about bugs and cold this time of year.  Answer:  no bugs.  We had one day of frost.  There were very few people.  But we wouldn’t go a week later, as October canoe trips can be really dicey with the weather.

Pictures from the trip:


October 11, 2009

(Published in the Boundary Waters Journal, 2006).                                            

It was on my “list”:  Kawnipi Lake, one more time, while I could.  I’ve got a lot on that list, each year trying to check off a couple items.  A while back, I took my wife and father to see the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte.  Other items still undone include the Death March portages, seeing a wolf in the wild, visiting the Brooks Range and paddling the Churchill River.  The list reminds me not to squander good years.  I once practiced medicine and know too well the bad things that can happen to people and how quickly they may happen.  Last winter, a voice in my head told me, “Get into Kawnipi again, while you still can.”  As soon as I could, I obtained a Quetico permit for mid-May. 

I’ve been fortunate.  Despite living in the Sonoran Desert, 2000 miles from canoe country, I’ve logged more than 50 Quetico-Superior trips.  It’d probably be easier and cheaper to live in Minnesota, but 21 New England winters were enough.  In 1992, I worked as a volunteer wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in Ely, spending an even hundred days in the woods, the most content I’ve ever been.  I’ve had a lot of formal education, but that year I attended the University of the Forest Service, Boundary Waters Campus. 

My body has suffered wear like a heavily used Wenonah.  I have three pins in a hip and a deformed clavicle from a past bicycle accident.  Occasionally, a pinched nerve in my neck dating from a Forest Service trip bothers me, but never while canoeing.  It may require surgery some day, but not yet. 

I’ve been to Kawnipi five other times, for which I feel blessed.  IMAP SHOWING KAWNIPI LAKE just wanted another chance to see the lake and spend a night there, refreshing my memories.  I’ve had great fishing in McKenzie Bay, seen moose in Kawa and McVicar Bays, soloed into Lemay and paddled from Atkins Bay to Shelley.  I didn’t have any logic for why I wanted to go back.  I just did.  Those who have been there understand. 

My wife prefers late season BWCA trips, so I contacted Pieter, a good friend from Ottawa, who introduced me to the Yukon and Nahanni Rivers.  We’ve also traveled the Quetico several times, the last being a “Triple K” trip in ‘97 — Kawnipi, Keefer and Kahshahpiwi — using his heavy Old Town Tripper.  He agreed to come (I convinced him to use a lighter canoe!), planning to meet in Ely and leave from Moose Lake.  Neither of us had time for more than up and back, but that was enough. 

Unfortunately, about a week before the trip, Pieter had a sudden emergency and had to cancel.  I’ve soloed nineteen canoe trips and the southern quarter of the Appalachian Trail (finishing that is also on my list), but those were many years and a couple of health problems ago.  Still, I wasn’t going to give up, but my time at Kawnipi would be further limited.  I organized my gear and flew north, always feeling a little odd as a mid-50ish guy carrying a canoe pack through an airport.  Some have told me at my age I should be playing golf, but I’d rather swing a paddle than a club, and the white I want to see is on an eagle’s head, not a ball. 

It was good to again see the Ely water tower, having fond memories of living at the Service Center on S. Central.  I rented a canoe, got a tow to Prairie, waited in line to clear customs, and was on Inlet Bay at a reasonable time and with fair skies.  An hour later, I reached the sand beach at the Burke portage, having camped near there on my last Quetico trip.  I’ve tried bent shaft paddles, but fairly set in my ways, I prefer the straight shaft better for tracking, especially solo.  I also tied in a spare paddle, which I once had to use in ‘91 when I dumped in Basswood River.  Fortunately, I was solo then as well, so nobody witnessed my error. 

I could probably still single carry some portages, but I don’t have anything to prove, and a lot I could really hurt.  My hip is fine, but carrying a canoe and pack together seems to be asking for trouble.  Besides, a walk in the woods back to the beginning of the carry is just fine by me.  Solo, I’m a pure traveler, not having fished in several years.  I like to cover water, lots of it, every day.  I’m the guy in one of Sam Cook’s articles, staring at the map, looking at where he’s been and wondering how he is going to see all that country before he dies. 

In 2015, I also want to be one of those few 66 year-olds he’s seen in the woods.  But there are no guarantees.  Go when you can. 

My first day plan was to reach the great campsite on the point of Agnes, at the end of the narrows, where the lake widens and one can see the broad sweep to the north.  But paddling Burke and Sunday and the two long carries from Sunday to Agnes took their toll, so when I spotted a small site on the west shore not too far north of Louisa Falls my arms told me I had covered enough water for the day.  Solo trips require few campsite amenities.  After I pitched my tent and laid out a kitchen area, I leaned up against a convenient rock, sipping cider, writing in my diary and enjoying the view of the nearby cliffs, seeing two soaring bald eagles and a broad-winged hawk.  I wish more Americans could see their national symbol in the wild.  When the wind died down, I heard the distant roaring of the falls, a remarkable spectacle in spring.  Living in the desert, I enjoy North Country greenery, trees without spines and rain.  I have simple tastes and eat well, having learned from my Forest Service “University” friends what works well for wilderness cuisine. 

I was pleased by the lack of bugs.  I prepare by treating my clothes with Permethrin®, but even so, it appeared that I beat the hatch.  Solo trips are unique; you get to do what you want, when you want, so long as you do the work.  If you need something, you have to do it.  Period.  There is no splitting up chores.  You also must be careful, really careful, never once deviating from your planned route, including any possible side trips.  It is of course essential somebody know your itinerary. 

The biggest concern I had was wind, for that, current and muck are three things that can stop a solo canoeist cold when two can continue.  I was therefore fortunate the next day to find clear skies and Agnes like glass.  I proceeded north, paddling close to shore,AGNES LIKE GLASS safer when solo and better for seeing wildlife.  I stopped at the pictographs well up the lake, especially liking the one showing two people in a boat.  I sure would have been faster with a second person!  Continuing, I encountered two young men at the portage leading to the East Channel of the Agnes River.  They asked if I knew anything about the portages.  It had been years, and my memory hazy, but I remembered the second carry as wet, full of blow downs and generally messy.  When I landed at the portage, I walked it first with a pack, rather than a canoe, so if I found trouble spots, I wouldn’t get hung up trying to change direction.  I learned that technique the hard way. 

My memory was unfortunately accurate.  There was a hundred yard stretch of flooding and serious muck, along with several blow downs.  I was real happy I hadn’t taken the canoe over first!  If the worst price I would pay was wet feet, it was pretty cheap.  After that slog, I carried three more times before reaching Murdoch, noting how quickly the sky had become overcast.  Where I live, it seldom rains, and the weather changes slowly.  Up North, I check the sky often.  Concerned, I ate a fast lunch and continued across the lake, larger than I remembered, finally reaching the outlet.  Back in ’89, I lost a large bass in those rapids. 

Once I cleared them, I was in Kawnipi.  Another half mile with a right turn, and I was in the main channel, where I stopped paddling and drifted, happy to have made it back to such splendid country, every bit as beautiful as I remembered.  I slowly continued east, passing the opening to McKenzie Bay, recalling the campsites and a side trip where I accidentally stumbled upon an old grave of a man, similar to ones I had seen in the Yukon.  I quietly departed.  Continuing in the channel, I eventually camped on a small, sheltered spot on the south shore, well above the water, with good views in both directions down the lake.

That afternoon, sitting on ledge rock, I saw only one other group, far off.  Early spring trips show the land full of promise and waterfalls on many of the cliffs.  The male mergansers are striking black and white, pollen is on the water, lining the shore and the loons seem to be constantly calling.  At times, when the wind stopped, I was surrounded by what I call “pitch quiet,” something, as unpolluted lake water or dark, dark night skies, many have never experienced. 

The clouds lowered further by dinner, and that night it rained, the morning greeting me with leaden, threatening skies.  With another person, I could have explored more, but I wasn’t sure what the wind would be like back on Agnes.  Always happy traveling, I turned south into McVicar Bay, photographing the inlets, one with a reflection reminding me of a huge hall of mirrors.  I entered theHALL OF MIRRORS burn area at the first portage; at the second, into Anubis, I passed through a large forest of young jack pines, which needed the ’95 fire in order to germinate. 

I left the burn at Bird and took the nasty, rocky, slippery carry into Agnes, the first drops of rain hitting me as I loaded for the long paddle ahead.  I could hear and see the waterfall on the uphill Dack portage, recalling my May ’92 solo into a small island on that lake, where the morning temperature was in the low 20s. 

There was no wind, and Agnes like pockmarked glass, the rain pelting me for several miles.  Fortunately, the point campsite I hadn’t reached on the way up was open, and after dozen years, I was back on it, although views up the lake were mostly of fog and rain, which this desert dweller had a full day to appreciate.  The next afternoon, I traded rain for a southwest wind, so I was unable to paddle the opposite side of the peninsula to East Lake, where I’ve seen moose.  I split up the two long portages out of Agnes, camping on Meadows, a lake that I had previously always wanted to get in and out of quickly.  I found it empty, other than two pair of loons, a sheltered campsite, plenty of firewood nearby and a good view for sunrise.  How could I have not appreciated this lovely lake all these years? 

Again, I was surrounded by pitch quiet interspersed with occasional loon calls, wishing I could package both for my return to “civilization.”  Absolute quiet, where one’s ears ring, is not uncommon in canoe country — if one is patient.  Portaging back to Sunday, I encountered a group coming the other way.  First asking permission (I’ve never been turned down) I carried some of their gear across when I doubled back.  I’ve had a lot of help in my canoeing career and it is good to close the circle. 

When I reached Singing Brook portage I remembered the time my wife and I camped there, on our first Quetico trip, trading quiet for running water, and seeing what looked like a large house cat, which of course turned out to be a pine marten.  Years later, solo, an east wind was so strong I actually couldn’t move out of the small bay by the portage into the rest of Burke.  I had to backtrack to the longer North Portage, struggling further to get out of Sunday Bay.  This time, the weather cooperated, and I set up camp early on Sunday Island, close enough to easily make my pickup the next morning.  I had never camped there, enjoying the large tent sites and the “big water” views of Bayley Bay.  There was a loon nest on the southeast end of the island, which I avoided on my afternoon paddle.  Hearing loons is a big reason why I keep coming back.  It is important that we canoeists stay well clear of their nests. 

I paddled to Prairie the next morning in dense fog, navigating by the sound of the falls.  It’s good to check something off my list, but now I want to do this trip again, although not solo, and spend more time up there.  So “a few days on Kawnipi” was added to the list, which will never get completely checked off. 

I think that’s called life. 

                             Solo Trip Tips        

  • Always, always, always leave your route with somebody, including expected camps and when you plan to be out of the woods.
  • A satellite phone might be worth having for emergencies, although the very thought is a travesty to some.
  • If you have never soloed, your first trip should be short, easy and around people.  Ensign, the numbered lakes, Basswood, Sawbill or Seagull come to mind.
  • Of course, wear a PFD.  Of course.  Sure you can swim.  What if you are unconscious?
  • Tie a spare paddle inside the canoe.
  • Everything that is worrisome for canoeists is much more so if you are solo.  Keep an eye on the sky; avoid paddling far from shore and factor wind into your trip.  Experiencing a thunderstorm, deep in the wilderness, solo, is both memorable and humbling.
  • You want it, you do it, pitching and striking the tent, cooking and cleaning up, hanging food, loading and unloading.  Plan to work hard.
  • Even gently moving water may be impossible to paddle against.  Thick weeds and muck can cause havoc.
  • A solo trip is an excellent time to think deeply about life; it can also be very lonely.  Many should not solo.  And that’s fine.
  • Use caution walking, both on portages and in campsites.  Use care when obtaining wood and using a camp saw.  Lacerations, a sprained ankle/fractured wrist from a fall or back sprains from lifting are all potentially life-threatening.  Carry a good first aid kit, remembering you have to diagnose and treat yourself while injured.  Read this again.
  • Swimming alone is not a good idea.
  • Expect everything to take longer.  Unloading the canoe and pulling it up on shore to portage is hard work, which may be lessened somewhat if you don’t mind getting wet.
  • Place the pack in the bow, especially on long paddles over open water.  It will help with tracking, even if it is more difficult to unload.
  • You may find you are unusually chatty when you encounter another person.
  • A solo trip is a unique experience in our crowded society.  Your chances of seeing wildlife are better.  Enjoy it, and of course, leave no trace of your passing.
  • Finally, remember:  There are no guarantees in life.  Go when you can.