Archive for the ‘BWCAW 2012’ Category


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.