Posts Tagged ‘Canoe Trips’


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.


October 11, 2017

In 1992, I spent six months as a volunteer wilderness ranger for the US Forest Service in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). For the next eight summers, I spent a week n the BWCA with the late Mike Manlove, a remarkably wise woodsman, father, husband, and friend.  One raw, late summer day, Mike and I were on large, oval-shaped Alice Lake, with only a few small islands at the northeast corner.  As we were checking out all 11 campsites on the lake, we pulled up on one sandy site, lovely, I suppose, if it were a hot summer day,  but then wet, cold, and with a lot of recently abandoned gear.  Mike shook his head as we cleaned the site, knowing we would have to haul a lot of trash out. “These people got out of their comfort zone,” Mike said, folding a wet shirt and picking up some wet food containers. “Once that happens, all the good thoughts about Leave No Trace get left behind. All people want is to get out of here.” The idea of treating the wilderness properly is a thin veneer of behavior, which under adverse circumstances may melt away like ice off a boreal lake in spring, leaving one hell-bent for whatever leather they have on their boots to leave the woods.

I’ve been out of my comfort zone, and I know what Mike was referring to.  One doesn’t want to consider Leave No Trace if facing head winds, rain, cold, 3 days’ travel from town and 15 miles to travel that day.  The best defense against such conditions is to be adequately equipped to travel in inclement weather. There was a time when we had only our eyes, ears, and nose to make weather forecasts, and every night in the North Woods one put things under cover, because it might rain, even if the evening were clear.

Today, technology allows us in the wilderness to get accurate weather forecasts and radar.  We can move further than planned on sunny days if we know the next day is likely to be wet.  Before a recent trip with a friend, he was almost obsessed with the weather forecasts, at one point texting me “Rain+Cold= Misery”.  I’ve canoed in a lot of rain and cold; it’s challenging, but it need not be miserable. I’ve paddled 15 miles in heavy rain more than once, put up a tent, changed my clothes, found dry wood, and started a fire. Yes, I was wet, but once I changed my clothes and sat by the fire, I was warm. I gave my friend a chance to not go; while he didn’t take me up on it, I think he might have been happier had he stayed.

On the first part of the trip, my friend was far more neat than I, his tent meticulously placed and his cook gear, food, and gear neatly stacked near the fireplace. I was impressed and in fact a little jealous.

The penultimate night, we had a strong thunderstorm move through.  Fortunately, it was at night, and yes, I had the camp saw in the tent with me, in order to saw any tree that fell on my tent, assuming I survived the impact.  I stayed safe and dry, but my friend’s tent was pitched in a small depression so that his sleeping bag and some gear got wet.

We needed to move a few miles the next day so that we would be close enough to the take out point to exit the woods on time.  The next morning, after the rain stopped, I started packing and taking my gear down to the canoe.  My friend was not only concerned about his sleeping bag’s being wet but his tent.  To me, packing a wet tent is not enjoyable, but something I’ve done many times. It usually dries shortly after I pitch it the next day, and if not, I have a plastic sheet that lines the floor.  My friend was clearly uncomfortable with his wet gear, folding the tent so quickly it barely fit into the sack.  The tent fly, which is normally folded with the tent, wasn’t, and we ended up carrying it and the tent separately over the portages.  I realized that he was out of his comfort zone. When we reached the lake where we were staying, I found a west-facing campsite where the late afternoon sun could dry everything. It did.

Being outside of one’s comfort zone is of course part of war.  Part VII of Ken Burns’s recent Vietnam documentary was “The Veneer of Civilization,” how some young American men, decent people in civilian life, became the ugliest side of mankind during war.  Burns’s documentary took the wraps off, hearing from brave men, taken out of their comfort zone, who were forever changed.  War strips the veneer “civil” from civilization. We saw how Germany, so strong in the sciences that my father-in-law, a physician, had to learn German in the 1930s, because the best medical research was written in German.  These same people murdered people in places called Auschwitz or Thereseinstadt; I saw the signs in Mauthausen referring to parachutists without parachutes, where one had a choice to jump down on to granite 50 feet below or be shot.  Many committed suicide by trying to escape over electrified fences, to avoid places called “Gaskammer” or slowly starving to death.

The veneer has been badly scraped here in America since 20 January, and it was completely removed in Charlottesville and Las Vegas.  Congress used to be civil; the civility has been stretched and broken.  The veneer has disappeared in the halls of power, when one party has pushed legislation that was written in secret, not taken through the committee process, and brought for a vote within a few days of its having been written.  There isn’t even the pretense that there is respect.  Instead, it is push it through, even if the rules have to be changed.

There was a time when letters to the editor were the only way most of us could express an opinion. Editors filtered the letters, and there was a decent layer of veneer in public media. The Internet has spawned anonymity in which people spew vitriol without consequences. Much of what appears is poorly written, not factual, illogical, difficult to understand, hateful, adding nothing to public discourse.  There is seldom a simple “I disagree” without an ad hominem attack.  Covey’s Fifth Law: “Seek first to Understand then to be Understood,” one of the most powerful rules I used in management, is absent. I can’t write a letter to the editor or a blog post without letting it sit at least 24 hours, often longer, so that I have time to see if my original thoughts still seem right.  Often, they have significantly moderated.  On social media, much of what I write I delete before posting.

Just as astronauts can see the thin veneer of an atmosphere that allows us to breathe; just as a thin veneer of topsoil allows us to grow things; just as a thin veneer of pollinators allows flowering plants to produce food, so is there a thin veneer of civilized behavior that keeps us from descending into a hell that will destroy us.  In the woods, my veneer is experience and proper gear. In society, it is politeness, respect, listening, measured speech, and filtering one’s thoughts before expression.

We need every last bit of veneer today.


September 26, 2017

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

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

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

We were glad we did.

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


View to the north and Canada from the site.


Moose, from the “Hidden Gem” site, 2014

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


The isthmus site from “Hidden Gem”

Hidden in the trees was a tent.

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

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


“Hidden Bay” campsite as viewed from the cliff

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


Beginning of Upper Basswood Falls; Canada across the water


Eagle pair

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

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

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

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

Basswood Lake: an international treasure.


Closeup of isthmus site at sunset


Sunrise from “Hidden Gem”


Fall colors, September 2014.


Beaver, 2014



December 19, 2016

I recently saw a video by the US Forest Service, detailing how six firefighters survived the Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters (BW), their final, fortunately successful stand occurring on Lake Insula, a place my wife and I once knew as well as any person alive.


Lake Insula sunset, 2009


Where the four firefighters were talking, one year almost to the day after this picture was taken. Notice how  narrow the channel is.  September 2010, Insula.


Cold day on Insula, where four years later the four canoeists would paddle for their lives by this site.

The 2011 fire began by a lightning strike in Pagami Creek, a place where canoeists don’t travel.  After being quiescent for a few weeks, being allowed to burn naturally, the fire became more active, and suppression was begun.  The fire made a 12 mile run one day, catching everybody by surprise, including six firefighters, four of whom deployed their shelters on a small island and survived; the other two going into the water by their canoe, surviving first the fire and then hypothermia.  The lessons learned were: “canoeists in the face of a fire may encounter exceedingly strong winds and may swamp,” “shelters degrade when exposed to fire and water,” and “hypothermia is a potential problem for those escaping a fire by jumping into the water.”  Those are all good lessons, but there were far more to be learned.

When the fire became more active, Forest Service personnel in the field were told that the BW would have a “soft closure,” a term that one ranger said she had never heard, meaning, as near as she could tell, people would be asked to leave the woods.  Catchy phrases like “soft closure,” and “tweak the system” are ill-defined and potentially dangerous.  They must be strictly defined.  The woods should be either closed or open.  A campfire ban is clear but if people are told they ought to leave but aren’t required to, there is a mixed message. I have a simple solution: if there is a concern that people would be better off out of the woods, make them leave.

Two men went south, east and downwind of the fire, to check a hiking trail.  They were told the fire wouldn’t be in that area for a few days, but their senses told them that the lighting up of the nearby sky, even if they couldn’t see the fire, was a bad sign.  The wind had changed, and the fire had moved much closer than anybody thought.  Indeed, the two had to run back to their canoes to escape it.  Lesson: fire can move faster than predicted, and in the absence of knowing exactly where the fire is, one should use caution.  

The fact that the men had to go into Horseshoe Lake, unnamed in the video, but clearly the lake referred, in order to help campers close their camp and get back into safer Lake Three, should have been strong evidence to the supervisors that the fire was starting to become far more dangerous.  The campsite was burned; the campers barely escaped.

At one point, a telling comment was made when a firefighter called in and spoke to somebody who was not his supervisor.  The firefighter said that “they” (he and his partner) were uncomfortable with their current supervisor, so for their purposes, they were going to work with the person with whom they were speaking.  Wow.  That is a huge red flag for communication problems.

The next day, the firefighters were told to move further into the wilderness, towards Lake Insula, to move any campers there to the north end of the lake, away from the fire.  They were told they had a few days to do this, and the winds had shifted to the northwest, pushing the fire southeast, away from populated lakes.  I have traveled into Insula over a dozen times.  It is a long paddle with seven portages, and there are no options for safety once one leaves Lake Four heading east, until the middle of Insula.  I was puzzled why people weren’t flown in to do the warning and then picked up later that day.  Again, however, the fire was felt not to be a significant concern.  Lesson: Moving canoeists downwind of an active fire should be done only if there are significant escape routes.

Two women, camped at the last campsite on Hudson Lake, the last lake before Insula, took their  packs across the 105 rod  (525 meter) portage between the two lakes, spending time at the Insula end speaking to their two male counterparts.  All were concerned about the fire, and when some noise was heard, the women went back quickly to get their canoe, basically abandoning their campsite.  It takes thirty minutes to make two trips across the portage, and it was becoming clear to the four that they needed to get on the lake fast, because the first part of the paddle is channels and small islands, shallow water, and offers no protection against fire.  The four were now paddling for their lives, not to close campsites but to get as far east and north as possible.

Two other women moved off Campsite 7 (it was really 8) to escape the fire.  They realized the winds were too high to safely paddle and jumped into the water, using their fire shelter, something to my knowledge has never been done before.

Here are the “10 and 18” (italics are the issues that the firefighters had):

Standard Firefighting Orders

1.  Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.

3 . Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.

4.  Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.

5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger.

6 . Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively. (Done right).

7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.

8.  Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.

9.  Maintain control of your forces at all times.

10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

18 Watchout Situations

1.  Fire not scouted and sized up.

2. In country not seen in daylight.

3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.

4.  Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.

5.  Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.

6.  Instructions and assignments not clear.

7.  No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors.

8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.

9. Building fireline downhill with fire below.

10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.

11.  Unburned fuel between you and the fire.

12.  Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.

13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.

14. Weather is getting hotter and drier.

15.  Wind increases and/or changes direction.

16.  Getting frequent spot fires across line.

17.  Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.

18. Taking a nap near the fire line.

One of the firefighters said that they were violating nearly all of the 10 and 18.  He was not far wrong.  The bold in the 10 indicate what they did right. For the record, in Arizona’s 19-fatality Yarnell Fire, #1,2 and 4 in the first and #s 1,3,4,11,15 in the second were violated.  Unburned fuel between you and the fire, and cannot see the main fire are big concerns.

The group of four were lucky one of their number had experience on Insula and could navigate the lake, no easy feat. She also had the sense to tape her flashlight to the stern, so the canoe behind her could follow her in the smoke.  The fire traveled faster than canoeists can paddle.  Had the firefighters been a half hour further, had they not stopped to talk, they would have been at the east end, where they could have moved north directly away from the fire.  They of course had no way of knowing that the fire would do what it did.

Other lessons I would offer:

When several things seem to all be going wrong, recognize that you might be on a downward spiral (the words used here), regardless of what you might have been told. In neurology, my field, meningitis was so scary that when I argued with myself or others about whether we needed to do a spinal tap for diagnosis, not a difficult procedure, I did it. Perhaps that analogy could be applied here: when firefighters start arguing pros and cons of shelter deployment, just deploy. When you argue about whether or not to close campsites, just close them. Again, my deepest, deepest respect to these six and for all who put their lives on the line. I loved Insula as it was, but it wasn’t worth putting their lives at risk.

My final lesson here: time is one of the most valuable commodities in the woods. Use it wisely. 






October 16, 2016

I go up to Ely, Minnesota every autumn to canoe in the Boundary Waters wilderness.  I spent the most content six months of my life there in 1992, when I was in the woods 100 days  working as a volunteer for the Forest Service during a leave of absence I took from my medical practice.  My ties with Ely are so strong that I sponsor several scholarships at Vermilion Community College (VCC).

The day before my last annual canoe trip, when in Ely packing to go into the woods, I visited Patti Zupancich, Executive Director of the VCC Foundation.  We spoke about the political situation, bemoaning the constant fact that the community colleges in Minnesota need a lot more funding than they are getting. Sadly, while the VCC scholarship pool has doubled in the last decade, scholarships are a very small drop in the bucket compared to what is needed.  Community Colleges are important.  I volunteer in the math lab at Lane CC here in Eugene, and from the students I see, the community college is the only way for those who didn’t learn math in school to learn it.  Yes, 50 year-olds need to learn how to deal with fractions. If you don’t think I see those people come in some time. I’m there a lot.

Back to Ely.  Patti also is the counselor, the sounding board, and the liaison between the few African-American students who come to Ely and the town.  VCC has no athletic scholarships, and Ely is a white town in very redneck northern Minnesota.  I judge how an election year is going by the number of Republican signs I see on the drive up.  I only saw two between Cloquet and Ely, and one house that always sported one didn’t this year.  That tends to bode well.

Several of the students were outright afraid of what might happen to them. Why not?  Mr. Trump has been spouting racial epithets for over a year.  He has galvanized a host of right wing groups: white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, anti-semites, alt-Right, and while his Twitter account doesn’t have them, his campaign staff does, with at least two dozen such groups with whom they are in contact. I know that through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s emails. Patti said that an African-American student told her a homeowner near campus put a noose up by his house.  I thought lynching was replaced by lunching in this country, but Mr. Trump has brought the word back into common use. Patti went by the house and didn’t see the noose, but she did see a ladder by the tree.  And while the noose is no longer there, the one in southern Oregon, hanging Ms.Clinton in effigy, is.  This is bullying, racism, sexism and fascism.  I was stunned and angry; my wife was incensed.  And so we decided to “pull a Malheur” on Trump.  An explanation is in order.

When Malheur Wildlife Refuge was occupied last January, Zach and Jake Klonoski set up a donation site for four organizations whose values were as contrary to the values of the occupiers as possible: Friends of Malheur, the Paiute Tribe, Americans for Social Responsibility (Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly’s effort to change the makeup of Congress to make what most of think are commonsense laws regarding background checks), and the Southern Poverty Law Center. One made a pledge, which would be multiplied by the number of days the occupation lasted. In other words, the longer the occupation lasted, the more the occupiers were funding organizations they hated. A total of 1643 of us contributed nearly $136,000.

At Vermilion, funding from Access Opportunity Success (AOS), state funds, helps support groups, diversity education, and recreational opportunities for students of color as well as financial assistance awards to individual students (scholarships, textbook awards, assistance with housing deposits.)

AOS Scholarships are one-time awards for students returning for the following fall or students who will be taking summer classes through Vermilion to complete their two year degrees.

Currently, my scholarships at VCC are (1) One in our name that is given to a student, selected by the faculty, who is studying for a career that will involve the wilderness.  It has been awarded for 11 years.  (2) One in conjunction with the Friends of the Boundary Waters.  (3) Three for Veterans, which will this year needs a name.  My wife says I ought to name it after myself.  I said no, but not far below the surface, I need to know that something I did will live on after me.  I don’t know why it should matter since I won’t be around, but it does.

I hadn’t planned on giving any other scholarships, but after hearing about the noose, one way I can fight racism is to do things that are directly contrary to the values of the racists, like supporting a person of color in Ely.

I told Patti that I would cover whatever the College couldn’t cover this year, given that they are subject to funding constraints for the AOS Scholarships.  I will to go back up to Ely next April for the scholarship banquet, to which I haven’t been since 2013.  It’s a long trip, not cheap, but I can tie it into some time in the wilderness, before fishing season, when the lakes are quiet, and campsites haven’t been visited in 7 months.  I know exactly where I want to go.  Two or three days later, I’ll come out of the woods, shower at VCC, and wait around for the banquet that night at the Grand Ely Lodge.  I get considerable pleasure out of hearing my name being called to present my scholarship and the little buzz in the room when the audience is told I’m from Eugene, Oregon.  (There was a buzz with Tucson, Arizona, when I lived there.)

Oregon will probably be pronounced wrong.  I’m not a native, so I won’t correct it.  Don’t laugh; one VCC alumnus, a guest speaker in 2012, was from Portland, and the first thing he said when he began to talk was how to pronounce the state’s name.  Oregonians are like that.

In any case, I will have a smile on my face as I do one concrete thing that sticks it to the racists.  No, it’s not huge, but you see, I’m doing something positive. That’s important.  Positive stuff matters.  Do a lot of it. It doesn’t have to be a scholarship.  It might just be a letter to the editor, or calling people out who state racist, sexist, derogatory comments that have no place in civilized society.  If we don’t do this, and don’t it soon, we risk be dragged through the mud of fascism and taking the whole world with us.

Not only will I feel better, one more young person will have money he or she didn’t plan on having, I will be in the woods in late April, and my subsequent September trip will equalize the number of canoe trips in the Boundary Waters-Quetico with my age. Don’t laugh.  I find that important, too.


September 26, 2016

“Is the site open?” I asked.

“I can’t tell from here,” said my wife in the bow of the canoe, as we entered a small bay with a low isthmus separating it from another part of Basswood Lake, forty-five square miles that  straddles the border between the US and Canada.  I looked with binoculars and couldn’t be sure whether I was seeing a rock or some part of a person’s camp.

We paddled a little further until we found to our dismay that the object was a tarp.  Site taken.  Damn.  We had walked on that site in 2012, and I had camped there solo a year later.  Not this year.  We turned back to another site that we had passed, second choice, at the mouth of the bay and still out of the motorized zone, for while we were in wilderness, concessions were made in 1964, one of them allowing parts of Basswood Lake, a national treasure, to allow small motors.

We landed on Second Choice, walking up from the narrow beach landing on ledge rock to the fire grate, part of every Boundary Waters (BW) campsite.  When we turned around, we had a splendid northeast view down a channel to Canada, two miles distant.  A little elevation makes a significant difference in what one can see in the BW.


View from the top of the ledge rock.  Canada in the distance.

That first year on the site, we stayed five nights, with a nightly parade of three beavers, two adults and a young, swim by getting food, branches from trees they fell in the adjacent swampy area.  We heard and saw one tree fall. We saw the northern lights twice, heard wolves, and had a moose visit.  Second Choice?  This place was a gem, and with two small tent sites, it probably didn’t get much use.


Beaver with stick, 2014


Moose, 2014

We returned in 2015, but while the beavers were gone, we saw three otters playing. Every sunset, we marveled at the lovely way the light appeared on the isthmus site and the rock face across the bay.  We returned again this year, where we didn’t day trip much because of wind, so I sat and read, looking at Canada in the distance, realizing that Tru- as a leader really meant Trudeau, and seeing things I had never noticed before, because I had more time to look.


Otters at play, 2015


Sunset on the isthmus site

I saw a chipmunk, an occasional pest, climb up on a wild rose bush and eat rose hips.  I didn’t know they ate them.  A flock of eight common mergansers swam by, not uncommon for the BW, and we saw them again nearby on a day trip.  This was clearly their territory.  An otter walked on the shore one afternoon, swam across the swamp, and disappeared among the rocks.  Many times, a raven announced itself by the WHAP, WHAP of its wings over us.  I watched an altercation between a Broad-winged hawk and a raven.  Twice, looking high in the sky, we saw an eagle soar, easily 1000 meters up, a dark spot against a white cumulus cloud.  These things you don’t see on high mileage trips.  They matter to me now.


Chipmunk eating rose hips



There was more.  For the first time in my wonderful outdoor career, heavy dew and morning fog did NOT presage a wholly sunny day.  It rained that morning, only later becoming sunny.  I had never seen that before.  I had thought the channel led north, until one night, I saw the North Star 45 degrees to the west of the channel.  It led northeast. The North Star doesn’t lie.

I found myself studying little things: the waning gibbous Moon each day, a long curvilinear cloud one evening, and its stunning reflection, which appeared like disturbed water in a calm lake.  We twice found a rock where turtles hang out, and noted the one’s shedding part of its carapace.  We know all the campsites up the lake towards Canada.  They are nice, but they aren’t Second Choice.  We may be the last on the site this year, for all we know.

One morning, we heard Basswood Falls, a mile or two distant across forest in a straight line, considerably further by canoe.  We had never heard the falls before on our prior two visits, but on a quiet, calm morning, they were unmistakeable.  I saw orange hawkweed, one of my favorite flowers from my boyhood, right next to our tent. It has the most wonderful smell.


Orange Hawkweed

Second Choice has become for us one of our most special places we can go.  My wife has reluctantly said good-by to the area.  If she doesn’t return, I may go by there, but I don’t know if I will go on the site.  Not alone.  It’s hard to say why.  Only that I don’t think it is a place for me alone.  Once, when severe illness visited us, I paddled into the bay alone and stayed on the isthmus site.  I can stay there again, if it is open.  If not, there are other sites.

Every year, it gets more difficult to canoe.  I threw my back out the day we left, and my dominant elbow was inflamed.  Somehow, I was able to paddle and carry, and we paddled to the site in just over 4 hours, due to a tail wind that we had not planned on.  We don’t assume good weather for our trips.  That’s a recipe for trouble.  Because of a falling barometer, we decided we would spend four nights there, not five, and come out most of the way to a busier lake near the entry, avoiding heavy rain, thunderstorms, and strength sapping headwinds.

On clear nights, the Milky Way is bright, brighter than nearly any American can see on a given night.  We told time by the moonrise, for this trip coincided with the latter part of the Harvest Moon.  As I type this, I just heard the crash of a tree fall across the bay. Yes, if a tree falls in a forest it makes a sound.

Second Choice taught us that sometimes less visited sites have value.  In such places, I can learn a little about the neighborhood, see things that I have seen before, learn something new, so long as I sit quietly for a few days, foregoing the high miles that once appealed to me, back when I once wanted to know what was out there in the Quetico-Superior.

Second choice sites do that.  I may not physically return, but I will often go there in my mind.






Evening sky


June 21, 2016

Fifty-two years ago this August.  On the sixth, to be exact.  Ten days of my life, beginning by being trucked up past Lake Nipissing, further north than I had ever been at the time, to a wild place called Temagami.

I had long forgotten about Temagami, and I would not have remembered it had it not been for Camp Pathfinder’s 100th anniversary and reunion I attended in 2013. I wanted to see the place where I learned canoe tripping, which I’ve continued the past 50 years.  I was glad to go to the reunion; while I don’t plan to return, I made the trip once, and that was a gift to myself.  I got a chance to canoe again in Algonquin Park, which I did not expect to do at all, and I discovered at 64 I could still carry a 90 pound canoe on my shoulders for a mile, without stopping.

And survive.  The guy with me was ten years younger, a big advantage.  He took the stern, and I was happy in the bow.  The first carry was a lift-over, and the second one was his. Right away, we had a problem.  We were not about to carry the entire weight on our neck.  We were used to lashing paddles to the bow seat and carrying thwart, and putting the weight on our shoulders.  Neither of us had lashed since then, but it wasn’t like it was rocket science.  We alternated portages and had a great day trip.  I needed to wash the muck off, so I had to swim again in Source Lake.  I couldn’t believe how cold the water was, although only I had changed.

It was a lot easier when I was 18.  Algonquin was a lot wilder back then, too.  When I drove into the Park, I stopped at the Canoe Lake store to use a pay phone and could barely orient myself.  There was a huge restaurant on the second floor, and the launch point, which used to be a sand beach, was paved over.  We kids used to shoulder our packs without help when we landed at the Canoe Lake store, because we were young, full of testosterone and wanted to show off.

Pathfinder has listed online all the trips ever taken from 1959 to the present, and my name is on twenty-five of them during the 1960s.  As I looked through the ones in 1964, one called “Temagami” popped up.  Wow, Temagami.  When certain names of wild country appear, my brain goes somewhere Up North, where the lakes have no cabins, the horizons are tree-lined, the shores rocky, the rivers free flowing, and one hears campfires crackling, the banging of pots, the chopping of wood, the rain on the tent at night, and the haunting call of the loon.


Temagami was one of the wildest places I would ever canoe until I ran the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories in 1985. The Nahanni, Yukon, and the Brooks Range in Alaska are more remote, but Temagami was remote enough.  It hadn’t been done by the camp before, so we campers were honored to be chosen; the head man was the director of tripping.  We were going for 10 days, north, a wonderful word, north of Lake Nipissing to the 45th parallel, which for me was like being in the Arctic.  We knew the lakes were big, the portages long and not well maintained, and the campsites few.  What we didn’t know was it would rain every day,  and back then, neither rain gear nor canvas tents was very good.

As I started writing, a few memories returned.  I don’t know how many are true, half a century plus two years later, but I’m assuming the best.  Lake Temagami, our jumping off point, was the first “big lake” I had ever paddled.  Kneeling in the bow, for Pathfinder campers never sat, was the only time my knees ever hurt from the force of the waves.  I came right down on the ribs and planking, stroking into a strong headwind.  We had to pull into shore to dump water out of the canoe, for the waves often came right over the gunwales of our Old Town, loaded with 3 people 3 packs, with little freeboard.  I was about to write that it was the only time that happened, but over the years, I’ve had to go to shore several times to dump water out of the canoe to keep packs drier.

I don’t remember many campsites, only that they were primitive. Back then my boots were wet the whole time, and most of my clothes were, too.  That was before rain suits. To this day, wet boots and wet feet don’t bother me.  I actually feel less at home in the woods with dry feet.  I remember one site where we were camped by a roaring falls. It rained the whole night. I woke with a puddle of water under the foot of my sleeping bag, tried to remove as much as I could, figuring the bag would be soaked the next morning.

When I awoke, the spot was dry.  Go figure.  Maybe I had been dreaming.

Makobe Lake was the furthest north we went, and I can still remember the black spruces dotting the shores and the horizon.  I thought I was so far north then.  Now, I live at that latitude.  On the penultimate day, the Sun, the glorious Sun, broke through the clouds, a raven called, we answered in kind, and all was right with the world.  I don’t know if that was on Larn or Ostergut, but that’s what the lakes were called back then. Never forgot them.

I never saw and never will see Temagami again. For some things in life it’s actually better not to go back.  I did look online, and the portage known as Fat Man’s Misery, which I am very proud to have done, even if only with a pack, now has many more trees.  I prefer my imperfect memory of wondering how our staff got canoes down that carry.

The following year, I would transition from a superb bow man to a third man, lowest of the staff on a trip, paddling in the stern.  It would be three years before I would be in charge, wearing the red bandanna. My last summer, my last trip, as a camper, wasn’t in Algonquin.  It was to wild Temagami further north, where the haunting whistle of CN trains carried us back at the end of our trip..

Today, Pathfinder sends month-long trips to Hudson’s Bay.  They’ve even done the Bloodvein River, which makes me a little jealous.  But not much.  I’m thrilled that young guys and gals are out in that country.  I hope there will always be wild country for them—and folks like me— to test themselves in.  It might still be Temagami, Quetico, Ile à la Crosse, Aichilik, Kobuk:  any name that evoke black spruce, muskeg, the Canadian Shield, rivers running wild and free, and a land like no other.


October 2, 2015

Leave No Trace (LNT) has been a part of backwoods, wilderness, outdoor travel for a few decades now, but until the first half of the 20th century, wilderness was the enemy, the “out there” that needed to be subdued by cutting trees, draining wetlands, building roads to lakes, later flying into them, making the outdoors accessible and safe for people.

About a century ago, outdoorsmen like Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Bob Marshall, and Sig Olson, among many others, challenged the notion of subduing wild lands, stating the opposite, that we need wilderness.  As a species, we are not far removed from wilderness, they wrote, and periodically need to get away to the “back of beyond,” far from steel, asphalt, cars and towns, where a person could be alone, on his or her own, and by being such, might reclaim some of the sanity, some of the humanness that had been lost.

In the early 1950s, I spent summers at a cabin by Ontario’s Crow Lake, a beautiful place with few people and motors.  We didn’t worry about trash.  We burned what we could and daily took the cans out to the center of the lake and sank them.  Everybody did it, but everybody back then was a small number.

A decade later, as a camper and then member of the Camp Pathfinder canoe tripping staff, we traveled in wood and canvas canoes, with keels.  Pathfinder today, 102 years after its founding, still uses red Old Towns. Our heavy canvas tents leaked if one touched the inside of them when they were wet.  The mosquito netting had holes, and every night, campers were told to ‘hold their breath” as bug repellent was sprayed into the tent.  I have no idea what I inhaled.

Author at Camp Pathfinder 100th year reunion, 2013, back in a red canoe for the first time in 47 years.

Author at Camp Pathfinder 100th year reunion, 2013, back in a red canoe for the first time in 47 years.

Day trip to Little Island Lake, Pathfinder reunion.  I camped on this very site fifty years prior.

Day trip to Little Island Lake, Pathfinder reunion. I camped on this very site fifty years prior.

We cut down small trees, usually balsam firs, to use their trunks as tent stringers, to which we tied the front and the back of the tent.  We used the boughs as mattresses.  Our food was cooked over an open fire, requiring large amounts of wood, for there were no camp stoves.  An axe was a necessity; every campsite had a can pit, a considerable amount of rusted junk, which attracted bears.  We made our own fire pits and camped wherever we wished.  Meal time, we soaped the pots and pans to make removing the blackness easier, later cleaning our dishes in the lake, leaving many visible food particles.  We used sand to scrub, moss to remove grease, thinking ourselves woodsmen of the first order.  Maybe we should have known better, but nobody I knew did. Sunscreen was unknown and we had no water filters.  Small wonder we often became ill.

Having learned to camp this way, the idea of complete LNT has been slow for me to adopt and for many others my age, some of whom haven’t adopted it at all.  I began using camp stoves about 25 years ago, never did cut green trees for firewood, or strip birch bark from a live tree.  That part was easy.  I’m still able to camp where water is drinkable, but even in the Boundary Waters, I’ve become ill on two occasions.  I take water from the middle of the lake and usually boil it now.  I use a small saw to get wood, although I do have issues with the suggestion that wood be gathered more than 150 feet from the shoreline of a lake.  Better wood, not degraded, is present along the shore, and walking deep in the woods risks injury, getting lost and hurting plants.

I hadn’t made the final step until recently.  I stopped burning trash. In Alaska, people still do on trips, but it is illegal in Minnesota to do so, and burning plastics releases toxic gases.  Many food containers used have aluminum foil present, the bane of litter in the woods.  Contrary to many beliefs, aluminum foil does not melt, but it does fragment, so even burning the pouch and carefully collecting aluminum left some behind.  All trash was packed out, including dental floss, and when I brush my teeth, I spit into the fire pit, not spray it on leaves, many of which on campsites are white from others’ doing this.  Cleaning pots means getting the soap off, but away from the lake, scrubbing with scouring pads and not rinsing them in the lake.  It seems so tempting just to do it in the lake.  A little soap won’t hurt.  But yes, it will.

In 1992, when I volunteered for the Forest Service in the Boundary Waters (BW), I saw first hand how LNT was being implemented. The BW has designated campsites, where one must stay.  This concentrates the impact to a few places, rather than many.

We need to regulate, because people don’t self-regulate well enough:

  • We must enter on a specific date and place.  The length of time one may stay and exit may not be regulated.  We want to disperse people throughout the wilderness, not overwhelm designated campsites.
  • Campsites all have a fire grate, the only place a fire is allowed.  The fire must be out, dead out, tested by using one’s hands in the ashes, when one leaves the campsite, be it for good or for a day trip.  I’ve seen experienced people leave burning fires when they day tripped.
  • It is illegal to cut, deface a tree or pick flowers.  The days of tent stringers are long gone; new tents are easier to pitch and leakproof.  Despite Thermarests, people still cut pine boughs, but it is rare.  Still, many trees are defaced by having nails driven into them to hang packs off the ground or for clotheslines, neither of which is necessary.
  • Only 9 people and 4 watercraft may be at the same place at the same time.  This removes crowds.  On busy portages, crowding may be a problem, but with 250,000 visitors annually to the border lakes, rules are needed.
  • No cans or bottles are allowed in the BW except for medications, fuel, and toilet articles, one of the first rules and one of the best. Can pits are long gone.
  • The latrine at each campsite concentrates human waste in one area. Nothing should be thrown into it, although I’ve seen fish, books, clothing, fuel bottles, and liquor.  Latrines may last a few years before being re-dug.  I have dug sixteen in the rocky soil, a difficult, nasty job, especially removing the old one and covering the prior area.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy must come to grips with human waste with hikers passing through, because many don’t bother to bury their waste,  More and more LNT is requiring packing out human waste  We did it on Grand Canyon raft trips 35 years ago. If I live long enough and remain healthy, I see a day when will routinely I pack out my waste.

I have found these changes to be difficult to adopt, but with time, they become easier.  The idea is to leave a site better than it was when one arrives.  For the current generation, this should all be easy.  For my generation, it has required a lot of changes. It isn’t 1950 any more, we aren’t making new wilderness, and many would like to destroy the little we have.

We need wilderness for our sanity.  Some of us have long known it.  Others have yet to learn.

View from campsite in Boundary Waters, 2015.

View from campsite in Boundary Waters, 2015.


September 15, 2015

We woke at 1 a.m., perhaps because it was so quiet on Horse Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).  When we unzipped the tent and crawled outside on the dewy grass, we saw Orion’s stunning reflection on the water.  I looked overhead, the only time in my life seeing all 7 of the Pleiades visible to the unaided eye.  Oh my, there was absolutely no sound.  Wilderness, dark skies, and quiet:  My outdoor triad.  We had the best of it.

Yeah, we had the best of it one night on the North Tonto Platform down in the Grand Canyon, west of Clear Creek, where we had left the prior afternoon, so we could get part way back to Phantom Ranch rather than doing the whole hike the following day.  We dry camped, maybe where nobody had camped before.  We saw dark skies and heard nothing, not even the Colorado.  We whispered.  The Canyon is noisier today, and I don’t know whether that experience is possible, along with our hearing the echo of a raven’s wings off the Redwall, in a deep southern curve called The Abyss, back in ’86, unforgettable.

We had the best of it just last year in the BWCA, awakening to the sound of wolves not far from our campsite.  We got up, went out and saw an aurora, not just that night but the next, too.  Beavers felled trees in a swamp nearby, not knowing or caring about us as they swam by with leafy branches in their mouths.  A moose walked through the swamp, an hour after the thought had occurred to me the only thing we had missed was a moose.

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Oh, the best of it could have been a number of places, one of which was from a small site on Lake Insula, where we saw the Harvest Moon’s rising over the trees at the far east end, trees now burned, but some day, not in my lifetime, will grow back.  We had the best of Insula.  I spent 40 nights there.  Camped twice for 5 nights each on one site and didn’t see a soul. That’s wilderness.  We had sunny days; we had sleet and snow.  We knew the whole lake.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Author standing on

Author standing on “The Rock,” Lake Insula, 2005

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

We had the best of it the day we hiked the upper Aichilik in Alaska, under heavy packs, where lunch was a sit down affair with Caribou walking right by us, and afternoon was walking below Dall Sheep, who weren’t the least bothered by us.  Doesn’t get much better.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

We had the best of it in the Gunflint when we finished the 15th portage of the day, and I took the canoe off my head, tired but knowing we had finished the Frost River.  What a great decision to camp early the day before and start the river in the morning.  Saw a moose, too. That day some people asked what lake they were on and the weather forecast.  I told them Cherokee Lake and that it would rain the next day.  Mind you, I hadn’t heard a weather forecast in a week.  New south winds up north, however, mean rain.  Poured the next day, planned day of rest.  Great trip.

I had the best of Crooked Lake the day I soloed in from Mudro Lake.  I had an otter surface next to the canoe and hiss at me, as the south wind pushed me north. I crossed a rough stretch, later watching the Sun set, knowing my tired arms could take me the last mile of 20 to a campsite on the border.  I was awakened the next morning by wolves.  I got up, but it was too dark to see them.  I did see clouds moving up through Orion’s belt.  South wind. I broke camp and launched, and it poured all the way to Fourtown Lake. Didn’t see anybody the whole trip.

It’d be 14 more years before I actually saw a wolf— on Isle Royale— 10 trail miles from the nearest person. Told that to a friend, and he wrote back, “God Damn!  That’s what it’s all about.”  Never heard him swear before or since.  But he nailed it.  So did I.  He has had the best of it, too, in a different style.

Or ’92 in Canada’s Quetico, on Kawnipi Lake, alone, a quiet late spring night, after a hard push through snow and wind up Agnes.  The work involved in canoe travel matters as much as the destination.  Kawnipi is special, difficult to reach, and I went there six times, the last time solo, at 56. Wow, am I blessed.  I go to Kawnipi in my mind sometimes.  I had the best of it.

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

I had the best of Alice Lake, mid-October 23 years ago, 6 days without seeing anybody, alone in perhaps 200 square miles, with a morning blizzard and a headwind.  Crazy?  No, it was one of the most memorable days I’ve canoed, and I’ve been lucky to have camped five hundred nights Up North.  Last night out, I fell asleep to rain and then heard it stop, knowing I would wake up to a white landscape.

I’ve been alone at the top of Texas, on Guadalupe Peak, calm, despite gale predictions, looking down on the salt flats and watching the low sun cast the shadow of the mountain miles to the east.  I made it down that evening just as it got dark. Great hike.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Same in Wind Cave National Park, in South Dakota, on a hike out somewhere where you could see forever except for a few copses of trees, and an elk herd galloped right in front of me, a drop your jaw and stare moment.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

I had the best of it on a cold February evening in the viewing blind at Rowe Sanctuary, alone, when a flock of ten thousand Sandhill Cranes displaced a large flock of Snow Geese.  There were birds coming right at me, birds everywhere.  On my video I say, “I have never seen anything like this in my whole life.”

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

It could have been the best along the Lady Evelyn River in Temagami, up in Canada, fifty-one years ago, when we camped by a long set of rapids on one of the most difficult canoe trips I ever did.  It was marvelous country to see, in my sixteenth year.

Or splashing down the Tim River, pack on my back and canoe on my head, because one of the campers was unable to carry the pack, and as head man, I had to do it.  I still remember on the Bulletin Board at Camp Pathfinder, where they listed trips, the words, “Mike Smith in charge.”  I was eighteen.

Oh, the best close to home might have been back in ’89, hiking up to 9000 feet in rain/snow mix, camping on Baldy Saddle in the Santa Ritas.  Snowed that night, but I was warm, listening to snow gradually accumulate and slide down the tent.

We had the best of the grasslands of Sonoita, before it got crowded, when we slept out under the stars, watched the Milky Way rise, and shortly thereafter the waning gibbous Moon.  A decade ago, I hiked up the Santa Catalinas from my then house, walking three miles to the trailhead and climbing 4000 feet, so I could fulfill a dream I had to spend one night—just one—sleeping up there.  Nearly a million people were below me, but I didn’t hear a sound.  I had the best of the Catalinas that night.

A letter in High Country News prompted these musings.  A prior issue was devoted to the overcrowding, cycling in the wilderness, and the loss of wild country, through privatization and destruction.  The writer, 63, if I remember correctly, wrote simply:  “I had the best of it.”  He did.  And so have I.

It’s still possible to have the best of it, but far more difficult because of more people, less wild country, many years behind me and few ahead.

My hearing is fading, my strength less, but I still hear the call of wild country.  I’ll answer as long as I can.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.


July 25, 2015

Thirty years ago, my wife and I camped out under the stars in Sonoita, Arizona, far from Tucson, Sierra Vista, and Nogales, when the nights were incredibly dark.  At 10 p.m., a large cloud appeared in the east.  At least, that is what it looked like, until we realized it was a different type of cloud, one of stars.  We were watching the Milky Way rise, and I never forgot that sight or the rest of that special night, wakening a few times, seeing the Milky Way further across the sky.

Just the other day, I received an email from a friend asking me to check out a picture she had posted on Instagram.  I usually don’t like these requests, believing that going into nature as I do gives me far better appreciation of the world.  The picture from a National Geographic photographer showed the southern Milky Way, from the Southern Hemisphere, with a time lapsed wind turbine in the foreground.

There were many of comments praising the picture.  I wrote, before erasing, “The wind turbine ruined it.” It did, by greatly detracting from the beauty of the Milky Way.  No picture can show the Milky Way as well as I have seen it, from the high grasslands of Arizona, deep in the Grand Canyon, or from the wilderness of the the borderland canoe country.  I didn’t have Instagram then, only a working occipital lobe and hippocampus, so those sights became part of me in a way that a picture cannot.  The beauty of The Great Rift, Vega, Altair, and Sagittarius is sufficient, not enhanced by a wind turbine in the foreground.

While I don’t look at many videos on social media, one about how different generations viewed free time was enlightening.  A man my age said he once used a stop sign for a toboggan.  I can relate to that.  Using a snow coaster as a sail, I once blasted alone on skates down the middle of frozen Honeoye Lake in upstate New York, doing 25.  That’s being a kid.  Parents nearby?  Nah.

Today?  A 6 year-old says she doesn’t know what she would do without her iPad.  Another kid bragged about watching 23 episodes of a TV show in 4 days. I wasn’t surprised.  One wouldn’t eat wild blueberries, because they weren’t wrapped in plastic.  Amazing. I love blueberries, and it reminds me some summer I’ve got to go back to Minnesota just to pick them.

I once posted a picture from northern California’s Redwood National Park,

I didn't lift this from the Internet. Redwood National Park, June 2012

I didn’t lift this from the Internet. Redwood National Park, June 2012

and saw a comment, “Where did you find that on the Internet?”  It never occurred to the writer that there are average folks like me who actually go to these places, where we can point a lens at a tree 120 meters tall and take a picture of its dwarfing a car.  The canopy of a redwood contains an ecosystem with plants and animals found nowhere else. I read it in The New Yorker; nobody sent me a link to “educate” me.  Sahalie Falls, Oregon, got a “Wow, who took that photo?” I replied, “I DID.”


Sahalie Falls, Oregon, near Santiam Junction.

In the days of posting and sharing, I post rarely, usually views of special places in nature that I have seen, often having had to work hard to get there, an essential part of the picture. It is disheartening to me that so many see nature from a screen, rather than immersing themselves in it.  While I have had good fortune to see these lovely places, I made it happen, too.

I changed the picture on my profile today to show a 2005 view of Kawnipi Lake in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park,

"Bowling Alley," Kawnipi Lake, 2005.

“Bowling Alley,” Kawnipi Lake, 2005.

my last trip there.  Some like these pictures, amazed that such places not only exist but can only be reached by canoe, not by car, sailboat, or even hiking.  I was originally going to do that trip with a good friend from Ottawa, who introduced me to Sig Olson’s “Pays d’en haut,” in the Far North, 30 years ago.  We hiked the Chilkoot Trail (Klondike fame) together twice, and paddled the Nahanni, Liard, and Yukon Rivers.  We’ve portaged around Virginia Falls, twice as high as Niagara, and canoe sailed on Lake Laberge.

We had planned to see Kawnipi one last time.  Unfortunately, he had an animal emergency and had to cancel.  He was apologetic but knew I would understand. I did, deciding to do the trip solo.  It was difficult, even though I was a lot younger then, 56. I wanted to go further than 10 miles the first day, but my arms were dead.  The next day, I paddled to the north end of huge Agnes Lake, which was like glass.

Agnes Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005.

Agnes Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005.

On the portage out of it, where I hadn’t been for several years, I met two men, telling them I remembered the carry as a mess, with water and blowdowns. Good memory; there were fallen trees everywhere. It’s canoe tripping.

I spent the night on Kawnipi, content sitting on the ledge rock called the Canadian Shield, then the next morning, under threatening skies, headed south, taking the picture I posted today.  As I left Kawnipi, I turned around one last time and looked. In the back of my mind I thought maybe I could return, but I knew realistically I wouldn’t.  I don’t have to.  I’ve been there six times.  I’ve been on all the major bays of the lake. I’ve caught fish, found trails that cut through narrow peninsulas, had a cow moose charge into the water to protect her calf from me, and camped in lovely places.  That’s not on Instagram.  But wow, it’s in my brain.

I was lucky to have calm water back on Agnes.  I’ve paddled tandem on it in pouring rain and a headwind.  I soloed Agnes to Kawnipi in early ’92, when it snowed, and dealt with headwinds alone.  Nobody was out there.  It was great.  I’ve got print pictures somewhere, but no matter.  The memories are in my brain, where it matters, not on Instagram, where somebody might ask what Web site I found them.

There are many special places in wild country.  Getting there only by pack or paddle is a key ingredient.  I seldom give advice, because people neither want mine nor follow it.  I will simply state that for me the physical effort to go to these beautiful places beats looking on Instagram any day of the week.

Then again, it helped to have been raised a kid, free to rocket down the middle of a lake in mid-winter, using a snow coaster as a sail.  Or to be out in the middle of Agnes, on a beautiful day, looking at the huge sweep to the north.  Or doing the work needed to get to Kawnipi, blowdowns and all.

Because it was Kawnipi.

Heading to the campsite, Kawnipi Lake

Heading to the campsite, Kawnipi Lake


Kawnipi Lake on the map. It is big enough to be seen on road maps, although there is no road within 40 miles of it.


One of the last pictures I took of Kawnipi, 2005.