Posts Tagged ‘Canoe Trips’


July 23, 2015

I remember the date well: it was September 15, 2001, and we were among the few who had no idea what had happened to the country, 4 days earlier.  After portaging our gear around Wheelbarrow Falls, on the Canadian side of Basswood River, we saw two young men, early 20s, getting ready to shoot the rapids, without packs in an aluminum canoe.  They also had wore no helmets, PFDs, hiking boots, and were sitting upright.  This violates five rules of safety.

No, I said, unsuccessfully to these two, you should not do this, because portages up here exist for a reason.  People die in the Quetico-Superior shooting rapids.  Within 10 yards of launch, the canoe shipped water, then swamped, the two fortunately floated down the rapids and survived.  The canoe broached on a log and filled with water, and I later learned it took six hours to right it.  The two were lucky, something one doesn’t want to have to depend upon in the woods, lucky one didn’t get a foot caught under water and drowned.

I got a call the other day from another Obsidian hike leader, wanting to run some things by me.  The Obsidians feature hikes, climbs, bus and bike trips, and last year, after being a member for all of 2 months, I led my first hike.  I’ve now led 18.  I’ve gone on the caller’s hikes; she has gone on mine.  Leading hikes is work.  One has to organize the hike time, meet up place, describe the hike, deal with those who call wanting to know about the hike, but not wanting to register to read about it online, know how to get to the trailhead, know the trail itself, and decide whether a person is capable of doing it.  The online description should be sufficient to tell someone whether this is suitable.  If one wants short walks, a 12 miler of mine with 2500 feet of elevation gain is not suitable.  Don’t laugh, I’ve had people say, “I’m on my feet 10 hours a day,”  as if that helps climb Mt. Hardesty, 3400 feet vertical.  On hiking day, I arrive 30 minutes early, hoping everybody who signed up shows, but invariably, some don’t. We leave no later than 5 minutes past the start time, carpool to the trailhead, and hike.  No shows without cancellation delay departure.  Me generation.  Lots of technology to communicate, yet communication has worsened.

The two of us talked about recent hikes, where I finally added a statement to future hike descriptions stating that “training” was not allowed; I would not allow an individual to carry extra weight on the hike to get into shape.  This rule occurred because of two incidents: on one hike, a lady carried barbells in her pack, holding everybody up for 30 minutes, because the hike had a steep climb at the outset that she could barely manage. I let that go until the next hike, when a man lagged far behind the whole time and fell because of exhaustion.  We divvied up his pack between us.  We hike where cell phone reception is poor, and while we were lucky, depending upon luck in the wilderness is a bad idea.  Perhaps I’ve lost friends by my attitude, but I can’t lead a 12 miler with 2500 feet elevation gain and a 2 hour drive each way, and still return at a decent hour if people photograph everything in sight or need frequent rest stops.

Eventually, the caller asked me about a person on her upcoming weeklong backpack trip who had dislocated his artificial hip on a recent hike but got it back in the socket himself.  Luck.  She told him he couldn’t go; he was very upset with her.  I agreed with her decision.  He has no business hiking until given the green light by an orthopedist.  Maybe nothing will happen.  Those four words are often said before a cascade of bad things concatenate in the Cascades.  Things go wrong on backpacking trips.  We plan for many emergencies.  Hip dislocations are rare, but once somebody has dislocated one, he is at high risk for a second; it doesn’t make sense taking him.

Sometimes, one just has to say no, no to going backpacking with a hip that may cause trouble and no to “training hikes,” where others are inconvenienced.   Most of these “no’s” can be stated quietly: “I’m sorry, but as leader, I can’t take the risk of your hip’s dislocating, which will disrupt the entire trip should you not be able to reduce it.  I am responsible, and in my judgment you should not go.”  “No, please don’t carry extra weight.  This is a difficult enough hike with a day pack.”

No, I said on a November hike last year, we aren’t going to take a detour to see a place where nobody is exactly certain how to get to, because it’s going to snow later today, we will lose valuable time, and if we get into trouble, we are in the high country where early darkness and cold are life threatening concerns.

I wish I had been present to say “No” to a 15 year-old’s leader at the other end of Basswood River, when they decided the portage was too long and they would shoot the rapids.  Six hours later, most of which the leader was holding the 15 year-old’s head above water, because his ankle was wedged on an underwater rock, a helicopter, a Beaver float plane, and a lot of brave men put their lives at risk to rescue him.

I wish I could have said “No” to the 78 year-old who shot Upper Basswood Falls in high water shortly after ice out in 2013.  The river had changed, and he wasn’t wearing a PFD when they found his body well downstream.  His wife barely survived.

No, I told my wife on Lake One in a pouring rain, I do NOT want to camp after only two miles, but we ARE STOPPING ANYWAY to camp here, because we aren’t yet too wet, and we aren’t cold, but if we continue, we will be.  We stayed dry and safe that night.

I say a lot of “Yes” to life.  I say, yes, I am going to hike solo, because I want to see that country this year.  Yes, I said in 2005, I am going to solo into Kawnipi Lake because I know the route and have several backup choices if the winds are high on big water.  Yes, I am going to solo winter camp at 63, because I know the trail, and I just want to get into the woods.  My route and time of exit in all instances was known by my wife.  I don’t ever deviate from it.

Canada’s Kawnipi one last time and my snow camp on the Angleworm Trail, were smart, wonderful trips.

I likely will never see this again, but I saw it many, many times, and loved camping on the lake.

I likely will never see this again, but I saw it many, many times, and loved camping on the lake.

Kawnipi Lake, 2005. Many, including me, say this is the most beautiful lake in Canada’s Quetico. I have been on it six different times and consider myself blessed.


I call this “bowling alley,” Kawnipi Lake, 2005. I’ve soloed to it twice, and it is 3 days’ paddle from town.

Author on the Angleworm Bridge, late April 2013, BWCA Wilderness

Author on the Angleworm Bridge, late April 2013, BWCA Wilderness


April 14, 2015

In the video that every visitor to Rowe Sanctuary must see, before they go to the viewing blinds, Bill Taddicken, the Executive Director, calls “You Should Have Seen” the four saddest words in the language.

It’s interesting, because the first two, “You should,” bother me enough that I almost never use them to others.  “Should” connotes advice, and many don’t like it.  Me, too.  I actually try to follow some advice I’m given, but there is not enough time in my life to do everything “should” expects from me.

But Bill’s four words are powerful.  You Should Have Seen.  I capitalize them, in order to emphasize that rather than annoyance, failure on my part, or unwanted advice, YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN is a statement of what a situation was once like, before it changed for the worse and the opportunity was never again available.

Bill uses two examples:  YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THE BUFFALO MIGRATION, not stating the obvious, that we nearly exterminated this magnificent creature, a hundred million animals, in the 19th century by shooting them from trains, for sport, and letting the animals die a horrible death and rot on the prairie.  This is a sad commentary on America.  Bill doesn’t say that.  I do.  I would have loved to have seen the buffalo migration, to have studied it, to have learned from it.

YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THE PASSENGER PIGEONS, before stating they went extinct in 1914, the year my father was born.  This beautiful bird used to fly in dark clouds that blackened the sky, extending for miles.  I can only imagine the view.  I am angry my forebears exterminated this bird, and I never got to see it.  I can understand how the next generation is angry with mine, for the species we have allowed to become extinct.

Bill doesn’t want his daughter to have to tell her children, YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THE SANDHILL CRANE MIGRATION, because in the name of jobs, crops, recreation, sending water elsewhere, we took away the habitat the cranes needed along the Central Flyway of the US, where the cranes migrated for ten thousand years, after the last glaciation.  Bill is fighting for the River, the Flyway, the Bird, and the Migration, one of two great ones here; the other, the Porcupine Caribou, is much more difficult to see.  The Sandhill Crane migration can be seen six miles from Interstate 80 in Nebraska.  For $25, one can spend 2 hours in a viewing blind and see something that Jane Goodall calls one of the great ten sights in Nature.

Right in the middle of the USA.

People get transformed by the cranes.  Some cry.  Couples hold hands.  Some kiss, in a way they may not have for a long time.  Some stare, eyes fixed on the scene in front of them, people whom I watch, but leave alone, for the people are spellbound.  For them, this is not just a bunch of birds, it has become what some call a sacred place.

I’m not advising anybody to see the cranes.  I was often asked in Arizona, where some cranes winter, why I just didn’t go there to see them.  I replied that I’ve seen them in Nebraska.  I’ve seen the full migration first hand.  I once took videos.  Got one when it was becoming really dark, cranes flying in circles coming towards me in the viewing blind, where I was alone.  The sound was so loud, the birds so close, that I said, easily heard on the video, “I have never seen anything like this in my whole life.”

You should have seen my face.

Took another video of a pair of cranes courting, in the Platte River.  Each put a bill into the river, and they both pivoted around their bills and around each other.  Wow.  You should have seen it.

Sandhill cranes, Nebraska, 2010

Sandhill cranes, Nebraska, 2010


Sandhill Cranes, 2015, Nebraska

You should have seen the Boundary Waters, before the water became undrinkable in 2020 and the loons disappeared because a sulfide mine brought JOBS to the region.  The mine failed, the company went bankrupt and couldn’t clean up the water.  They were sorry.  Couldn’t find a politician that year in the state who claimed they supported the mine.  Sure could in 2010.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

You should have seen the corn yields in Nebraska before the Ogallala Aquifer was polluted by oil in 2023 and corn ceased to be a crop.  Keystone thought the leak was “An Act of God.”  They are now bankrupt and express “regret”.  None of the 62 senators who originally voted for Keystone will comment on the Ogallala.  Nebraska voted Democratic in the 2024 election, but the outmigration allowed them only 3 electoral votes.

You should have seen the Grand Canyon, before the Republican Senate decided that the states should own all the federal land, and privatization allowed mining. I remember back in ‘85 when my wife and I were camped out on the Tonto Platform below the Abyss, hearing the flap of a Raven’s wings echoing off the Redwall.  You should have heard it.  You should have seen it.

The Abyss, Grand Canyon, 2012.  Tonto Platform is to the right.

The Abyss, Grand Canyon, 2012. Tonto Platform is to the right.

You should have seen the Aral Sea, before it disappeared in the latter part of the 20th century.  Nobody seemed to care.

You should have seen the Brooks Range of Alaska, when one could be 300 miles from the nearest town, days from civilization, before the road that paralleled it was built in 2025, so that Native Americans could drive to Fairbanks to shop.  The Natives seldom used the road, but miners and hunters have, and now the natives are destitute.  You should have seen the bears I saw on the Noatak in 2010, the sow with 2 cubs and a second year male, marching through our camp one night like we weren’t even there.  They had likely never seen humans.


Grizzly Cubs, Noatak River, 2010

You should have seen Churchill, Manitoba in the autumn, before climate change that we were told wasn’t took away all the pack ice and the animals are now only found in zoos.  Past president Ted Cruz still claims that “he wasn’t a scientist,” and that he was using the best available evidence when he denied global warming was occurring.  You should have seen me nose to nose with a polar bear in 1992, 15 inches separating us.

You should have seen the Whooping Crane before they finally went extinct in 2060.  I saw nearly ten in my lifetime.

You should have seen the Harris Sparrow in central Nebraska.  They became extinct ten years later. I saw them.

We still have time.  But not much.  You should have seen how Americans came together and fixed the environment in the 21st century.  That’s what I want to hear before I die.


October 1, 2014

“Damn, the site is taken. I had really looked forward to camping here.”

On a beautiful September morning, my wife and I had paddled and carried 13 miles from Fall Lake into Basswood Lake, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,

Fall color, calm water of Newton Lake.

Fall color, calm water of Newton Lake.

the fourth wilderness area to be created in the national system.  Fall and Newton Lakes were dead calm, and with only a slight wind present on Pipestone Bay on Basswood Lake, we made good progress, covering the distance in 4 1/2 hours.  As we entered the final bay, we saw through binoculars something that looked like a tent.  Hoping it wasn’t, we came closer, until I saw the clear movement of a tarp.

We had scouted the site two years ago and had thought it a perfect place to camp.  I did in fact camp there four nights last year, when I had to go alone, and it was better than I had thought.  On a ten to twenty yard wide isthmus was everything we needed to explore two big bays of Basswood Lake, which straddles the US-Canada border for 14 miles, 27,000 acres.  It is an International Treasure shared by the two countries.

Basswood Lake campsite author stayed at in 2013.

Basswood Lake campsite author stayed at in 2013.

The Boundary Waters has designated campsites in order to restrict impact to certain areas.  I have been on over 600 sites when I volunteered for the Forest Service from 1992-1999, cleaning them of trash and litter, sawing limbs of dead trees that were either a threat to a tent or blocked access to parts of the site.  I have camped on more than 70 different lakes; on Basswood alone, I have camped on 20 different sites.  I like campsites on a point, with a great view of sunrise and sunset; a good place to land a canoe, a nice kitchen area; sheltered, if possible; and good, flat tent sites.  The campsite we wanted had a view back up the bay.  We had both seen it in 2012 and thought it adequate.  We didn’t realize how lucky we were that the site was occupied.

Sunset from the campsite, looking east.

Sunset from the campsite, looking northeast.

In the next five days, on our secondary site, near a swamp, we would encounter:

  • The aurora borealis, twice, because we had clear views to the north each night.  The first night showed faint lime-green streamers along the horizon.
  • A beaver show nightly, when 2 adults and their young swam from their beaver house near the campsite into the nearby swamp.  We saw them chewing trees, bringing logs and brush out, eating them not 50 feet away, then swimming back to their house.

    Baby beaver, swimming


    One of the best views I’ve had of the beaver’s tail.


    Adult beaver, who straddled the branch, and took it back to the beaver house.

  • Once, one of the trees that had been chewed, cracked and fell, in plain view of the campsite.
  • During one night, we heard a pack of wolves howl, a quarter mile away.
  • A large, bull moose came by the swamp, 50 yards away, walked along it in plain view, then walked through the back part of our campsite, without any evidence he cared we were there.
  • There were spectacular views of the autumn colors down the channel of Basswood Lake towards Canada.
  • No more than five parties passed by the site daily.  Sometimes, we saw only one.
  • There were at least two days when nobody was on a campsite north of us all the way to Canada.

Sunset view down the lake.


Bull moose arriving and walking through nearby swamp.

IMG_4676 IMG_4677

In short, the site was a hidden gem.  There are sites with better tent sites, good landings, nice kitchen areas, and good views of the sunset.

There are also sites with poorer tent sites, difficult places to land the canoe, exposed kitchen areas, and difficult latrine trails to navigate.

All we did was set up camp, stayed quiet, and looked.  When one base camps, staying every night in the same place, one may travel a little each day to learn about the lake and have time to see what happens in a square mile of wilderness.  I could have mentioned the eagle that flew overhead daily, the frequent visits of ravens, the loon often out front, the grouse nearby, the squirrels that ignored us, because they had never been fed on this site by people.  There was also the gradual falling of leaves from trees that became quite noticeable, and climbing the cliff across the bay rewarded me with a nice view to the south.

Twenty years ago, the idea of base camping didn’t appeal to my desire to cover miles and see new territory.  With age, I have found that slowing down, camping in one spot and making it home for a few days appeals much more.  It is easier, and I see things that I had missed on the 20 mile days.

During this trip, we enjoyed the “outdoor triad” of wilderness, totally dark skies, and complete silence.  Not only did we see the Aurorae, I saw Andromeda Galaxy and the Double Cluster in Perseus clearly, Capella’s and Venus’s reflection in the lake.  Too many do not have the fortune to ever experience one of these 3; to experience all together is beyond measure.  I have awakened in the Boundary Waters and seen Orion’s complete reflection in a calm lake, absolutely soundless, except the ringing in my ears, with knowledge nobody was within miles of me.  These places still exist in America today.  They need to be guarded, not allowed to be used to extract resources in the name of “jobs.”  People who are alive today need these places, either to go to, like me, or to know only that they exist.  Many who come here might return to the “outside world” differently, were they to do what we did.

Is there a guarantee one will find a hidden gem?  Yes.  Being in the wilderness allows one to open his or her eyes and see the gems that are available for one who happens to be in the right place at the right time.  It may be two leaves on the ground (picture), a bee or small gnats feeding on a flowering plant, or an ant carrying a pine needle twice as long as it is.  Will one see specific creatures or sights?  No, there is no guarantee. Yet, I had no thought I would see or hear the things mentioned above, except for the eagle and loon, which are common on all wilderness lakes in the North Country.

The isthmus site is good and a beautiful place.  When we visited it on this trip, however, we saw a jackpine cracked in two, threatening to drop itself and at least one other tree into the kitchen area.  That is a significant risk. The views there are great for sunrise and sunset.  Last year, the sunsets were spectacular.  But there are no views to the north, and there is no swamp nearby. I wouldn’t mind staying there again, for if I did, and were quiet, I would see something special.  I just don’t know what.

But I also know that there is a hidden gem nearby.

Fall colors

Fall colors



Kitchen area above this color on another campsite.

Kitchen area above this color on another campsite.

The plant that I spent time watching a honeybee pollinate and small gnats doing the same.

The plant that I spent time watching a honeybee pollinate and small gnats doing the same.


August 3, 2014

“Hardesty Hardcore,” intrigued me: an annual loop race through 3 trails in the Cascade foothills, open to anybody, with a 4 hour time cut off.  The route is 14 miles and begins with a 3000 foot climb in the first 4.5 miles.  I had hiked it once in the opposite direction, without hurrying,  in 5 hours, with a lunch stop. I thought I could do it in four, so I went out to try.  I am in good hiking shape, having hiked nearly 40 times in Oregon the past 4 months and frequently climbing well over a thousand feet, occasionally over two thousand.

I started by walking fast—too fast— becoming slightly short of breath and uncomfortable.  I slowed, and finished the initial climb in 1 hour 36 minutes.  That is pretty good for a guy my age, but at that pace I wasn’t going to finish in 4 hours, either.

I came down Eula Ridge, much steeper, so I had to watch my foot placement.  I finished that stretch two 2 hours and 45 minutes in, averaging 3.1 miles per hour, well below 3.5 mph I needed to average to make the cutoff.  The last 5.5 miles was on a trail between the two, but not at all flat; it climbed another 1000 feet, difficult on a humid day, when I had finished my water and food.  I got in just under 4 1/2 hours.

With cooler weather, an earlier start, a lighter pack, and running shoes for the last part, I might be able to make the cut.  But I don’t want to race.  I’m not sure I want to subject myself again to that stress, despite being in excellent hiking shape.  I am good but not great.  The fact that I can walk uphill on a 30% grade at 2.5 mph is nice, but I need to average 4 mph for this race, and I am not likely to do it:  I’m too old, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter.

When I was in my 30s, I got in a canoe, bound for lakes and portages I had never seen.  I camped in some of the most beautiful country imaginable, woke early, paddled hard the whole day, camped late.  I could carry pack and canoe together, and I never got sore.  Seeing the country mattered.

In my 40s, I did the same, the only difference being that I took anti-inflammatories before and after each day’s paddle.   For the first time, however, I had a neck problem, a pinched nerve, but that subsided, and I was able to continue.

In my 50s, I stopped carrying a canoe and a pack simultaneously.  I had nothing to prove and a lot I could hurt.  I started base camping, which I liked, but I still enjoyed seeing new territory.  I didn’t go as far as formerly, but I enjoyed practically every mile.


Agnes Lake, on my last trip into Kawnipi Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005, age 56.

Agnes Lake, on my last trip into Kawnipi Lake, Quetico Provincial Park, 2005, age 56.  I have not been back.  I do not expect to see Kawnipi again.  It mattered that I saw it that year.  Agnes?  Seeing this picture makes me wonder….


Kawnipi Lake, 2005.  The most beautiful lake in the Quetico to many people. I have been there six times.  That matters.

Kawnipi Lake, 2005. The most beautiful lake in the Quetico to many people. I have been there six times. That matters.



Lake Insula sunset.  Having spent more than 30 nights on this beautiful lake matters.

Lake Insula sunset. Having spent more than 30 nights on this beautiful lake matters.

In my 60s, things have changed.  Many tell me that age is a number.  Those people who do are always younger than I, where one believes that the world will continue unchanged.  I still can solo trip, but I do it and base camp.

Sunset on my bay campsite, September 2013, solo.  Age 64.

Sunset on my bay campsite, September 2013, solo. Age 64.


I can make the miles if I have to, but I don’t feel the pressure to do so, either.  It doesn’t matter.  The year I turned 60, my wife and I aborted the first day’s paddle into Lake Insula, one we could normally do in 7 hours, where 40 year-olds we had spoken to said they needed three days.  We aborted the paddle in because of heavy rain.  We stopped, pitched the tent and stayed comfortable. Making Insula that day in 7 hours didn’t matter.  We made it easily the next day.  It was a great trip.

Twenty years earlier, I would have bulled on through.  Indeed, over our 25th wedding anniversary, we paddled 110 miles in 11 days with a day of rest.  One day, I portaged a canoe 15 times, a record for me.  Those trips mattered.

What will happen the next decade, if I make it that far?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the distance may stay the same, if my arms and legs are still working well, but I suspect it will decrease, and it won’t matter.  I still hope to be in the woods, away from people, enjoying the quiet, the Pileated Woodpecker’s crossing the lake by the campsite, loons, sunrise, sunset, and full Moon.

What about backpacking?  There, the clock ticks louder.  As I write this, I will soon leave for my sixth multi-day trip to the Brooks Range.  On my fifth, I carried 75 pounds with difficulty, but I did it.  I wasn’t sure I would do a sixth.  But then you see there was this trip offered to the Wulik Mountains in the far west Brooks, country I hadn’t seen, wonderful, wild country, and maybe I had one more trip in me after all.  Or two more, since I want to see ANWR’s Sheenjek’s River drainage.  Each year, backpacking requires more training.  Six weeks prior, I start carrying 25 pounds around the neighborhood, then 35, the 50, and finally 60.  This year, after hiking a lot more in spring, I started at 50 pounds, and I’ve carried that weight the past month.  I can comfortably walk 3 miles with it, essential if I want to complete the trip and enjoy it.  Ten years ago, I didn’t need to train.  Now I do.

Arrigetch Peaks on my way out of the area, August 2007, age 58

Arrigetch Peaks on my way out of the area, August 2007, age 58.  It mattered that I see these peaks, which had fascinated me for decades.

Dall Sheep, Aichilik River, ANWR, June, 2009.  Age 60. This afternoon mattered.

Dall Sheep, Aichilik River, ANWR, June, 2009. Age 60. This afternoon mattered.

Cubs, Noatak River campsite, August 2010, age 61. This day mattered

Cubs, Noatak River campsite, August 2010, age 61. This day mattered


Fording the Noatak, August 8, 2010. Age 61.  My guide said that day, "I hope I can do this when I am 61."  He was 51.

Fording the Noatak, August 8, 2010. Age 61. My guide said that day, “I hope I can do this when I am 61.” He was 51.

Gates of the Arctic, 2012, carrying 75 pounds.  This trip mattered. Age 63

Gates of the Arctic, 2012, carrying 75 pounds. This trip mattered. Age 63

My body isn’t betraying me, but changing, and my brain with its desires is fortunately changing, too.  I rely more upon experience than brute strength.  I read the weather well, pack dry in a pouring rain without leaving the tent, then striking the tent and quickly finish, putting the pack cover on a dry pack.  Alaska just is, with a lot of rain, mosquitoes and tussocks.  Fortunately, I know how to hike there.  That itself is probably worth 25 years of age.

My guess is that I will slow down in the next decade but will still enjoy what I do.  I look back fondly on the times when I was really good, especially the difficult trips, for that is what one remembers.  Age does matter.  I am grateful for what I can do, hope I will like it just as much during the coming changes, as I add more to my wonderful wilderness portfolio.

You see, I feel blessed.  Not a lot of guys my age can hike the Hardesty Loop.  I did it for time.  That’s pretty cool.  The fact I tried did matter.

It only hurt a little that night.


July 4, 2014

In the famous Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown is running to kick the football, when Lucy pulls it up, and Charlie kicks at air, falling down.  Every time, he thinks the result will be different, and every time, he is wrong.  That is the famous definition of insanity.

So maybe I am insane.  I’m getting better, but it has taken me a long, long time to do so, because I still kick at air.

Last summer, I got a call from a younger alumnus from a canoe tripping camp that I attended in the ‘60s, both of us going to the camp’s reunion in August.  There was a special request to create a special endowment for this centennial year, and I planned to give.  I thought that was obvious, since I give financial support to young people who cannot afford the camp’s fees.

Yes, fifty years ago, I was in a select group of canoe trippers that canoed Temagami Provincial Park in northern Ontario.  It was a difficult trip; I still remember my knees hurting from kneeling in the bow in 2-3 foot waves.  We were never allowed to sit in the bow seat.  We knelt. In the stern, the staff man sat. To this day, if I am in the bow of a canoe, I kneel.  Every day on that trip it rained, but it was a good trip. We saw remote country, and while I never will see Temagami again, the memories of places called Lady Evelyn, Ostergut, Makobe, and Fat Man’s Misery Portage are part of me.  I have trod that country.

The caller was interested in my subsequent canoeing experience, and I gave him a brief rundown of my outdoor water resume:  the Nahanni, the upper Yukon Basin from Lake Bennett to Carmacks, the Alatna and Noatak Rivers in Alaska, and 32 years canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico.  I have been blessed.  The caller had canoed Labrador, which I thought cool, but he especially wanted to see my Nahanni pictures, a trip he had always wanted to do.

Yep, sooner or later, it came to money, and I told him I would contribute, as I had planned to.  The conversation ended soon afterwards, and I felt a little used, but hey, maybe he was busy, and we would learn at the reunion about each other’s trips.  Maybe. These things almost never pan out:  the call was about money, interspersed with feigned interest of what I had done.  People seldom call me curious about what I’ve done.  The calls are usually about money or medical advice.

I arrived a day early for the reunion in late August, back on a lake where I spent 6 summers, and I got to see the island, 46 years later, with relatively few people present.  The next day, the rest arrived; I was present at the dock where they came in.  I heard the name called of the individual who had phoned me, and I went over to introduce myself. He greeted me semi-warmly then saw somebody else he knew and disappeared.  For good.

The football had been pulled up.  I had the Nahanni slides with me, for we took slides in 1985.  I had lost the roll of film, wrote Parks Canada, saying it might be in the campground at Fort Simpson, where we had stayed on our last night.  Incredibly, six weeks later, the roll was sent to me.  Canadians do those sorts of things.  I had pictures of a remarkable area very few people will ever see.  After arriving at Fort Simpson, we flew to the Nahanni in a Twin Otter with 6 people and 3 canoes, landing on a sandbar.  The Nahanni was a difficult trip through Class III rapids, the worst mosquitoes I have ever seen—and I have seen more than most— but I saw the highest waterfall, Virginia Falls, in North America.  I paddled through four canyons almost as deep as the Grand Canyon itself, sat in some natural hot springs, came out on the Liard River and saw the great Mackenzie.  The Nahanni was pure wilderness.  It is the crown jewel of my outdoor water resume.


Virginia Falls, South Nahanni River, NWT, July, 1985.

Virginia Falls, South Nahanni River, NWT, July, 1985.


I should have known better than to bring the slides.  Getting money from me was the issue, not what I did or who I was.  I’ve felt that way a lot, these past 16 years, after I left medicine.  I give on my own terms to those I wish.  I do what I can, hope to make a difference, and wish some day one of my ideas will be accepted, improved, and have a significant impact.  I had many such ideas in medicine.  My wish to be a busier volunteer in the public schools has yet to be granted.  We ought to have paid universal mandatory national service, which would give young people a sense of purpose and direction, lessening the likelihood of student debt catastrophes.  We ought to be saving water every way possible.  We should ban companion animal breeding.  I have written about all of these in this blog.

We should have had incremental single payer medical care, starting with the very young.  This would have been easier, cheaper, and less likely to have been voted against.  We should have tracked a whole host of quality issues in medicine.  We need free, unbiased, end-of-life counseling to elderly people to help them understand what “all those tubes” mean, and what their options are.  By ignoring the elderly, we ignore elders, wasting resources I can’t begin to fathom.  In short, we need incremental changes, keeping both the enemies of change and the perfectionists at bay.

I wish I hadn’t brought the pictures of the Nahanni back up to the country where they were taken.  I knew he would not be interested, but I persevered, hoping, like Charlie Brown, it would matter. People are busy, too busy for guys like me.  I tried to travel light, and those pictures and his call were excess baggage.

But I was lucky.  I have seen the Nahanni, drunk the water, know what’s out there. There is no blank spot on my map.  While it’s on my resume, far more importantly, it is in my brain.  I can call it up any time I want:  the magnificent falls, Fourth through First Canyons, Pulpit Rock, and the Gate. Wow. I was there!  I got back up to the camp one last time, and I don’t ever need to go again.  I have taken my last look.  Yeah, the football was pulled up, but I had a soft landing.

It was his loss, not mine.  That line is in Peanuts, too.


April 26, 2014

“What sort of person reads SIERRA?”  An editorial suggested four ads, “which would depict you in split screen”:  Take a look; I wrote them verbatim, my comments in italics:


  • grinning like a loon while riding your folding bike to work and then giggling on the back of your girlfriend’s tandem as you cycle past wetlands that you helped save from bulldozers.  [loons don’t grin; I’ve seen thousands.  Why the back of the tandem?  Isn’t that sexist?  Women can be stronger than men.  Besides, the best wetlands are nowhere near cycling routes.]
  • hoisting your sweaty self up a 5.10 granite face and then kicking back under a camp lantern reading The Botany of Desire.  [I guess I don’t belong, since I don’t rock climb.  I haven’t read the book, either.  Shameful.]
  • giving a thumbs-up to the crew who put solar panels on your house in the morning and then battering your way through Class V rapids at sunset.  [Oh wow, the average member can plunk down $10,000 for panels, more for a good Kayak and go through Class V rapids, which aren’t exactly everywhere, requiring a lot of training.  Where does the money and the time to train come from?  By the way, “the crew” probably spoke Spanish and don’t own Kayaks, let alone the means to get to Class V rivers, but hey, you are special.]
  • admiring a scarlet macaw in your binoculars and then admiring the way your flip-flops look on the sustainable flooring you installed to protect that rainforest.  [Here, Spanish speakers have an advantage, because unless you live in Central or South America, you didn’t see the Macaw (the national bird of Honduras) and then admired your sustainable flooring.  Additionally, the flooring, like most of ours, is probably on cement, the production of which is a major cause of CO2 emission.]

I’m not about to ditch the Club over this, only diss it.  I wrote the editor “‘I’m obnoxious and outspoken when I read outlandish orations what I ought to be accomplishing every hour.”  No worry, marketers aren’t interested in guys my age.  These ads make the Club sound like it is for world class, superrich, world-saving Yuppies, who don’t have to work the hours most do, and weren’t required to serve in Uncle Sam’s fighting forces.  School and the military took me through my 20s. I was well into my 30s before I had the chance to explore much of the world.

Much as I don’t care for the NRA, “I’m the NRA” is a powerful ad.  Calling guns “rifles” softens the name of the organization.  The National Gun Association would be dead on arrival, and I am amazed nobody has said that.  For people who are highly educated, Sierra Club folks and other liberal thinkers have lost almost every battle on language to those who don’t understand a lot of English grammar, but sure know how to string a few words together well.  John Kerry looked elitist on a kite board; Dukakis may have lost the election when he rode a tank; George W. Bush was a guy you could have a beer with.  Frankly, I want a president who is a hell of a lot smarter than I, but most people don’t think like me.  Let’s see if I can figure out how they do think.

The Club is perceived by many as elitist that says NO to everything. The NGA, and you know whom I mean, also says no, but is not elitist.  That is a huge difference.  Most Americans are not elite, jealous of the elite, feel the elite have too much money, too much everything, and care more about the environment than jobs and people.  They aren’t convinced we can have both jobs and protect the environment.  And they vote.

The four ads portray members as wine sipping yuppies, doing things the average American doesn’t, and to quote my late father, think their shit don’t stink.  I think the NGA stinks, but I’m among the first to admit that a lot more people relate to it than to the Sierra Club.

I’m old; neither pretty nor charismatic, but an ad featuring a guy like me might be understood by more people who want to know what the Club is about.  Put me in split screen, driving into Kearney with a 3 on the floor rusty, old Ford F-150 with “8” or “9” on the Nebraska plates, waving the tip of a finger to oncoming vehicles (those are Hall and Buffalo counties, by the way; everybody in Nebraska knows they are rural), and saying, “I’m Mike Smith, and I’m a Sierra Club member, I have a Duck Stamp, and I’m helping out at one of the great migrations in America.”  Trust me: Having a Duck Stamp matters.  Hunters need one, and it’s a bone of contention to them that non-hunters don’t buy them. I don’t blame hunters for their anger.  I continue, truck bouncing, “A lot of folks think we are anti-hunting.  We aren’t. Hunting gets kids outside. I like that.  America’s special outdoor places are under attack by those who haven’t seen a full Moon rise, mist on a lake full of waterfowl, heard rain on the roof of a tent, or felt the tug of a bass on a line.”


The migration of Sandhill Cranes, Nebraska.

The migration of Sandhill Cranes, Nebraska.

Split screen: showing me by my old tent on a clear spot in the wilderness, wearing every bit of clothing I’ve brought.  Then the next night I’m wearing a sweater and hiking boots–show the boots– presenting a small scholarship, in memory of two Minnesotans who died in Iraq, at the Vermilion Community College banquet, to a young woman from the Iron Range studying for a job in wilderness management.  That happened.

Split screen:  I’m paddling out of the Boundary Waters on Fall Lake, grubby, after a few days in the woods, and an hour later, eating a scone at a small town bakery in Ely and looking at a real fishing guide’s picture of a 32 1/2 inch walleye he caught and threw back. This is small town America.  Yeah, that happened last September.  I wrote about it.

Split screen:  My wife lungeing a horse, and the next week, wearing a very different outfit portaging 45 pounds around Pipestone Falls and later hanging food away from bears up on Jackfish Bay on Basswood Lake.


Jackfish Bay, Basswood Lake

Jackfish Bay, Basswood Lake

Yeah, it’s a bit corny, but it is better than sustainable flooring.  I use fossil fuels; we all do.  Let’s not kid ourselves.

If the Club wanted to be really green, it would hammer incessantly against overpopulation, which may cause our demise.   Want to be green?  Don’t have children.  Nothing else comes close.  Want to save American wilderness?  Limit immigration, too, since we can’t take in the world, any more than we can defend it or save it.  Wow, my hissy fit has just dissed the Club, pissed off every reader and kissed my reputation goodbye.

I won’t be missed.





Spring Creek, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, late April 2013.  I camped within 50 yards of the right side of the photograph.

Spring Creek, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, late April 2013. I camped within 50 yards of the right side of the photograph.

The outdoors must be protected for future generations, hunters and non-hunters.  That is what the Club is about.

The outdoors must be protected for future generations, hunters and non-hunters. That is what the Club is about.


September 30, 2013

For well over a decade, my wife and I have taken an annual canoe trip into the Boundary Waters.  We have everything planned.  Day 1, we stay north of  Minneapolis, where we have drinks at a country bar, dinner, and ice cream afterward.  The next day, we hit the shopping center in Cloquet, get our food, and drive up to Ely.  We pack that night, and the third morning, go across the street to a coffee shop that opens early and serves good scones, too. We drive out to the jumping off point and head in to the woods for a week.

My wife wants a picture of me in that coffee shop this year.  She won’t be there with me.

I knew at some point, circumstances would prevent our going up there.  I just hoped it wouldn’t be “this year”, but “this year” always comes.  Always.  I was under orders to go.  My wife knows the clock in my head.  In 2004, on the river into LaCroix, we saw an old guy paddling and floating downstream, mostly floating.  Mind you, he was about 75, but he was in the woods.  I don’t see many 75 year-olds in the woods.  My wife said, “That’s you in 20 years.”

Nine have now passed.

In 2005, I soloed into Kawnipi Lake for one more look.  I have thought about going back to it, perhaps the most beautiful lake in the Quetico-Superior.  I’ve seen Kawnipi six times, however, I am turning 65 in 9 weeks, and seeing Kawnipi again with high mile days is no longer as important to me as it once was.  Damn, I loved those high mile days.  I can still see myself powering into a nasty headwind on the west side of Agnes, trying to make it to the Silence Lake inlet.  Oh yeah, it was raining like stink, too.

We used to go into Lake Insula, but in 2011, the Pagami Creek Fire burned the whole route in. We could have done it last year, because with decent weather, we can paddle the 7 portage route in as many hours, get to our favorite campsite, not burned, for a late lunch.  Neither of us, however, wanted to see the fire scars.  We both know fire is necessary, and that the area will heal, but we want to remember Insula the way it was, not the way it is now.

We started camping on Basswood Lake, looking for the ideal spot.  The first two years, we found good sites, but they weren’t what we wanted.  Last year, on a day trip, we found one, a little further in.  This was going to be our destination this year.

Except illness and bad crap happen.

I’m going to try to go there solo. I say try, because the intervening nine years at my age is a lot different from intervening nine years thirty years ago.  Last April, I solo hiked into the BW.  I couldn’t make it safely to Angleworm Lake because of deep snow, and the concern that I would get too fatigued or hurt.  I turned back and found a place to camp.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was nice enough.  I was in the woods, alone, and winter camped, which I had not done in 30 years.  Not only was it a good trip, it was the smartest I had camped.  Oh, I got cold at night, and I didn’t do everything right.  But the big decisions were sound–I turned around, I found a good spot, I stayed warm enough, and I ate well.

I’m going in solo again, by canoe.  It will be familiar….  I have soloed more than 20 times.  I talk to myself.  I give myself pep talks, the most important one at the jumping off point, where I tell myself not only to be careful, but to go with the flow.  “It’s just physics,” is one phrase I use, so when I drop food or trip over a root I don’t complain.  I don’t run.  I never deviate from my route that both my wife and outfitter know.  If I am late, I want people to know where I am….and where I am NOT.

I once published an article in a magazine about solo trips.  It was accepted, but the editor added a picture of a waterfall with the caption, “While solo tripping can be good, these sights can’t be shared with one you love.”  That annoyed me.  I wrote that solo trips aren’t for everyone; indeed, only a few of us seek out this solitude.  We do it because we have to.  Maybe we’re selfish, but there are times we want to see things alone and be by ourself.  In society today, that may be strange; I find it nearly sacred.

I won’t go in solo to think about the course of my life, the state of the world, or the next article I will write.  Nope, I will say that, but in the end, I will spend a few hours contemplating a campfire, trying to find that loon that is calling, walking along the shore and see what’s growing on land or in the water, follow a path from the site until it deadends, wondering why it deadends.  I will watch caterpillars, ants, mergansers, not analyzing anything.  If it is nice, I’ll lie on my back and look up at the sky.  I’ll usually watch an eagle soaring and wonder what he’s seeing.

I will return in 4 days to the same place I started.  The canoe, paddles, and PFD will be the same.  The person, however, will be different.  Oh, he will look the same, other than being cut up in a few places, a little stiffer, blisters on his hands, sunburn where he should have been more careful.  But the real difference lies deeper.  He’s been out in the woods and saw whatever it was he needed to see.   He won’t be able to explain it, but those who seek out wilderness and make it part of their life understand.  So will his wife, who will see him and immediately know he went where he needed to.


September 29, 2013

I never forgot that summer day at Crow Lake, nearly six decades ago, when I landed my first smallie, 13 inches and a pound.  Over the years, I’d catch perch, sunnies, rock bass, pike, largemouth and other smallies (smallmouth bass), always happy, but of course never quite recapturing the thrill that I had with the first one.  I can still see the rock under water where I caught him, the tug on the rod,  bending almost in two.  One has to understand this thrill to fully understand what’s coming next.  I’m writing about fishin’, no “g”, because every fisherman knows that.  You go fishin’.  I guess a few folks from the Cities go fishing, but the rest of us go fishin’.  We use leeches and crawlers, the latter being nightcrawlers, or earthworms that come out at night, after we water the lawn during the day.  These are “live bait,” which a segment of the fishin’ population considers the only way to fish.  It’s a bit religious, although we’ll use lures like Raps, spinners, jitterbugs, and spoons, ‘cause some places don’t allow live bait, because of contamination concerns.

Oh, we don’t use the metric system, either.  My bass was not 33 cm long and 0.45 kg.  Give me a break.  My heavens, nobody here would know what the hell you were talking about if you said that.  I’m vegetarian now, but I eat fish, because I’m willing to catch, kill, clean and cook them.  While I don’t fish any more, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for fishin’.

I hadn’t planned on soloing into the Boundary Waters this September, because my wife and I usually go together.  Illness entered our house this year, however, and while she was doing well, canoeing was out of the question. Stuff happens.  She told me to go.  I felt a bit guilty, but I get over it quickly.  I think she’s glad to have me gone for a while.  I come back better for the trip.

Sunset, Basswood Lake, top of Pipestone and Jackfish Bays.

Red Maple leaf.

I’ve soloed into the Boundary Waters on the good side of twenty times.  I usually go with the plan that I will think a lot about my life, family, place in the world, all the heady stuff people believe is important.  Usually, though, I end up fascinated with what most would call trivialities.  I round the corner of an island, and an immature Bald Eagle takes off in front of me. Or I’m lazing under a few jack pines on a cliff and see a dozen mergies diving in unison. Or, if I’m lucky, I see a Pileated Woodpecker fly back and forth across the bay out front, a real treat.  The world’s problems, my own, tend to wait.  A red tree leaf on the trail  is highly significant,  as is morning mist on the lake, an incredible sunset  or a rising last quarter Moon, with a loon calling, when I take my midnight break.

I process what I see and hear slowly, so it might take hours or days to discover what is truly meaningful.  Readers of my post “Dreams”, should know that I left that men’s room without the slightest thought of writing about what had just transpired.  By the time I got home, 12 hours later, the story wrote itself.

My first night out, I was on a campsite my wife and I had discovered last year.  We were camped in the motor zone on Basswood and found this one out of the zone.  We should have moved, but we didn’t.  There are many lovely tent sites, quiet bays, and lots of room.  She couldn’t see it this year; I decided if my 64 year old arms could do it, I’d go in 14 miles for a couple of nights.  I got there in 4 hours, which I thought decent.  And so the first night, I sat on a fallen Norway and started to write about the day.

What surprised me was that my thoughts were not of the eagle perched by Newton Falls, nor the Aster

Aster plant, end of portage from Newton to Pipestone Bay.

Aster plant, end of portage from Newton to Pipestone Bay.

and Hawkweed blooms

Orange hawkweed.  This is worth kneeling down to smell.

Orange hawkweed. This is worth kneeling down to smell.

by Pipestone Bay, near the end of the portage.  It wasn’t even the site itself, which was better than I remembered.

Nope, it was a fishin’ story I heard that morning, back in Ely.  Yep, fishin’.

I heard the fishin’ story because I went to a bakery the morning of my departure into the woods.  My wife asked me to go to that bakery, because we always had gone there together before heading out.  We got coffee and a scone, one of her fondest memories of the trip.  We remember these things every year with hopes next year will be the same.  Except at some point, next year won’t work out.  Always.  It is the way of the world.  Not working out happened to be 2013, a bummer.  But I still went to the bakery, got my coffee and scone from the same woman, who was helped by a man I hadn’t seen before.  I don’t know their relationship, and it doesn’t particularly matter.  I was there for scones and coffee; I was about to get a lot, lot more than I paid for, and fishin’ stories ought to be told in the present tense.

A second customer comes in, and the man who is helping the woman starts talking about a fishin’ trip he guided the prior week.  OK, now I understand the relationship.  They have a bakery, and he works as a guide.  Oh yeah, he works holding ducts, too.  That came up in the conversation:  “It’s about 30 hours of work, and while I know nothing about ducts, I can hold them.”  This is Ely, where they measure jobs by hours they will last, not salary, bonuses, or bennies, which are non-existent.  But that’s for another time.  I’m telling a fishin’ story now.

The man is guiding out on a lake that I know well, but will remain unnamed, because guides do not tell ordinary people where good fishing is, and as a listener, it is completely unethical for me to mention the name.  Guides do a lot of “water time” to find the honey holes that help them live.  When you put in a lot of “water time,” you don’t give it away.  The guide talks about a day trip that he and his charges took. Wow.  I’ve done that day trip, and it’s a haul.  I’m starting to listen closely, for while I’ve been in 300 lakes up here, camped out as many nights, this guy knows fishin’ and this country a lot better than I.  If you haven’t figured that out, I’ve just paid him a hell of a compliment.

I’m still sitting at the window looking out on Sheridan Street but turn around when the guide says, “I caught the biggest walleye in my life last week–32 1/2 inches.”  I look at him as he continues, “took a picture and let her go.  She was old, had a big head, and I could see the unusual coloration on her.”  Big walleyes are breeders, and they should all be thrown back after a quick picture. If a good guide sees you keeping one of these for dinner, he will quietly direct the fishin’ elsewhere to make sure you don’t catch anything more. I heard that from an expert. Good sportsmen practice catch and release. Good sportsmen, however, often don’t do what this guide does next.

“She comes belly up about 100 yards away.  I went over, because the gulls were circling.  She was alive, so I worked her gills for a few minutes, made sure they were going, and let her go.  She dived deep and was gone.”  Working the gills means move the fish back and forth, so the dissolved oxygen can fix to the hemoglobin on the gills.

My story that first night was right before my eyes. I wanted to write something profound, and here it was: I spread my hands about 32 1/2 inches apart and dreamt of having that on my line.  Wow.  Best fishin’ story I’ve heard in a long time.  Nothing trivial about this.  Not when you know fishin’.

That guy is a real sportsman, too, and it’s a helluva fishin’ story.  I respect him.  He gets it.  He knows how to take people fishin’.  I like the bakery.  I left a decent tip when I got my order; I decided I would stop in and grab another one of those scones when I came back before the long drive to the Cities.  I doubt I will hear another fishin’ story, because maybe the guy is holding ducts.  Still, maybe it will be my lucky day.  I will leave a lot bigger tip for the woman, not just for the scone but for the fishin’ story.  I bet she knows a lot of fishin’ stories.  My wife doesn’t believe half of mine.  Bet she believes his.  He’s a guide.  He knows fishin’.

Well, I’m in the woods for a few days, cover some miles, see some sunsets, eagles, fall colors, and spend 30 minutes watching an ant move a pine needle.  Yes, trivial stuff.  Unless one is an ant.  Did you ever watch an ant carry something 10 times longer than he is?  I was fascinated.  Anyway, I finally came out of the woods 3 hours before a big boomer pounded the land.  Temperature dropped like a stone, but I had a September trip where I never wore my rain clothes and slept without a hat on.  That’s a great trip.

It got better.

I had breakfast at the Moose (The Chocolate Moose) at the corner of Sheridan and Central in Ely, and I’m ready to leave town, when I go by the bakery for the blueberry scone and coffee.  The scone is to die for.  I’m normally pretty shy, but four days alone in the woods makes me talkative, so I just ask the woman how big the walleye was, ‘cause I like to have my facts right.  She immediately asks the man to come out.  It really is my lucky day–dry trip, blueberry scone, and I’m going to talk to the man himself, a guy who knows fishin’.

He is a guide.  Name is Don Beans, and he runs  Jasper Creek Guide Service in Ely.  He’s on Facebook.  I got the brochure.  I started with a real dumb question:  “Where did you catch it?”  Completely nonplussed, Don answered, “Not saying.”  I was embarrassed as hell with my faux pas, forgetting that no guide ever divulges his secrets, but hey, I haven’t been fishin’ for a while.  I replied saying the lake began with one of two letters, and named the letters.  The first one was correct.  I told him I was familiar with that lake, having spent time with the Forest Service.  He must have thought I was for real, so we both talked about a secret lake that we both knew well.  I ain’t telling you the name of the lake.  No way.  You want to know, take a trip with Don.

Then I told him about back in ’92 when Steve Cochran and  I were out working, when we spent an evening jiggin’ for walleyes on Pipestone Bay, where I had just been.  Cochran, a Forest Service worker, guided on his days off.  Don is a guide who probably does bakery and duct work on his days off.  Probably does any other work he can, too.  Bet he’s good at it.  Doesn’t ask dumb questions, the way I do.

“Lot of water time to find that hole,” Don said, when I told him about the school of walleyes we were jigging into.  I had never caught a walleye before and pulled in 8 that night.  Threw them all back.  I told Don that I was impressed with his throwing the fish back and then going out to rescue it from the gulls.  I liked his response:

“What else could I do?”

Not “it was the right thing to do,” which implies that one has a choice, but the implication was clear: the right thing is one’s only action.  This is a good guide. Come to think of it, this is a good person, too.  I’m writing a 2100 word fishin’ story, and Don Beans has summarized the jist of it in 5 words.  He’d probably be a good editor, too.  His next 5 words were even better.

“Want to see a picture?”  he asked.  That was like asking me if I wanted a lifetime supply of blueberry scones.  Oh man, did I strike gold today.  First the scone, then the story in depth, and now a picture.

I saw Don with the fish.  I don’t have to spread my arms 32 1/2 inches.  I’ve seen what it looks like.  That walleye is a treasure in American waters, thanks to Don.  She won’t be around much longer, but she has done her job in nature.  Wow, what a fishin’ story.

And the whole thing is true.  Makes me want to take up fishin’ again.

If I do, I know who will guide me,  where that secret lake is, and what I’m having for breakfast that first morning.  I may ask dumb questions, but I ain’t stupid.


August 27, 2013

“Hey, Rick, good to see you!”

I was at the reunion celebrating 100 years of Camp Pathfinder’s existence, where I learned to canoe trip in the ‘60s, and saw a familiar name tag near me.  I found the face vaguely familiar, as much as a face one hasn’t seen for 46 years can be familiar.

Rick (not his real name) turned and said hi, without nearly the surprise I had.  I told him the college I was fairly certain he had gone to (correct), and reminded him that I stayed at his house on a trip from the camp back to Rochester, New York, to accompany the campers back to the camp in central Ontario the next day.  I even got his street right, remarkable, considering I had not visited Rochester in 45 years.  I then asked what he was doing.

“Teaching math.  And I have authored five textbooks.  Good to see you again after the last reunion.  What do you think of the place?”

I had never been to a reunion.  We had not seen each other in 46 years.  I have taught math, and I certainly can subtract 1967 from 2013.  I haven’t authored much of anything, other than a few articles in several different fields, like neurology, Navy medicine, wilderness.  I certainly haven’t authored any textbooks.

I replied: “The things that changed needed to, and the things that didn’t need to change are the same.”  Rick liked that line, saying that was exactly what he was going to talk about at the “Council Meeting” the next day, where we would all be.  He then saw somebody else and left me, without another word.

I had known Rick really, really well at Pathfinder.  I had worked with him in the camp office, when I wasn’t out canoe tripping, which half the time I was.  I was–in a word–bummed.  I saw him several more times at the reunion, always with a lot of people near him, for he was a prominent person in the camp and a major “player” at the reunion.  I made it a point, however, not to initiate any further conversations.

I’m shy; while at times I can force myself to talk to strangers, if they reply the way Rick did, I shut down.  To an extrovert, that is no big deal; to me, I have put myself on the line and failed badly. I wish I could easily change this behavior, but it has been exceedingly difficult to do so.  I tried to tell myself that probably Rick had a lot of other things on his mind, but I was bummed.  I had no desire then to look for another name tag with a familiar name. Maybe I would the next day. Frankly, I was ready then to leave the reunion.

Instead, later that evening I sat outside the kitchen, away from the many gatherings, next to a couple, enjoying the coolness and the beauty of sunset over Source Lake, which I had not seen for nearly half a century.

“Venus is setting,” I commented, half to the couple, half to the sky.  It is how I start conversations.  If I can teach or get into my comfort zone, I open up.

The woman was interested in my comment, found Venus, and her husband looked, too.  They were from Brooklyn, where seeing stars or planets is often impossible.  Above Venus, I showed them Arcturus; overhead, the Summer Triangle, in the south, Antares.

“Let’s go down on the kitchen dock,” I suggested.  It was a clear, pleasant night.

With the wider view afforded by the dock, I showed them Cygnus the Swan, the Northern Cross, with bright Deneb at one end and dimmer Albireo at the other. With a telescope, I told them Albireo is one of the most beautiful double stars in the sky.

I pointed out the Big Dipper, showing them how it could be used as a clock, running counterclockwise around Polaris every day.  Using the Big Dipper, one can tell time at night, which fascinated them. I showed them Polaris, using my outstretched fists to show our latitude of 45 degrees.  In two minutes, they just had learned how to tell the time and latitude without anything more than their eyes and hands.  That’s heady stuff.

We turned to the south to view Scorpius, the head, Antares, and the tail.  The whole constellation appeared before us, barely clearing the quiet boreal forest across the now lovely, dead calm lake.  I told them how my wife and I once saw Orion rise over a calm lake late one night, perfectly reflected in the water.

It was late, and while the parties were occurring all over the island, I was tired.  As we walked back to where we had been sitting, I mentioned that they could always see the Moon from Brooklyn, and if they started following the Moon’s cycle, they would learn a lot.  The Moon is essential in both the Jewish and Islamic calendars.  If they used the bright stars like Vega, Altair and Deneb like Broadway, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street, they could learn to find their way to the lesser known areas in the sky.  It isn’t difficult, and I suspect perhaps this couple will.  I wrote an astronomy column for a newspaper for two decades without any formal astronomy background.  It takes rocket science to go to the stars, but not to learn them.

I have neither written a textbook, let alone five, nor changed thousands of schoolchildren.  I was not speaking to three hundred people at a reunion; I was only showing the sky to two young adults from Brooklyn.

But that night I like to think I changed a couple of lives. If I didn’t, I certainly changed the course my evening had been taking.  I didn’t whistle when I went to bed, but I felt a lot better about myself.  The reunion would turn out fine, Rick had just been a small rock in the water that my canoe hit.  I was again back on calm water, paddling ahead strongly.

Wilderness and a clear night sky are a wonderful tonic for the blues.

Day trip in Algonquin Park, on Little Island Lake. I camped on this very spot 50 years ago. I am back right.

Back from a paddle around the island….and of course a little more. These red canoes are hand made, still wood and canvas, and weigh about 41 kg (90 lb). On the day trip, I carried it 1400 meters without stopping. To still be able to do that was one of the high points of the trip. My shoulders hurt for several days after.  Notice the red neckerchief. That is the sign of a head man.  I earned that, and I was not the only one at the reunion who wore one.

Loon and chick, Source Lake, Algonquin Park.


June 8, 2013

Last week, an elderly couple, experienced canoeists, capsized in Upper Basswood Falls, which straddle the Canadian border, and the 78 year-old man drowned.  His 75 year-old wife made it to the Canadian side.  She heard him say, “I can’t move,” but was unable to help.  I can imagine that.  Ice out was 3 weeks ago, and she probably was hypothermic.

I don’t like Upper Basswood Falls.  Never have.  A couple once left their young daughter at the end of a portage, while they returned to get the remainder of their gear.  She fell in the river, and that was the last time they saw her alive.  I was there on September 12, 2001, and that’s where I first heard the news that the world had changed forever.  In 1991, I did one of the most stupid things I have ever done in the woods.  Solo, I was coming upstream, on the Canadian side, and moved forward in the canoe to deal with the current.  I later learned that there are three things that a solo canoeist cannot manage:  wind, muck, and current.  I was  thrown out of the canoe, without its capsizing.  I found myself suddenly underwater thinking “This can’t be happening,”  usually the first thought people have in these circumstances.  It isn’t a good one. Quetico maps often don’t show portages, and when I went ashore, there was a short carry.  Fortunately, the water was warm, and all that was hurt was my pride.  I could have drowned, because back then I didn’t wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device), either.  I know that, because I was underwater, which wouldn’t happen with a PFD.  I made two bad decisions and got away with them.  In 40 years of canoeing, it is the only time I dumped.  I’ve worn a zipped up PFD since, for it cannot come off.  The victim was found without one.

Upper Basswood Falls is not a waterfall but a series of falls, and there is a long portage around them.  The Horse Portage, as it is called, is 340 rods (1700 m).   It is longer, should one choose to set in downstream a little further, which I have also done.  The trail is not good, and the put in spot isn’t, either.  But in high water, it is safer.

The couple had reportedly discovered they could paddle Upper Basswood Falls and avoid the Horse Portage. The thought of bypassing the Horse Portage has never crossed my mind, and I’ve paddled 5 miles (8 km) of Class III rapids in the Far North on the Nahanni, a week’s travel from civilization and no way out other than on the river. This information shocked me.  A solid rule in the Boundary Waters-Quetico is never to paddle rapids if a portage exists.  In known high water, with 3 feet of snow on the lakes a month earlier, probable water temperatures of 45-55 F., Upper Basswood is a killer.  The widow isn’t sure whether he scouted the rapids; that means that both of them did not decide together whether to continue.  In any case, he took a different channel from usual, and that was that.

A few people die annually in the Boundary Waters-Quetico from falls or drowning; lightning is another cause.  Rapids must be avoided; further downstream I once tried to dissuade a pair not to run Wheelbarrow Falls.  They asked me to take pictures.  I have some good ones, which first show the pair with no helmets and bare feet.  Not wise.  Then the pictures show the canoe tipping, going broadside, and two guys in the water being taken downstream.  They survived, unscathed.  The canoe was perpendicular to the rapids, full of water.  They said they could handle it, although a canoe full of water weighs about 600 kg.  I later learned they did get the canoe out, before the keel bent and the Grumman became scrap metal.

I told my wife last night I would never stay on shore if I heard her say in the middle of the river, “I can’t move.”

“I’d get you out, or we’d both go together.”  I really meant that.  She reminded me that we have animals.  I reminded her that we have each other.  I wouldn’t live with myself if I did anything less.  But, I said, “I wouldn’t put us in that situation.”  I won’t, and I haven’t.  I hope to be 78 and still canoeing, although I would be exceptionally careful in rivers, high winds, rain, and thunderstorms.   I insist she speak up any time something doesn’t seem right.  That took a while to get her to do, and for me to listen, but we’re better off for it. The man’s widow didn’t know if he had a life jacket on.  If I forgot to put mine on, my wife would tell me.  These are little things, perhaps, but in the woods, as in so many other places, it is the concatenation of little things that produces the disaster.  Was the reason the victim couldn’t move was that he was pinned down?  Would a PFD had prevented it?  We will never know.

Bad things happen.  Some are simply not preventable.  Lightning strikes kill, although if one pitches a tent where there are no tree roots and uses a pad, there is a good chance of avoiding ground currents.  Trees fall;  high winds are frightening, because healthy trees can be suddenly splintered like matchsticks.  I’ve seen it.   I will sleep during a thunderstorm; during high winds, I stay awake listening for the first loud “CRACK,” for once I hear it, we are out of the tent, until the wind dies down.  The BW had a derecho in 1999, wiping out 30 million trees.  Incredibly, nobody was killed.

Fire is another concern, and even small “distant” fires can blow up into monsters, which almost killed a pair in 2011, when the Pagami Creek fire ran 12 miles in a day, and the couple had to turn their canoe over in a river, stay underneath it, breathing the air that was there.  Getting caught in a fire that day was nothing anybody could have foreseen.  The couple survived a freak occurrence by doing the right thing.

I am not afraid to solo.  I did that in April in snow into Angleworm Lake.  Or almost.  The snow got too deep, the trail difficult to find, and the map showed more distance left than I had hoped for.  I didn’t spend time analyzing; I automatically turned around to return to a known dry spot on the trail that I had noted on the way in.  I was fine.  What I told my wife after the trip was simple:  “I think this was the smartest I’ve ever behaved in the woods.”  But being smart just makes the stupid things less likely to occur; freak occurrences and unexpected illnesses are wild cards.

I’m sure some might say that dying in the woods is not the worst way to go.  Maybe.  The problem with dying “doing what you loved,” is that people who love you are left behind, and others often have to put their lives at risk to recover your body.  It is clear if I am ever in the position where death is a real possibility, there is a good chance I did something wrong.  I’d like to think if I got on a river that was unusually high, a lake with huge waves, or a thunderstorm that looked really bad, I would tell my wife we were going to stop to think about our options.  Nature isn’t out to kill us.  Nature just is.  We decide whether we run rapids, deal with waves, lightning, bears, and falling trees.

It’s a real shame what happened.  I never dreamed an elderly couple would shoot the beginning of Upper Basswood in spring.  I’m just filled with sadness, hoping some learning will come from this.

If there is one, only one rule I would tell people in the woods, it is this:  if you aren’t certain what to do, stop immediately and think of your options, remembering the best one likely is to turn back or change what you are doing.  It may be inconvenient and annoying, but you will survive to have those emotions.

If you allowed me a second rule, it would be this:  “Nobody ever drowned on a portage.”