Friday, April 3, 2009

Boundary Waters Adventure

This was written two and a half years ago and while I try to publish only current topics, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is timeless and will remain that way.

It began when I visited my old summer camp (Red Arrow Camp) in northern Wisconsin I had attended more than 50 years before. It is still in operation. One of the most vivid memories I had from this camp was participating in the "Canada Trip", which you were eligible for if you were a “senior”, had earned the requisite number of badges and daddy ponied up a couple more bucks. The Canada Trip was a 6 day canoe and camping adventure in the northern reaches of Minnesota along the Canadian border in what is now known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Then, as now, virtually all the waters were “paddle only” with no motorized watercraft allowed. Our trip consisted of canoeing for about 5 hours followed by a series of portages around falls and ending up on Crooked Lake which is the international border between the US and Canada. Near the base of the falls, we passed Picture Rocks, a 50 foot cliff with ancient indian pictographs painted on it. This was the moment I wanted to relive.

Early in the year we began our planning and research. We found that entry into the Wilderness is limited, and each entry point has its own daily maximum, which must be reserved in advance. Fees are reasonable, but there are a variety of them: entry permit fees, Forest Service camping fees, fishing licenses and the like. Next we checked on outfitters of which there are many. The internet was a great help. Our choice was Williams and Hall out of Ely Minnesota, mainly because they specialized in ultra-lightweight equipment and supplies. If you have ever portaged, you know weight is the enemy. Williams and Hall has the latest ultra-light canoes. Chosen was a Kevlar We-no-nah 17 footer that weighs only 42 pounds. In addition, meals are freeze dried similar to military MREs, and this would be a new experience for us. Indeed, the technology advances in camping gear have been phenomenal, with tents that fit in a narrow 24” long drawstring bag and weigh only 4 or 5 pounds. Cooking gear has also undergone a revolution. No more cutting wood for a campfire, a small collapsible single burner, powered by butane is all that is needed, and it weighs less than a pound.

The next step on the agenda was convincing Julie this was a good idea, and considering we are both Social Security age, I anticipated some reluctance. Some people are blessed with great wealth, some with fame. I am blessed with the world’s most wonderful and accommodating wife. She agreed, but only with the understanding that she would be given luxury treatment on our next adventure. The deal became “five days in the rough for five days at a five-star”. Fair trade. The outfitter sent us several brochures, a planning map, a video, a “what to bring list” and a meal order form. The stress was on traveling light. We assembled the suggested first-aid kit which did come in handy during the trip. Other items were a good hunting knife, compass, flashlight, sunscreen, insect repellant, camera, reading material, assorted clothing and lightweight foul weather gear. In addition we took a handheld GPS, a small portable radio and a cell phone, all unnecessary or unusable. We also brought along a small supply of adult beverage (necessary). The rest was to be provided by the outfitter.

For Julie’s benefit mid-July was our choice for the warmest temperatures which can drop into the 40s at night, even in midsummer. At last we were on our way. On our drive north we stopped at our daughter’s home in the Minneapolis area. She gave us a book she had picked up on canoeing in the Boundary Waters. It gave us a premonition we might be in a little over our heads. It reviewed the popular routes, and every one from Mudro Lake, the entry point we had reserved, was described as “challenging”. We had selected Mudro to avoid a very long first day paddle, followed by a mile long portage and three short ones the alternative required. We were to find out what challenging meant later. We arrived at the outfitter the next day. Williams and Hall didn’t disappoint. They have dining facilities and a lodge with accommodations, where we spent the first night. They also have a tackle shop where they gave you advice on what to use and where to go to catch the “big ones” (see photo for the results-and that’s a real fish, not a lure). After our briefing, we asked what our book meant by “challenging”, hoping it was only slightly worse than “easy” and nowhere near “difficult”. Our briefer pored over the maps, found our planned portages, looked at us and said the first portage involved quite a bit of climbing. “If you can do the first one, the rest are no problem”. The word if stuck in our minds.

The next morning we were trucked, along with our canoe and three backpacks, to the Mudro Lake entry point. Our five day adventure was about to begin. Having four items (a canoe and 3 backpacks) to transport meant each of us would have to do two trips per portage. Both of us are healthy and stay in reasonable shape, so we didn’t anticipate any great problem. What we didn’t anticipate was the heat. The normally temperate northwoods was in a heat wave, with temperatures in the nineties for all five days. “Only happens once or twice a decade” one of the locals told us. At least, I thought, Julie’s fear of frostbite wouldn’t be a problem. After an hour’s paddle we reached the first portage. Along the way, we chatted with some returning canoeists as we passed. “How was the last portage?” we asked. “Terrible and the return is the worst”, and these were guys in their twenties!

The portage was only a quarter mile, but going our direction it was a climb of 35 feet and then a drop of over 95 feet. The footing on the steepest portion was treacherous and especially dangerous going downhill over loose rocks with an ungainly canoe or a heavy backpack. But we did it. I couldn’t see behind me carrying the canoe, but when I reached the end I looked around and there was Julie about 30 yards behind, carrying a backpack nearly half her body weight. We rested and returned for the remaining packs. We had accomplished the big if. The following portage was longer, a half mile, but flat with good footing. As we paddled on, the effects of the heat and dehydration were taking its toll. We both realized we had reached our limits and it was apparent portaging was taking most of our time and, by far, most of our efforts. We looked at the map and found a great camping spot ahead and decided to spend the night there.

After rehydrating ourselves, we set up camp. We opened our backpacks, found the tent and put it together. It was much easier than we had expected. Out came the sleeping bags and next the cooking gear, pots and pans and the collapsible single burner we were to cook all our meals on. Then came the meals, in foil packages, marked with their contents such as Beef Stroganoff with wild rice, corn, chocolate peanut pie and beverage, Chicken a la King, frying pan bread and vanilla pudding, and the like. The freeze dried vegetables were simply outstanding, even better than fresh or frozen. The main course items were good and filling, but not restaurant quality. All were made by adding them to boiling water with some items needing additional cooking.

Next came protecting ourselves from predators. Julie had done extensive research on the only threat to life and limb -- bears. One article said to try to slink away if bears are over 250 feet away, between 250 and 50 feet make noise by yelling or banging on pots and pans, and inside 50 feet get away fast. All the time you must avoid eye contact. I had checked with a camping store about the effective range of pepper spray. 15 feet was the answer. Not reassuring, especially with the thought of trying to spray a charging bear in the face, while running away and avoiding eye contact. Williams and Hall had better advice about the “cute little black bears”. They said there had been no problems but if you encounter them, they usually are only after your food. Keep your food away from your sleeping area and hang it from a tree if possible, they told us. So we tried that. The only suitable tree had its lowest branch 25 feet high. After several tries at lofting the pulley over the branch, it snapped back and nailed me in the face, resulting in a bloody nose. “Let’s try the distance option” I said to Julie, who agreed as she handed me a towel to wipe the blood off my face.

As it turned out, we had no problem with bears. After a good night’s sleep, we made the decision we would continue no further. The thought of another portage, which would have to be repeated on our return, was just too much. We would have to miss Picture Rocks. We would just enjoy our camping adventure where we were for two nights and at another site on the way back. The scenery was fantastic, mainly tall pines and birches with a number of rock cliffs and outcroppings. We explored by canoe and hiking, spotted an old logging camp (the area in no longer logged), fished and swam. We even passed within 12 feet of a deer drinking from the edge of a stream. The water temperature was in the high seventies, maybe more. Other than the heat, the weather was great with just a light drizzle one day for about 20 minutes. On most evenings there were thunderstorms nearby, but none hit us. On our last day, smoke from a nearby wild fire obscured the sun and later we heard the Forest Service was letting it burn itself out after confining it to an area it would cause no property damage. At the portages we chatted with other campers. Many were boy scouts, one group was from a girls’ camp, and some were college age boys. While most were much younger than us, we did meet one couple with the man our age and a younger wife (third wife) who was built for portaging. We think he wore the first two out. Insect life was abundant. Black flies, ankle biters and mosquitoes were constant companions. Mosquitoes were extremely heavy from dusk to dawn, but not a problem during the day. 95% deet kept all but the most aggressive black flies at bay. To avoid insects, the outfitter recommends taking your trip in mid August when the temperatures have cooled down a bit.

If you are wondering why Julie is smiling in the pictures, it’s because she knows she’s going to be staying in a suite at a 5-Star hotel next year.

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