Chapter 43 - Boundary Waters
Dave and Helen Damouth
August 22, 1999
"The singing wilderness has to do with the calling of the loons, northern lights, and the great silences of a land lying northwest of Lake Superior. It is concerned with the simple joys, the timelessness and perspective found in a way of life that is close to the past. I have heard the singing in many places, but I seem to hear it best in the wilderness lake country of the Quetico-Superior, where travel is still by pack and canoe over the ancient trails of the Indians and voyageurs."
"I have heard it on misty migration nights when the dark has been alive with the high calling of birds, and in rapids when the air has been full of their rushing thunder. I have caught it at dawn when the mists were moving out of the bays, and on cold winter nights when the stars seemed close enough to touch. But the music can even be heard in the soft guttering of an open fire or in the beat of rain on a tent, and sometimes not until long afterward when, like an echo out of the past, you know it was there in some quiet place or when you were doing some simple thing in the out-of-doors."
Sigurd F. Olson, introduction to "The Singing Wilderness"
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is a million-acre area extending almost 200 miles along the Minnesota-Ontario border. Quetico Provincial Park is another million-acre wilderness adjoining BWCA on the Ontario side of the border. The area is rich with history, although the historical artifacts are subtle. The international border follows a migration and trade route which dates back thousands of years. Many of the portage paths we follow between the big lakes were originally beaten down by regular Indian travel 3000 years ago, and haven't changed significantly since then. Indian pictographs are common on the cliffs along the water.
In the early- to mid-1700's, these routes became busy thoroughfares for the French fur-trapping trade. Later, the French were displaced by English and Scottish trappers and traders of the Hudson's Bay Company and other trading companies. In the 1800's, the major lakes were traversed by steamboats. The remains of some of this mechanization can still be found. Around 1900, railroads in the U.S. and Canada eliminated the value of this border route for transporting goods and people, but also enabled the area to be logged. Although 70% of the area was logged, the BWCA still contains the largest tracts of virgin forest east of the Rockies.
Today, the interior of this wilderness area is probably less populated than at any time in the last 3000 years. The Forest Service manages BWCA, and protects the Wilderness status by limiting the amount of use to a level that the environment can tolerate without significant degradation. To spread the usage broadly across the wilderness, quotas are established at each entry point, totaling 164 groups per day for the entire BWCA. There are about 280 groups (maximum group size of 9, typically much smaller) who will spend a night on an interior campsite on a typical day during the peak summer months. A significant percentage of these groups stay near the edges of the wilderness, where motorized travel is allowed on the larger lakes and long portages are rare. In addition, there are several thousand day-use permits issued each day for people who use the waterways along the edge of the wilderness and do not stay overnight in the park.
The result of this quota system is that once we paddle and portage a day's travel into the interior, it's possible to spend days without encountering other people, even during the peak season. Quetico is even more sparsely used, with only 65 permits issued per day for the entire area (and only a fraction of these permits are available to non-Canadians). In both areas, the most desirable entry points are fully reserved many months in advance.
Our own schedule was quite uncertain, and we didn't have the maps and guidebooks needed to select and plan a specific route anyway, so we couldn't book in advance and decided to go without reservations and take our chances on what might become available through cancellations.
We arrived in Ely, MN, near the center of the BWCA, on August 7, after a pleasant and scenic drive north from Minneapolis. The campground directories offered very few places with hookups and big-rig sites in this area, so we called ahead and were able to get a reservation at Silver Rapids Lodge - a fishing resort with cabins, restaurant and motel in the woods, and a few RV sites tucked in among the cabins. It's a busy and fairly crowded resort, but is made pleasant by the forest ambience and the views of two sparkling lakes.
It became even more pleasant when we discovered that Joe Brauer, the new general manager of the resort, is a professional chef whose previous job had been as a head chef, and who is acting as head chef as well as manager here. The menu and wine list was carefully and imaginatively designed, and the food was wonderful - even by big city standards - a really rare find in the boondocks. And the prices were modest. We had dinner there on three evenings, and the highest bill was $50 for dinner for two and a good bottle of wine, not including the tip.
Joe graciously allowed us to move our travel trailer to his boat trailer storage area for the duration of our canoe trip, and agreed that we could boondock (sleep in the trailer) in the storage area when we returned if a campsite wasn't available - all for free.
Upon arrival, late Saturday afternoon, we quickly checked in, dropped the trailer in our campsite, and rushed to a local outfitter to get maps and check on available BWCA entry permits (a permit is valid only for a specific entry point on one specific day. All the outfitters provide the service of calling a central reservations office to obtain permits). A few permits were available for the next day because of cancellations, and we purchased appropriate topo maps and went back to the trailer to study the available routes and make a decision, assuming that the entry permits that were available at 7:00 p.m. would still be available when the reservation office opened early the next morning. Bad decision! When we went back Sunday morning, absolutely no entry permits were available for the next three days!
We checked permit status again Sunday evening (this time we went to the Forest Service office instead of an outfitter), and found two permits available for Monday - both for relatively undesirable entry points (each required a long paddle through a large motorboat-infested lake outside the BWCA in order to get into the wilderness). We chose one of these, paid our $15 ($10/adult (Helen), $5 for Golden Age passholder (Dave)), sat through the mandatory lecture and video presentation on park rules, and rushed back to the trailer to finish packing. The BWCA takes its rules seriously - the maximum penalty for violating any park rule is $5000 or six months in jail!
Packing is a real serious business for these trips. Everything is scrutinized for utility, compactness, and minimum weight. Even so, 66 meals plus snacks (3 per day for 2 people for 11 days) adds up to a lot of weight. Our clothes, cook kit, tarps, sleeping bags and tent are all rather minimalist and light. Everything fits compactly into two large packs and one small day pack. With stringent pruning, we generally still end up with at least 80 pounds of gear, plus our 48-pound 18.5-foot long Kevlar canoe, to lug across the portages.
Monday morning, we finished last-minute packing, moved the trailer up to the storage area, and headed off to our BWCA entry point, which was 55 miles away. Most of the distance was slow traveling over a twisty gravel forest road. As a result, we didn't get on the water until 1:00 p.m.
We started at Crane Lake - a large lake outside the park, lined with expensive summer homes (much too large to be called "cottages"), and busy with powerboat traffic. We paddled out into the lake in a steady drizzle under leaden skies, and continued for almost three miles across open water (fortunately with no significant wind or waves), before paddling through sheltered water in a narrow passage leading to Sand Point Lake, where we were again exposed to open, potentially dangerous, water for a mile or so before entering the narrower, sheltered waters of Little Vermilion Lake and then the Loon River. The narrows at the entry to Little Vermilion Lake is also the border of the BWCA, where cottages end and wilderness begins.
These bodies of water define the Canadian border, along which we paddled for hours - a pleasant, continuous waterway with no portages, but clear water paths winding through white and yellow water lilies, acres of wild rice, cattails, giant reed, pickerel weed, and arrowhead (with attractive white flowers). Behind these water plants, the shores were solid, dense forest - quite varied with cedar, white, red, and jack pine, black spruce, balsam fir and paper birch. In areas damaged by fires or storms, dense stands of quaking aspen were dominant, gradually giving way to conifers over a period of many decades.
This is Canadian Shield country. Precambrian rock exists everywhere, seldom far from the surface and often exposed - with shorelines often defined by monolithic sheets of granite. The glaciers retreated from this area only a few thousand years ago, after scraping off all the soil and grinding all the exposed rock into smoothly rounded and polished forms. Where a hard rock was trapped between glacier and bedrock, a linear scratch would result in the bedrock as the glacier moved. The granite is hard enough so that many of these scratches are still visible. Only a thin layer of topsoil has regenerated in the short time since the glaciers melted, so rock is seldom far from the surface - which we often discovered when we tried to get tent stakes into the ground.
Somehow, we always expect international borders to be obvious. But here, there was no dotted line painted on the water, and no way to tell which country we were in except by studying the map. Some of the islands we passed were Canadian and some American, with the border zigzagging seemingly randomly among them.
After 3 1/2 hours of steady paddling, our out-of-practice paddling muscles were saying they'd had enough and we were also expecting the sparse campsites to fill up early along this fairly busy route. We portaged 80 rods off the river to Dovre Lake, a small lake off all travel routes, where we expected (and got) an isolated, quiet night. We portaged only the packs, leaving the canoe behind in the brush, since we'd be returning to the river in the morning. (A rod is 16.5 feet, and is still the standard measurement for portage trails in this part of the world).
By 6 p.m., we had the tent up, sleeping bags spread out, firewood gathered, and were in dry clothes, ready to cook supper and spend a peaceful evening at the campfire. We fell into bed shortly after dark, around 9 p.m.
The next eight days followed a fairly similar pattern, except that as we turned off the large lakes along the border and moved inland along a chain of small lakes, we saw many fewer people, and did more portaging and less paddling. On some days we crossed half a dozen portages, totaling around two miles of portage. Helen has been nursing a sore back, and usually walked across each portage once, with a medium-weight pack, while Dave carried a heavy pack across, then went back and carried the canoe and a light pack across, thus walking a total of about six miles for the day, two thirds of it while carrying a fairly heavy load. We remember nostalgically our younger days when we carried everything across these portages in a single trip.
This part of the country has had an unusually wet season so far, and the rain is continuing. Rainfall to date in August is twice the normal amount, and the lakes are all filled to overflowing. Rapids that would normally require portaging or lining the canoes have vanished under the high water, allowing us to paddle them easily. We got at least some rain on six or seven of our 10 days.
The detailed, largely un-edited trip notes for the rest of the trip are available on our Web Page, in the "Canoeing" section. What follows here is just a few general impressions and comments:
Our lasting memories will include:
A majestic bald eagle, dropping unexpectedly from a hidden perch in a tall pine as we paddled past, sweeping low over our canoe and flapping off down the lake to perch in another tall pine half a mile away.
Standing at the lakeshore just after sunup, watching wraithlike tendrils of mist rising off the cool lake and drifting sporadically in the faint breezes.
The discouraged feeling when the lowering skies opened up yet again and dumped heavy rain on us in the middle of a long paddle: at one point, the rain was so heavy that we had an inch of water in the bottom of the canoe within minutes.
The uneasy feeling when lightning bolts began to flash down through the rain. Not safe to stay out in the lake. Not safe to head in among the tall trees. We drifted along just off shore from the trees, hoping the trees would draw the lightning away from us and that we were far enough from the trees to be outside the secondary current flows from tree to ground. (We stopped at the very next campsite.)
Busy beavers, swimming silently past our campsite at dusk, followed by the distinct rasping noise of those huge teeth stripping bark from aspen branches 20 feet down the shoreline. Once, as a beaver swam by, I inadvertently made a sudden move and was startled by the violent warning slap of that big flat tail as the beaver dove out of sight.
Camping in the shelter of a gigantic old-growth white pine, with a trunk almost 4 feet in diameter and wide-spreading side branches that were each almost as big as most of the surrounding trees. Occasionally, a portage trail led through old-growth forest, where we felt dwarfed and insignificant among giant pine, hemlock, and cedar hundreds of years old.
Nearly grown loons flapping madly the length of a small lake -- not yet quite able to get airborne, but learning fast and developing the muscles. They are almost out of time - migration will start in a few weeks.
Loons tremolo call and responses in the quiet of dusk.
Paddling several hours in warm, bright sunshine one day with an eye on an apparently stationary line of black clouds with lightning and thunder a mile or two North of us.
Scrambling into our rain jackets when we heard the hiss of raindrops falling on leaves and lake and then saw the sharp line in the water, (mirror-smooth on one side, raindrops falling on the other) from the leading edge of a rainstorm advancing slowly toward us.
The wonderfully complex and beautiful skies after the storms passed by - a deep rain-washed blue background studded with towering white-topped, black-bottomed cumulonimbus clouds interspersed with the lacy veils of mare's tails.
Getting up at 2am to see the Perseid meteor showers. A few big bright meteors among the many faint ones this year. We carefully chose campsites with an unobstructed view of the Northeast skies on the night when the meteors peaked as well as the previous and subsequent nights.
How smug and cosy we feel inside a dry tent when it is raining, and the dismaying feeling when nature calls and we realize we must briefly step out into the rain.
Thirty-six hours of nearly continuous rain, occasionally quite heavy. We didn't move that day - just holed up in the tent with good books. Fortunately, we had been able to select a well-drained spot for the tent, since rainwater was forming little streams running through other portions of the campsite.
Helen sketching an Arrowhead plant while waiting for Dave to complete his second trip over a portage - never saw these plants so showy before.
Realizing that we find marshes beautiful.
Didn't use our stove once: cooked exclusively over a wood fire (the Forest Service has provided excellent fire grates at each campsite). In this part of the country, nature provides wonderful fire-starters in the form of shreds of bark from the paper birch. Even with all the wood soggy after days of rain, I was always able to start a fire with a single match touched to a handful of this bark.
Abundant black butterflies with white and blue wing edges; some had red spots.
The abundant blue-bead lilies along the portage trails - shiny clusters of quarter-inch-diameter spherical blue-black berries standing on foot long stalks. They were often mixed with the lower-growing bunchberries - clusters of small fire-engine-red berries.
The blueberries were all gone. We always look forward to wild blueberry pancake breakfasts on these trips, but were too late this year.
Sharing the portage trail with a grouse one damp morning. The grouse walked straight down the trail, staying about 15 feet in front of me, unwilling to veer off into the thick wet undergrowth alongside the trail. When I walked a bit faster than the grouse could manage, it would fly a few feet along the trail, then resume walking.
Almost sharing another portage trail with a large moose. After the rains one morning, the only tracks on the muddy trail were mine and a huge set of hoofprints, very fresh and going the same direction as I was. We never did see a moose, although evidence of their presence was frequent - we often saw uprooted water lilies and partly eaten lily roots, and it was easy to mistake a moose path for the portage trail when we were searching the shoreline for our next portage. We neither saw nor heard bears or timber wolves, although the area has a substantial population of each.
The barely-seen silent shadows of bats flitting above our campfire at dusk, catching the insects attracted to the light.
The wonderful silences, when the breeze stops rustling the aspen leaves and the lake stops chuckling against the shore rocks, becoming mirror- smooth. On these occasions, the splash of a fish jumping somewhere out in the lake or the occasional scurry of the resident mouse under the log near our campfire seems startlingly loud.
After many years of wilderness camping, we're still surprised at the amount of time taken up in the simple tasks of living under these conditions. The simplest cooked meal still takes a long time, when it requires gathering and cutting firewood, starting and tending a fire, sterilizing lake water by boiling or filtering, and washing dishes without the benefit of a large sink full of soapy water. Washing ourselves becomes a big deal when we have to carry water back into the woods away from the lake where the soap won't contaminate the lake, then rig a water bag hanging from a tree branch to form an improvised shower.
We had planned for a leisurely 10-night, 11-day trip. But the frequent rains, soggy campsites, and muddy portage trails began to reduce our incentive to linger, and we traveled longer distances for the last two days, getting back to our starting point in late afternoon of the 10th day. We raced black clouds across the last few miles of lake, detouring slightly to get into the shelter of the west shore in case the storm contained high winds. We got the canoe loaded onto the truck just before another rainstorm arrived, and drove the 55 miles of muddy roads through the rain back to our trailer. At the trailer, we lit the water heater, waited impatiently 20 minutes for the water to get hot, took the first luxurious hot showers in 10 days, then walked to the lodge for another wonderful meal.
The forecast is for more rain. Tomorrow, we'll just postpone dealing with our wet camping gear for another day, hook up the trailer, and drive toward Duluth, hoping that the weather will improve and that we'll find a large, dry, sunny campsite where we can spread all our gear out to dry.
Postscript: In early July, a major storm passed through Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters, felling thousands of trees and causing serious flooding. Trees blocked roads, portage trails, and waterways. We were somewhat nervous about coming into this area only six weeks later.
But the National Forest Service brought in crews from all over the country to clean up the mess, and by the time we got there, the entire BWCA was back almost to normal - all travel routes in the Wilderness were open and nearly all campsites were useable. A remarkable feat! The populated areas were also cleaned up, and most signs of the storm had vanished. It seems that practically every resident in this rural area owns a chain saw, and was out clearing his property within hours after the storm passed over. There will be no shortage of firewood this winter.
The area in which we canoed was not in the area of most severe storm damage. We saw many trees down - but this happens every few years, and the newly downed trees were often laying on top of trees felled a decade or so earlier, which in turn were laying on the rotted remains of trees felled even earlier. This forest rejuvenates very rapidly. In the area we were in, we saw no old-growth timber freshly down. The trees which had survived 300 years of previous storms easily survived in the fringes of this one.