Northern Minnesota does the Fourth of July right, with Duluth’s best-in-the-state fireworks display and the magic of Iron Range street dances. This year, though, the only fireworks I saw came in a vivid late-night lightning display, and the only dance was a jig to dodge the swarms of mosquitoes and dislodge an army of ticks. I spent it in the Boundary Waters.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a million-acre wilderness along Minnesota’s border with Canada set aside for seekers of relative solitude on a network of lakes and rivers. Only a handful of lakes allow motorboats; on the rest, it is just canoes, with portage trails set between lakes with primitive campsites featuring a fire pit and a latrine. The efforts of countless conservationists, most notably Sigurd F. Olson, set this region aside in the 1970s as one of those bastions of the earth that display as little human impact as possible, an ethos captured in the BWCA’s three-word catchphrase: Leave No Trace. Those old battles over the status of these lakes long predate my birth but linger in downtown Ely, the BWCA gateway where pro-mining and pro-wilderness signs duel along the main streets. That debate is now part of my daily life, but for five days, I shut all of that out.
I went to the BWCA with some regularity as a child and even during summers in my undergraduate days, though this was my first time in five years. It was, in fact, a Christmas gift for my father, who frequents the BWCA and comparable wilderness areas year round. Those earlier trips are sources of fond memories, or at least memorable ones, as when we paddled across Seagull Lake on a deathly still 95-degree day to get a member of our party with a separated shoulder to the hospital in Grand Marais. But while I enjoy opportunities to camp and exert myself out in the wild, genuine wilderness experiences have been rare lately. I’ve never overcome my struggles to sleep in a tent, an issue compounded this time around by a leak in my air mattress; I’d guess I didn’t get more than 15 hours of sleep across four nights on this trip. But I can still dip my feet in for a while, and the wilderness will forever hold a certain romance for someone who understands their role in human cycles of activity and reflection.
We enter at Moose River South, an entry point that allows just one party per day. It’s a meandering little stream that feeds south from the Echo Trail into a section of the Boundary Waters that sits separate from the rest of its waters, maybe one sixth of its total territory with six access points of varying difficulty, but none exactly designed for rookies. Moose River South is an easy enough paddle around some beaver dams into Big Moose Lake, but a 1.75-mile portage looms between it and Cummings Lake to the south, which seems to stop most traffic at the large, shallow lake named for a creature conspicuous in its absence. Cummings is near the center of this region, reachable from several directions, including a fairly easy jaunt over from Crab Lake, one of the most used entry points in the region. Beyond Crab lies a chain of lakes that we explore on our second and third days, all small and less traveled, maybe featuring a campsite or two and promising a lake to oneself. But even these are still relative wilderness highways: a few other dead-end lakes off this area have campsites so little used that they can melt into the woods, and somewhere south of the Moose River sits one of the BWCA’s Primitive Management Areas (PMAs), a group of lakes with no established portages or campsites that nonetheless allows access for those who seek to get as far off the beaten path as possible. And for a certain class of canoeing purist, the BWCA has nothing on its more remote Canadian counterparts.
This is wilderness enough for me, though, and time moves differently in the BWCA. A trip here means no clocks: nature and instinct decide when we wake and eat meals and go to bed. It means long stretches of moderately strenuous activity, with hard paddling and painstaking portaging, and also long stretches of blissful nothing. My dad isn’t a fisherman, so we just bag up a bunch of dinners for easy preparation and devote our free hours to lounging in hammocks or in canoe chairs on logs or rocks. On most days we make good time—none of that double-portaging nonsense to lighten the load here, or at least not until we’re tired and the portage is really short—we also pause every now and then to just sit and drink in scenes.
Some parties in the BWCA prefer to set up a base camp and make trips from there, but on this trip we move every night, on a constant quest for the perfect campsite. The island site where we spend our first night on Cummings is open and has excellent rocks but shows signs of heavy use. Phantom Lake on night two has a superb view across the small lake and a lovely red pine stand, though no good rocks to sit on. A different site on Cummings on night three is the best of the bunch, with pines and rock and a well-designed kitchen, though the wind dies and forces us into the tent early, only to be rousted when we hear some creature banging around amid our pots and pans. (The culprit: some sort of rabbit or hare, which I guess counts as exotic since I’ve never seen one of those in the BWCA before.) The final night’s site on Big Moose has superb trees and breeze and rocks, but an awful landing and no real good spot to pitch a tent and guarantee comfort for all comers. While some websites provide campsite reviews to help plan routes, no one’s criteria are quite the same, and a search to separate out these seemingly trivial differences can make or break a trip.
As part of the adventure I promised to carry the canoe, which is something I’ve only done sporadically before. There is, of course, a learning curve. BWCA portages are measured in 16.5-foot rods (roughly equal to a canoe length), and most hover somewhere under 200 rods. The 580-rod beast between Big Moose and Cummings has no vicious elevations, and only immediately following heavy rains (as on our first crossing of the portage) do its wetlands pose a real obstacle. It is a slog, though coming down to giant, blue Big Moose on the return journey was one of the most welcome sights of the trip. The portage to Meat Lake, whose name we suspect comes from the amount of flesh consumed by its resident mosquitoes, has become a flowing stream. A portage landing on Hassel Lake requires me to crab walk up and down a steep rock several times just so we can get things into the canoe. Nor is length any guarantee of ease: the 20-rod portage around some rapids on the Korb River is a buggy stretch of slop, whereas the 70-rod cutoff from Cummings Lake is an easy superhighway. My shoulders don’t miss it, nor do my bite-covered legs and arms, but how can a young guy not eat up the opportunity to carry a heavy object a long distance and feel some sense of conquest upon completing it?
By the final day I’m growing a bit stir-crazy, a restlessness not helped by the overnight storm that makes sleep impossible. I’m too social to detach for long periods, and while I certainly welcome my moments of solitude and wilderness, I sometimes seem to suffer from an instrumental relationship with these old friends, not unlike a cell phone with its charger: my time in the woods fills up a drained battery, and then I’m ready to put it away and go do my thing. I unapologetically make relentless pushes to the next destination, so it can be difficult to zone out and enjoy the beauty of a particular moment or sensation. I’ve always been wired for a pace of life faster than most northern Minnesotans, even if I can hide it well, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.
I’m still from here, though, and I know what to do when these moments do come. When I can stare up at the red pine boughs above my hammock set against a few wisps of cloud in the sky, lost in bliss. When we drift down the Korb River and just listen to endless birdsong, its current tugging us gently along. When thoughts flow easily from pen to paper in the hammock on Cummings, thoughts that may or may not ever see the light of day on this blog or elsewhere but mean the world to me. When I’m finally able to find the right train of thought to shut out the endless flashes of lighting to manage a few hours of sleep on the final night. Those are the waters I’ll never cease to seek out, if only for a little while.