A Portage to Simplicity

It’s a Fourth of July with no crowds, no grills, and no fireworks, save the ones from the lightning up in the sky. My dad and I, having gone too long between wilderness retreats, strap his canoe to the roof of his car and head for the Boundary Waters, that great escape in the wilds of northern Minnesota. It is time to get lost in the woods, paddle in deep away from the crowds, and forget the worries of the world for a spell.

Our entry point on Kawishiwi Lake is near the headwaters of a river of the same name that works its way north and west across the Boundary Waters and worms its way through some of its better-known lakes. I have not canoed since our last venture four years ago, but I have become a much more accomplished outdoor adventurer in the intervening four years. I am willing to develop a few arm bruises to go in further and faster than many of the other adventurers on a busy holiday weekend.

Our trip north is a well-traveled one, and all nine permits on our entry day are taken. From Kawishiwi Lake the water trail approximates the course of the river, thought it often meanders off or is lost in rapids or beaver dams, forcing a series of portages. The journey goes north through Square and Kawashong Lakes before arriving at Lake Polly, a common destination for paddlers on this route. We stop here for lunch, and my dad, after some brief reconnoitering to see how things have changed, confirms that this was indeed the site where he and a friend stayed on his first ever Boundary Waters venture nearly 40 years ago. The two of them hitched their way up to Lake Polly in flip-flops with an aluminum canoe, only to have a bear eat all of their food other than the bullion cubes.

Despite this inauspicious introduction, my dad has been back to this chain of lakes several times since. The destination lake on most of those trips has been Malberg Lake, which is two beyond Polly, and it is the same for us. We check out some of its inviting campsites—the open yet shaded site at the mouth of the Louse River, the clifftop site above the narrow channel into the lake’s western arm, a sandy site tucked behind that point—and eventually settle for a different sandy beach in the lake’s far northwest corner. Such dreamy landings and inviting swimming holes are a rarity in the rock-strewn Boundary Waters. Its kitchen area could be a bit more open, but the tent pads are shaded and the waterfront real estate is some of the best I’ve seen, and it will do for our midsummer retreat.

We spend all three of our nights out at that site on Malberg, but we undertake a long day trip on our second day. The portage out of Malberg into a wider meander of the Kawishiwi poses an immediate challenge: beaver action has created a large water hazard in its middle, effectively making it not one but two portages. Low water levels further along complicate the passage up a tributary toward Beaver Lake, but Beaver rewards us with a beautiful campsite at the confluence of its arms and some impressive cliffs. My dad ranks the overgrown boulder field of a portage into Smite Lake one of the worst he’s ever done; the portage smites us, though we are also smitten by the large rock outcroppings along the lake. This is deep wilderness, and we meet just two other people on the entire day, at the mouth of the portage from Smite to Adams Lake, where they have paused for a rest.

We chat with the couple for a while. The man is an ornithologist at a branch of the University of Wisconsin, and Adams Lake is his personal retreat. He comes here several times a year, and knows it well enough to paddle in at night by headlamp. As we paddle around Adams, we understand he has become its resident naturalist: it is serene, varied in its landscape, and buried in deep. Even the portage from Adams back into Beaver to close our loop is lovely, with a stone staircase and a cool rock wall, a welcome respite after a long day of travel. Back at our site late that afternoon, we swim off our beach and I float about, looking to recover that same bliss I found in a bay off St. John in January. It proves elusive, but I do not linger on its absence.

On our third day in the Boundary Waters, we do nothing. I cannot remember the last time I did nothing in a day, and I would not want to make a habit of it, but after some initial fitfulness likely spurred on by biting flies, I settle in. It is a brutally hot weekend in the North. The temperature clears 90, a rarity in these parts, and the day is mostly spent following the shade. In the morning, that means parking in a canoe chair along the beach, while by afternoon, shade has come for the hammocks, and while the breeze is a warm one, at least it is there to stir things up. We read, take our meals, and have our nightcap at a point far down the beach.

The paddle back out to civilization goes smoothly enough. The heat, combined with the effects of some distant wildfire, creates such a haze that we can barely see across some of the smaller lakes. The area between Polly and Square Lakes, cleared out by a forest fire some years back, looks almost desert-like when viewed from beneath a portaging canoe. The day starts stock-still, humid and oppressive, the hoped-for cold front never appearing; later, a strong breeze whips up to add an element of adventure to the final few lake crossings. Even back by Lake Superior, usually a reliable air conditioner, the temperature stays above 90. For a few days, northern Minnesota has become a languid, torpor-suffused sweatbox, but we have gone out for a burst of activity in spite of it.

Canoeing, like many of my recent wilderness adventures, satisfies because it simplifies needs to the most immediate, pressing questions. The only things that matter are the basic tasks of completing one’s itinerary and meeting straightforward human needs. It allows both urgency and activity to live in harmony with bliss, while those sometimes-competing claims can struggle to find resolution in the civilized world, where hunger for activity and achievement and desire to live as if on borrowed time all collide with an inherent patience, caution, and preference for temperature-lowering over outright conflict. A not insignificant part of me enjoys that challenge, but a step out of the trenches is necessary to see it for what it is. After a year and a half of frequent travel in very small groups or in solitude, that is all about to change, and I am ready for that shift. But escapes like this one will always have a special allure.

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