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.

Plying Lonely Waters

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.