Evening in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
In June, I attended the American Water Works Association’s Annual Conference and Exposition, a huge event with more than 12,000 water professionals milling about to learn the latest news in the water business.
One of the highlights of the conference is always the keynote address. Someone at AWWA has a real knack for finding top-notch thinkers about water. This year, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of “Blue Mind,” took the stage. While Dr. Nichols did his research on sea turtles, his love of water expands well beyond turtles. “Blue Mind” is the story of humans’ emotional, physical and spiritual connection to water. The book makes many interesting points regarding why we should incorporate some exposure to water in its natural state into our daily lives. After reading the book, I was convinced. I’ve modified my morning walk to take in some regular view of a lake.
As we filed into the grand ballroom, all 12,000 of us, for the keynote, we were handed a marble. Not a regular marble, this one was what we used to call a taw or shooter. It was about half again as big as a regular marble and it was a beautiful translucent blue color. We worked our way to our seats, mingled a bit, and talked about the marble. Some of us held it up to our eyes and looked around enjoying the distorted blue image it made of the ballroom. But at that time, we didn’t know the purpose of the marble or how it related to what we were about to hear.
Dr. Nichols worked his way through the address. Finally, he asked us all to hold the marble out at arms length and look at it. He said the marble at that distance would be what an astronaut one million miles from earth would see looking back at our planet. The blue was, of course, the impact of the 70% of the Earth’s surface water covers. Then Dr. Nichols challenged us to mine our memories to recall the moment at which we realized we loved water.
Dr. Nichols’ question is really difficult. For me, I simply don’t remember a time when I didn’t love water. Many of my earliest memories involved playing in water, running through the lawn sprinkler, splashing in the kiddie pool etc. Since July is Lakes Appreciation Month, I am going to modify the question and discuss when I started loving lakes.
The answer to my modified question is really easy. It’s July 1966, the year that my friends John Leflar, Jim Swearingen and I joined the Westark Area Council’s Contingent Boy Scout Troop on a trip to the Charles L. Summers Wilderness Canoe Base in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in southern Ontario. I suppose that I already had the water bug at the time. The trip to Summers was when it all came together.
The trip to Summers started on a Saturday morning in mid-July. The Council had borrowed a school bus from the local school district. It is immediately clear that things were different in the 1960s. For one thing, where could you find a school district that would loan you a school bus today? For another thing, the bus was not air conditioned. It is hard even to imagine getting on a hot school bus in mid-July and riding across Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota. Nevertheless, the windows opened and we stopped for colas every now and then. We did okay.
Our first night was in the town of Owatonna, Minn.. We must have stayed in either the high school gym or the local armory because there was some basketball involved. That evening, our leaders let us wander off in groups to explore downtown Owatonna (another thing that would not happen today). Back in 1966, downtowns were the place to be on Saturday evening. We wandered down to the local equivalent of the Dairy O.
The local girls were interested enough in a bunch of slow talking boys from Arkansas to make the night entertaining. It took about 15 minutes to perfect the Southern accent. For our part, we found their accents interesting as well:
Them: Hey, wheres youse guys from.
Us: Ah we just drove in from Ar-kaan-saw. How are Yaall ladies doin this fine evenin?
We pushed the curfew as far as we could and then walked back to the gym.
The next morning we got back into the bus and headed up through St. Paul and Duluth into the north woods. Mid-afternoon we stopped in Ely, Minn., just a few miles out from the Canoe Base. Most of us checked out the sport shops along Ely’s main street trying to find out what type of bait to use in the Boundary Waters. We left with a tackle box full of red and white Daredevil spoons that were about 3” long that weighed an ounce or more. Then we got back into the bus and made the short drive out to the Canoe Base. We arrived in time to get our swim checks and physicals before supper.
Evenings last a long time in the north woods. Therefore, after supper, we went into the headquarters and planned our route and menu, and then we picked up our gear and canoes. They gave us aluminum canoes that weighed about 75 lbs. each. We all picked out paddles from their paddle rack. A good fit was one that reached from the floor up to your nose. All of the paddles were of the beaver tail design with elongated oval blades. They were made of one piece of wood.
Monday morning we ate breakfast in the dining hall, picked up our provisions at the quartermaster’s hut and then we got a short lesson on how to lift a canoe and set it on our shoulders. Then we headed out into the wilderness. To put things in perspective, the combined area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park is over 2 million acres. That is more than the combined area of Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington County, Arkansas. Moreover, there is not a single engine or motor in the whole place! The region contains thousands of glacial lakes of all sizes with just short carries or portages between. A canoeist can literally go for weeks without coming to the end of the area.
Each canoe was packed with three boys, a pack with our personal gear, and a pack with our share of the food and cooking gear, and our fishing tackle. We headed northeast up Moose Lake. John was the strongest paddler so he took the stern. Jim and I traded off paddling in the bow or riding on the kneeling thwart mid-ship.
Occasionally, we would pass crews returning from their outings. In addition, canoe outfitter’s barges would pass us from time to time carrying canoes and people up to the wilderness boundary. After an hour or so, we passed through a small neck and came out into New Found Lake. A bit later, we passed another neck into Sucker Lake. At the end of Sucker Lake, we arrived at Prairie Portage where we entered Canada and the Quetico Provincial Park.
In the Boundary Waters, they measure portages in rods. Each rod is roughly the length of a canoe. Prairie Portage was 34 rods long. So this portage was roughly the length of two football fields. In the North Country, it is bad form to make more than one trip across a portage. So Jim took the personal gear bag, John took the canoe, and I got the food bag. We staggered under the load. The girls back in Owatonna would not have been impressed! We stopped to rest at least once. One would think that the portage at the Canadian Customs station would be maintained to some extent, but no, it was just as rocky and muddy as the rest.
From the Prairie Portage we paddled through Besley Bay off of Basswood Lake and portaged into Sunday Lake. The water was crystal clear. Rocks below us at 10 to 20 feet deep appeared as clear as if they were right on the surface. Somewhere in there, we made our first camp. Dinner was some kind of mush. All of our meals were mush with the exception of lunch. Lunch came in the form of a huge salami and crackers with a powdered drink that we called Red-Eye. A quick swim washed the day’s grime off. John, Jim and I headed out in our canoe to see if the fishing was as good as expected. That was when I fell in love with lakes. I was in real wilderness for the first time in my life, I was on the water, I was in the company of a bunch of Bubba’s-in-Training, and I was fishing. That was as good as it could get!
We continued on our journey following trails originally established by the First Peoples, then used by the French-Canadian Voyageurs on their fur-trading expeditions and finally by us. We portaged into Agnes Lake. Agnes Lake is several miles long and runs to the north-northeast. There was a strong breeze from the south-southwest. John came up with the idea of a sail. Soon, Jim and I had a poncho stretched between our paddles and held out to the wind. John steered in the stern. Within minutes, we were passing all the other Bubba’s-in-Training. A couple minutes more and sails started popping up all over the lake.
At the end of Agnes Lake, we made a few portages and crossed a couple small lakes. We regretted the loss of our tailwind. Soon we were into Kawnipi Lake, where our route turned northeast. We paddled through several narrow channels and small lakes. The channels were referred to as rivers but there wasn’t any discernible current. We made our way up to Russell Lake.
Each evening we would make camp. Then, according to our duty roster, we would either cook, build a fire, or fetch water. Then we ate supper as a group. Some of us had to clean up, and then we headed out for some fishing. Mostly we caught Northern Pike but there were some Canadian Small-mouth Bass mixed in as well. We caught a lot of Pike in the 9- to 12 inch-range. Occasionally a large one would bite as well. I can distinctly remember catching one off a rock by our campsite. When I had him in, I held him up by the gills at my waist. His tail was just barely flicking the ground. After fishing we headed to our tent before the mosquitoes came out. Loons woke us at daybreak each morning.
About the fifth day out, it became apparent that we were alone. Not a soul other than our crew had passed in at least a day. It was a hot, sunny day. Our leaders were fairly open-minded about most things. Some of the Bubba’s-in-Training decided that clothing was optional so to speak.
Well, the combination of intense sun, aluminum canoe seats, and lily-white butts was not exactly a marriage made in heaven. There were some phenomenal sunburns and mosquito bites in inopportune places. Again, the girls back in Owatonna would not have been impressed.
At Russell Lake, we turned back to the southwest. Of course, that meant we were now paddling into the south southwest wind. Our route took us through Sturgeon Narrows into Sturgeon Lake then to Fred Lake. After Fred Lake came a series of “Beaver Creeks,” which are basically mosquito and leach infected wetlands with just enough water to pole a canoe through. It was in these Beaver Creeks that we saw our Moose. He was back in the swamp eating the water plants. We came out at Allen Lake, our camp for the evening. As best we could tell, not many crews visited Allen. After coming through miles of Beaver Creeks, it was easy to understand why. The fishing was phenomenal.
From Allen Lake we paddled more Beaver Creeks into Bernice Lake. Then we portaged into Pooh Bah Lake, crossed the lake and headed up Pooh Bah Creek into the Maligne River. Maligne River took us through Turner Lake and into giant Lac La Croix. Our route then turned back toward Summers Canoe Base roughly following the Canadian/U.S. border. We paddled through Iron Lake, Crooked Lake, down the Basswood River into Basswood Lake. We had grown accustomed to the rigors of wilderness travel. Our portage protocol was down pat — get out of the boat a few feet from shore, load our various packs or canoes on our back, trek over the portage, reload the canoe and take off. The girls back in Owatonna would now be impressed.
The last night was on Wind Lake just a mile or so from the Canoe Base. A scout named Stauffer was the cook that night. It being the last night out, there wasn’t any reason to save any food. All of the leftovers went into the pot. The result was a green mush forevermore referred to by our group as “Stauffer Stew.” The stew was vaguely edible. The next morning we paddled on back to the base. The rest of the day was spent sorting and returning equipment, removing the smell of two weeks in the wilderness from our bodies, hitting the sauna, and generally fooling around. The following morning we loaded on the bus for the two-day trip home.
Shane Morgan on portage trail 1998.
Over the last 49 years, there have been many more lake trips. I have likely visited Beaver Lake a few hundred times at least. Every trip has some special quality to remember. Sometimes it is a large fish, sometimes it’s good company, sometimes solitude and even sometimes exceptionally bad weather. But the Boundary Waters are my favorite.
I have returned to the Boundary Waters twice since 1966. The first time was in 1998 when my son, Shane, and I made a trip to the Summers Canoe Base (now called the Northern Tier Wilderness Canoe Base). We lived in Conway at the time, but we joined a Scout Troop from Rogers for the trip. John and Jim were both along with their boys who were also Scouts. The rules of travel in the Boundary Waters and Quetico changed in the intervening 32 years. Now crews were limited to 15 people including a guide and at least two leaders. Therefore, we had to split into two crews. John and his boys went along with Shane and me. Jim and his kids were in another crew that went further north. Then in 2011 David Thrasher, Bill Elder, Karen Freeman and I made a trip on our own. That trip was in late August and also further east in the Sawbill portion of the Boundary Waters. Shane has returned to the Boundary Waters on his own at least once as well. After each trip, all have vowed to return. Hol-Ry!