Fullmoon over Fourtown
In early January I received a call from my mother and my stepfather, Bill. My mom and Bill are interesting to talk to on the phone, because they are always on the line together. At first this little quirk had me, conversationally speaking, off balance, because I never really knew who I was talking to. But I have come to appreciate the efficiency of these “party” calls. During this particular call, as the conversation turned to Brian and my trip plans, Bill threw me for a loop with a very surprising request. “Would it be possible if I came along with you guys this year?” After a momentary pause, not to ponder the answer to this unexpected question but marvel at the honor embedded within it, I responded “of course you can come; that would be great!”
I immediately called Brian in San Diego to share the news with him. To say he was excited at the prospect of sharing the Boundary Waters with Bill would be a huge understatement. Bill had lived much of his life in Minnesota but, to my surprise, had never been to the Boundary Waters, so Brian and I reveled in the thought that we would be the ones to introduce our stepfather to this wilderness paradise.
While this addition to the crew would certainly require changes to the plan, the basic trip would remain the same. We would go in at the Mudro entry point and basecamp on Fourtown Lake. I had already been leaning towards the basecamp idea, but it became a no-brainer once Bill joined our crew. I was not sure of Bill’s physical abilities to handle rigorous portages, plus I learned from my mistakes on the last trip not to push the agenda when a newcomer is on board. I wanted to ease Bill into the Boundary Waters so he would be more likely to become a permanent member.
An important part of the planning process revolved around shelter. I would not accept sleeping under a canoe as a viable option for Brian this time around. To my relief, he agreed, and I was able to find a very nice tent for him on the clearance rack at the Gander Mountain store. I also picked up a tent for myself to replace the leaking one from the last trip. As it turned out, Bill needed a tent as well, so I purchased the best tent waterproofing supplies I could find to treat my old tent for him. As usual, I took the reigns for the planning and packing all of the important camping supplies and left the decisions related to alcoholic beverages to Brian and Bill. I would come to regret my abdication of this responsibility.
Finally, July arrived and we packed up Bill’s van for the trip to Ely. Once again, we arranged for outfitting and a stay in the bunkhouse with Voyageur North Outfitters. As we browsed the VNO baitshop for last minute supplies, Brian decided that he wanted to add live bait to our fishing arsenal to aid in our fish catching efforts. We paid our bill, arranged for a block of ice, a pound of leeches, and two dozen nightcrawlers for pick up the next morning, and headed out for dinner and drinks as some local Ely hotspots.
In the morning, we arose at 5:00 a.m., grabbed a cup of coffee and picked up the ice and leeches and packed them away in the packs. As we were about to pull away Brian said “wait, we forgot the worms.” He ran into the baitshop and picked up the nightcrawlers and we were on our way.
We arrived bright and early at the Mudro entry point and got busy finishing various tasks. Bill paid the parking fee, Brian emptied the van and staged the contents near the shore, and I unstrapped and removed the canoe from the van, placed it carefully in the shallow water, and loaded it up with our packs. In a surprisingly short amount of time, we were ready to disembark. I eased the canoe further out into Picket Creek and told Bill to jump aboard while I steadied it. With a puzzled look, Bill asked “how am I supposed to get in without getting my feet wet?” After Brian and I stopped snickering we explained to Bill that his feet would be wet for the next six days, so he might as well get it over with early. Soon we were loaded and on our way down the Creek towards Mudro Lake. Once again, Mudro did not disappoint. Bill was as awestruck as Brian had been two years earlier.
As we paddled across Mudro in the dead calm of the morning, we were struck by the glass-like surface of the lake which was covered by tree pollen sitting on the water without penetrating the surface tension. Had we not known better, we would have sworn we were looking at a huge, dusty window pane. We paused at the first portage for a couple of quick snapshots and we were on our way. Bill pitched in admirably at his first portage; his job was to grab all the loose stuff like paddles, life vests, leech buckets and the like and carry them across to the other side. Brian and I handled our usual chores. Brian grabbed the heaviest pack available and I grabbed another pack and the canoe.
On the prior trip we portaged out of the East side of the lake on our way to the Horse River; this time we portaged out of the North end of the lake. We needed to negotiate three portages in rapid succession to get into Fourtown Lake. The first is a short ten rods (a rod is a measurement equal to 16.5 feet). The first portage is followed by a really short paddle of no more than 100 yards. The second portage can be a beast. It’s much longer than the first and consists of several steep climbs over boulders and slick rock faces. Then another short paddle brings you the final short portage into Fourtown.
We emerged from our flurry of portages unscathed and eager to get to our campsite. I had my eye on a particular campsite on the Eastern shore near the river that drained into Horse Lake to the East. I had visited this site several years earlier while on a trip with my lovely wife and vowed someday that I would come back and stay. We still had no wind to speak of, so our progress North was satisfactory given the greenness of the crew. Brian had proven himself to be a very strong bow paddler; what he lacked in technique, he more than made up for in horsepower. I had expected Bill to ride the “duffer” seat and enjoy the scenery as Brian and I powered the canoe up the lake. Bill would have none of that; he picked up a paddle and did everything he could to aid our forward momentum.
On the way to our desired destination, we noticed many of the sites on Fourtown were occupied, but I kept out hope that our site would be available. As we rounded the last point and began our Northeasterly track towards the site, I could make out no discernible signs that the site was inhabited. Relieved at our good fortune, we landed the canoe and explored the site. It was every bit as good as I remembered it being. It was a spacious campsite with two distinctive terraces set under a beautiful canopy of red pines. It was set on a point and offered spectacular vistas of the Western sky; a prime location to view the spectacular sunsets that we knew would be coming.
We walked about the site and selected our respective tent pads. Bill and I each wanted to be close to the water, so we chose pads located on the lower terrace on which to pitch our tents. Brian chose a site on the upper terrace. We pitched the tents and performed other chores required to set up the camp for our stay. We were completely unpacked and set up by 1:00 pm, so I took this opportunity to steal away to my hammock for an early afternoon siesta. Sleeping in a hammock on a perfect summer day in the Boundary Waters is one of the great pleasures of life. I quickly drifted off to the gentle sound of the waves lapping up on the rocks below me and the soft murmur of Brian and Bill’s conversation by the fire pit.
My well-deserved nap ended when I was awakened by an ear shattering noise like nothing I had ever heard in the wilderness. “Ayeeeeeeeee…. CRACK!....... Ayeeeeeeee….CRACK!” Nearly falling out of my hammock, I frantically scanned the area to pinpoint the source of this awful screaming. After regaining my senses, I discovered that the horrendous screeching was coming from my wonderful step-father, Bill. Apparently, shortly after my nap commenced, Brian and Bill conspired to raid the supply of adult beverages. Unaware, or unconcerned, that this supply was intended to last for six days, they made quite a dent in the stockpile during my little respite and decided to light a campfire. Wisely choosing not to utilize the camp axe in their condition (or, more likely, unable to find it in their condition), Bill decided to put his many years of Kung Fu training—acquired by watching Bruce Lee movies—to use by chopping some firewood…….with his foot!!!! Of course, what is a good karate kick without the accompanying “ayeeeeeeee” sound? This explained the ungodly noise that interrupted my slumber. A brief discussion of the ability of noise to carry over a quiet lake and general wilderness etiquette was in order.
I have always viewed the Boundary Waters and similar wilderness areas as a sacred place, a place in which visitors should conduct themselves in hushed reverence. For me personally, there is no place on earth that I can connect more easily to my spiritual foundation than wilderness areas, and the Boundary Waters, with its crystal clear lakes, granite structures, and varied flora and fauna tops the list of places to find that connection. But I have learned that not everybody shares my view and many people view the Boundary Waters as a playground, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Respecting others and their approaches to wilderness camping is the answer. I make an effort not to impose my “quiet reverence” approach on others and ask in return that we make an effort to avoid disturbing other visitors who may be seeking that goal. I can choose my camping partners, but the group across the lake, in easy earshot, cannot. I will happily accept the offending auditory disturbances as a trade off for spending time with my companions, but I’d prefer not to impose those disturbances on others.
Following our conversation on the finer points of wilderness camping, I joined the guys in their premature cocktail hour. Of course I would never dream of trying to “catch up” with these guys, so I contented myself with watching my cohorts interact with their surroundings. Soon, Bill declared that he was going swimming and promptly zig-zagged his way down to the shore; mind you that there was no topographical reason why he zigged or zagged on his way to the water; his circuitous route apparently derived from the fact that, from his perspective, the lake kept moving. Once he reached the shore, Bill shed his clothes and shoes and stood buck naked at the shores of Fourtown Lake with his arms outstretched in apparent awe of being truly “free” in the wilderness. More likely, he was trying to maintain his balance as he quickly learned why we wear water shoes when we swim in an area littered with razor sharp hunks of granite. Brian donned a swimsuit and joined Bill for a swim all the while adhering to the unwritten rules of manhood by maintaining a proper distance from Bill and his birthday suit. I stayed by the fire pit and enjoyed my cocktail while my imagination—fed by the recent events—ran wild with what this trip had in store for us.
Following the swim, we prepared for our first-day dinner which would consist of the traditional fresh steaks and cold beer. I’m not sure why food tastes better in the Boundary Waters, but the steak dinner did not disappoint and the beer was phenomenal. After dinner, we cleaned up and retired to the firepit area for our evening cocktail hour. I decided for the first time on this trip to bring a folding camp chair. It was an excellent decision and has since become permanent fixture for each of us.
The next morning broke clear and bright, and we arose early to enjoy it. After a quick breakfast and some coffee we decided to try our hands at fishing. I was getting the gear ready for the canoe. “Hey, Brian, where are the nightcrawlers?” “I don’t know” he responded. After a few seconds of silence, I could see that Brian was retracing his footsteps while in custody of the nightcrawlers. Finally it dawned on him that the last place he had seen them was next to his seat in the van; the same van that was sitting back at the parking lot basking in the mid-July sun. This might present a problem upon our return. Oh well, there was little we could do about it so we departed with our leeches and tackle boxes. We made a concerted effort to search out the populations of walleye and smallmouth bass, so we pretty much stayed away from the weedy bays that produced so much Northern Pike action during the previous trip. While we will never be confused with professional anglers, we did enjoy some success putting walleye on the dinner menu.
In the build up to planning the trip, I discovered that there was an old abandoned logging camp on the lake, so we made a point to find some time to explore it. It took some time and leg work, but we did finally locate the camp. It is located behind a campsite on the East shore in the Southern half of the lake. The area is littered with all kinds of “artifacts.” I wonder just how long a garbage pile needs to be around before it’s considered a collection of artifacts. The camp was spread out over a fairly large area, so it took some time to explore it all. One of the most interesting finds was the large number of bed frames that we came across, but the most interesting discovery by far was the 1930’s vintage truck that the loggers left behind. The truck had sunk to its axles in the mud over the decades, but its wooden spokes were still visible and in remarkably good condition. The engine was still present but many of its parts had been stripped.
We spent several hours exploring the site and contemplating its historic significance. Certainly, logging was an important economic activity in this area, but we all agreed that preservation of this area for wilderness tripping and fishing was a far better use for this land.
On the way back to camp we passed an interesting sight in the middle of the lake. There, about 150 yards from our camp site was a rock face that was just barely above the surface of the water. It could not have been more than three inches above the water but was a fairly large, flat surface. Sensing a photo op we returned to camp and retrieved my camp chair. We then paddled back to the rock and deposited Brian along the chair on the rock. Bill and I then returned to camp and took several photos of Brian sitting on the water.
After returning to camp, we prepared dinner and retired to the fire pit for cocktail hour. We sat and talked for many hours about many interesting, and some not so interesting, things. At about 11:30 p.m. Bill excused himself and retired to his tent for the evening. Brian and I continued our discussions by the campfire for another half hour before I noticed the full moon to the East.
I suggested to Brian that we take a midnight paddle and he enthusiastically agreed. We donned our life vests and eased the canoe into the lake. Brian got in at the bow and I pushed off into the bay. We paddled slowly and quietly into the middle of the bay and I eased the canoe around to face the moon. “Wow!” Brian exclaimed in a whisper. “Yeah, wow” I replied. Nothing more needed to be said and neither of us wanted to make a sound to disturb the moment. There we sat in the middle of the lake at midnight on a cloudless and windless night with the full moon hovering over the treeline and reflecting its bright white light off the still water. I could clearly see Brian’s silhouette against the moonlit forest. I silently wished I had the ability through photography or through another art form to reproduce the vision of him sitting stoically in the bow, his paddle resting silently across the gunwales, with the full moon floating over his right shoulder, its glimmering reflection on the water highlighting the shape of the paddle and illuminating the water droplets dripping from the blade like little light bulbs. There were no sounds other than the faint and peaceful sound of the small rapids at the end of the bay, and I worked to keep the canoe in position without disturbing the near silence. At that point a loon launched into a mournful wail that pierced the quiet and sent shivers up my spine. I felt a strong sense of significance; not in myself but in the moment. Everything was perfect—the moon, the lack of wind, and the perfectly-timed loon song—too perfect to be an accident.
This will be a moment in time that I will take with me to the grave. That moment, the sight, the sounds, the singularity of thought and emotion between Brian and me, is the kind of event that ties me to the wild places like the Boundary Waters and brings into clear focus what spirituality truly is for me. For me, I can find God much more easily in the wilderness than I can in a building adorned with stained glass. For me, the wilderness is a church and nature is the choir. I don’t expect everyone to share my approach to spirituality and worship, and, to be quite honest, I’m glad they don’t.
After watching the moon begin to arc towards the treeline, we made our way back to camp and retired to our respective tents for the evening.
A few more glorious days filled with fresh air, sunshine, swimming, fishing, stunning sunsets, and just plain relaxation passed and we made our way back to the entry point off Mudro Lake. At the parking lot, Brian and I began to empty the canoe while Bill went to retrieve the van. Upon his return I noticed he looked a little green around the gills. Then it dawned on me: “oh yeah, the missing nightcrawlers!” I was surprised to find out just how badly a couple dozen nightcrawlers can smell after nearly a week in a van parked in the sweltering July sun. I was also surprised to learn just how long such an odor would linger after the offending material’s removal.
All-in-all it proved to be a wonderful trip. Bill thoroughly enjoyed himself and declared his intent to join our crew on a permanent basis, and that made us happy. As usual we learned some important lessons. Chairs are not optional; with our base-camping style where comfort is a key, chairs add dramatically to the experience. Bill learned that feet will get wet and watershoes are not optional in an area strewn with chunks of granite. Brian and I learned that we’d really prefer that Bill bring a swimsuit on future trips. Brian and I also learned that a midnight canoe paddle under a full moon can be an exhilarating and moving experience. I learned that even the best tent waterproofing supplies won’t fix a stubborn leak; sorry Bill! Lastly and most importantly we learned that someone needs to be assigned the duty of escorting the nightcrawlers to the campsite like a Federal Marshal escorts a transferring prisoner.