Sleeping Under the Stars
By Drew MacDonald Trip Dates: July 2001 Participants: Drew and Brian Entry Point: Mudro Lake Lakes/Rivers traveled: Picket Creek, Mudro Lake, Sandpit Lake, Tin Can Mike Lake, Horse Lake, Horse River, Basswood River, and Crooked Lake.
Laying in bed on a cold January evening, my thoughts drifted, as they often did, to the bright blue skies and crystal clear waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota. It had been several years since I was able to find the time to go on a treasured canoe camping trip and I was anxious to get back. Unfortunately, my favorite canoe partner, my lovely wife Diane, was in no shape to take such a strenuous trip. Being pregnant with our second child would make a family canoe-country trip impossible for yet another year.
As we lay in bed talking about our trips together, she could see in my eyes the strong urge to return. She also saw in my face the look of resignation that this was an itch that just couldn’t be scratched. Then she said something completely and utterly surprising. “Would you consider going by yourself?” She asked. “In a heartbeat” I quickly responded working hard to suppress my excitement at the idea. After all, this is my canoe partner here; I didn’t want to sound too eager to leave her behind, but the thought of paddling solo into the wilderness has always been an intriguing idea to me. “You should do it” she continued. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes, of course; you deserve it.” “OK” I said, “I’ll do it.” I’m sure my excitement was showing at that point, but I tried hard to not look too happy.
A huge part of the fun of Boundary Waters trips for me has always been the planning process, so I immediately began to do some research. What time of the year do I want to go? Should I base camp or do a loop? Where do I want to go in? Should I go in through Ely or the Gunflint Trail? Do I have all the equipment I needed? It’s funny how the answer to that last question is always “no.”
As I paged through our canoe camping photo album looking at all of the beautiful pictures that we have compiled over the years, I thought to myself “Man, I wish could share this place with Brian.” Brian is my older brother who lived in San Diego, California. We spent our childhoods in Wisconsin, and most of the time we were outdoors fishing, hunting, and camping with our family. Brian always loved the outdoors, and I knew he would love the Boundary Waters.
I had been myopically focusing on my solo trip plans up until this point, so it took me awhile to ask myself what should have been a very obvious and very simple question: “Why not ditch the solo plans and call Brian and invite him on the trip?” I repeated the question to Diane and she wholeheartedly supported the idea. She cares deeply for my brother and, besides, she never really got that comfortable with the idea of me going in solo.
The very next day I got on the phone to Brian. Needless to say he jumped at the offer. I told him that we would have to rent a tent for him but I had everything else. I only had one small tent that theoretically could fit both of us, but it wouldn’t be very comfortable. “Tent? I don’t need no stinkin’ tent! I’m going to sleep under the stars!” was his emphatic reply. I questioned his decision, but he was quite insistent so I dropped it knowing that, if worse came to worse, we could cram ourselves into my small tent.
Over the remainder of the winter, the spring and into the summer I finalized our plans and organized our gear. I contacted Voyageur North Outfitters in Ely and arranged for a night’s stay in the bunk house and a canoe rental. The decision was made to go in through the Mudro Lake entry point. On day one, we would paddle Northeast through Mudro, Sandpit, and Tin Can Mike Lakes and find a campsite on Horse Lake. On day two, we would paddle down the Horse River to the Lower Basswood Falls where we would camp for three days and return via the same route. That was the plan in February anyway. Being Brian’s first visit to the Boundary Waters, I didn’t want to make the route too difficult or the days too long.
After many months of planning, organizing, packing, and repacking, the time for the trip had finally arrived. I picked Brian up at the Milwaukee airport and we drove back to my house. There, we made final arrangements, reviewed the maps, and stowed the remaining personal items into the packs. The next morning, Diane and Jack (my four year old son) saw us off on our drive to Ely. I look forward to the day that my sons come with me on my annual Boundary Waters trips, but for the present, I was very excited at having the opportunity to introduce my brother to this wonderful place.
We arrived in Ely at around 4:00 p.m. and promptly checked in with Voyageur North Outfitters. After getting our permit, fishing licenses, a bunkhouse key, and having the canoe secured to the van, we headed out to explore the wonders of downtown Ely. Among our discoveries were several nice watering holes and an excellent steakhouse. The next day, however, would begin our true adventure.
We rolled out of bed at 5:00 am sharp; I like to get an early start and was eager to get going, but still being on California time, Brian wasn’t as thrilled. With the van loaded, we headed out to the entry point in the morning mist with two steaming cups of coffee and high expectations. We arrived at the Chainsaw Sisters Saloon at 6:20 am and, to my relief, found that we had the place to ourselves. After paying the parking fee and loading the canoe, we shoved off.
We navigated our way down Picket Creek until it opened into Mudro Lake. This was my second time through Mudro and it was every bit as beautiful as I remembered. In a hushed voice, I told Brian to put his paddle down and just listen. So there we sat in the middle of that beautiful Boundary Waters lake in dead calm with the morning mist hovering over the glass-like surface of the lake, and we just listened. At first the silence was deafening, but as our ears adjusted to the wilderness, we could hear the sounds that fill nature; sounds that we’ve been programmed to ignore in the din that pervades modern society. A small, hidden brook babbling on the hillside proved to be the first voice of the “Singing Wilderness,” As Sigurd Olsen called it, to penetrate our auditory defenses. The leaves rustling in the light morning breeze and birds softly chirping in the forest were next. Some day I would like to learn to identify birds by their calls, but for now I will just concentrate on enjoying their wilderness songs. There is, however, one Northwoods bird that I can identify by its call, and as if on cue, we heard a distant, haunting cry of a Loon wafting through the mist as we prepared to tackle our first portage.
That brief and solemn interlude seemed to be a fitting introduction to canoe country for my brother. After we reluctantly resumed course, Brian commented that it sure sounded better than the last sounds he heard as he left his San Diego apartment. Brian lives in a very urban setting with more than its fair share of crime and far less than its fair share of natural beauty. The apartment was a far cry from the outdoors paradise Brian would prefer; he lived there because he needed to be close to his kids following his divorce, and that apartment was the best he could afford in pricey San Diego. The daily sounds of his neighbors arguing through paper-thin walls combined with the ever-present police sirens, blaring stereos, and the occasional gunshot were now replaced with the peaceful sounds of this wilderness paradise.
Nearly everybody that goes to the Boundary Waters falls in love with the place, and those strong feelings occur at different times. Some people fall in love at the sight of their first Boundary Waters sunset; others find true affection after catching their first 20-inch smallmouth or 30-inch walleye. For Brian, it was that moment on Mudro Lake when we took the time to listen. I knew at that moment that this would not be the last canoe trip we would take together, and the fact that Brian reacted to the Boundary Waters as I thought he would, brought me much satisfaction and contentment.
The first portage from Mudro into Sandpit Lake is a short one and represents a good introduction of the concept of “portaging” to the first-time canoe tripper. We unloaded the canoe and carefully staged the gear off to the side of the portage trail so that we would not obstruct the path should any fellow travelers happen by. I loaded Brian up with the heaviest pack, the paddles, and the lifejackets and he was off. I put on the next heaviest pack and hoisted the canoe onto my shoulders and followed him. The portage consists of a steep ascent from Mudro Lake to the top of the portage trail and then an even steeper descent down to Sandpit Lake. We placed our loads into the canoe on the other side and returned for the final packs. Considering it was our first portage, things went relatively smoothly, and we were soon back on the water.
We continued through Sandpit Lake to Tin Can Mike Lake. This second portage, while considerably longer than the first, is far easier in that it is very flat and even includes a nice boardwalk across a swampy area. These initial portages were the first test of Brian’s desire to achieve a measure of real wilderness tripping. As it turned out, not only did Brian not mind the portages, but he accepted them with enthusiasm as part of the Boundary Waters experience. That was a relief; I had two big concerns on this trip. One was how would my new partner take to portaging, and the other revolved around his insistence on “sleeping under the stars.” I was able at this point to dispense with the first concern. I would have to wait to see what happened with the other until later.
We entered Horse Lake, our intended destination on day one. I had my sights set on the peninsula campsite near the mouth of the Horse River. It was at that campsite on an early-season trip in 1995 that I asked Diane to marry me, so it held a very special place in my heart and I was eager to visit it again.
As we paddled North from the portage, we could see that every campsite we passed was taken. I was concerned that the peninsula campsite would also be occupied. After rounding an island off the Eastern shore, the campsite came into view, and my fears were realized as we could see that the site was indeed inhabited. I was disappointed, but we had to come up with a different plan. The first option was to continue paddling around Horse Lake to find an available campsite for the night, and the second was to bite the bullet and continue down the Horse River to Lower Basswood Falls. I warned Brian that there were no campsites on the Horse River, so if we started down the river, we would have to go all the way and that there would be more portages. After a short discussion, we decided to “go for it.”
The water level on the river was somewhat high considering it was July, so some of the portages or pullovers were passable. Still, the river requires numerous portages, and because of our double-portaging style, heavy packs, and less than stellar physical conditioning, the trip down the river was draining. Finally, we completed the last Horse River portage and were eager to find an unoccupied campsite to rest our tired shoulders and backs. I had noticed an ominous-looking cloud bank approaching from the West but was hoping to get camp set up before it got overhead. It looked as if we would be successful until it became apparent that all of the campsites on the upstream side of Lower Basswood Falls were taken.
I told Brian that we would have to take one more portage around the falls. His patience had been running a little thin for a while because he wanted to get off the water. Now his patience was gone, but there was little I could do about it; the sites were full. We had to keep going. I explained that, although I had never been to the Lower Basswood Falls area, I had heard that vacant campsites on a Saturday were hard to come by and that we might have to continue paddling for quite awhile into Crooked Lake to find a site.
He asked why we couldn’t just find a nice looking area and set up camp. I told him that the rules require that we use an established campsite only. He then pointed out an area on the Eastern shore that looked like a nice campsite and said “let’s take that one.” “We can’t” I said. “That’s Canada over there; we don’t have permits to camp there.” With an audible sigh, he resigned himself to doing the portage, but he wasn’t very happy about it. His frustration manifested itself in a prolonged series of extraordinarily strong strokes of his paddle. Sitting in the stern position, I was amazed at the power he was generating and merely had to rutter the canoe to ensure that we didn’t overshoot the portage landing. Of all of the portages that I have been to in the Boundary Waters, the portage around Lower Basswood Falls is the one I would least want to miss. I have heard that people have tried to run the falls in the past, but that strikes me as pure insanity. This isn’t the place to test your manhood.
Lower Basswood Falls is the point on the international border where the Basswood River dumps into Crooked Lake. The falls are actually a set of three different waterfalls side by side and separated by islands in the river. The falls are stunning to behold and represent a must-see for all Boundary Waters visitors. The Lower Basswood Falls are easily accessed from several different entry points, but that easy access comes at a price. The area is extremely popular and vacant campsites in the dead of Summer are a rare find.
After finishing the portage around the falls, we headed downstream for what promised to be a long paddle to find an available campsite. Spirits were low, but at least we knew we were done with portages for the day. About three hundred yards into our “long paddle,” we saw something that surprised both of us: a vacant campsite just below the falls. We couldn’t believe our luck, and crew morale took a sudden and decided upturn. We had found our home for the next four days. It was a beautiful site with a view of the falls, and we quickly worked to set up camp. The sense of urgency was primarily driven by the quickly darkening skies. Rain was imminent and I wanted to get my tent set up before it came. My concern about Brian’s “sleeping-under-the-skies” experiment, which had been pushed into the background of my mind by the frantic search for a campsite, now returned to the forefront with the approaching rain. I said to Brian: “hey Bud, rain’s coming, so it looks like we’re bunking together tonight.” He replied: “No way man! If it rains, I’ll sleep under the canoe.”
I set up my tent in no time and turned my attention to rigging up a rain tarp; it looked like we would need it. Brian fashioned a shelter for himself from two logs, the canoe and an additional tarp. I just shook my head and continued with my camp preparations. Shortly after Brian completed his shelter, a brief rainstorm hit. We huddled under the rain tarp and enjoyed our one and only cold beverage of the trip. Nothing tastes better after a long, hot, and work-filled July day in the wilderness than an ice-cold adult beverage, and we both vowed to find a way of hauling in some ice on the next trip.
The rain didn’t last long, so we built a fire and I began to prepare supper. Our first-night supper would consist of some grilled steaks cooked over an open campfire. Food just doesn’t get any better than that. Brian ducked down to the shore with his fishing rod to make his first Boundary Waters cast. Brian had always been an avid fisherman and displayed far more patience with a rod and reel than any of his three brothers could ever muster. He couldn’t find many opportunities to go fishing in San Diego, so this was especially important for him.
After just a few casts, something hit his Rapala hard. At the end of a short battle, Brian landed his first Boundary Waters Fish, a nice northern pike. He wanted to have it for dinner. But while I do know how to properly filet pike and love the taste of fresh fish as much as anybody, the steak dinner was just about done, and darkness was coming. The decision was made to put the fish on a stringer, leave him overnight, and cook him up for breakfast. Surely there’s no risk in keeping a northern on a stringer over night; right?
We enjoyed our steak dinner while sitting by the campfire listening to the sounds of the waterfall. It was nice to be home. It had been four years since my last trip, and despite the deteriorating weather, I couldn’t think of a place that I would rather be. Brian and I spent the next few hours catching up and talking about important things in our lives. We talked about our kids and about our own childhood experiences in the outdoors. We talked about our father who had died five years prior. It was our father that introduced us to the outdoor lifestyle that afforded us the opportunity to view this setting as far superior to sitting poolside at a five-star resort with a wait staff at our beck and call. We could feel Dad’s presence as we sat there by the fire. We talked about our brother, Bruce who had died eight years prior. Bruce died at the young age of 35 after a long battle with diabetes and kidney failure. Neither of us could be sure if Bruce would have shared our affection for this type of “vacation,” but both of us were sure that he was there with us anyway.
We both could have sat there for hours discussing these things, but Mother Nature had other plans. Suddenly the skies broke loose. Rain came down in buckets, and the wind kicked up. We quickly secured the camp and retreated to our respective shelters; I to my tent, and Brian to the overturned canoe. The ensuing storm proved to be a doozie. I have rarely seen a lightning display as dramatic as the one I saw that night. I was glad that Brian’s “roof” was made of kelvar rather than aluminum. The winds and driving rain, combined with the almost constant lightning, had me very concerned for my brother’s well being. I envisioned a strong gust of wind picking up the overturned canoe and depositing it, along with Brian, into the lake.
It was at this time that I discovered that my tent was no longer waterproof. Unfortunately, the leak appeared to in the very center of the roof, so there was little I could do to escape the dripping water. I was going to have to resign myself to getting wet and would have to address the problem with a strategically placed tarp in the morning (extra tarps are always a good idea). Of course, my minor discomfort surely paled in comparison to what my poor brother had to be going through. If I was wet inside my tent, he had to be drenched! The storm continued well into the night before it finally relented.
In the morning I awoke to the sun peeking over the tree line and onto the side of my tent. It was a promising start to the day. I emerged from my tent soaked from the waist down from the leaking roof. I nervously made my way to Brian’s shelter to check for signs of life. To my relief, his “house” appeared intact and I could hear gentle snoring sounds emanating from beneath the canoe. I decided to let him sleep while I prepared a pot of coffee. Soon, the smell of coffee found its way under the canoe and to Brian’s nose and proved to be the best alarm clock I could have hoped for. As he emerged from his improvised storm shelter, I was shocked to see that he was bone dry. Here I spend the night in a tent and get soaking wet, and my wacky brother sleeps under an overturned canoe and stays completely dry. I guess the “sleeping-under-the-stars” idea wasn’t so crazy after all. He was just lucky that there weren’t any mosquitoes that year.
With the first cup of coffee downed, we decide to prepare breakfast. Brian headed down to the shore to retrieve his pike for processing. The next thing I heard was a series of four-letter words not appropriate for a family magazine. I asked “what’s wrong?” Brian held up the stringer to reveal the disembodied head of his fish. Apparently there are risks to keeping a fish on a stringer overnight in the Boundary Waters. We surmised that a snapping turtle found an easy meal. Another lesson learned.
After finishing breakfast which consisted of eggs and bacon but no fresh pike filets, we gathered our fishing gear, dismantled Brian’s house, and hit the water for our first real effort at fishing. We fished some of the weedy bays around the island and got strikes almost immediately. I hooked and landed a nice pike on a Mepp’s Timberdoodle and placed him on the stringer as a replacement for Brian’s sacrifice to the snapping turtle. Shortly after mine, Brian got a solid hit but the line immediately went limp. The fish, along with Brian’s lure, was gone. “Are you using steel leaders?” I asked. “No, steel leaders affect the action of the lure too much; I don’t like them” he responded. I boated another nice pike and added him to the dinner menu. Then Brian got another strong hit. He and I watched a huge pike jump clear out of the water with his lure in its mouth. After a short battle, the line broke off and the fish swam away with Brian’s favorite lure dangling from its jaw. A request from the bow followed the events: “Do you have a steel leader I could use?” “Sure” I said, “here you go.”
Following his conversion to steel leaders, Brian found that his success in landing hooked pike improved dramatically. With dinner secured, we spent the rest of the day catching and releasing many pike. Smallmouth and walleye, however, proved to far more elusive. We did not bring any live bait with us, but in retrospect, it appears that our choice of fishing locations was more to blame than our offerings. Subsequent trips have shown us that midsummer walleyes and smallmouths are not found in great numbers in the weedy bays but instead populate the mid-lake humps and reefs. Since then, we have focused the bulk of our fishing efforts on these structures but were more than happy to go after the pike in the weedy bays on that initial trip.
On our second full day at the Falls, we paddled downstream in an effort to locate the famed Crooked Lake Indian pictographs. After a short search, we found them on the Western shore on an immense cliff-face. Both of us were genuinely impressed with the ancient artwork. The history behind those markings is truly thought-provoking and we spent many hours over the remainder of the trip discussing what it must have been like to live there 150 years ago.
Two more restful days at the Lower Basswood Falls saw us continue our fishing excursions with moderate success. We also spent a great deal of time exploring the area’s many weedy bays in the hopes of seeing a moose. We came up empty, but that just left a goal for the next trip. We continued to have some great discussions about everything under the sun. It’s interesting how a shared wilderness experience can generate in-depth conversations about many things seemingly unrelated to nature. We talked about religion and politics, and while we disagreed about many issues, we never felt the need to argue about them. We talked about football and baseball and our days as high school and college wrestlers. When the sun went down, we talked about the stars. The campfire conversations stand out with me as one of the highlights of the trip. An obvious disadvantage to having your brother live 2000 miles away is that you have precious little time to talk about the little things. Fortunately, we both agreed that this would not be the last Boundary Waters trip for us together.
The next morning we broke camp and prepared to head out. We had one more day to camp, but we wanted to be closer to entry point so the entire last day would not be consumed by travel. We made our way back up the Horse River, through Horse Lake (where the engagement campsite was still occupied) and into Tin Can Mike Lake. We set up camp on Tin Can Mike on the first camp site on the Northern shore after the portage. After camp was established, we hit the water in an effort to catch dinner, and we finally started catching bass. Interestingly, most of the bass we caught were of the largemouth variety, and we really didn’t want to eat largemouth, so they were all released to live out their lives on this much-traveled, but little-fished lake.
That night, we were treated to a moonless and cloudless sky. The stars were nothing less than spectacular, and we spent hours just star gazing and contemplating the universe. The next morning we awoke to a spectacular day. We spent the day fishing with some success. Because of the spectacular weather and our fishing success we tentatively decided to spend another night at that site. At about 4:00, however, we noticed the distant rumbling of thunder and saw the approaching storm clouds. We made the final decision to go out as planned, so we quickly broke camp and hit the water hopeful that we would beat the storm.
As we got to the portage to Sandpit, the clouds were gathering and darkening. We finished the portage in record time. As we pushed off into Sandpit, it began to rain, so we paddled harder in a vain effort to beat the storm. About one-quarter of the way across the lake the rain started coming down harder, so we picked up the pace even more. About halfway across the lake the skies opened up. There was no wind and no lightning, and we were as wet as we were going to get, so I said to Brian: “let’s stop.” There in the middle of Sandpit Lake, we sat and watched it rain. The rain was coming straight down, and other than the rain drops hitting the surface, there wasn’t a ripple on the lake. The sound of the rain hitting the lake and the surrounding trees was mesmerizing. Once again, we just listened. And, as on the first day, we were awed by the sights and sounds that we witnessed. We both learned an important lesson that has added significantly to our enjoyment of the Boundary Waters; a storm is not the thing to be dreaded and avoided at all costs but is just part of the overall experience and can be every bit as beautiful and awe inspiring as any sunset.
As the rain let up, we resumed our course for our date with the Chainsaw Sisters. We exited the BWCA exhausted, soaked to the bone, and exhilarated. After enjoying two ice cold beers at the Sisters, we made our way back to Ely to drop off the canoe and grab a hot shower at Voyageur North Outfitters.
We finished our showers as it was getting dark, so we decided that we would stay in town overnight and head back in the morning. We inquired with VNO to see if they had any room in the bunkhouse. No luck; it was completely full and there were no rooms available at the local motels either. “Well, I guess we might as well drive to Duluth and stay there for the night” I said, and we were off. The rain continued throughout the drive, and I was exhausted. We stopped at the first hotel we could find in Duluth, and I went in to inquire about a room for the night. As I was waiting at the reservation desk, I noticed a man walking around the hotel lobby wearing a tasseled, red fez; “this was not a good sign” I thought. Sure enough, the Shriners Convention was in town and I was told that I wouldn’t find a hotel room within 50 miles. They were right! We had to drive another two hours before we could finally find a room for the night. Brian and I both laughed heartily at this last funny little twist to our inaugural Boundary Waters Trip together. We have made three annual BW trips since that first one and have added to our crew. Our stepfather, Bill, joined us for our, second, third, and fourth trips and proved to be an indispensable addition to our crew. The oldest of our children will be joining their dads and grandfather for this year’s trip, so this will be our first, and God willing not our last, three-generation trip.
Brian and I learned much from our first trip and have continued to hone our skills and adjust our style. Our personalities are as different as night and day, but this has come to serve us well. I am a driven, planning-oriented person. I know the map like the back of my hand before the paddle ever gets wet. I research camp sites and lake data. I plan and arrange all of the packs and decide who will carry each one and in what order. I am the reason that we never find ourselves in the wilderness without something we need but often find ourselves there with things that we could have easily done without. I make the arrangements and set the itinerary from the time we leave Wisconsin to the time we hit the water. I always man the stern position and always have the map within reach. If it were up to me, we would do loops almost exclusively and different ones each year to see as much of the BWCA as possible.
Brian is far more laid back. He is much less likely than I to die of a heart attack. If packing was left up to him, it is likely that we would end up in the Boundary Waters without matches, toilet paper, and quite possibly the canoe. Brian’s key role, however, is that he has shown me how to relax once we get to where it is we’re going and is far more likely than I to put a fish dinner on the menu. His job is to help me shift into neutral and just let things unfold, and he does it well.
Together we have settled in on the base camp philosophy as the most conducive to relaxation and fishing. That style also eliminates the stress of having to find a new campsite daily and helps me to shift into relaxation mode. We take hundreds of digital photos on each trip. We bring ice and fresh food, and we are the guys you see on the portage trails with folding camp chairs. Comfort has become the keyword in our camp. But that minimalist solo trip is still lurking out there for me, tempting and seducing me; someday I will answer its call, but for now, I am content enjoying this beautiful area with my brother, my step-father, and, soon, my children.