Autumn in the BWCAW
So here I was racing down Crooked Lake with a thirty mile per hour tail wind. The snow was a horizontal stream, veiling the landmark we were heading for at the south end of Friday Bay. This wasn’t exactly what we had in mind, and it wasn’t even October yet! Oh well, at least it wasn’t a head wind.
This was our fourth annual Boundary Waters trip. My son Joshua and I had left his house in Michigan when he got off work on Friday and headed for Ely, Minnesota. This year we bought a Wenonah Minnesota II Kevlar canoe from an Ely outfitter and arranged to have our vehicle left at our take out on Mudro Lake. The outfitter dropped us off at entry point 16 on the Moose River, north of the Echo Trail.
It was a crisp fall day. The portage from the parking area to the river was easy walking, smooth and level. We enjoyed the new canoe, especially the lightness on portages. Later we would appreciate its seaworthiness.
We weren’t in a hurry. We had a week to do a five-day trip. After having lunch on Nina Moose Lake we continued on to camp the first night on Lake Agnes. It was a nice campsite, but it sure had a lot of mice! We named it Rodent Point, because of the Deer Mice. They were everywhere. I had my tent set up but nothing in it yet when Josh said, "A mouse just ran into your tent". "Get him out." I said. His reply,” No mice in MY tent". I chased the poor mouse around the tent and finally caught him in my hat. For some reason Josh found the whole thing funny.
Next morning we had a leisurely breakfast. After coffee we hit the water again. Paddling up Boulder Bay on Lac La Croix we decided to stop for lunch on an island campsite a mile ahead. A short time later it began to rain. We hurried to a nearby campsite to put on our rain suits. Half way to the landing the rain turned to ice pellets and came down harder. What the heck, guess we’ll have lunch a little earlier. As soon as we were ashore we put on our rain suits and tied up tarps for a wind and snow break over the fire grate area.
While we were there we admired the job done by the Forest Service crew on this campsite. Great care had gone into the design and construction of the log seats and fire pit. It was like a small log cabin with a stone fireplace, but without high walls or roof. Somebody had taken real pride in their work. One day I want to go back and base camp there for a few days. We cooked lunch and made tea, listening to the ice rattling on the tarps. The squall passed just as we were finishing lunch.
This weather pattern was to last most of the trip. Occasional moments of calm winds and blue sky were pushed out by snow squalls, high winds and dropping temperature. Then cold cloudy skies and wind from the North would persist until the next squall.
When these squalls hit us on the larger lakes the waves would build quickly. Soon we were in the whitecaps, fighting wind gusts that might come from ahead, behind or across the beam, depending on our heading. We still loved the new canoe, but now its handling meant more to us than it’s weight.
Now if it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. Weather is always changeable, especially in Northern Minnesota in the fall. We were prepared for all the conditions we encountered. We dressed in multiple layers of polypropylene, wool, and polar fleece, often covered by the rain suit. Wool fingerless gloves are a great help, but I’d forgotten mine on this trip. Sleeping bags were carefully kept dry by packing them in two stuff sacks, with a plastic bag sandwiched between. Then they were packed in the bottom of the pack with the ground cloth under them and tent, tarp and other bags on top. Even if the pack should become submerged the sleeping bag would stay dry for a long time. If you can stay comfortable you can still have a good time. We were pretty comfortable.
We portaged past Curtain Falls with snow falling. That didn’t stop us from taking time to stop and watch the water roaring down the rocks. For a short time on Crooked Lake we were paddling along in warm sunshine with a gentle tail wind. This was more like it! Then I turned around and saw ominous dark clouds and line of snow across the lake about a half a mile back. We paddled hard, but the squall finally hit us.
One of the best things about a fall trip is the solitude. Sunday on our way into the wilderness we met several parties coming out. From then until we approached the take out point on Saturday we saw only one other person. I’m sure there were other parties on the big lakes, Lak La Croix, Iron and Crooked, but we didn’t see any sign of them. The wilderness was ours. It was only half way through the trip we saw another person. We were crossing the mile long portage from Wagosh Lake to Gun Lake. My son had gone on ahead. I was proceeding with all the speed expected of a middle aged office worker toting sixty pounds up a trail that gained 117 feet in a quarter mile. From behind me I heard a friendly “Hello there!”. Surprised, I turned and saw a man carrying a Bell solo canoe, accompanied by a Labrador retriever in a bright blue vest. I expressed my surprise at seeing another person, not to mention a formally attired dog. He said he had seen our tracks on other portage trails over the last few days, and wondered who would be so far back in the Boundary Waters this time of year. He continued up the trail. The wilderness was all ours again. The next people we saw were near our take out on the last day.
Although we saw few people we did see wildlife. At our first campsite I saw a pine marten slinking around, probably looking for mice. It even peeked under the vestibule of Josh’s tent. We saw otters, beaver and mink. We saw a pileated woodpecker in one camp, also loons in their winter plumage. At one camp a family of gray jays exhibited their fearless friendliness. At breakfast one flew down on Josh’s hand and helped himself to some oatmeal. Another landed beside me and took the last bit of my granola bar. There were bald Eagles by the dozen. We didn’t see any moose or bear.
One evening we camped on Iron Lake. We hung our food packs from a birch tree overhanging the lake. We had just gotten into our sleeping bags when we heard a loud splash. We jumped up, grabbed our flashlights and ran out to rescue our food. There it was, still hanging high and dry above the lake. Just then another splash turned out to be a beaver smacking his tail on the water.
Thursday afternoon we arrived at a campsite on the south end of Fourtown Lake. We estimated three hours to the take out point and didn’t need to leave before Saturday. We had a whole day of rest before the end of the trip. On Friday we took it easy. We hiked up and down the lakeshore. We gathered enough firewood for ourselves and some for the next people to camp there. We fished a little, with little luck. We just generally enjoyed hanging around camp for a day.
Saturday morning we got up early, packed up camp and headed out. Being the last day, the wind was calm and the sky mostly sunny. The portages from Fourtown Lake to Mudro Lake run along a small stream that tumbles along the bottom of a narrow, steep sided canyon. It’s a tough but beautiful trail. The sun shone on the autumn leaves and sparkled on the rapids. It was a perfect fall day in the Boundary Waters and we were going home.
Nina Moose Lake, Agnes Lake, Lac La Croix, Bottle Lake, Iron Lake, Crooked Lake, Papoose Lake, Chippewa Lake, Nikki Lake, Wagosh Lake, Gun Lake, Fairy Lake, Fourtown Lake, Mudro Lake