As we began unloading our gear at the portage into Duncan Lake we were greeted by a pair of paddlers who were coming into Bearskin Lake for a day of fishing. We exchanged pleasantries and soon learned that they were camped on Duncan and were about to spend the day on Bearskin. Hoping to find better fishing than what they had found near camp. When asked of our plans the couple, who were obviously much younger than us, were skeptical about anyones ability to make the portage. They had explored the portage and falls on a day trip and the efforts of the day with simply day packs had left them exhausted. Apprehension clouded my spirits as we unloaded our gear and I mentally began to put together a back up plan that would have us base camp on Duncan, fearing I would have to abandon my hopes of crossing the portage.
Fifty-three rods of portaging later and the entirety of our gear was now resting on the shores of Duncan Lake. My paddling partner and I both knew that the solitude that we were seeking could only be found by putting miles behind us. The Stairway Portage was an obstacle that threatened to block us from our goal and would need to be conquered. Duncan Lake is a beautiful lake. HIgh bluffs, crystal clear waters and ample opportunity for exploration on the trails that riddle the area. But it just wasn’t what we came for. We wanted more and when I looked at my partner I could see it in her eyes. “We’re gonna do this, aren’t we?” I asked her knowing full well what the answer was. “Yup.” she said. I can’t say enough about having a partner like that. While she relies on me for the skills to survive in the wilderness, it’s her enthusiasm and confidence for the adventure that keep the trip alive.
We patiently attacked the portage. Portaging the distance at a snails pace as the heat of July slowly increased. With the gear all sitting on the shores of Rose Lake I was filled with the pride and joy that can only come through accomplishment. I am sure our bodies were plenty tired, but the elation masked any of the symptoms and with new confidence we chose to alter our plans. Time was in our favor and we had at least eight hours of good daylight to find a campsite. More distance that we could put between us and the civilized world. Full of exuberance we set our sights on South Lake. The campsites dotted along the southern shore were calling us as we headed across Duncan and traveled the border route westward.
Soon the adrenalin rush that we experienced after making the portage into Rose diminished and we found ourselves slogging our way into an increasingly strengthening west wind. The spectacular views and vastness of the wilderness were the reward for our efforts. The occasional eagle passing over head and the tremendous bluffs were highlighted in the deep blue of the summer sky. Through Rat Lake and into South Lake we paddled and portage. Our strength and energy seeming to diminish at the same rate as the fresh water supply we carried with. Temperatures had now increased to near 80 degrees and the scorching sun and unrelenting wind was taking it’s toll.
The breeze on the east end of South Lake welcomed us and we now had a little over a mile of water left to cover to reach our chosen campsite. It was bitter sweet. The cooling effect that it brought was a welcome relief, but the thought of paddling into it was not a welcoming thought. After what seemed an eternity the site we had set our hearts on came into view and we were soon on dry land surveying the layout. Finding a good campsite has always been an anxiety of mine. Simply picking a promising spot on a map is no guarantee that the site will live up to my expectations and the thought of paddling further to find a better site had set this anxiety on fire.
Like most fears, this one was unfounded and the site proved to be four star. The breeze would fill the site with cooling air and keep the bugs down while the tent pad was well elevated and would keep us dry in the event of wet weather. The site was also very spacious, although with only a party of two (three if you count the dog) size is rarely an issue for us. We quickly (at least as quickly as we could) set camp each going about our duties like a well coached team. Before long we had a home in the wilderness and were dining on a dinner of rice and pepperoni and sipping freshly filtered water from the lake. As day turned to night and the air turned cool and dry we retired our weary bodies for the day. Sleep came swiftly.
Over the course of the next four days we would experience many of the wonders that the BWCA has to offer. Hiking the Border Route Trail in sweltering temperatures, catching oodles of smallmouth bass, witnessing magnificent sunrises and sets, and enjoying playful breezes in the luxury of a hammock strung by the lake. The fourth of July came and with it a wonderful lightening storm that filled the evening sky with a fireworks display that only mother nature could create. Throw in some fireflies, thunder and a hail stone drum roll on the top of the tent and it was an Independence Day celebration to remember. To some four days in the wilderness is about three and a half too many, but for us the time went in a blink of an eye, leaving us thirsting for more.
The original plan for this trip had us packing out on the seventh day, but now with a good eight hours of hauling in our future we reluctantly chose to cut our trip short. The trip out would be a daunting task to be sure, but the subsequent six hour drive back home was even more of a concern. If we paddled out a day early we would be afforded the luxury of an extra travel day, and we would search out a place to bed down in one of the towns along the route home.
On the paddle out we were afforded the same spectacular views that we had seen on the paddle in. The only exception this day would be the wonderful westerly wind that would push us the entire distance of the journey. It not only provided us with the extra muscle needed for the trip, but acted as an all natural air conditioning unit that took the edge off of the warm July sun. We made great time and arrived at our nemesis, the Stairway Portage an hour ahead of what we had expected. What had started as a helpful breeze had now turned into a solid wind that would have to be reckoned with when crossing Duncan Lake. My worrier began itching again.
The Stairway Portage was busy with day trippers. Families and small groups were quenching their bodies in the cool frothy waters of the falls. A few friendly folks chatted as we passed along the portage carrying our burden in the summer heat. It left me with a good feeling meeting these folks. The kindness and kinship of those who travel the woods always amazes me. Patience and forgiveness that seem to be absent in every day life seem to be nurtured by towering pines and crystal waters.
When I arrived at the end of the Stairway Portage and set my canoe at the waters of Duncan Lake, it didn’t come as a total surprise when a young blonde haired lad began to speak to me. I was sitting on the ground leaning against my canoe drenched in sweat, still wearing the same clothes I had on when I entered this spot six days prior. He may have thought he just discovered a middle aged Sasquatch. We spoke of the falls and the wonder of the BWCA. His bright eyes told the story of the exuberance of his adventure more than his words. We passed on the portage once again as the last of our gear was being hauled out. Soaking wet from the cold water of falls, his eyes were alive with excitement. In parting I never spoke a farewell, and it left an awkward feeling in my soul. It was with great delight when I heard the “Good-Bye Bob” being hollered through the window of pick-up truck loaded with a pair of canoes from a smiling blonde haired boy with shining eyes at the take out landing on Bearskin Lake. “Good- bye Jack” I hollered back and waved and smiled as the truck disappeared down the gravel road. Good- bye Jack, may the wilderness call you back someday.