Sacred Solitude on Saganaga - Saganaga Lake Base Camp June 2014
The bite of the wilderness bug had proved too powerful for me to resist. Grandpa hadn’t been able to fish like he wanted to on our previous trip, nor did he get to have his long campfires with plenty of music. Quietly taking note of this fact, I set aside money and began to make plans to bring him back. All throughout that fall, winter, and spring, I had been quietly planning another adventure, this time a base camp. I accumulated most of my own gear and made reservations with Seagull Outfitters for a canoe, pack, extra paddle, and bear barrel.
We drove up the day before and stayed the night at the paddlers’ lodge across the street from Seagull Outfitters. Before heading out to the wilderness, we met Don and Carole Germain at Gunflint Lodge for dinner. Don and Carole are the former proprietors of Saganaga Outfitters, located on the channel, and longtime residents of the Gunflint Trail area. They outfitted Grandpa and his school groups back in the 1970s as outlined in Growing Inside Outside. Besides sharing a common passion for the wilderness, we also shared a common bond in Christ with them, so our conversation was enjoyable and edifying from all angles. Following our delicious meal, Don and Carole invited us over to their beautiful home on Gunflint Lake. They had purchased the cabin from the original owner and builder, who devoted a great deal of time to the woodwork inside. They had continued the good work he had started. All of the walls and the floor were beautiful knotty pine, with a big stone fireplace and memorabilia all over the walls. We continued our wonderful conversation in this incredible setting. In the course of the evening, Don, Grandpa and I looked over our map. We had been planning to camp on Red Rock Lake, but a returning party at the outfitters’ had told us there were no walleye to be had there. Don pointed to Englishman Island, on the west shore of Saganaga, and indicated a campsite on the south side. “This is a good site,” he said. “It has good wind exposure which will keep the bugs away, and you can paddle over to Devil’s Walk Bay. There’s good walleye fishing to be had there.” We both immediately decided to take Don’s advice. He told us that it would take us about three hours of paddling to reach the island from the beginning of the channel. As we left to return to the lodge, Don and Carole gave us two beautiful paddles, left over from Saganaga Outfitters when it closed. It was an evening neither Grandpa nor I will ever forget. We drove back to the outfitters simply amazed. A beautiful sunset tinged the horizon as we pulled into the parking lot.
As we hit the water the next morning, a cloudless sky and water calm as a sheet of glass lay before us. There was not a breath of wind in the air. After emerging from the channel, we quietly made our way southwest and began to work our way through the islands, which were more confusing than I had remembered. Slightly bewildered but thankful for the perfect paddling conditions, we emerged from a small narrows and beheld the incredible expanse of the lake, stretching to American Point and beyond. I looked to the north and tried to pick out the small island that had been our refuge from the storm. This view brought back many memories.
“I think that’s American Point up there,” I said. “I know for sure if we cross over to the other side of the lake there, we will be able to get our bearings.” “That’s a long way across,” Grandpa said. “Do you see that campsite over there?” “I do,” I said. “Maybe we should head over there, take a little break, and look over the map a little. Why don’t you pray for guidance, just to be on the safe side?” Grandpa did. As we paddled towards the campsite, I continued to look at the map. I then realized that we were heading for the north side of the very island we were trying to reach. “Grandpa, that’s the island we’re looking for,” I said excitedly. “If we paddle around to the south side, we should find a large campsite in a stand of Norway Pines with a large sand beach.” “Really?” Grandpa responded. “Well, let’s see.” We rounded the southern shore of the island to find a beautiful campsite, sand beach and all, matching Don Germain’s description exactly. “How long did Don say it would take to get here?” I asked, looking at my watch. “Thee hours.” “We’ve been on the water exactly three hours, almost to the second,” I said in disbelief. “That’s expert outfitting advice right there.” I hopped ashore and headed down the portage trail to check out the latrine. All the familiar smells of pine and duff filled my nostrils. The latrine was in excellent condition. It actually wasn’t that crappy.
I returned to Grandpa, who was waiting in the canoe. “It looks like we have our camp site,” I said. “There’s a fire grate here in good shape, a nice pile of kindling, and a great tent site over there.” “I can’t believe we found it,” Grandpa said. “I was ready to go back to the channel and start over. I think it was the prayer that did it.” We unloaded all of the equipment and got organized. Our campsite was on the south side of Englishman Island, located in a beautiful stand of Norway Pines. It was built into the side of a small hill, with a perfect tent pad right at the top. We set up our tent on that site. “This five person tent is going to be perfect for our base camp,” I stated, as we popped the tent up. “For sure,” Grandpa said. “We won’t be fighting for space. Say, we forgot to tie that top string. Can you reach it?” I stood on my tiptoes and tried to reach it, but promptly fell over right onto the tent. Thankfully, no damage was done. After Grandpa stopped laughing, we took the tent down a little, tied the top to the poles, and popped it right back up. We used my hatchet to secure the stakes and the fly. We filled up our water filter bag, scrounged up some firewood, and then ate a little lunch. By this time, we were both hot and sweaty from our hard work.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going in for a swim,” I said. “We’ve got to take advantage of that sand beach.” “You know how rare a sand beach is up here?” Grandpa said as he grabbed his towel and suit. “I do. Now, we have to wear our life jackets.” Grandpa complained a little but I insisted. We dropped our towels on shore and began to wade slowly into the lake. It was a little chilly and took some getting used to, but it was so clear and refreshing that I finally gave in and ducked myself under water. “Come on Grandpa!” I yelled. “It feels great.” Grandpa finally splashed in. “Whoo!” he shouted. “That’s cold!” He soaped himself off and then waded ashore to get dressed. I followed suit, pun intended. “I’m going to take a nap, Joe,” Grandpa stated. “Go right ahead,” I responded. “That’s the beauty of a base camp. We have no schedule to keep. You can take a nap whenever you want.”
While Grandpa rested, I sat in the chair we brought, pulled out my copy of The Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd Olson, and began to read. Instinctively, I turned to my favorite chapter and read these words:
“Until the day when I discovered it, my life had been dominated by the search for a perfect wilderness lake. Always before me was the ideal, a place not only remote, not only of great beauty, but possessed of an intangible quality and spirit that typified to me all of the unbroken north beyond all roads. Time and again I thought I had found it, but always there was something wrong, some vague, unreasoned lack of shape or size, some totally unexplainable aspect involved with the threat of accessibility. Above all, I wanted vistas that controlled not only moonrises and sunsets, but the northern lights and the white mists of the river mouths at dawn…Then one golden day I came to Saganaga.”
I closed the book and began to admire the view before me. The afternoon sun was high in the sky. Its light brought out the sandy brown of the ground, the deep green of the shrubs and needles, and the smoky red of the bark gracing the Norway pines. From our vantage point on the southern side of the island, I beheld a panoramic view of Red Rock Bay, studded by islands. I stood up and, looking to the east, identified Long and Gold Islands. To the north, I could see the Canadian shoreline. The lake was calm as a sheet of glass, the water’s surface indistinguishable from the sky.
Sitting back in my chair, I took a deep breath. The alpine smells again filled my nostrils, pure oxygen straight from the source. I closed my eyes and listened. Birds chirped and sang to each other from the trees, and a squirrel chattered in his burrow. The ubiquitous whiny hum of the mosquitoes made me grateful for the bug spray and head net I had on. Not a single sound of civilization broke the music of the singing wilderness, not a plane, not a motor, not a human voice. This was the silence I had been longing for and dreaming of. This was ecstasy. This was peace.
Grandpa woke up from his nap, and we settled in to dinner. I built a fire in the grate and lit it up. It was a long time coming, but eventually we got enough heat to roast our hot dogs over the flames. I pulled out my guitar and we enjoyed the pleasure of some good music. After the fire died down, we cleaned up dinner and headed out for a fishing run around the island, which proved unfruitful. After lounging around camp for a while, we settled into our sleeping bags and fell asleep as the loons began to call farther out on the lake. The night noises were just starting as I drifted off.