Lessons Learned From the Boundary Waters
Where does a dream begin? I'm not entirely sure. Some begin with a story. Some with a picture. Others with an idea. Where did this dream begin? I have absolutely no idea. It was probably a part of his DNA.
My husband Curt is losing his eyesight. It's a process that has been happening since our mid 30's and it has been one of the most difficult things we have ever had to go through. We have been on an unspoken quest to do and see as much as we can before, well, you know, before...
For the past year and a half, maybe longer, Curt's quest has been to go to the Boundary Waters in North Eastern Minnesota. Going to Ely and experiencing the raw beauty of the wilderness is a bucket list item and he has worked tirelessly towards that end goal. The last 6 months of my life have been spent preparing physically and mentally for a completely primitive, outdoor experience. We've spent hours at the Y in the Strive room preparing our muscles to portage and paddle for hours and days at a time. We've used every reward and gift card towards equipment needed to survive. I've watched hours and hours of YouTube footage learning how to paddle efficiently, pack a portage pack, and dehydrate and store our own food.
We have been at Banner Marsh paddling the water trail so many times I could do it in my sleep. No one needs to spend that much time in Banner Marsh, but we have.
It has been journey. An adventure. It has been my school for so long that graduation never seemed possible.
But it did.
And now, only the memories and a few bug bites are left as evidence.
Oh, and a great tan.
But I digress. Our trip began with a week of fun with my entire family at Deer Ridge Resort in Ely, Minnesota. We spent 7 days in 3 cabins with 10 adults and 12 children. It was one of the best vacations I have ever had. Getting to hang out with all my siblings, their spouses, and all the nieces and nephews was an absolute blast, even when the electricity went out for days. We spent almost every hour of every day outdoors either hiking, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, fishing, tubing, or just sitting at the playground talking while we watched the kids play. And at the end of this week, was Curt and I's long awaited trip into the Boundary Waters. I could barely contain Curt's excitement when Saturday finally rolled around.
We got a late start from the resort on Garden Lake that cool, crisp morning. We had spent too much time trying to find my missing headlamp the night before. A powerful storm had come through in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 21st and the power had been knocked out to the area for days. Looking for a light source, in the dark, is almost comical, except, it wasn't. Lesson #1, always have your light source readily available.
With the power out and the resort on a well, I never received that much anticipated "final hot shower" before heading into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Instead, I was on day 3 of no shower and lake water was starting to look really good.
After dropping off car seats so our two youngest children could ride home safely with my folks and a quick trip to Spirit of the Wilderness for a new light, we were finally on our way. We were a good two hours later than I had mentally hoped for, but we were heading the correct direction; North.
Our entry point was #23, Mudro. Being our first trip we had no idea what to expect as we drove down the storm evident road. Trees had fallen in an alarming amount here. Thankfully, two days of work had been accomplished and yet, there was still barely enough room for our truck in some places. We had some minor anxiousness about what we may find on some of our portages and smaller water passages.
We arrived at a nice parking lot at the Mudro entry. There were only a few spots available, but we managed to get one close to the trail leading to the landing. Our walk down allowed me the first of many BWCA smells that I have come to cherish. Such a sweet, fresh aroma filled my senses. Words cannot describe what these first breaths did to me. It was as if I hungered to breathe more of it.
Our first section of paddling was completely uneventful. Our initial portage showed why good shoes are important (lesson #2). The rocks are definitely ankle breakers. We entered the water gearing up mentally for the long portage. We had done our homework, knew this was supposed to be difficult, so we expected it to be rough.
It really wasn't that bad. Sure it was long. Sure it had some elevation changes, but overall, we really enjoyed the whole walk. Portaging combines Curt's favorite thing to do, canoeing, with my favorite, hiking. It's the best of both worlds!
While I enjoyed the 143 rod portage, I was not overly fond of the next one. To me, the little hop over land before Fourtown was the worst of all. It reminded me of the Shakespeare quote, "And though she be but little, she is fierce." And was it ever! Terrible rocks and slick footholds made this hard. It was also our first encounter with a large group coming out. There wasn't quite enough room for all of us at the landing.
Fourtown brought us a tail wind and waves. Our glassy paddling was done for the day and we had a bit more trouble steering the boat. By this point I was becoming much more adept at reading the map. It was fun to spot the campsites as we glided along. Through Fourtown we ended up following a group of four canoes on what appeared to be a day trip. They were packed light, moving quickly, and we never did quite catch up to them.
The portage into Boot almost needed stop lights. We met up with three or four groups coming out. The last of the groups had just come from the campsite we were wanting for our first night. All were surprised to hear about how damaging and deadly the storm of two days prior had been.
Boot Lake was an uneventful paddle. Our anticipation was growing the closer we got to our first stop. So was my husband's hunger. I could barely make myself slow down long enough for him to get even a drink. The campsite we desired on Fairy Lake was open and I wanted to get there before anyone else did.
As we came to the portage leading from Boot to Fairy, we encountered a group of four canoes on a twenty two day paddle. They were on day five and seemed to be in good spirits, unlike many of those we had met at the end of their four and five day trips. It was good to see some smiling faces after the tired glances of others.
Fairy Lake is aptly named. It is a magical setting. The shoreline gives the appearance of hugging the lake. The trees were uniform in size and shape. In my mind's eye, I could picture the fluttering of wings with fairy dust being blown off the tiny hands of fairies with a gentle kiss at the end. Fairy Lake was worth the four and half hours it took us to get there.
A nighttime storm gave us little sleep and so a late start didn't give the day the bright beginning we were hoping for. Clouds and wind did their fair share at keeping spirits down. Our goal for the day was the single campsite on Beartrap Lake. Our late start and the head wind were two strikes against us.
Our portage out of Fairy was uneventful and Gun Lake proved to be as gorgeous as we had hoped. We spotted possible campsites for our return trip and looked forward to our portage into Gull.
Our welcome into Gull was a blast of white capped waves. It was amazing to paddle our Northwind 17 through that rough of waters. We were barely rocked as she sliced through the waves. We made it across the lake and began to look for an empty campsite to eat some lunch. We ended up having the choice of any campsite so we picnicked on the site east of the portage, or so we thought.
As I unpacked lunch, I discovered we had cell service so I fired off a couple texts and pictures to our children. The sun was warm and the wind hidden from us as we sat on the rock shore. Soon we noticed two canoes coming out of the portage so we took note of the location, never once double checking our map. After a quick clean up of our area we set off for the 43 rod portage into Mud Hole.
After navigating to the enormous rock bank, my husband, with the canoe set securely on his shoulders, set off ahead of me. The path was narrow and more overgrown than the others, but we attributed that to fewer people portaging this far north. After walking for a good ten minutes, I began to wonder if we had mistakenly taken a trail around Mud Hole instead of the portage. The next thing I see is Curt returning empty handed. My natural thought was he was coming back for his pack on his second portage. Wrong. In actuality, Curt had set the canoe down to return to me to discuss the possibility of being on the wrong portage. The trail had taken a steep incline when we should have been declining.
We were on the 272 rod portage into Home Lake. Our picnic spot was actually the campsite to the immediate west of the portage we wanted. That mistake cost us about thirty minutes, but a valuable lesson was learned; always check the map!
Once we were on the correct portage we immediately wished we had the high and dry portage into Home Lake back. The storm the night before left the path like a bog. Mud was up to mid shin through the vast majority of our 43 rod walk.
Mud Hole was a quaint lake, much like one we dream of having a house on one day. In the blink of an eye we were taking the 61 rod portage into Thunder.
Thunder Lake felt extremely secluded as we paddled through. I was anxious to not miss the portage into Beartrap, especially after our earlier mishap. The storm, the late start, and the side trip we mistakenly took had taken their toll on me. I was getting sloppy and the evidence of that is now on the bottom of our Northwind 17. The rock we ran aground on was enormous and the scraping sound of our boat onto that rock still sounds through my head. There was no way I was going to use my Sandborn Nessmuk Ultra-light bent shaft paddle to push us off, so out of the canoe I went. By now I was ready to settle for even the worst site on Thunder just to be done for the day. Curt insisted we continue on to Beartrap; it had been the highlight of our planning.
At long last, we made it to the 5 rod walk between Thunder and Beartrap. Our excitement was beginning to return as we pushed away from the rock garden landing on the western end of Beartrap.
The McKenzie Map we used did not mark the campsite in the precise location. We paddled slowly, through some major chop and head wind anxiously scanning the shoreline for any sign of a tent or campfire grate. Finally, we rounded a point to see the deserted site. Months of planning became realized in that moment. The whole lake to ourselves for two days!
We spent Monday being lazy. I read my Bible while catching some rays on the western rock at the campsite. We went over to the island across from the site for driftwood and discovered blueberries. We had not researched what a blueberry plant looked like before coming so when I literally fell into the plant I was ecstatic! There were only a few that were ripe, the season was a little late this year due to a cold rainy summer.
Before supper we took a trip around our lake. Finding the river and creek were our main goal. We brought our poles along and at the back of a small cove I successfully landed the only fish we would eat while at Beartrap. The walleye was small, but delicious and went along nicely with my homemade dehydrated spaghetti and garlic pan bread.
Before sunset we set out for an evening fishing expedition. One broken line with a lost lure from a hungry pike is all we received from our efforts. We did gain the friendship of the lake's lone loon. We couldn't believe how close this beautiful bird allowed us to get. There is something eerie and mysterious about a loon that leaves me feeling small and uneducated.
Upon returning to camp we were greeted by a beaver swimming along our shore and the resident pine squirrel yelling at us for being there. We must have had the grouchiest squirrel in all the BWCA as our neighbor. We slowly put things away, preparing for our six portage journey the next day and did our best to sit by the fire, eating s'mores, until the last of the light left the sky. We didn't make it. Daylight lasts much later in Northern Minnesota than our typical 10:00 bedtime.
At 3:30 am I was awakened by the sound of thunder. After seeing the devastation of the storm days before our trip I could barely sleep for fear of wind ripping trees out of the shallow dirt. Thankfully, this storm had lots of boom, hardly any wind and the rain became a very steady downpour that lasted until 6:00 or so. I emerged from our tent in full rain gear to discover blue skies and the sun peeking through the trees behind us. It would be a good travel day after all.
We broke camp around 9:45 and said our goodbyes to our secluded, isolated get away. Beartrap was a wonderful dead end to stay for a couple days, but I looked forward to what the rest of our journey would hold for us. Our portages were muddy, slick, and humid, but uneventful for the most part. We had one small incident with my Osprey hiking backpack landing in the water at a portage, but it all ended well. My husband has vowed to purchase a proper canoeing pack for me upon our return to civilization.
None of the portages were particularly difficult. We made our way through Thunder, in and out of Mudhole, and finally into Gull where we encountered the first people we had seen in several days. I felt guilty encroaching upon their solitude at the back of this lake. They had been bathing and their lack of attire indicated they hadn't expected anyone to come out of the portage.
I paddled slowly through the center of Gull so Curt could fill the bags for our Sawyer Squeeze. Our $100 Katadyn Gravity Water Filter slowed to a trickle after one use and had now become drops of water after our third fill. Early in the trip it was easy to think we had over packed, but now we were extremely grateful for this back up water filter.
Heading towards the portage into Gun Lake brought excitement. We were about to embark on the unknown again. As we navigated towards the barrel, we took note of the campsites along the way, just in case Moosecamp Lake was full. Near the end of the barrel we came to the 328 rod portage into Wagosh. We understood this to be one of the routes into Friday Bay and sure enough, we could see a bright red canoe near the landing, followed by two greens and a yellow. My husband's cheery, "Good morning!" was met by an almost growlish grunt from the occupants of the red canoe so we continued on to our short, yet steep and rocky and more than the claimed 10 rod portage into Bullet Lake.
We were double portaging and it was on the return trip that we met with the occupants of one of the green canoes. They were just returning from Friday Bay, had completed their double portage of the 328 out of Wagosh, but were extremely friendly and excited to be heading to Fourtown for some fishing. It was nice talking to someone that seemed happy to be paddling, unlike some of the cranky pants we met portaging on day one and the red canoe man.
Bullet proved to be amazing; it was as if we had portaged into an entirely different land. Here, lily pads reigned supreme and rocks were virtually unnoticed. It was quite a change from the dirt covered rock of Beartrap and Gull. The area had varied vegetation and my nostrils came alive at the different scents. The portage from Bullet into Moosecamp was one of the most beautiful of the whole trip. We walked along a rock filled path beside a flowing creek. The occasional view was breathtaking with the varied shades of green. While many other portages gave a sense of a path from one lake to another, this portage felt like it could be a trail one would be purposeful about taking. It was worth every sweaty minute of our three and half hour trip that morning.
Entering into Mooscamp seemed like the glorious ending to an epic movie where the travelers were ready to give up and then suddenly they realize their journey is instead complete. I could almost hear the music playing as we came out of the small nook to see the empty campsite we were hoping for. The campsite to the immediate southwest of the portage was by far the best one of our trip. It boasts a natural canoe landing, swimming area, spectacular fireside view, elevated tent pad, large tarp area, and the best part, a nice latrine! No broken seat, missing lid, or missing screws from a lid barely hanging on, this toilet had it all. It was a beautiful trail up to the throne and this woman was happy!
The only negative to the site was a lack of blueberries, but the abundance of flowers, something I noticed was lacking on the route we took, made up for this slight inadequacy. We had camp set up when we noticed our Fourtown bound "friends" coming off the portage, heading towards the Moosecamp River. It is the same route we would be taking in two days time and I wished there was a way to know the river conditions from them.
The previous occupants had not treated the campsite like the prized jewel it is. Scrap wood had been left in piles along the scenic "front porch." There was no emergency stash of fire wood as we had grown accustomed to seeing. Logs much too long and large to be used in the fire grates, showing signs of partial burn marks, lay around the campsite. With a heavy sigh Curt began the hours worth of work needed to clean up our temporary home. With only one saw and all the wood gathered into one spot, I grabbed my swim suit, towel, and Bible and took off for the long, low rock pad by our swimming hole. It had been a hot, humid day for tearing down, paddling, portaging, and setting up camp and the water felt incredible on my sticky skin. I laid on the sun beaten rocks and fell asleep to the steady hum of my husband sawing logs for our fire later that evening.
With this being our anniversary, I had hoped to make a special meal. After researching how long steaks could stay frozen and ways to keep them cool, I opted to have our anniversary supper on our second night out. The power outage at our resort aided in the thawing of our steaks early so on our first night at Fairy, I pulled them out from their insulated wrappings nervously. Sadly, the storm had claimed our steaks as another loss in its destruction. So, on the day of our anniversary we would not even have the memory of a fire kissed steak. It was with zero fanfare that I pulled the meal from our day 4 bag to reveal Hamburger Helper as our romantic meal of choice.
It's amazing how much better food tastes outdoors. That Hamburger Helper was melt in your mouth good. Curt thought it was the best meal of the trip. Not sure how our every day lunch of beef and cheese sticks didn't make his top ten, but for now, this meal was fantastic! We finished the day with our ritual s'mores and a sunset of deep pink and baby blue skies.
With zero percent chance of rain in the forecast and wind speeds of one, we left the rainfly off our tent and fell asleep to the sounds of night birds, water gently hitting the shore, and mosquitoes desperately trying to find their way into our tent.
At some point I awakened in the night and looked out at the sky. Even going to bed at 10:00 in the BWCA, there is enough light in the sky that only a few stars are visible. They seem to be the same constellations we see at home, but still beautiful to observe. As I peered through our mesh window, I was overcome by the sheer number of speckles gleaning down at me. Never have I seen so many stars in a natural, outdoor setting; it was incredible. I fell back to sleep thankful for clear skies and a God who creates beautiful things.
The sun came glaring in that same mesh window at 6:00 the next morning. I may be a naturally early riser, but don't mistake that for a morning person. There is a difference. I climbed out of the tent and stretched in the early morning sunlight. I was surprised by the amount of wind, considering the forecast of one to two miles per hour and when the sun's rays suddenly disappeared I moved to a position to see the western sky. I've decided that whomever forecasts the weather for northeastern Minnesota should be fired. Big, black, ominous clouds were rolling our way at a moderate pace. This was a far cry from the forecast of 78 degrees, partly sunny, calm, with zero percent chance of rain. Curt and I moved quickly to get the rainfly on our tent and all of our gear under the tarp. Curt had just finished covering our precious firewood stash when the skies opened up. We sat under our tarp, dry but chilled, while the rain came down for about an hour. Another lesson learned for us; always expect rain.
The skies remained dreary and overcast the rest of the day. Curt had the tough decision to either nap or fish. Finally, fishing won out and he set off on a solo canoe trip. I took the nap he passed on. Up to this point, Curt was 0 for 5 on catching a pike. His smiling face upon his return revealed he had just closed the gap a little on the score. After frying his fish for lunch he took the nap he had passed on earlier and I went out to sun bathe on my rock. Sadly, the sun never did emerge, but I enjoyed the quiet, talking with God and reading His word.
Cell service had been on and off the entire trip, being off the majority of the time. It was nice being able to check the weather forecast occasionally, even if it was a giant lie. With little people at home, it was also reassuring to be able to check in with them once or twice, just to know they were fine and for them to know we were ok. In the future, we'll consider a Spot device. It offers more reliable service. Lesson learned.
It was during one of my phone checks that I received a text from my very best friend. Her last mammogram had revealed a lump and it had been biopsied the day of our anniversary. Curt and I had been praying for her constantly for a week. in my heart though, I already knew what her text was going to tell me. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer; Invasive Ductal Carcinoma to be exact. Never have I hated cancer as much as I did that day. Curt and I spent the next hour crying, praying and discussing that nasty word and what it would mean for her. After texting back and forth a few minutes we lost cell service again and we were left feeling helpless.
We decided to take a quick paddle around our lake to clear our heads. We looked for some ripe blueberries along the way, but struck out. Back at camp we had our favorite Mountain House meal, Chili Mac, and ended our day with, you guessed it, s'mores over our campfire.
We went to bed knowing we would be leaving the campsite better than we had found it, that creation is incredible, and we have a God that is still in control, especially when we feel like nothing is in our control.
Thursday morning brought clear skies that slowly burned a slight fog off the lake. A very busy beaver had kept me awake through the night, but even that couldn't dampen my spirits. I had just spent time with my God and I was about to spend our last full day in the BWCA with my man paddling and discovering our next new area. We were breaking camp for our final destination and our next obstacle was the Moosecamp River. The number of beaver dams and how navigable they would be was the most pressing thing on our minds.
Lesson #... I don't even know, I've lost count---always have an emergency back up plan and be prepared to change all plans at a moment's notice.
The only items left to pack were the wet tent and our tarp. I had just snapped the metal ring around our food barrel when I heard the most guttural, loud, anguished scream.
I looked over to see him collapse on his pack. With one hand he was bracing himself from falling completely to the ground, with the other he was grasping his back. One of our worst fears had just played out; his back had gone out.
In planning our trip we hadn't considered this to be a big deal. It has been a couple years since his back has fully gone out so we naturally assumed if he had trouble it would be the, "wow, I better be careful today because my back is bothering me" type. Not so. This was the full blown, "I can't move my legs" back has gone out moment.
Our biggest issues were the fact that we were on Moosecamp with little to no phone reception, my battery was about dead, and we only had one tiny battery pack left for backup. Sending a single text could take an hour or more and even then, what would we say and to whom? "Hey, can you come help me get Curt down the Moosecamp River, over three beaver dams, down Fourtown Lake, across four portages to Mudro Lake and our truck?" Yeah, I don't think so either. His back could be down for three days and we only have food for an extra day and a half. We didn't have enough battery for three days of being stuck and suddenly getting off that lake to other people was the most important thing we could do.
I shot off texts to our daughter to find out what the maximum dosage was for his pain pills and his anti inflammatory. While she contacted the pharmacy, I broke down camp. The entire time Curt was on his back, under the tarp. He didn't want me tearing anything else down, but I assured him that I could easily put it all back up, I had nothing else to do all day.
Hours ticked by. We finally received the needed information about his medication and he began to take the necessary pills to hopefully be able to move enough to get into the canoe and tolerate me pulling us over beaver dams in the river. We left the tarp until the very end. If we couldn't leave, there was no way I could put it back up myself and he would need to help me reach the high ropes. It would be a good test as to whether he could handle being in the canoe for our two hour trip.
It was getting late enough in the day that a decision had to be made. The entire time I had this anxious panic feeling about getting out of Moosecamp, but as the time drew closer to possibly leaving, my panic switched to not wanting to move. How could he possibly do this trip down the river? What if we hit a boulder and it rocked the canoe, his back goes out again, he falls over and I can't save him? All sorts of ridiculous scenarios were running through my mind. I had four hours to come up with some crazy ones and my imagination is incredible.
So, as I start to stay, "Let's stay" Curt announces, "Let's go!" Alrighty then...
We take the tarp down, clean up the things I had gotten out and I carry all of our gear to the canoe landing. It's funny, but just that morning I had been reflecting on what a great team Curt and I make. We each have our role when portaging, setting up and tearing down, and while in camp. Suddenly, one half of the team was side lined and everything was on me.
Carrying the canoe to the water would be the final test. If Curt couldn't hold on to help me carry the canoe, we had to stay. I don't have the shoulder strength, nor the coordination, to get the canoe up on my shoulders for a solo carry. We tried before we left on our trip and the results were both humiliating and hilarious. I have to admit, I didn't try very hard. I didn't want to learn because I knew Curt would be carrying the canoe anyway. Mark that down as another lesson learned.
Baby step by baby step we made our way down the now excruciatingly long walk to the landing. I loaded all the gear, something I have watched Curt do for six days, and waited while Curt ever so slowly slid his way into the canoe, using his hands to pull his legs in.
It took us three times as long to paddle across Moosecamp that afternoon than it had the night before, but with every stroke, I began to see a glimmer of civilization. A group of four canoes on a day trip had gone up to the campsite near the river and we drew some comfort knowing that if we had trouble, they would most likely be following behind at some point.
The beauty of the Moosecamp River helped me forget the slight emergency we were facing. Lily pads adorned almost every foot of this marshland area. Cedar trees grew tall on distant shorelines and we slowly winded our way in every direction possible, but towards our ultimate goal; south.
Our first obstacle was a wall of rocks and large trees creating a dam. I found a place I felt was safe and we ended up portaging around while part pulling and part floating the canoe through. After reloading the canoe and Curt, we continued on.
The next obstacle was one of the infamous beaver dams. This one proved perfect for floating over the side and was a fun respite from the stress of the morning. We came upon a group of Ukrainian day trippers heading up river. We enjoyed listening to their accents and just having a conversation with someone besides each other for a few minutes. They gave us warning of an upcoming beaver dam and we returned the favor with our information.
Had Curt's back been better this dam would have been a blast to float over. It was fast flowing but not dangerous for a normal, healthy person. Pulling over proved to be difficult. The only place for me to stand was in thigh deep muck. I truly don't care about being wet nor standing in muck, but it created a suction around my feet that made it difficult to pull my feet out of. I didn't want Curt to know the situation I was in because he would try to help and I was terrified of his back going out.
At just just this moment, the group of day trippers that had stopped at Moosecamp came floating down the river. We explained Curt's back and a young man in the front of the canoe jumped out, helped hold back our canoe from running me over, which gave me just enough time to pull my feet out of the suction cup they were in, saving me from a full body dunk. With profuse gratitude we reloaded Curt and finished the distance into Fourtown.
Lesson # 1,993,876,349,429...... always, Always, ALWAYS use a compass in conjunction with your map.
According to the map, we would come off the river facing south. That means, if we turned left slightly, we would be at the campsite we had marked as a good one to stay at. So, as we came off the river, I had Curt veer left and we paddled across the lake to where the desired site was. Except, no campsite was to be found. In fact, nothing was making any sense at all. What should have been a bay, appeared to be the largest lake opening we had seen yet. I couldn't get my bearings. Curt's pain pills were beginning to wear off and I was starting to lose my cool. The stress of everything hinging on me had begun to wear me down and I had to fight panic. Praise God that when I am weak, Curt is strong. He calmed me down (lesson # whatever, do. not. panic) and had me get the compass out. He helped me see that we were not facing west at all, but instead we were facing south, into the heart of the lake. We had overshot our campsite by quite a ways. The river came out facing east, not south like I read on the map (water levels were high changing the visual appearance) and with a shake of my head, we set off to find an empty site farther down the lake than we had originally planned.
That proved to be harder than we imagined. Site after site was already taken. Our map showed a campsite on the southern shore in a bay leading towards the portage into Boot Lake. We paddled back and forth, up and down the shore, but couldn't see the tell tale fire grate marking the campsite. My confidence is once again shaken as exhaustion and stress are winning out over the calm, cool, and in control attitude I had regained. Then, as if the angels were singing an