2010 Fall Lake Loop
This section discusses the background and planning process for my first trip.
I don’t really know how this became the thing for me to try. I went on a couple of river canoeing day trips when I was in high school (more than half a lifetime ago), and I’ve been interested in the concept of canoeing ever since I moved to the Land of 10,000 lakes (more than 10 years ago). In the past few years I’ve taken up photographing my young daughters, and I occasionally have gotten the inkling to point my camera at landscapes and celestial bodies. Boring suburban landscapes and light pollution put a damper on such activities where I live. I was feeling a bit pent up at work, and I became obsessed with escaping artificial lights and artificial ways of life. I also became uneasy with just how little outdoorsy stuff I do with my girls and my complete lack of ability to teach them anything useful in the ways of enjoying nature. So, I guess I do know how I became interested in exploring the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Not one single thing, but the combination of several little things.
So I wrote to my buddy, Matt, in Dallas one day in July 2009 and asked if he would be interested in tackling some kind wilderness adventure with me – totally out of the blue, and totally out of our comfort zones. I knew that he would be the only person in the world in front of whom I could flaunt my incompetence at camping and “survival” while I attempted to learn those two skills. I also knew that he was at a similar skill and fitness level as myself, and the years we spent living together and even doing some cross-country travel gave me confidence in our compatibility on a trip such as this. I gave us more than a year to do whatever preparation was necessary, and I began to do some basic research.
I got a few books from the library about the Boundary Waters, and I bought a book called “Exploring the Boundary Waters” by Daniel Pauly. As everyone here knows, this book lays out and describes a bunch of different routes and talks about all you need to have a successful trip. From that book, I chose several candidate routes and was able to select a target route based on options that it provided. What I chose was a five day “intermediate” trip that we would have the option of shortening should we get out there and decide that we couldn’t hack it. The trip would begin at Fall Lake, and we would have two portages to Newton and Basswood Lakes on the first day. If we couldn’t handle the portages and/or the paddling, we had options to stay on Newton or even Fall Lake that first evening.
When to go? It was July of 2009 when Matt and I decided to try this, and I wanted to give us at least a year to get ready (and potentially come to our senses). That put us some time after July, 2010. From my reading, I understood that the first couple of weeks of August were the most popular times to visit the Boundary Waters as the lakes would be at their warmest and the black flies might be on the down-swing. I kind of liked the notion of seeing other people and groups on our first trip – just in case… July might be really hot, and September could be really cold. I wanted to choose a week when the moon was new so as to maximize my opportunity to see a truly dark sky and landscape. The new moon in August was set to begin on the 9th in 2010, and the Persides meteor shower was scheduled to peak on the 12th of that month. That pretty much set the dates of our trip in stone. We would depart Fall Lake on the morning of Monday, August 9, and we would travel until Friday, August 13.
As far as equipment was concerned, we decided pretty much immediately to go with an outfitter for all of our gear and food. We selected the Kevlar canoe which was $100 more for the five days but also 20 pounds lighter. I knew the money was well spent even before the first time I hoisted the canoe on my shoulders. We didn’t really decide on personal gear until the week before the trip. I opted for two pairs of pants that converted into shorts, a couple of T-shirts, a few changes of underwear, some cotton and wool socks, a rain suit, and a sweatshirt. Footwear was a big question, and I struggled with the “right” decision up until the moment we got in the car to head up north on August 8. I ended up bringing an old pair of tennis shoes for camp and a pair of well-supported sandals, and it ended up being a good combination for this time of year. I had every intention of bringing a swim suit, but I forgot to pack one in my bag the day I left. I brought my DSLR camera with two lenses and my tripod with a couple of spare batteries and a remote timer. We brought our own bug dope, sunscreen, toothpaste, and a bunch of zip-lock bags. I also had purchased my own Voyager map of the area (though I knew we would get one from our outfitter) as well as a simple orienting compass.
The unknown and my lack of skills and experience were my largest sources of anxiety. Our fitness level was a minor concern as I knew that we could always choose an easier route once we got on the water. I knew the map of the area in which we would travel quite well after many, many evenings of study and route/contingency planning. I learned how to use my orienting compass the two days prior to the trip. I felt very comfortable traveling on the correct bearing with knowledge of where we were and where we wanted to go, but I was less comfortable if we should find ourselves lost and need to find our location. I was also very concerned about rope tying but not concerned enough to do anything about. I did a little searching on the internet and checked out a book from the library, but I never really bothered practicing. I figured we could probably figure out set up the tent with which we would be provided, but there was a little anxiety there. I was very unsure of paddling technique (in river canoeing that I had done, we pretty much just went with the flow), but Matt seemed overly confident. I figured that we would get into some kind of groove after being on the water for a bit. Weather is always a concern in Minnesota, but I also knew there was nothing we could do about it. The rain suit was all I could do to prepare. I was really concerned about capsizing on the big lakes that we would be visiting, but I was resigned to allowing ourselves to be wind bound should the waves get too big. It wasn’t really a concern, but I really had no idea of how fast we could paddle. I knew the map and the route, but I had no idea of timing, so I just resigned myself to planning for a bunch of different scenarios and adjusting once we got out there.
Matt and I both ended up getting ourselves in a little better physical condition than we were on that day in July 2009, but it was nowhere near where we thought we should have been. I got first aid and CPR certified by the Red Cross, but that was really the only other training that I had done. I wanted to learn and practice swimming strokes in addition to taking a more formal course on canoeing, but I found time for neither of those in the year I had to prepare. How sad is that? I know that Matt was really concerned about the portages and his knee holding up. Again, I was prepared to be flexible and simply not over-do it.
Overall, however, I felt quite unprepared for the trip on the day we left.