Measure once, cut twice.
So, rather than giving a day-by-day breakdown, I’ll give a lesson-by-lesson breakdown. First lesson: Life is better with a grateful heart. Mom to oldest son, “Want to go to BWCA again this summer?” Oldest son, “Gosh, Mom, I’d love to go but I’m headed to Mexico that week. It was a great trip in June, though, wasn’t it?”
Mom to younger son, “Want to paddle in early August?” Younger son, “Hey mom. No. I’m headed back home for a few days to hang. Can you get me some Cinnamon Toaster crunch cereal? Thanks, Love you. “
To my wife (aka Sang-Froid), “Hon, I think I’m going to try a solo.” Sang-Froid: “Do it! I’ll have the whole place to myself!”
Our sons are independent and leading active, adventurous lives. Sang-Froid supports these adventures that I need to take. Time to go do it! I was reminded of more parenting lessons from Parent Eagle and its 2019 Fledgling during the two nights I spent at a site. More in a bit.
Second lesson: check the date of your permit entry. Then check it again. And as you head to the Entry Point, check it one more time. If someone complains about your persistent checking, flex your micromanaging-muscle and tell them to stand down, preferably as you check it one more time.
Original plan: leave Monday, camp at entry point, enter Tuesday, exit Friday. Actual plan: wake up Monday, 2:15am, to take older son to airport for his Mexican travel, have coffee with wife, hit the road before metro traffic, arrive in Duluth to visit younger son at his college home before he heads south to base-home for a brief visit, head to Tofte Ranger Station to get permit, then up the trail to Baker campground to nap and get ready for an early departure on Tuesday. Actual event: all of the above except the part about napping at Baker Lake campground. What happened instead was that I turned left up the trail to go get a site at the campground (then come back and get the permit) and suddenly had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was August 5th. Monday. My permit was for Tuesday, August 5th. “Self, isn’t it strange that there are two Aug 5’s in 2019?” Actually, there is one August 5, 2019, and it was today, Monday. My permit was for August 5th, Monday. Tires squealed to a stop, I checked the permit and had this sick-sort-of feeling as I turned toward the ranger’s station to get my permit for TODAY. The ranger mercifully expedited the remaining permit process and bid me a happy entry “in the rain”. I forgot to mention that detail. It was raining, hard, with lightning (see photo 1). Up the trail I traveled.
Third lesson: from billconnor: "I don't plan much beyond entry day and time and a planned exit, and let the route evolve day to day. Always surprised, never disappointed. Did first trip with a planner and it just adds stress to be told the plan is to get here today." Sage advice! Let your route evolve, or at least be flexible about your route. As I did an entry-point unload in record time, I told myself that if the sites were full, I would have a lovely evening paddle back out to Baker Lake campground and create a different solo experience. The skies were clearing, it was turning out to be a lovely, sunny late afternoon. As luck would have it, I found the site on Peterson to be open. I paddled up to it and stopped. I felt exhilarated. How could I stop now? Then I did a reality check. I had had four hours of sleep, it had been an emotional day, and it was late in the day. It was the busiest time of year. If Kelly was full (it turns out, it was), I would either have to push on and hope Jack sites were open, or further, or turn around, or etc. I also realized I was hungry. Peterson it was. I set up camp and was thrilled to be there.
Fourth lesson: I sleep well in a hammock, really well. I slept solidly until 6am, when I had intended to awake at 5am. No big deal - there’s a ton of mist on the lake; I’ll enjoy a little coffee, pack up camp, enjoy the morning. As I sat watching the mist rise, I heard the voices of the first flotilla passing: three canoes, seven adults. As the leader shouted paddling lessons across the water from his front position to the last canoe in the flotilla, he added, emphatically, “When we are on the water, WE ARE MOVING!” The person in the back asked Leader how far to South Temperance. I reluctantly swigged down the last of the delicious coffee and began packing up camp, feeling some knots and dread. This idea of racing to get to a site was not a relaxing or pleasant feeling. But the morning was glorious and loaded into the beautiful boat and set off following a good distance behind Flotilla Number One. I carried over the lovely 3 rods into Kelly and was slack-jawed at the beauty and peace that surrounded me. I paddled down Kelly’s eastern shore and noted all four southern sites occupied. Busy season in the BWCA. I approached the north shore and watched as Flotilla Number Two - four canoes, 8 adults - left the site and scuttled to the Kelly - Jack portage. I fished for a bit while they unloaded and began crossing. They, too, were headed for South Temperance. I briefly contemplated just taking the site on North Kelly and calling it good. But that was just too disappointing. I figured I could paddle for the day and if it was full, I could either “adverse camp” and try to explain to a ranger, or I could paddle out, depending on distance and time of day. I continued on. As I was stowing the gear for the portage, Flotilla Number Three plus Dog approached and also began unloading. I asked if they, too, were headed for South Temperance - affirmative. Somehow, that just cemented it for me. I was not going to race. It wasn’t happening. I just relaxed and let the day happen at a pace that worked for me. I had been so busy wondering about site availability that I had all but forgotten about the experience of paddling solo. I felt sheepish like I had let down the inner Yoda. I let the race go, and settled into accepting the day as it came, refusing to be rushed or stressed by the onslaught of Flotillas. But I also was wizened to how the busy season would change my plans. So, I relaxed and paddled onto Jack. I love Jack Lake. It was a beautiful morning, the three flotillas had passed me, and it was getting to be about 11:30am. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and I was feeling hungry. I wondered if maybe one of the two sites might be open for lunch. In fact, the southern site was, so I paddled up and went ashore. I hadn’t stayed on Jack before, and this was a very pretty site. I sat down to eat some food. As I did, a solo paddler went by. We wished each other fare travels. I did the math. Four groups headed to South Temperance. No groups headed south out of Temperance. I decided to stay put. I was anxious to swim, fish and set up the hammock and tarp. It was a pretty site and from this site, I could travel to the Temperance lakes tomorrow as day trips instead of doing a lopp as planned. I unloaded the gear, set up the hammock facing the southern sky and water, took a swim and napped in the hammock.
Fifth lesson: Weather reports can be helpful. On the second night, I decided to try out the weather feature on the new InReach. Heavy rain starting at 5am on Day Three. Hmm, maybe I wouldn’t day trip to S. Temperance. The mosquitos came that night to visit at 8:34pm, and I retired to the hammock with a good book. Around 11pm, I woke to thunder and lightning. I got up to put the tarp from porch mode into storm mode, and I fretted that the 24# canoe may not be secure enough, so I checked the ropes and tucked it in a little deeper into brush. I’m still getting used to a boat that light. I went back to bed and slept solidly until 5am when it started raining, softly at first, then it really let loose. No lighting or thunder, but it sure poured rain. I was grateful to be 1. off the ground, 2. dry under the tarp and 3. warm with a good book. I would not be traveling that morning. Around 9am, the rain let up and I got up to make coffee, stretch and suss out the scene. It was overcast and cool. No sign or sound of flotillas. I ate breakfast. I drank another cup of coffee and rain came again and repeated that pattern throughout the day until 4pm. Not a single flotilla passed that day, in either direction. No other campers on the lake. Wildlife everywhere. Moose, eagles, ravens, beavers, songbirds, pine marten in camp. I went out fishing as the rain wound down and caught two small pike (or maybe one small pike, twice). I cast into shore and struck a tree. Not realizing what I had done, I started reeling and snapped my fishing pole. It was nearing 20 years old… good old pole. We’ve been through a lot, and maybe it’s telling me it’s time to move onto things other than catching fish and letting them go. It was a little UL rod. I recovered the parts, the lure and then returned to camp to feast on a homemade dehydrated dinner: mushroom risotto with marinara, broccoli and cauliflower bits. Tasty! The night was clearing into a beautiful night. My mosquito pals returned on cue at 8:34pm, and I retired to the hammock for my third night. I read and watched the stars come out. Around 11pm, I left the hammock to go see the meteor showers. The stars reflected on the glassy lake. A beaver swam and slapped its tail multiple times. Far-away loons cried. The juvenile eagle that cried all day for food from the parent had fallen into silence about 9pm. Hopefully he was able to enjoy some sleep. He (or she) was being challenged by the parent to fly. It was wonderful to watch the past two days, and painful as a parent myself. The parent returned about once an hour or so during the day with food. As the parent would fly away, the juvenile would struggle clumsily to follow, literally screaming as it flapped and floundered on tree branches. I wanted to tell the parent eagle that it was doing a great job, to hang in there, that in spite of all the current screeching and screaming by the young one, the time would come all too quickly when the parent-eagle would no longer hear the screeching and screaming, and instead watch helplessly and hopefully as the young eagle flew off into the horizon, maybe to Mexico.
The Garmin informed me that the fourth day would be “moderately breezy” in the afternoon. At 4am on Day 4, I woke up to watch the waning Perseids and greet the dawn. I was caffeinated and had camp packed and into the canoe by 6:30am. The mist was leaving the lake as I slowly passed the juvenile eagle. His early-morning cries had begun at 4:50am. It was going to be another long day of learning and trying for him. I paddled silently by several working beavers. I spied a moose along the south end of Jack browsing in the water. If it noted me, it didn’t respond. It was a lovely paddle back to the entry point. I snacked at the portage to Burnt, stowed the gear and canoe, and hiked across to Burnt. It was quite windy. I contemplated briefly heading to the Fire Lakes area but crossed paths with two more groups headed that way while I was back to Kelly. With the busy season underway and the rising winds making waves large enough to be slapping the boat, I decided not to spend another night. I would be back soon, during a less busy time.
And a story about naming the new canoe: as I portaged out of Jack, I spied some ripe blueberries along the trail. I leaned over to pick and eat them. I realized as I was doing so that I was also carrying the canoe. I hadn’t even given it a thought. What kind of canoe would be so wonderful that a person could walk along with it on their shoulders and bend over to eat blueberries without a second thought? So, the name was found. The canoe is “Blueberry, the Northstar Trillium”. It is a beautiful boat. I can’t put into words what a joy it is to paddle (and will continue to be will as I improve).
Last lesson - solo paddling is everything I hoped it would be, and much more. I am filled with gratitude for the help and encouragement I received on the message board, from the type of canoe to consider, to dealing with pre-trip jitters, to the joy of that comes with solo travel. If I had to summarize the biggest surprise, it was the absolute quiet. As a result of no human voice and very little human noise, wildlife was everywhere around me. The woods were so full of sights and sounds, even with molting underway for the birds. I was also surprised by the presence of many fledgling birds yet. Bird list included the usual chickadees, mergansers, Canada geese, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, eagles and white-throated sparrows, along with winter wrens, pine siskins, red crossbills, olive-sided flycatcher (maybe starting its long migration?) and some quiet warblers, including a persistent little Nashville warbler in a small beaked hazelnut bush. I am grateful our sons have fledged and are trying out their own new freedom to soar. I’m grateful for an understanding partner in life, for health and for the time to continue returning to the wilderness for life’s lessons. Paddle on!
Here are some pictures of the trip: