Frost River, June 2006
"Those Bungee Dealee Bobs are worth their weight in gold", I say to my wife Heidi, as we roll the
Jeep out of her Aunt's driveway and head for the freeway. We had just finished dropping off dog
number two, Aja, with Aunt Helen, and as the well behaved elder Beagle in our household, she is
getting comfortable accommodations while Heidi and I travel up North. Our newest and less fortunate
mutt Katy, on the other hand, is instead getting the kennel treatment for the full eleven days. Heidi and
I just aren't comfortable with the idea of unleashing sixty plus pounds of rambunctious eight month old
puppy on Helen quite yet.
On the way to drop off Aja, the tight straps holding down our green Old Town canoe to the top of
the car had started buzzing in the wind. Before leaving Aunt Helen's, I had dug into my small red day
pack for a handful of the nifty little Bungee Dealee Bob gizmos that we had recently purchased to help
tie loose gear, like paddles and fishing rods, to the canoe. The BDBs were among an assortment of new
gear we would be trying out for the first time on this trip, and their first application would officially
mark the beginning of our latest boundary waters adventure. So I quickly bound together each canoe
strap pair with a brightly colored BDB to prevent them from vibrating, and off we drove. The saying
"those Bungee Dealee Bobs are worth their weight in gold" would become our catch phrase for the trip,
and we laugh over this as we escape the outskirts of the Twin Cities, driving north toward Duluth and to
the BWCAW beyond. Months of planning and anticipation are finally over, and we are very excited to get
into the wilderness.
Heidi and I are relative newcomers to the boundary waters experience. I grew up in suburban
Chicago and did not do a lot of camping when I was younger. Heidi, on the other hand, was raised in
Wisconsin, where I believe camping is a requirement of citizenship. Needless to say, she brings the bulk
of our collective outdoors experience to the marriage.
After moving quite a bit over our eleven year marriage, with stints in Milwaukee, WI; Portland, OR;
and Seattle, WA; Heidi and I have finally settled into the east Twin Cities metro these past five years.
Two years ago we made our first trip into the boundary waters and immediately fell in love with it. Ever
since then, we've made it our wedding anniversary tradition, going every June. Each year we push a little
farther, attempting more portages, exploring more challenging places, and traveling deeper into the
wilderness. Each time we learn immensely more about this amazing place, what's required to travel
within it and a lot about ourselves. With each visit, my desire to return increases many times over.
By far, this year's trip will be our most challenging to date, and along with the excitement, there is
also a healthy dose of nervousness. At forty years old, with the latter half spent mostly in a chair staring
into computer monitors, I'm not exactly at my peak physical conditioning. Our first trip two years ago
was fairly easy, only requiring a few pull-overs on Hog Creek and otherwise consisting of a leisurely
base camp on Perent Lake (until 25+ knot winds made for a rather exciting and difficult exit on our last
day, but that's another story). Last year we made a series of one and two day trips around Lake One and
the South Kawishiwi River. There we got a solid dose of portaging and experienced a taste of the deeper
wilderness when we traveled along Pagami Creek, through the Weasel Lake Primitive Management Area,
while looking to see if there might be a way to Clearwater Lake. Though unsuccessful in our attempt to
find passage from Lake One to Clearwater, this small taste of exploration in the more primitive and
secluded wilderness really struck a chord. Even before returning from the trip, the gears were already
set in motion planning a return trip that would emphasize more of this brand of wilderness experience.
So when the maps came out to start the planning for this year's adventure, I knew just what kind of
place I was looking for. It would be off the beaten trail, secluded, primitive and wild. There would be
small lakes and rivers, creeks and bogs. It would be the kind of place where the wilderness comes right
up to devour the canoe, and where the wild things living within are genuinely surprised to see you. But I
knew getting to such a remote location would be considerably more difficult than anything Heidi and I
had experienced before. To reach a place where few people go usually means taking a route that's
tough to navigate.
I finally found what I was looking for on Fisher map F-12, on the west side of the Gunflint Trail.
Approximately ten miles from the trail's end, a loop extends from the Cross River and Ham Lake south
through Long Island Lake and then west along the Frost River. The Frost River section is long, winding,
sprinkled with small lakes and lined with numerous portages. The sole campsite in this area, about
midway through on Bologna Lake, is a clear indication to me that this is not a heavily traveled route. In
fact, the campsite wasn't even listed on my McKenzie map or in the GPS data I had found online.
The remaining portion of the loop after the Frost River would return us back to our starting point
by way of more heavily traveled areas beginning at Mora Lake and continuing on through Crooked and
Tuscarora. This would hopefully be the more relaxing point of the trip where we could rest a bit after
the many portages and other challenges the Frost River would likely throw our way. In all, we reserved
eight days (seven nights) to complete this loop. We'd plan on making four separate camps along the
way, leaving us with three layover days to use however we'd like. This would give us a good mix of
travel and rest time while still leaving plenty of slack in the schedule to compensate for our
inexperience. The portage total came in at around forty portages, which is roughly four times the
combined total for all (two) of our previous trips. Among those, there would be the over mile long (360
rod) portage from Tuscarora to Missing Link on our final day and assorted others in excess of 100 rods
- all of these longer than any we had traveled before. It was shaping up to be our first real serious
boundary waters trip. By comparison, the previous ones were just warmups, a mere dip of the toe into
So with canoe straps now tightly secured with BDBs, we ramble on toward the Minnesota arrowhead
with spirits high and excited minds focused on the adventure just ahead of us.
Thursday, June 8 - Arrive on the Gunflint Trail
After a smooth trip from the Twin Cities to Duluth, and then along the north shore of Lake Superior
to Grand Marais, we finally make the turn north onto highway 12, the Gunflint Trail. After some miles,
the scenery changes dramatically, but in a way difficult to describe. Somewhere you seem to travel
through a curtain, leaving the familiar highway scenery of contemporary times behind, and emerge on
the other side in a place that feels like it could be a century older. The trees appear wilder and the
vegetation seems to creep closer to the edge of the road. Before long, you begin to pass small lakes
and rivers. Bogs begin to reveal themselves in clearings, and there feels like there could be a moose
behind just about any clump of tall grass. A glimpse of granite peeking out of the ground completes
the transformation, and soon you are surrounded by the signature beauty that defines the boundary
waters and areas north into Canada. The few signs of civilization along the way consist mostly of the
occasional outfitter and canoe or kayak carrying vehicle.
Our destination for the first night is Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters located on Round Lake in close
proximity to entry points 50 through 52. Our entry is scheduled for tomorrow morning (Friday) at Cross
Bay entry point #50, just a hop and a skip up the road from the outfitter. We arrive at Tuscarora Lodge
shortly before 5:00PM and head straight to the office where we're greeted by the lodge owner, Andy
Ahrendt. Andy sets us up with our entry permit, bunkhouse accommodations and a discount coupon for
the new Red Paddle Bistro located at the Gunflint Lodge, only a few miles over on the other side of the
Gunflint Trail. We decide to take advantage of the coupon and use it as an excuse to go check out the
Gunflint Lodge, since this is where we'll be staying the following weekend for our anniversary after the
boundary waters spits us back out.
But of course, before we can leave, we must first view the requisite BWCA video. The new version of
this video seems shorter and more to the point than the older one we've seen previously. Heidi
particularly likes the new bear segment. The old version filled you with a certain helpless fear and dread
over a possible attack from a hungry bear. The new video, in contrast, motivates you to action by
encouraging you to take up arms, load up with rocks, and unload a relentless barrage of debris upon
your shocked and frightened nemesis. I only wonder whether the bear in the video got paid extra for
having to endure that abuse and whether multiple takes were required. Those didn't look like foam
rocks to me!
After checking into our spotless bunkhouse, we stop by the supply store for fishing licenses. I
immediately notice Bungee Dealee Bobs hanging on the wall for purchase. We already have plenty, but
it's nice to see them available from the outfitter. Like our bunkhouse, the store, restrooms and shower
facilities are all spotless and in great condition. They clearly run a tight ship at Tuscarora Lodge, and
we'd gladly return on some future trip. All the folks working there are also very nice, and I suspect one
of the Tuscarora cabins might serve well in the future as a home base for a series of day trips in and
around this area.
A short ride from Tuscarora Lodge delivers us to the Red Paddle Bistro located in the main office
and dining building at the Gunflint Lodge. The bistro is essentially a series of tables surrounding a
small bar between the office and the main dining room. Heidi and I settle into some chairs at a counter-
like table by one of the windows and each order a beer and sandwich. We had heard that the food at the
Gunflint Lodge was really great, and we are not disappointed. Everything is fantastic. With the bistro
this good, we can't wait to try the main dining room the following weekend. After a week of freeze
dried pasta, granola bars and GORP, it will be a welcome shock to our taste buds.
While finishing up the meal, my eyes wander up the wall to an enormous bull moose head mounted
above. My imagination fills in the rest of the picture, and I marvel at the sheer size of this giant animal.
My thoughts move to the trip ahead and to the distinct possibility that we could awake some morning
to find such a specimen right next to our tent. With the real sense of scale vividly set in my mind, I
begin to feel a twinge of both fear and excitement. It is clear that seeing a moose from a distance or
from behind a barrier at some zoo is something entirely different than having one towering above you. I
conclude that my fear is a good thing, a healthy dose of respect for a place where animals bigger and
more powerful than myself will abound.
Upon returning to Tuscarora Lodge, we take a quick walk down by the lake to work off some of our
dinner and see more of the lodge. The evening is a bit humid and overcast, and it isn't long before the
buzzing bloodsuckers descend upon us. We decide to make a night of it and return to the bunkhouse
to make final adjustments to our gear. There is luckily no fighting over bunks, as we have nine all to
ourselves to choose from. Fatigue from the day's travel finally trumps our excitement for tomorrow's
launch, and we are soon off to sleep.