Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

by ETorvinen

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/31/2021
Entry & Exit Point: Missing Link Lake (EP 51)
Number of Days: 2
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
The Heavyiest Canoe in the World
    My first experience with the Tuscarora portage came 26 years ago, 2.6 decades. I hate measuring things in decades. Nothing brings on existential crisis more than measuring things in decades. When someone invents time travel, I’m going back to when I didn’t, when I couldn’t yet measure decades. I want a do over on a couple of years. Not my second decade though, I was still a kid living his best life. My family and I had accidently taken the Tuscarora portage. 400+ rods, a rod is ~16 feet, or one canoe length, a ridiculously primitive unit of measure when you really think about it. Who measured these distances? Pick up a canoe, make a mark, and move 16 feet, repeat this “measurement” 400+ times, or until you loose your mind. That’s the Tuscarora portage, 426 rods, the most feared portage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. My Dad figured it would be no problem, I was scared. My one size fits all backpack, did not actually fit my 10 year old frame. The top of the pack drooped over my shoulders, the bottom of the pack hung well below my butt, the bulk of it pressed against the back of my knees. Back then packs had head straps! Head straps! Thank god gear companies now use engineering more sophisticated than a canvas sack partially carried by a thick leather strap across your forehead. There I was, so I trudged out the 6816 feet, apparently measured in 16 foot increments, supporting all of my camping gear with my neck.       Now 26 years later, for whatever reason, I want to go back. It looks like a rad lake, and it has a cool name. To top it off my Dad says I can have his old canoe! I only have to drag it out of the woods behind his garage and scrap off the barnacles. This is the same canoe from the 1995 journey so I give the canoe a bath, name it Tuscarora and pack up. Getting the boat on top of my Van is a real chore, it feels heavy, real heavy. I noticed the canoe was welded in Michigan in the 80’s not exactly an era or region known for its ultra-light design. Friday night I work until midnight, all my gear is packed except my water filter which I can’t find. I bolt out of work and drive through the night to Grand Marais. Parking by the harbor allows me an unbelievable view of a full blood moon rising over the lighthouse. I experience a brief feeling of happiness as I drift off, sleeping wild. Sometime later a bright light and a knock, damn, I know what this means. I climb into the drivers seat, no shirt, no pants, and the police are there. I wish I could say this is first time I have had a conversation with law enforcement in various stages of undress, but those stories are for another time. I don’t argue, I simply drive off, park more discrete and go back to sleep. I wake up early, barely after sunrise and drive further north. As I drive up the Gunflint Trail I look over the dashboard, the dashboard where my BWCA map usually sits. I say usually because today it is not there. Who cares, I am determined to make this trip happen, I make mental note of the suns direction, and it seems the prevailing wind is blowing out of the West, I drive on. As I leave cell coverage I experience a wave of happiness, backcountry wilderness trips are my favorite thing, something I’m good at, they drive my self-confidence, and inspire a sense of calm. My heart is full as I drive North-ish.       Miraculously I make it to the Tuscarora Portage. I heave the welded aluminum canoe, which I later learn weighs 82 freakin pounds, onto my back. It’s not unbearable once its on my shoulders, but lifting it there takes all my strength. I perform a sort of twisting Olympic lifting power clean movement type of thing and set it on my shoulders. I feel myself get shorter as my spine compresses under the weight. I stumble forward a couple hundred feet but it doesn’t seem right, I set it down, readjust and power lift it again. I repeat this a few times, finally I accept that this may take awhile. I go back to shuttle my pack to the Tuscarora end of the portage. I can cruise with this load, and I make quick work of the distance. About halfway I run into a handsome young hippy couple, showing lots of hippy skin. They are at the end of an amazing weeklong trip, obviously proud of their accomplishment, their attitude is infectious, however they are also stressed, lost, and will be late for their shuttle pickup. I assure them they are almost to the end of the portage, but they have another pack back at Tuscarora Lake, they need to finish this trip, then go all the way back for the second pack. “No worries” I exclaim, I am headed that way. I will grab their pack and run it back when I come for my canoe. Kind words are exchanged, our pleasantries make me smile, and I run off.      I collect the remainder of their gear at Tuscarora and hurry back down the trail. Soon I look up in amazement. I have their pack, but they have carried my canoe further down the trail. An absolute saintly act in the backcountry. The man carefully drops my heavy duty canoe and straight faced declares “this canoe is heaviest he’s ever carried, I can barely keep it on my shoulders!” We look at this workhorse lying on the trail. Then we realize, the yoke is broken. The wood ends that bolt to the gunwales of the canoe are rotten, the yoke is twisted, jammed precariously out of place, the weight of the canoe is off center. Almost a mile into the most feared portage in the BWCA with a broken yolk loosely attached to the heaviest canoe in the world is not a good place to be.        I spend an hour lashing the yolk back in place using my tent guidelines, a lanyard, my belt, and a sun-bleached thread-bare bungee cord probably 2.6 decades old. Another Olympic lift and I’m off. I probably only have 1/3 of a mile left but it’s a tough march. I try so hard not to set the canoe back down, but many times I run out of energy and loudly drop the metal boat. More than once I battering ram the canoe into a tree, this brings any forward progress to a sudden, painful halt, my head rings like a cartoon character hit with a gong. When this happens I have to throw the canoe sideways and jump out of the way as it comes crashing down on the rocky trail. Thank god it is made of such thick heavy duty Detroit Steel. Finally I stumble to the shore of Tuscarora Lake. I splash ice cold lake water on my face and paddle over to the nearest campsite. I lie back in the dirt, filthy and sweaty, a familiar grin on my face. I could have rented a lighter canoe, or chosen an easier route, but that’s just not the way I do things. In the words of rock climber Tommy Caldwell “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I love this shit”. I do, I truly love the challenges of type 2 fun. In the moment they cause frustration, even anger, but afterwards I experience a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that I crave. This craving drives my desire for wilderness travel, pushes me to explore, it gives me energy. I am happiest in these wild places.