Monday, August 30, 2010

Thriving in the BWCAW

Bruises on my biceps. A spouse getting X-rays. Offspring crying from exhaustion. No, Annette and I aren’t having marital problems... we just returned from four days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The bruises are from lifting and hauling a 23-foot canoe solo over nearly two miles of portages over four days. The X-rays are on Annette’s knee after she tumbled off a multi-ton granite boulder. The boys are sore and crying from days of running wild through the woods from dusk till dawn.

As late as early last week, I seriously thought this trip wouldn’t happen. Just preparing and assembling the gear was a major undertaking. The portages were looming, daring me to stay away. Take the family to a waterpark instead. But every time I convinced myself that it wasn’t worth the time or effort, Middle Boy would sidle up to me, blink his massive blue eyes, and say, “Golly Dad, I just can’t wait for our trip to the Boundary Waters!”

So with all the equipment I could beg, borrow or steal, we loaded up to leave last Tuesday afternoon. Then that nagging problem in the working man’s life, the day job, kept me from leaving the office, and the family leaving for Ely, that afternoon. Resolute that we would hit the “trail” early, I declared that we’d load the van that evening, then awake at 2 a.m., and I could drive up while the family slept in the mini-van. My phone alarm went off at 2 a.m., and the portages taunted again. “Roll over. You delivered a 56-page newspaper last night to the printer. You deserve to sleep. You know the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t maintain these portages. They’re brutal. You’ll never make it. The dwarves dug too deep and unleashed a Balrog.” You get the point.

I got up, my wife loyally followed. We awoke the lads, directed them into the bathroom, then seated them in the van. They slept soundly and Annette didn’t stir until the engine slowed four-and-a-quarter hours later as we rolled into a quiet Ely. 51 degrees, windy and overcast. “It’s like you’ve taken me into another world,” my lovely bride stated in a tone both flat and perplexed.

“Looks like fall is here,” said Bob at Canoe Country Outfitters around 7 a.m. as we loaded the 23-foot We-No-Nah Minnesota IV onto my minivan – a process that went more smoothly and efficiently than I believed possible. Then we checked the weather: clear and sunny for the next three days. Highs topping out around 80. “Doesn’t get any better than that,” Bob said. I tried the same line on Annette as we cruised out of Ely. She didn’t respond.

I could hear what she was thinking as we drove eight miles north up the Echo Trail, then northeast on six miles of gravel U.S. Forest Service “roads” to Mudro Entry Point 23. “Where the hell is this guy taking me. I didn’t sign up for this 15 years ago.”

The whole clan was surprised when we arrived at the entry point and saw probably 35 parked cars, and a dozen-plus people standing around. The BWCAW remains a popular destination and Mudro a popular entry point. Chainsaw Sisters saloon, however, is history. The Trust for Public Land bought out the sisters, Michelle Richards and Marlene Zorman in 2006 and demolished the building. So sad I couldn’t show the boys their sign inside their facility, “Go save the world somewhere else.” Always found that rather arrogant, taunting those irritating do-gooders who protected the environment. Those efforts, still scorned and mocked by some in northern Minnesota, provided them with a living along the wilderness for 20 years, and presumably a tidy paycheck when they sold out. But that’s intense rant fodder for another time...

We unloaded, the boys scampering excitedly underfoot, then occupied the four seats – Logan up front, Annette in the second seat, two small boys side-by-side on the largest third seat, and the navigator (and major source of propulsion) in the back. We paddled, first through a long, swampy inlet then across Mudro Lake to the first of three portages.

Rock. Is. Bleeping. Everywhere. In. The. BWCAW.

I’ve spent two weeks in the BWCAW before, and a lot of time canoe camping in the Sylvania Wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Sylvania portages are wide and sandy, tame even for beginner canoe campers (and easy on scratch-prone kevlar canoes.) The rocky nature of the BWCAW augments the region’s incredible beauty, but also poses muscle-numbing challenges. Navigating a 23-foot canoe through rocky minefields, along granite shelves to unload, then climbing over all those boulders – at least with three kids in tow – burns major calories. Dozens of times over the next three days, we’d find ourselves clinging to slippery boulders, every ligament in our bodies stretching to its limit, trying to steady a watercraft to enter or exit safely. Looking for a great “core” body workout? I give you the BWCAW.

The second portage was particularly brutal. 140 rods one-way (20 rods short of a half mile), up and over a large, boulder-strewn hill, with tiny s-curves significantly shorter than our 23-foot canoe along the way. I tried writing a poem in my head as I walked “140 rods” but the words escape me now. With kids, it was a three-tripper. Back and forth three times, so one mile of hauling gear and one mile of walking back to retrieve it all.

Don’t cry for me. I have weight to lose.

Fourtown Lake, a body of water with a wonderful reputation for scenic beauty, greeted us after the third portage. Now, to find a campsite. Unlike Sylvania, where you reserve sites, one reserves entry point permits at the BWCA, then searches for site. This adds stress, especially with children in tow, but we kept a positive attitude, even while paddling into a north wind. Some relatives had rated a spot on the west side highly, so we headed that way. Occupied. The map showed another spot across the bay. Ten minutes of paddling across the bay. Occupied. Another spot to the west. Five minutes of paddling. Unoccupied. “I don’t know, looks like kind of a crappy spot,” I declared as we approached.

“We’re there,” Annette replied. So we became happy campers.

The next three days we paddled around the vicinity, tackling portages sans Duluth packs, only water bottles and granola bars. Boot Lake, a pretty little lake to the west, had several open spots, and the second campsite north from the portage along the east side is gorgeous. We attempted a long day-trip up toward Basswood Falls, but two unmarked portages (unfair!) immediately slowed our progress. Then Annette slipped on a rock and twisted her knee terribly. She wasn’t sure she could walk out of the wilderness the next day, much less haul packs. Basswood Falls was probably still 21/2 hours away, so it must wait for another day. The boys trundled around another stream and inlet instead.

Two things worked ridiculously in our favor during our trip: marvelous weather and few mosquitoes. No bears either, though hanging our food didn’t hurt. Repeatedly, I told the clan not to take this for granted, though they probably did. Annette enjoyed herself more than she expected, even declaring several times, “This isn’t horrible.”

The highlight of the trip occurred Thursday morning, around 1 a.m. A single wolf began howling, then at least five or six others joined in chorus. It only lasted 30 seconds, but it was an unforgettable sound, especially under a nearly full moon. Definitely different from coyotes, which I’ve heard multiple times in southeast Minnesota and -- believe it or not, folks -- Eden Prairie. A pack of coyotes sounds like a big dog party, almost cackling and hyena-like. Wolves are clear, somber and strong. Unmistakable to even the amateur ear.

One piece of equipment has evolved since my wilderness travel days of the mid- to late-1990s: water filters. The hand-held pump varieties still exist and probably have improved. When staying at one campsite, however, the new gravity-fed versions are tough to beat. Fill the filter bag, hang in a tree, and let gravity perform its magic. Two minutes later, there’s a liter of safe water for drinking, cooking, or washing. Very slick. Tim Lesmeister also lended me a flexible two-gallon bag that lays flat without spilling. Weighs almost nothing, but insanely handy for retrieving clear, low sediment water from the middle of the lake. (Logan and I took water trips out in the canoe multiple times to avoid the silt-heavy agua near shore.)

We paddled away early Saturday morning into a strong south wind (no kidding, Murphy’s Law.) Three adults males in front of us left some garbage along the nasty second portage, which we picked up. A 60-something couple, also exiting, chatted with us about their trip and how they admired “young” parents for hauling kids into the B-Dub.

“We went by your camp,” they said. “Saw your kids scurrying about like little chipmunks. So good to see a family out here.”

I hope Annette and I are paddling through the wilderness together like that pair in 2035.

Three portages and an intense haul through the Mudro Inlet (water had dropped several inches in a few days), we pulled up onto the only soft-bottomed canoe launch on our trip. Annette limped up and drove the vehicle down, so I wouldn’t have to haul gear quite as far. We opened the van door, and 5-year-old Jameson immediately crawled into his car seat. Something familiar. A little piece of home. Safe.

After loading and commiserating with some fellow Twin Citians completing their trip, I pulled off my soak-sweat T-shirt and changed quickly in the parking lot, all personal insecurities remaining somewhere back in civilization. “If anyone sees me, I’ll just speak in a German accent,” I told Annette.

Ely was not quiet when we exited Saturday. The town, quite frankly, was a zoo. We considered checking out the International Wolf Center but that, dear readers, must wait for another blog. After four days in paradise, the residential calm of Eden Prairie held more appeal than the chaos of Ely on a summer Saturday.

Reviewing our pictures that evening, we marveled at the beauty of place we’d left 10 hours earlier. Usually exhausted and stressed during the trip, we probably didn’t pause enough to appreciate our surroundings. As the pictures reveal, we slept at a beautiful campsite. That’s OK, because this trip was for the boys, and they absorbed wilderness for the first time. Some, maybe most, people never acquire a similar experience. The 11-year-old matured a little bit before our eyes those three days. When the canoe hit an unnavigable rock field, he hopped out and towed us. He watched and learned the first steps of some basic survival techniques six miles from the nearest gravel road, and he hauled packs and gear over miles of portages, I watched him study the environment around him, and admit in amused disbelief Saturday night just how much he enjoyed the experience. All three lads found out that there’s life and fun “off the grid.”

And Annette hasn’t ruled out a follow-up trip in 2010.

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