We’ve been talking about having a house trip to the Boundary Waters, I believe, for almost as long as this house has been around (which, to be fair, isn’t really all that long—we’re coming up on our three-year anniversary). It’s a well-known fact that you can’t really claim to be a proper dweller of Minnesota until you’ve gone to the Boundary Waters, and all things considered, it’s also to your great benefit if you re-up with another trip there whenever reasonably possible. It took us a while mostly, I think, because none of us had ever organized such a trip all on our own before. That’s one of those things that parents always do. How were we supposed to know how it works?
Eventually our need to be in the wilderness overcame our inability to conceive of how a group of mere twenty-somethings could possibly organize an entire vacation all by themselves, and five of us—me, Misty, Carrie, Peter, and Emily—committed to figuring it out. As such, I can now let you in on a secret: it’s really not so hard. (It certainly helps if your group has a few people who’ve been on multi-day canoeing trips before: between two former summer camp workers and a seasoned veteran of family and friend canoe trips, we didn’t have too hard of a time.) It’s just a matter of putting some time into a small number of prosaic things: picking an entry point, creating a menu, finding an outfitter, buying food and other supplies, getting together to organize it all from a heap on the living room floor into a stack of reasonably well-packed bags. You can even do it if you’re a poor millennial. Averaged out across the five of us, we only spent a total of $172, even though we bought most of our food at the nice grocery store.
So we found, one day earlier this August, that we had somehow reached the day to leave and also had our stuff together enough that it was actually going to happen. And then there we were. In a van full of Duluth packs. Heading up north. Boundary Waters ho.
This is the kind of drive that would probably feel very nostalgic to me if I had grown up watching it go by every year from the back seat. As it was, it still felt a little nostalgic to me even though I’d never been there before. After we passed through Duluth, everything along the road was the sort of stuff that makes itself into the fondest memories. All along the right side of the road, to begin with, all there was was Lake Superior, light blue sweetwater all the way to the horizon; this was the North Shore road, never more than a few miles from the shore. Then, periodically, there would appear in front of us some little shop, kitschy yet still somehow completely endearing: the restaurant with the world-famous pies, an old ice cream parlor, some maritime museum dedicated to the century of freighters.
In Lutsen, our outfitter tied canoes to the roof of the van, and we drove off with them down roads that plunged away from Gichi-Gami into deep, dense, evergreen woods, first on pavement and then on gravel: into a realm that seemed, despite being the country’s most-visited Wilderness Area, still forgotten.
Our canoes first touched the water this year at entry point No. 41, Brule Lake (bearing the name of the much-sung French explorer Étienne Brûlé, the first wemitigoozhii to pass through these parts and make reports in a European tongue about the strange, exotic land that the Anishinaabe had considered friendly and homey for centuries—though most people I heard disregarded Étienne’s fancé diacritics and just called it “Brool”). We were tired and cranky after far too many hours in a box-on-wheels and all we really wanted that evening was to be in a working campsite, eat something, and be able to sit and relax. That meant putting the boats in the water, even at this late hour (four o’clock counts as late in the Boundary Waters). I hadn’t done a stroke of paddling in at least a year, and although some of the group got a bit of the grumbles about having to be on the water, I felt like a duck returning to water. We threaded through a series of little islands and found, with merciful luck, that the second-closest site to us was empty. We moved in for the night.
Tents up, fire built. I had put together the menu and, at a brilliant suggestion from (perhaps) Misty, I gave us a splurge to welcome us on our first night: steaks and mashed potatoes. Once we’d all eaten and there was nothing else we needed to do, we were finally able to sit quietly for a bit and pay attention to where were.
Minnesota has in theory ten thousand lakes and in fact something closer to fourteen thousand. Most of them have been, to some degree or another, tamed and circumscribed. Minneapolis’s Chain of Lakes—Lake Harriet, Bdé Maka Ska, Lake of the Isles—are tidily bordered by bike paths and studded with marinas and bandshells. Outside the city, the lakes haven’t been subjected to such domestication but are still plagued with motorboaters and vacation homes, clustering on them like mosquitoes. But the lakes of the Boundary Waters will remind you, if you have forgotten, that the lakes are still, fundamentally, their own places, owned by no one but themselves. On Brule Lake there are many miles of shoreline, dozens of little islands (most with no place to beach a canoe and, even if you did, no inviting patch of neat grass to picnic on), and broad stretches of deep water where, on a difficult day, winds funneled through the old straight-line Ice Age valley stir up whitecaps that will quickly remind you how small a canoe really is. Among all that expanse, the impact of people is constrained to a few barely visible portage trails, a single put-in, and ten or fifteen campsites that amount to little more than living-room-sized clearings surrounded by expanses of indifferent forest.
And being surrounded by all that does wonders for the spirit, of course. We were in bed too early to appreciate the stars, but I listened to the loons calling over the still dusky water, and remembered that the world where all this happens—where nature talks to us—is all around us and is where I want to live.
The next morning our trip, thus far not any particular “type” of trip, got the infusion of flavor that would define it. This was going to be a wacky, comedy-of-errors type of trip. Not too bad, but, well, before we got breakfast started, Emily told us all that she’d forgotten a very important medicine that she was very much not supposed to do without. After some weighing of the options, we figured out our plan: Misty would stay in camp, Peter and I would scout out a new site, and Carrie and Emily would paddle back to the put-in, drive back to town, and get a backup supply of the stuff.
And you know, with all the possible opportunities for that to go terribly askew, the plan actually went off without a hitch. Peter and I paddled around for a few hours and found a much nicer site down in a little bay (which for unexplained reasons is called Jock Mock Bay), and we got back to the put-in at the scheduled meeting time, just a little after Emily and Carrie got back from town with the goods. We picked up Misty, who had packed all our stuff, and headed off across the lake. We reached the new site, which Peter and I had thoughtfully marked by hanging Emily’s hot pink pair of shorts in a tree, and got ourselves situated. Everything, really, was totally fine, and we knew it: and we also now knew that we should make sure to take our trip with a dose of humor and humility. Food followed, and stories about the day, since we had a bunch to catch each other up on. And eventually, the ceremonial hanging of the bear bag and the going to sleep.
There’d been a debate, back in Minneapolis, about how much we should try to shoot for distance. One party was in favor of a nice modest loop, and another party would much rather stay in one campsite most of the time and make a few day trips. Well, we ended up staying at that same campsite for the entire trip. And we had reason to make more use of that sense of humor and humility we’d found. The next morning before breakfast, Emily told us, “Guys, I think I have a bullseye rash.” Classic sign of Lyme disease. The sore looked the part, more or less. Peter, who’s had Lyme disease, concluded that we should probably take this seriously and… take Emily into town again. This time Peter went with her. Emily! Will you never get to enjoy this trip?
Carrie, Misty, and I stayed in camp and talked. Besides the obvious benefit that everyone gets reminded what nature feels like, a trip to the Boundary Waters also has the nice side effect that you really get to know people. Misty and I have lived with Carrie for well over a year, but she often keeps to herself, painting pictures in her room and going to bed early. We spent the day catching each other up on the bits of our lives that hadn’t gotten relayed through our little chats in the living room here and there.
Come evening, Peter and Emily still weren’t back. Information: Our friends appear to be sleeping somewhere else. Question: Can we do anything about that? Answer: No, we really can’t, because we can’t get all our stuff and the three of us back to the put-in in one canoe. Proposal: So we should just stay here. We were a little uneasy, but trusted that Peter and Emily were real adults who could take care of themselves, and went to sleep.
At breakfast we discussed how long to wait before thinking of something to do, but then I spied a tiny silvern dot on the horizon of lake-surface visibility, and soon enough it turned into a canoe with two people, and finally into Peter and Emily landing at our campsite. Did they have a story to tell. First off, by the time they got to the hospital in Grand Marais, the rash had faded, and the people there were able to confirm through a blood test that she didn’t have Lyme. Emily was almost disappointed, and Peter had to remind her, “This is a good thing. You don’t have Lyme disease. You don’t want Lyme disease.” They drove back to the put-in and got in the water, but discovered quickly that Brule had started living up to its reputation for brutal west winds (a reputation that none of us had been aware of when we chose it). They paddled for an hour to reach a little island less than halfway back, where they hunkered in the boat for a moment, battered by foot-high waves, and then decided that they just weren’t going to be able to make it, and turned around. They drove back to town and tried to find a motel but couldn’t, and then finally came back to the put-in one last time and spent a cold, miserable night in the van. They found better conditions in the morning, just good enough for them to get back. But on the plus side: no Lyme disease.
Everyone was inclined to let them just rest the next day. A small party of us went across the bay to another campsite where there were blueberries and bunchberries. We went swimming a lot. We chilled out. We ate and played cards and let Emily have her first full day in the Boundary Waters.
Misty and I went on a hike and discovered the depth of the deep woods. It may be because this area burned within the last decade or so, but the forest here is so thick you can’t even walk. It’s one step, followed by a lengthy decision-making process about whether to crash through the web of branches to your left or try to hop over the decaying log to your right (into deep moss that may or may not have solid ground underneath), and finally another step. But there are berries out there, and fun to be had.
And finally we had our last day, where everyone who’d been a bit itchy-footed the last few days got to go out paddling and actually see some places outside of Jock Mock Bay. We ended up splitting in two again, and I took the canoe with Emily and Misty. While Carrie and Peter headed off to the far end of Brule to portage for a peek into lakes called North and South Temperance, the three of us went just around the corner to a short little portage that brought us to Juno Lake. Juno is a long, narrow lake, one of several that the glaciers dug up, all lined up next to each other like a team of skinny clay snakes. And it turns out that long skinny lakes are pretty fun. For one thing, you can stay pretty close to shore all the time, and get to see the trees, the cliffs, the land go by. Also, a little way down from the portage, this one had a towering rock in the center, and we climbed up to its tip-top to look out at the whole lake and test its echo. There’s a kind of serenity you find in a campsite, where you’re ensconced in a little nest of trees and bushes with a campfire and a tent; then there’s another kind that you find when you’re in a place where you can see around you for miles, and to the furthest reaches of the eye you see nothing but green and blue, a panorama that would’ve been the same five thousand years ago. None of us had gotten much of the second one.
At the far end of Juno the reward is a portage that leads to Vern Lake, another clay snake whose tail almost touches Juno’s. The portage to Vern winds around a tiny pond and through a little meadow, and blueberries surround the path. At the end of it a tiny outflow creek from Juno tumbles into Vern through a cascade of jumbled rocks, the perfect size for rockhopping, and there next to the stream, after letting down the canoe, I also found a little blue fishing lure left behind in someone’s forgetful moment.
We’d managed to avoid seeing another human for the duration of the trip to Juno, and Vern was nearly as empty of our kind, though we caught a glimpse of someone’s boat beached at a campsite. We paddled down most of the lake and drew up at one last portage take-out, but this time we left the boat behind and took only ourselves. We were going to the last lake—Whack Lake—just to say hello, and let it lap onto our calves. It didn’t seem to me an especially whack lake, but it did have a thick bed of moss a few yards away from the put-in, which made an unbeatable place to lie down.
After being quiet and still for a long time, eventually we were all satisfied, and walked back to Vern. The trip back to camp went faster than the trip in; we’d done our discovering, and now only backtracking remained. We managed to get into camp exactly as Peter and Carrie were coming back. They told us the Temperances were nice. We had some dinner. We stayed up late enough to get very silly while playing a long round of hearts in the bigger tent. And finally we nestled up into our sleeping bags for the last time in the Boundary Waters this year.
Paddling back to the put-in caused us all to wonder how long you can stay there. Do people pack in with enough supplies to last the summer? Do people live there, under the radar? When you apply for an entry permit the only things the Forest Service wants to know are how many people you’ve got and what day you’re going in. They don’t seem to care when you leave.
But we had the annoyingly practical concerns of having places to be the next day and not having enough food to sustain us another day. So we pulled the canoes out and, after reacquainting ourselves with this strange thing we call a vehicle, and the concepts of “roads” and “other people”, we packed up and left. For this year. Whether in some incarnation of this same group or not, I’ll be back. I’m also planning on getting myself a canoe. The lakes are my friends. I’ll spend time with them whenever I can.