It began with the dates, the recognition of a week-long window in a busy fall schedule. It would be later in the season than Rosie and I had gone before, opening up possibilities of seeing normally busy areas in a quieter time and a beautiful piece of woods near the height of fall colors, but also of short days and long nights, unpredictable, possibly cold weather, who knew what else. Probably not swimming. Then we came to the decision of what area of wilderness we wanted to see. Then an entry point to select. Maps spread out on the dining room table, plotting a route. We researched what campsites were better than others, what sights we shouldn’t miss, what portages to fear.
Of course, what we couldn’t research was the blustering wind that would blow in our faces and toss our canoe on three foot swells.
We were on the road from St. Paul about 6:15 on Thursday evening. The familiar sinking feeling of “what did I forget?” Canoe strapped to the roof, the trunk loaded up with Duluth packs, backseat full of paddles and fishing poles. Darkness already approaching. Rain falling. I dozed part of the way to Cloquet, where we left the Interstate and headed due north into the Iron Range.
Concerned about some flakiness on the part of our digital camera recently, we stopped for film and batteries for a backup film camera in Cloquet. A little runaround. Gas. Paying in cash, for some reason enjoying the feeling of leaving no paper trail at these stops. Snacks and soda. I took the wheel and pointed us north.
Dark now and still raining. Lonely highways. Trying to stay relaxed, not strain my eyes against the darkness. Still hours to go and I wondered how I’d do it, how I’d see a moose in the road, how I’d follow every curve of the highway. The rain let up, disappeared, a welcome relief. When we left Highway 53 and headed east on 169 toward Ely, the rain was falling again, the wipers on against it and the headlights against the deep darkness of the northwoods with this strip of asphalt snaking through it.
Ely was all but abandoned when we drove through at about 11 p.m. We didn’t need anything and there was nowhere to get it if we did. We drove right through and out the east side of town on the Fernberg Road. The rain was still falling lightly but we were almost there now.
There was a piece of paper with a handwritten note on it taped to a bunkhouse at LaTourell’s Resort & Outfitter, it welcomed us, pointed us in the direction of the bathrooms, and told us “we’ll see you in the morning.” Inside, a space heater was running and it was warm and dry and a very welcome place to finally arrive. We did a few last minute packing things, but quickly got into our sleeping bags and drifted off, wondering what the next morning and the next days would bring.
I was sleeping in the top bunk (there’s no option of snuggling in such little bunks) and awoke to the sound of rain on the tin roof at 6 a.m. It sounded pretty light and there was nothing to be done about it anyway. We packed the last of our gear into the packs and drove the car, canoe and gear to the water’s edge. A quick orientation and we got our permits from the friendly folks in the office.
Rosie parked the car while I affix our CVCA portage pads to the middle thwart, then our packs and canoe were loaded in the waiting boat and we were soon headed up the lake. We faced backwards to hide from the wind, rain and water coming over the bow. I largely stared at the shores of Moose Lake, which seemed somehow especially peaceful in comparison to the noise and wake of the 25 horsepower boat motor. We had a few shouted snippets of conversation with John, our boat pilot. He owned a resort somewhere in northern Ontario, but was down for a month or two working at LaTourell’s (he was “seeing one of Bob’s sisters”). He told us wolves have lately been a problem on Ensign Lake (where we’d visit shortly before finishing the trip), including a story about an 11-year-old girl who was approached by a wolf while sitting on the biffy. For the next week, we debate whether or not this was a bunch of B.S. he fed us to kill time, or if it was true. You sure don’t hear about people having problems with wolves very much. He slyly slipped in an opinion that it’s a result of overpopulation because of lack of hunting of the wolves.
The boat ride took about 20 minutes and then we slid up onto the rocks at the portage into Birch Lake, unloaded our gear, and I grabbed the canoe off the rack and walked it over the 5 rod portage to the other side. By the time I was back to the other side, John was already idling away from shore and soon speeding off back toward the dock. We were alone, with six days and nights ahead before coming back to civilization.