The sound of the boat motor quickly faded into nothing and Rosie and I were finally surrounded by the silence of canoe country. A silence of wind rushing through pines, of water lapping against rock. Of little else.
We were standing at the end of Indian Portage, a five rod carry from Sucker Lake, in a small bay on the west end of Birch Lake. It was about 8 a.m. The boat that had already been enveloped by the silence had given us a tow from LaTourell’s Resort & Outfitter, a historic outfitter and fishing camp on the shores of Moose Lake some six-and-a-half miles to the southwest. We had spent the previous night in a bunkhouse there after a long, dark, rainy drive up from the Twin Cities after work on Thursday.
Our Duluth packs, fishing poles, paddles were loaded into the canoe; all that remained was to get ourselves in and push off. A light and steady rain that would become very familiar over the next seven days was falling from the sky. I was excited and anxious to begin, having been anticipating this very moment for the past two months. We snapped a quick photo of ourselves standing in front of the canoe, our smiles seeming to reveal much about the complex web of emotions we were feeling at the moment, as well as our own impatience to see what would come to us in the hours and days ahead.
As we emerged from the bay and into Birch Lake proper we could look north and see Canada. It didn’t look much different from the United States on our starboard side. A gentle breeze came at us out of the northeast. At the time, it felt good to have a little extra resistance as we warmed up the paddling muscles in our shoulders. It wouldn’t be long though before the wind demonstrated its infamous ability to be coming from whatever direction we wished to go, and before it increased its power to dangerous, exhausting force.
Not long after departing the portage we met another canoe. We waved and said hello, neither of us slackening our paddling, the more verbose guy in the stern wished us luck with a strange, bemused, blissed-out smile. Soon they too were out of sight behind us. We continued paddling northeast toward two big hills on the Canadian side that rose dramatically from the lake. The wind in our faces gradually increased, but we still made good headway against it. When we were almost to the hills, we turned east and slipped through a narrow channel with a small Canadian island on our left side and an American point on our right.
Don’t tell the Border Patrol or the Mounties, but shortly after that, we let our canoe bump up against some Canadian rocks as we drank some water and took a short break before making the last stretch of water before our first portage.
Though we hadn’t seen any other paddlers since that canoe on the first part of Birch, as we paddled toward the portage a pair of canoes launched from a campsite on the south shore and headed in the same direction. We arrived at the portage just before they did and somehow, by the time we had completed out first trip over, another pair of canoes had arrived as well. Suddenly, the solitude we had been expecting on a late September trip was looking questionable. We needn’t have worried, it turned out to be the most intensive contact we’d have with anyone until we left the wilderness.
Besides the congestion, the 20 rod portage was not difficult. The biggest difficulty presented on all five of the portages we would encounter on this stretch was the footing. The trails are very rocky and on this damp day we had to take each step carefully to avoid a twisted ankle or a fall.
The first couple portages were also especially challenging for reasons all our own as we worked out the kinks of efficiently portaging. We felt distinctly confused as we tried to hammer out our process of unloading, carrying gear and craft, and loading and launching the canoe again on the far end. Our disorganization here would stand in direct contrast to the second half of the trip when we both knew the exact order of landing, which bags to take out in which order, who carried what on which of our two trips, and in what order the packs went back in.
We purposefully dawdled on the first carry to let the other four canoes get ahead of us; we had no interest in racing them from portage to portage and weren’t in such a rush that we couldn’t give them a chance to get ahead of us a ways. When we did head out onto Carp Lake, the rain had let up, though the skies remained cloudy.
The next couple miles slipped by as we paddled small lakes and carried around the trickle of water that connects them that is collectively known as the Knife River. The portages were in the 20 rod range, except for the last one that took us to the western extremity of Knife Lake, which came in around 75 rods, just enough to remind me of what a canoe on your shoulders really feels like. The rain came and went and if we weren’t wet from the precipitation we were wet from our own sweat as we traversed the trails in the cool humidity.
The water on Knife Lake seemed particularly low and the landing at the terminus of the portage was tricky because of it. Shallow water extended far out, but we found a narrow trough where the lake became the river and we managed to float out.
As the lake widened, the wind strengthened. We hadn’t gone far before we were suddenly forced to dig in to the water and our own power reserves. Suddenly, Robbins Island, well within sight and where we hoped to camp, looked a lot further away. We paddled hard for 15 minutes, the muscles in my neck, shoulders and arms starting to burn. It’s a strange feeling when you don’t feel like you have the power necessary to get where you need to get. It was a feeling I became more familiar with in the days to come than I would have liked. Luckily, I also discovered that digging deep in my spirit and in my muscles, I could always muster what was needed.
We eventually made it across that open expanse of water and pulled up to the campsite on the west end of Robbins Island. Just south of us was Isle of Pines, the former home of Dorothy Molter, “The Root Beer Lady,â€ who served her homemade root beer to as many as 6,000 to 7,000 travelers a year and was one of the Boundary Waters’ last residents when she passed away in 1986.
The site was a good one, with a nice view from the fire pit at the top of a steep climb from the water and lots of good rock and open area. It turned out we didn’t use much of the site though. We quickly set up our tent and our tarp and put some water on to boil. Instant soup for a late lunch hit the spot, though I think it was the warmth and the steam on our faces that did as much for us as the food.
The rain pattered on the tarp for most of the evening and we huddled under it or in the tent, where we rested and napped for a while. Later, we cooked our inaugural steak dinner under the tarp. The pan-fried steaks with a great Cache Lake Italian pan bread really hit the spot.
We got the dishes washed just as darkness descended, probably about 7:30, and were soon in the tent for the night. We read and talked some, and eventually fell into welcome sleep at what must have been a very early hour.
One of the last things Rosie said to me before we kissed good night and retreated to the seperate sleep worlds of our mummy bags was, “maybe tomorrow it will be 70 degrees and sunny.â€