Tag Archives: boundary waters

The islands of Matsushima

Wade's Drawing

"Untitled (Morning coffee)," by Wade Wenzel

“Much praise had already been lavished upon the wonders of the islands of Matsushima. Yet if further praise is possible, I would like to say that here is the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan, and that the beauty of these islands is not in the least inferior to the beauty of Lake Dotei or Lake Seiko in China. The islands are situated in a bay about three miles wide in every direction and open to the sea through a narrow mouth on the south-east side. Just as the River Sekko in China is made full at each swell of the tide, so is this bay filled with the brimming water of the ocean, and innumerable islands are scattered over it from one end to the other. Tall islands point to the sky and level ones prostrate themselves before the surges of water. Islands are piled above islands, and islands are joined to islands, so that they look exactly like parents caressing their children or walking with them arm in arm. The pines are of the freshest green, and their branches are curved in exquisite lines, bent by the wind constantly blowing through them. Indeed, the beauty of the scene can only be compared to the most divinely endowed of feminine countenances, for who else could have created such beauty but the great god of nature himself? My pen strove in vain to equal this superb creation of divine artifice.

“Ojima Island where I landed was in reality a peninsula projecting far out into the sea. This was the place where the Priest Ungo had once retired, and the rock on which he used to sit for meditation was still there. I noticed a number of tiny cottages scattered among pine trees and pale blue threads of smoke rising from them. I wondered what kind of people were living in those isolated houses, and was approaching one of them with a strange sense of yearning, when, as if to interrupt me, the moon rose glittering over the darkened sea, completing the full transformation to a night-time scene. I lodged in an inn overlooking the bay, and went to bed in my upstairs room with all the windows open. As I lay there in the midst of the roaring wind and driving clouds, I felt myself to be in a world totally different from the one I was accustomed to. My companion Sora wrote:

Clear voiced cuckoo
Even you will need
The silver wings of a crane
To span the islands of Matsushima.”

- Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa

Here, there and elsewhere

Last July, I mentioned I was planning a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a volunteer, working with another volunteer and a wilderness ranger to dig latrines and do other work in the Wilderness.

I finally got the newsletter for the organization I work for published which includes my account of those days in canoe country. You can read it here.

Reading the piece, you might find a sidebar article on page five about our run-ins with bears on that trip. It might ring a little familiar. And while you’re over there, you might also note I just recently launched a brand new website. It’s got a blog and all kinds of other fun BWCAW-centric features. Enjoy.

The bear triad

There was a mix-up on Saturday morning when I met Thompson and Curt at the portage to Splash Lake. I didn’t have the solo canoe I was supposed to have. Curt headed back down the Moose Chain with Cavan to get the canoe and Thompson and I headed to Splash’s sole campsite to do some “solitude monitoring” (recording how many people you see in a given amount of time). It was a pleasant, warm late morning sitting on the rocks and catching up.

Thompson tells me he’s been dreaming about bears.

As the three of us are paddling around the east end of Ensign that afternoon, checking campsites, permits and latrines, nearly every person we talk to has either had bears in camp in recent nights or heard of someone who has. We have secured a site on the north shore. The last site we visit before heading back to camp is our neighbors. They offer us fresh cornbread (which we resist) and tell us that, the night before, they heard the people that were camped at our site yelling and banging pots and pans every two hours, all night long.

In the quiet evening hour after dinner, as we digest and converse, I ask Curt, who’s been a wilderness ranger in the BWCAW for a few years, if he’s ever had a bear in camp before. He says “yes, just once.” I ask him where.

“This site, actually,” he says.



When the bear finally comes crashing through the brush a short while later, it strikes me as more funny than anything. We yell and throw rocks and otherwise make noise. I never see the bruin, it circles our camp for 20 minutes, obscured by the thick bushes, occasionally pausing and grunting and blowing and growling. It’s the growling that pisses Thompson off, making him unafraid by anger at this ursine affront. At one point he grabs the axe out of the tool bag. Before he manages to unsheathe it, Curt asks him what he’s doing and, without getting much of an answer, tells Thompson to put it away.

Eventually, the bear splashes into the water of our little bay, again obscured by brush, and swims to the next piece of land. That seems like a commitment that it will seek its dinner elsewhere and we relax again.

About dusk, when the mosquitoes are getting bad, we retire to our quarters. I climb into my hammock (which I’m convinced looks like a low-hanging food pack to any bear) and am still getting situated when we hear crashing from the brush again. Goddammit. Thompson and Curt are up and they yell and go through all that. It seems that the bear might just be passing by on its way back to wherever it came from, though at the time I’m sure we will be fending it off every two hours until morning. But, either it is quiet enough not to wake us or it doesn’t return.

I am woken once though, just at the tail end of a long wolf howl from across the lake, its song in my memory from the space between sleep and waking. The howl is followed by the yips and barks of the rest of the pack but it is not repeated.

The next day, we find a much better site on the other side of the lake and we move camp there. After getting camp set up, we are standing on the point, looking a half-mile across the lake toward the campsite we’re about to paddle over to and dig a new latrine. We’re talking about bears. We see a small, black dot run along the shoreline right in front of the destination campsite.

The last night of the trip, the rangers paddle away at dusk to check up on a group that was stretching the definition of “nine-person group size.” The three of us volunteers have just finished hanging the food pack high in a white pine when they return. It is almost dark. We are standing around talking when Andrea, the other ranger, calmly says, “there’s a bear.” I look up toward the area around the fire grate and see a big black shadow recede back into the night. It doesn’t seem to go far away and we again are left to hoot and holler and throw rocks into the bushes. After a few minutes, we no longer hear it and we relax. Twenty minutes later, we hear yelling and pots and pans banging from the next campsite over.

Business and pleasure

I know I’ve been a negligent blogger for the past couple months, and for that I apologize to those who support and enjoy my efforts here. Work has kept me busy writing and thinking about woods and waters. I’ve also had the inklings of inspiration to save up some of my writing energies for a medium perhaps more tangible. Or maybe just another Esker.

For what it’s worth, I just completed editing my first newsletter for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. While you won’t find my byline in this one, I think some of you might still enjoy it, and just know that my editorial influence is all over it. There are articles on all sorts of issues regarding the Boundary Waters, as well as a really interesting examination of the essence of wilderness.

Members of the Friends should see it in their mailbox in the next day or two, but it’s also available as a PDF here.

Our next newsletter should see a lengthy report by me on an adventure I have planned for later this summer… a stint as a volunteer in the bow of a canoe with a Forest Service wilderness ranger in the stern. I’ll be helping with routine maintenance on portages and campsites in the Boundary Waters. It should be interesting to see what all goes into preserving the wilderness character of the BWCAW, though it will also be a big change to work in a place where I usually go to play.

Lastly, there was a nice opinion piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press last week about the state of the St. Croix River, 40 years after it was declared one of the inaugural Wild and Scenic Rivers. Written by John Helland and featuring the words of former senator and vice president and perpetual St. Croix aficianado and advocate Walter Mondale, it talks about the treasure that is the St. Croix, and the very real threats it is facing from development and pollution. The article was spurred by a May meeting of river advocates that I had heard whisperings of a few months back. It sounds like the outcome was the one hoped for: interest and energy regarding the formation of a new advocacy and education group that would work to protect and preserve the St. Croix. You can read the article here.

A wild birthday

The alarm on my cell phone — far from any hope of reception — beeped at me from where it lay by my head. I extricated an arm from the confines of my mummy bag and swatted it quiet. A minute or more passed without further movement on my part, motionlessly fighting the idea of exiting the accumulated warmth of a night in the sleeping bag for the cold of the early May morning. But of course such a transition was unavoidable.

I zipped down the side of my bag and began to move very quickly, pulling on all the clothes that were in reach. It couldn’t have been more than 30 degrees and I knew about the white stuff that was blanketing the ground outside, weighing down the tent walls. I had crawled into the tent the night before seeking refuge from a steady rain. When I woke in the pre-dawn hours to pee, I no longer heard it beating against the tent. Only on opening the door did I realize why: the precipitation was still coming down. It had only turned to snow.

Bundled in clothes that would never substitute for the comforts of my zero degree bag, I unzipped the door and stepped into the world, almost every surface concealed behind a white film of the wet, sticky snow.

My tent on a snowy morning at Trail's End Campground on the Gunflint Trail near the Boundary Waters.

I was all alone in this campsite at the end of the Gunflint Trail, some 50 or more miles from the nearest town, Grand Marais. Standing by the tent, I could look west and see the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Only the narrow corridor of the Trail — winding through the woods east toward Lake Superior — prevented me from being surrounded by the wild.

And I was twenty-eight years old this morning.

I walked up the short trail to the parking area and got my cook kit out of the cab of Brian’s truck. He was sleeping in the back. As soon as I opened the door, his dog, Cookie, made sure that was no longer the case. Heading back to the campsite to make coffee, dodging slushy puddles on the trail, fighting painfully cold fingers, I couldn’t help being enthralled by the white scene of winter and spring in open conflict everywhere I looked.

The Sea Gull River on a snowy May morning.


We had driven north the day before via a long wandering detour along the back roads of the Superior National Forest. I have always loved remote roads and for once got to dedicate some time to exploring them. No matter how remote the road I am on might be, glimpses of other roads that dive into the woods — often no more than two-lane tracks — intrigue me as I drive by. I always wonder what is around that first curve. On Friday, we frequently stopped the truck and got out to walk down some of those trails. Around that first curve, we usually just found more woods.

A pond in the Superior National Forest.

It rained almost the whole day. A cold rain that blew sideways and drove us back into the truck as soon as we had seen whatever had lured us out of it. It was still early spring in these northern woods, even though it was May. Any body of water big enough to be called a lake was still frozen solid, but the rivers were running high and fast, out of their banks and moving ever forcefully to their destinations.

A river in the Superior National Forest.

For some four hours we navigated the backroads. I was buried under maps of varying descriptions and detail, all useful for their own purposes. We didn’t see another vehicle the entire time.

Driving along roads in the Superior National Forest.


By mid-morning on Saturday we were standing with 25 others at the Seagull Guard Station, receiving instructions on moving across the land — charred by last year’s massive Ham Lake Fire — as a team, planting red and white pine seedlings as we went.

The view from the forest road where we parked our cars and commenced planting was unbelievable. From on top of this ridge, one could see solid square miles to the south and east, all of it barren and treeless, just the spires of burned trees against the horizon. The thin layer of snow on the ground only made the landscape more alien and lifeless.

Tree planting headquarters near the Seagull Guard Station on the Gunflint Trail.

Our team leader organized us into a line of pairs along the road, spaced eight feet apart, and we set out across the rocky ground, planting the little seedlings wherever we could find the necessary mineral soil.

By lunchtime, most of the snow had melted off the ground, blue skies prevailed, and there were already a lot of trees in the ground. And we were all a little tired.

Lunch break during tree planting on the Gunflint Trail.

When we were done eating, it was back into the woods. Or what once was and would someday again be the woods. Just a tangle of blackened limbs and logs now, though when one looked closely, there was life and color present, mostly within a foot of the ground.

We planted our way over a ridge and then filled in another area, ending up a good distance from the vehicles. Another woman and two young guys were nearby but no one else was. We had a few seedlings left but struggled to find somewhere to put them. We had stumbled into an area that had already been planted earlier in the day. It was amazing to realize how many acres were now blanketed by the bright green seedlings at eight foot intervals.

A pine seedling in a burned area along the Gunflint Trail.


We got back to the campsite about 9:00 that night. In contrast to the previous evening, the skies were perfectly clear. No rain or snow to drive us into shelter. I retrieved 12 beer bottles that I had stashed in a nook in the river below us, finding that only 11 still contained beer. Someone must have come across them while we were away, helped themselves to one, and then recapped it and placed it back amongst the others. We admired that funny little act of class and didn’t begrudge someone what must have been a pleasant surprise.

Pine and rock and shadow and needles.

We had a ridiculous pile of firewood and, both of us tired, proceeded to burn it as quick as we could. A clear night like that in the north woods means cold and this night was no exception. Where the previous night brought snow, this one was considerably colder. The big fire was not just an expedient way to burn wood, but a necessity for comfort.

One of the guys who had been planting near us earlier and who was camped nearby stopped by and we three enjoyed an hour or two of quiet campfire conversation of rivers and lakes and conservation and stone masonry.


It was still cold in the morning. The water jug was half-frozen and every puddle too. I was breaking down camp and making coffee when Brian walked up and said there were a couple moose on the campground road nearby.

Two moose at Trail's End Campground on the Gunflint Trail.

I grabbed the camera and followed him. And there they were. What appeared to be a cow and her yearling, though I’m no expert on such things. They stood by the side of the road, by turns grazing on a cedar tree, nibbling roadside grass, and staring blankly in our direction. They certainly gave me plenty of time to admire them and take some photos and only finally disappeared back into the woods as a car drove up the road.

Driving back down the Gunflint, we stopped at a side road and set off on foot to see where it went. Further than we expected, ultimately. At a clearing in the woods, it seemed to dead-end, except for one unused spur heading deeper into the woods. Brian headed up the first hill and around the first bend and I paced around the clearing. Eventually I sat on a rock in the sun and remembered how good it is to do so. I laid back with my hat over my eyes and listened, then sat up and continued to listen to the scattered bird songs and other sounds of the morning forest. And I remembered how listening is one of the best things you can do in the woods.

When Brian got back, we hiked back out a bit and then up another spur, this one a long sandy road that went over several hills. Having been walking longer than planned already, we maintained a good pace up, whether going up or down. It felt good to be reminded of the distance one’s legs can take you.

The road was frequently cleaved by moose tracks and accented by their droppings. Then we noticed paw prints in the road far larger than those of Cookie, Brian’s dog, and realized they were those of a wolf. You could even see where the claws had indented the sand.


The night around the campfire, it wasn’t long before sleep tempted Brian and our other companion to their beds, leaving me alone beneath a sky full of stars as brilliant as I’ve ever seen. There was no moon and above me was pure vast blackness punctuated by infinite clouds of light. Though tired, I resolved to spend just a bit longer by the fire.

I sat staring down into the flames and coals, hypnotized as so many have been by their flickering, illuminating paths deeper into my mind and the world and the woods. The night was silent except for the muffled rushing of the rapids of the river. Again, I felt every mile of the distance between me and the world of my day-to-day life, that land of concrete and steel, but also of my wife, my family, my friends, my dog. And my comfortable bed.

And all I could think was, “So this is how I start my twenty-eighth year on this amazing planet.”

And I looked up at the stars and down at the fire and listened again to whatever there was to hear.