Tag Archives: boundary waters

Of love and lakes

We found ourselves on top of this bluff, only a short hike from the car. Canada was just a couple miles to the north. Lake Superior 30 to the east. A BWCA lake stretched out before and below us.

It was quiet and lonely, surprisingly so, being just a couple hundred yards from a wide spot in the gravel road and a sign marking the trail. Truthfully I could have used a bit more of a walk for the physical distance and exertion that might have paralleled the mental distance admiring such a view brought on.

A Whiskey Jack spotted us from down by the lake and we watched him fly toward us, and then up to the top of the cliff, where he fluttered from tree to tree, waiting for us to drop or offer just a single morsel.

We didn’t stay long. This vista was just a stop on a leisurely morning of wandering the Gunflint Trail. And the only thing that we knew of our uncertain destination for the night was that it was many miles from here. But, catching me by surprise, this place seemed like somewhere I could stay forever and never tire of the view.

And if that isn’t like life and love, I don’t know what is.

Of Memory and Ashes

Ham Lake FireI saw a report this morning that Superior-North Canoe Outfitters has lost most of its structures to the Ham Lake Fire, which is currently burning in the Boundary Waters. Superior-North outfitted the first BWCA trip Rosie and I ever went on together (which was my first ever).

Every Journey Begins Before A Single Step

I was 18 years old and it was the end of the summer, just before Rosie was to depart for her sophomore year at UW-Madison and I would head the opposite direction a few weeks later to my freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Morris.

Despite my best efforts, we weren’t dating at the time. But, our extremely close, but platonic, friendship had reached a new peak at the end of that summer when we had spent many evenings and weekends going to-and-fro as one does in the summer. I remember the beaches of the St. Croix River, the dam on the Kinnickinnic River at River Falls, late nights swimming in my parents’ pool (yes Mom and Dad, while you were in Bosnia) and all the other things you do the summer of your eighteenth year.

Demonstrating the beautiful frenetic recklessness of that age, we decided to go to Lilith Fair at Canterbury Downs the night before we would leave for the canoe trip. Actually, she decided to go and, as per my style, I tagged along. It was a long day in the sun, I remember Mary Lou Lord on a small stage, and Natalie Merchant on the main stage who declared that she could barely perform for being so upset over the beginning of U.S. airstrikes in Yugoslavia.

If we had been able to drive home right after the show, we might have gotten enough sleep. As it was, traffic was horribly backed up in the parking lot and we were on the far side of the Twin Cities, so we each got to our own beds after 2 a.m. But, by shortly after that August dawn, Rosie was in my driveway.

The Part My Parents Aren’t Going to Like

We headed north in her Geo Tracker. Soft-top. Tape deck. Rusting. In fact, rusting in such a way that the receptacle for the gas nozzle had separated from the frame, so when you tried to insert the gas nozzle, it would just push the receptacle back. Which meant one of us had to reach under the car and hold the receptacle with a pliers while the other pumped the gas.

It was just such a trip.

This is the part where the story gets funny. Not feeling like making it easier on ourselves, we had chosen Saganaga Lake as our entry point, which happened to be located at the very end of the Gunflint Trail. And we elected to be in Ely that afternoon to welcome my friend Canoeman back from a six-week canoe trip above the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Readers familiar with the area will see the humor in this. Those who are not might take a look at this map.

(The green marker is Ely. The blue one is Superior-North Canoe Outfitters.)

What the map above illustrates is that Ely is on one side of the BWCAW. Superior-North on the other. As the crow flies, the two outposts are about 40 miles apart. As the car drives, which is from Ely all the way back to the North Shore via twisty Highway 1 (approx. 60 miles), up the shore to Grand Marais (approx. 50 miles), and then all the way to the end of the Gunflint Trail (approx. 50 miles), it comes to roughly 160 miles.

Obviously we didn’t plan this very well.

But don’t forget I was but 18.

And in love.

Further exhibiting that the limits of our didn’t-know-any-better-ness knew no boundaries, we did not take the direct route from the Twin Cities to Ely where you exit I-35 at Cloquet and head directly north through the Iron Range on Highway 33 and 53. We went all the way past Duluth and along the Shore to Highway 1 and took that in to Ely.

Not the fast route.

Somehow though, we arrived in Ely at mid-afternoon a little before Canoeman’s scheduled arrival. I remember sitting in a booth at a diner, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking lots of Coke, both of us nearly delerious, Rosie describing to me some weird quasi-hallucinations she was experiencing.

I had taken the wheel recently and would stay there for the rest of the drive.

A Brief Detour

After our lunch, we drove out of town along the Echo Trail to Camp Widjiwagan. There, we ran into Canoeman’s mom, dad and sister and tried to make coherent conversation while we waited for the prodigal son.

Eventually Canoeman and his five paddling partners (including one counselor) blew into camp in a 16-passenger van, towing a trailer loaded with some well-used canoes, horn honking, all of them jubilant but with a glimmer of melancholy in their eyes, their great adventure over, suddenly not just the six of them in the tundra but surrounded by other people, other considerations.

The perpetually baby-faced Canoeman had a thin and scraggly beard from the summer without shaving. He watched his dad fidgeting with a small piece of cord, trying to tie a particular knot. He took the rope, hid it behind his back, and shortly produced it with the knot in question perfectly tied.

Such it was.

We got some chuckles when we shortly announced our need to move on, and our destination and reason for doing so. This being my first foray into the wilderness, Canoeman was understandably excited for me and it all seemed to fit as he culminated years of adventuring with my imminent introduction. His parents just seemed a little befuddled, though also excited for us. Looking back, I can only imagine that everyone was silently wondering why the hell we hadn’t picked an entry point out of Ely, which would have meant an additional drive of five to 30 minutes, not four hours.

Into the Woods

So we set off. And I remember little else of that journey. We drove and drove through the northwoods as the day passed to evening. The Gunflint is a two-lane highway that climbs out of Grand Marais and then cuts through the woods without passing through another town or crossing another road. At intervals, small roads leave it to terminate at the edge of the wilderness where an outfitter or two occupies a cluster of lakeside buildings.

I remember tall white pines arching over the road, glimpses of vistas over lakes with rocky, undeveloped shorelines, and the yellow stripes down the middle of the asphalt.

It was a feeling of some accomplishment when we pulled into Superior-North. There was the grassy area where we parked, the lodge with the office, various sheds and outbuildings, and a couple bunkhouses.

In the office, we were welcomed by proprietor Earl Cypher, an older guy with a particular funny, easy-going attitude that you rarely find outside of northern Minnesota.

After going over the map, our gear (being novices, we had elected for a complete outfitting package including canoe, food, packs and almost everything else), and plans for the next morning when we would hit the water, Earl led us across the compound to our bunkhouse. We gave him our car keys in case he needed to move the Tracker and he asked which one was ours. When we pointed at it, he laughed and asked, “Where’s the other half of that car?”

We were left to our own devices in the bunkhouse for the night. We packed up the Duluth packs that Earl had given us and, though beyond tired, we weren’t sleepy for a while. We had driven so many miles through and along the edges of the vast canoe country during the day that the prospect of soon paddling off into it for three nights was enough to briefly mask our exhaustion.

In the morning we packed up the canoe and set off into Saganaga for a trip that would involve big waves and water, otters, the call of loons, island campsites and, ultimately, a night camped amidst tall pines on a lake all our own. That’s another story though.

The Way of Life

People are fond of romanticizing an outfitting business like Earl and his wife Anita’s as a labor of love. I’m sure it’s true that it’s a lot of work and there are no great riches in it. But it’s also true that the opportunities for entrepeneurship in the northwoods are limited. The Wilderness takes a lot off the table: namely logging, mining, development and the periphery professions that accompany those industries. And, so, many people are probably drawn to outfitting simply because it is there.

I don’t know why the Cyphers did it. Perhaps they love enabling experiences in the magnificent wilderness. Perhaps they just enjoy owning their own business and somehow chose outfitting as that business. (I can say that certain other outfitters we have used since seemed to take much less pride in doing it well.) But I can also imagine that Earl and Anita love the lake country, that they know it well, and see running an outfitting business 40 miles from the nearest town as not a bad way to make a living in the place they love. So yes, I suppose in that sense it might have been a labor of love.

The one thing I do know is that memories of that trip have accompanied us on every subsequent journey in the Boundary Waters. We still marvel at the innocence (or was it innocence’s close cousin naïveté?) of that journey north. We approach challenges knowing we survived the things we did on Saganaga, most of the time not even aware we were being challenged.

And I still seek out the feeling of harmony similar to that which was evoked by sitting lakeside at dusk listening to the frogs and loons.

It’s strange to hear that Superior-North has burned. While all they really did was rent us some gear and a comfortable bed after a long journey and then and set us on our way, they also set us at ease for that trip and many more to come. Looking back, as the tipping point between the roads and the lakes, they were part of that introduction to the wilderness just like the water and the trees and the canoe were.

The Cliffs of Kekekabic, Part Five: The Winds of Kekekabic

“Switch!” Rosie yelled from the bow. I switched sides and dug in with my paddle against the fierce wind that was blowing relentlessly down Kekekabic Lake, making forward progress seemingly impossible and whipping up whitecaps that tossed our canoe around like a toy boat in some sadistic child’s bathtub. The muscles in my shoulders were grateful for the switch, though I knew it would only be a few minutes before they would start to burn again.

In front of me, my wife rose and fell with the waves. Each time the bow splashed back into the water after cresting a wave, I winced and redoubled my paddling. The remaining mile to the portage to the smaller water of Pickle Lake and the hope of easier, safer traveling seemed insurmountable.

As we passed a point, the gusts threatened to knock us back onto the rocks. We both tried to paddle through it and keep moving, but we very quickly had to decide to retreat to shore while we still had control of the canoe. We sat in a small space under the branches of a pine for a half hour, reading and watching the choppy lake.


We had wanted to make some good progress today. We were two nights away from our planned exit from the wilderness and, after a layover day the day before, hoped to position ourselves today for a timely exit. So, though it was comfortable and calm on shore and far removed from the peril of the lake, we reluctantly got back in the canoe and headed back out into it.

We didn’t make it far.

We reached the next small point down the lake and the scene was repeated, with gusts of winds threatening to blast us onto a rocky reef that extended out from the point. We again had to fall back and go into land. It was a very unpleasant feeling of defeat.

We secured the canoe and tried to be patient. We sat on shore, trying to tell ourselves that the wind was lessening or some other false assurances.


I have no idea how I look so calm in this photo.

An hour passed and a light rain started to fall so we moved into a stand of pines for some shelter. I found myself looking around and wondering if we could set up our tent here if we had to. No, I decided, but maybe we could rig our tarp.

It was cold and I withdrew into my rain jacket. I couldn’t help but wonder what I was doing out here. I berated myself, I told myself it was hubris, that I had underestimated Mother Nature and overestimated my own abilities, that I was naïve and stupid and reckless. That it was all my fault. That our next vacation was going to be Hawaii.

We both were trying very hard to reassure the other that everything was fine and would be fine. We played “patty cake” to keep our blood moving and our spirits up. We read to each other and occasionally walked back up to the point where we could see down the lake. The view was always beautiful, though the lake was still roiled with savage whitecaps.

When, after a couple hours, we finally decided to try the lake again — to try ourselves — I felt sick. Rosie and I both were trying to be as positive as we could, for each other’s sake and our own, but as I untied the canoe and got ready to push out into the lake and the wind, I felt like I could throw up. Few things have ever affected me like that. I was scared of that water and that wind and I was scared of something happening to Rosie.

But, in spite of the fear, we fought our way down that last mile of lake. We battled on and on against the wind for some immeasurable period of time and, finally, after coming around a point, spotted the portage. We had to paddle straight out from it so we could turn and let the wind blow us in. When we hit shore, Rosie hopped out and pulled the canoe up.

I stepped out of the canoe and onto broken granite. A portage had never looked so good. I turned and faced the lake and the wind and the waves and I howled into it all, as loud as I could. The howl came from a place within me that is usually dormant, but now it filled me and I yelled and yelled, all of it whipped away by the wind.


After we left Kekekabic, the lakes were smaller and the wind negligible. After having just focused so hard on making it off the big water, happy to have the chance to make it to any campsite, the day’s miles be damned, we decided to push on a bit further before calling it quits.

We went north across Pickle and then portaged into Spoon and turned west. As we left the portage we saw a canoe in the middle of the lake heading the same direction as us. We arrived at the west end while they were still at the portage. The water was low and we had to push and heave our canoe through the last 25 yards. We landed as they headed up the trail and we said “hello” briefly and they were gone. I wanted to try to express something of what we had experienced this day, to find out if they had had any sort of similar experience, but I didn’t know how and didn’t have time.

When we got to Dix Lake, we decided that it would be the end of the line for us. It was getting close to dusk and it was gray and cold and still breezy. We were completely drained. There were three campsites marked on the lake and we didn’t think we really cared about the accomodations too much. Still, we paddled by the site closest to the portage, it looked battered from the blowdown and exposed to the elements. We headed to a campsite marked as tucked away on an island in a small bay on the north side of the lake.

Coming around the island, we were greeted by an enormous beaver lodge. Nothing better than sharing water with a beaver, and just hoping your water filter is working properly. From the water, the campsite looked overgrown and unwelcoming. Rosie got out to investigate, but was soon back with a poor report. She said she couldn’t see a single spot to set up the tent and that it didn’t look like the site had really been restored since the blowdown.

It seemed that one didn’t have to be too picky to have trouble finding a suitable site on Dix Lake.

We put our paddles in the water once more and crossed to the south shore of the lake, where we found a decent campsite that would serve our needs. It had a big smooth rock shelf for a landing that sloped down into the water (at a dangerous angle, it would later prove).

We unloaded our gear and set about our making camp routine. We worked together to set up the tent, then Rosie got in it to inflate sleeping pads and unpack sleeping bags and the such. While she was doing that, I set up our tarp out in the main area of the site and started water boiling for dinner.

It was almost dark when we ate dinner. I don’t remember what we ate or what we talked about. It felt incredibly good to be safe at a campsite, though I also felt the emptiness of the lake and the land around us in an acute way. During this day, we had overcome the biggest challenge we had ever faced in the Boundary Waters and had done it by pushing ourselves physically and emotionally. Somehow, we both felt a certain glow, because we had done it together.

The Cliffs of Kekekabic, Part Four: Day of Rest


It was Monday. Not a bad day for a layover day in canoe country. Thoughts of what was going on around my workplace barely entered my mind. Today would be the only day we would not have to break camp and set up camp during the trip. We had a nice site with lots of room and a beautiful and massive cliff across our little bay to contemplate. The day began with alternating sun and clouds and the wind continued to blow strong and steady into our west-facing bay.

Rosie and I relished in the absence of any pressure to get moving and leisurely made and ate breakfast. It was another Cache Lake bread this morning, a cranberry breakfast bread that, topped with raspberry jam, was delicious. It was of course washed down with plenty of coffee.


We had decided to have our layover day on Kekekabic for several reasons, but one was the sheer quantity of activities and destinations that presented themselves for day trips:

  • The lake is known for its lake trout, a fish I really wanted to catch for the first time.
  • On the south shore of the lake in this end, there were American Indian pictogaphs (which we had also never seen)
  • and a spur of the Kekekabic Hiking Trail (which crosses the entire Boundary Waters). There aren’t many hiking opportunities in the Boundary Waters, and by hiking up this trail we could find
  • the location of an old fire lookout tower. The tower is gone, but the hill would present another good view of the surrounding territory.
  • There was also little Kek Lake, a five rod portage away and supposedly a neat lake to check out. Small and exceedingly deep, with high bluffs rising up all around.

All of that sounded like a great field trip. Pack a lunch, our rain gear and the camera, leave camp set up, and do some exploring. Back in time for dinner and some rest and relaxation.

Unfortunately, two Boundary Waters truisms were illustrated this day: things don’t always go as planned, and you can’t control the weather.

The weather history for that day shows wind speeds of 10 mph, maximum speeds of 18 mph, and gusts up to 34 mph. It was blowing and blowing hard. All we had to do was look up from anywhere in the camp and see the rollers out on the main lake to know that we had no interest in going anywhere until it settled down.

So, after breakfast we set about taking it easy, which is not very hard to do in the Boundary Waters. We passed much of the morning and afternoon reading, napping and fishing off the rocks into a drop-off on the north side of our camp. We caught nothing but rocks and logs, though it was still fun.


For a couple hours in the afternoon, while Rosie hung out in the tent, I read, sitting out in the main part of the camp, with a great view of the lake, with a rock sticking out of a patch of grass at the perfect angle to serve as a backrest. I was reading Carl Sagan’s book Contact and was totally wrapped up in it, which gave me added incentive to try to stay put when it occasionally started to rain.

Every so often, clouds would blow over the bluff from the northwest and let loose with a little rain. I could always see the clear skies around the clouds and knew the sprinkles wouldn’t last long, so I’d pull the hood up on my rain jacket and try to outlast it. The rain always seemed to crescendo just to the point where I had no option but to get up, grab chair and book and go under the tarp, back in the brush my the tent. About as soon as I got comfortable there, the pitter patter on the tarp would slacken and then stop and I’d get back up and move my little setup back out in the camp.

Home in the woods

Though I’ve always considered lounging around a Boundary Waters campsite to be one of the finest things in life, I struggled all day with the frustration of not being able to explore Kekekabic like I’d wanted. I felt a certain melancholy all day, combined with the slight worry of what we would do if the wind was blowing like this tomorrow, when we were due to paddle down much of the length of the lake on our way west.


As the sun began to dip toward the western horizon, we did get out in the canoe for a little while. We paddled out into the middle of our bay and dropped anchor (our Bell anchor bag, probably overfilled with rocks from shore, held us quite well the couple times we used it during the trip, even though both times were in strong wind) and tried every combination of heavy jigs and artificial bait we could think up, hoping to hook a laker. No luck.

Shortly after we dropped anchor we saw the first other people we had seen since early the previous day (on the South Arm of Knife Lake) and the first people we had talked to since the first day of the trip three days prior (on the portages from Birch to Knife Lake). A pair of guys paddled into the bay and asked if we were camped at our site. We said “yes” and they promptly turned around and headed back out of the bay.

We headed back in after a while with thoughts of dinner in our head. That night, we had what turned out to be one of my favorite meals of the trip: cheese-filled tortellini with a creamy pesto sauce, chicken and peas. The tortellini didn’t take long to cook over the stove, the pesto sauce was powdered and just required a little dehydrated milk and non-dairy creamer, and the chicken and peas were both dehydrated. All of it mixed together was simply delicious and I amazed myself with how much I ate. I was also amazed again at what a good hot meal can do for your spirits.

As the sun set, the skies cleared some and the wind died down a little. It was a familiar pattern already and I knew it was no guarantee of calmer weather the next day. Rosie soon went to bed but I didn’t quite feel ready. The potential difficulties of the next day were already palpable to me, thought it might have just been the thought of getting back on the move again after a stationary, stress-free day.

I leaned against the chair rock and read by the light of my headlamp for a while, then turned off the light and went up on the flat rocks where I could lay on my back and look at the stars. I waited until I had seen a couple shooting stars and retired to the tent.

Good night

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