I 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 naÃ¯veté?) 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.