Saturday, September 22, 2012


In August, my uncle planned a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Minnesota.  I talked my coworker Jon into joining me, and on August 4 (Friday, Day 0) we flew from San Diego to Des Moines, Iowa, arriving Saturday morning.  

Day 1

Shortly after we arrived, a huge thunderstorm swept through Des Moines, cancelling the flight directly after ours.  Since I was under the storm instead of circling over it in an airplane, it was rather enjoyable, and reminded me how much I missed the Midwest thunderstorms.  I just haven't seen anything to compare with them further west.

My uncle and aunt live in Missouri, so they swung by the airport on their way north and picked us up.  Along with them were two of their sons and two friends.  We had an all-day drive to Ely, Minnesota, and there were sprinkles much of the way up.  It made me wonder what the weather was going to be like on the canoe trip itself, and I was a little worried that the outlook was "heavy character building, tapering to light grumbling by mid-week."

That night we checked in with the outfitter we were renting the canoes from.  They gave us a DVD titled "Leave No Trace," explaining how to have a minimal impact on the terrain we'd be crossing.  We watched it on a portable DVD player at the hostel where we spent the night.  At one point in the video, there was a head-shot of a moose, and one of the less outdoorsy friends saw the large ears and wondered if it was a kangaroo.  From then on, we kept our eyes out for "kangamooses," but they seemed fairly scarce where we were.

Day 2

Launch day dawned cool and clear.  Breakfast was a delicious combination of the normal breakfast food and leftovers: bacon, ice cream, pancakes, and salad.  We had been joined the night before by a cousin, her husband, and another friend, and after breakfast, we all drove to launch point 14.  We were well prepared, with enough gear to outfit the entire US Navy for an extended deployment into unfriendly waters.  

The food bag allocated for my coworker and me for the week-long trip held as much food as my normal monthly consumption.  It was good wilderness food, most of it boxes ending in the word "Helper," but there was also some cleverly packaged ground beef, salted and bagged to survive without refrigeration.  Simply rinse and serve, with enough salt left behind to nicely flavor.

Last touch of civilized ground.

As automobiles are not good at floating, they were exchanged for canoes at the launch point.

My allocation of gear.  Not shown: one 32-foot canoe.

Arriving at our first night's destination.

Late that afternoon, we set up camp.  It was a good site on a rocky ledge just off the river, with plenty of scenery to go around.  Mo and Eric took the opportunity to wet their fishing tackle, with Eric disclosing that he had never in his life caught a fish on a pole.  Spear gun, net, bare-handed, yes, but never on a pole.  It was his curse, but one that the group was determined to help him break.

He was given a choice between a hook with a squirming leech on it, and one with a lure.  When presented with a leech, no matter what the context, there's really no choice, and he stuck (get it? ha ha!) Mo with the leech, taking the lure himself.  He and Mo spent the next hour fishing, but Mo got her revenge by catching the first fish.  At that point they switched rods, and balance was maintained by Mo also catching the second fish, bigger than the first.

Eric returned to camp skunked, but his spirits remained high.  He had an entire week to break his curse, and in waters that BWCA brochures clearly stated "teemed" with fish, how hard could that be?

First catch of the trip!

Victory!  (Not Eric's.) A northern pike?
The young ("noisy") complement of attendees left later that evening for a second campsite across the lake.  Much character was built attempting to hang a bear bag in pitch darkness on a steep, brushy hillside.  It involved a rope that was about ten feet too short, holding flashlights in teeth, and climbing sappy pine trees in sandals.  In the end, the bag was left tangled halfway up a pine, safe from any bear that was lame, blind, under four feet tall, or prone to hysterical fits of laughter at the sight of a "bear bag" put up at 10 pm at night by someone holding a flashlight in his teeth, climbing a tree in sandals, and using a rope that was ten feet too short.

Day 3

Our first morning in the wilderness dawned as beautiful as the day before, and the bear bag had been unmolested.  After the amount of effort that had gone into putting it up, it will be admitted that there was a small amount of disappointment.

Interest was expressed in shouting capitalistic slogans at our neighbor to the north, and accordingly the canoes were loaded for a Canadian visit.

Camp life was rigorous and deprivations abundant. Note the complete lack of gently-waving palm fronds and grapes.

This is neither apple juice nor cooking oil, as speculated by observers.  In fact, it was our drinking water, post-filter.

Canada's first line of defense: cleverly positioned dams built by carefully trained beavers.

An interesting, but less-effective canoing technique: sinking the canoe.

Creating small outposts of American soil by throwing American rocks into Canada.

Arriving at Canada, we hurled rocks and sneered at socialism while secretly longing for cheap health care and a culture of polite deference.  While attempting to plant a flag on Canadian soil, a party member fell from his canoe and inadvertently became an illegal alien for a brief period of time before being quickly retrieved.

Overall, it was a successful trip and we returned to camp flush with victory.  Dinner that night was Orange-mush Helper (as opposed to the Gray-mush Helper from the night before.)  Dessert was a distant lightning storm in cumulonimbus clouds glowing orange in the setting sun.

Day 4

Another beautiful morning.  If character was to be built, it wouldn't be from poor weather.  Instead, portages would be used: stretches of what us mariners colloquially refer to as "land" that divides passable sections of water.

Portages have an interesting property of being uphill no matter which direction you are traversing them.  In addition, fallen trees carefully position themselves at a height such that they're too high to step over, but too low to walk unimpeded under.  Instead, they require the portager to bend their knees and walk at a half-crouch with a 55 pound canoe on their shoulders, using two hands to balance the canoe and swatting mosquitoes out of their eyes with a third.  On the far side of the fallen tree is a large mudhole sprinkled with just enough rocks to let you think you can step across carrying your 70 pound canoe, but the second-to-last rock is jiggly and will cause you to slide into the mud, doing a variety of Russian squat-kicks in an attempt to stay upright with a 100 pound canoe on your shoulders.  By the end of the portage, you hope the kevlar-reinforced body of your 150 pound canoe is as strong as advertised because you're dropping it like a ton of bricks.

Sherpas were available on select portages and took payment in granola bars.

At one point we crammed 6 people (5 pictured + photographer) into a canoe, bringing back memories of college dorm rooms past.

Another group of people were scheduled to join us, so one of our canoes returned to the entrance point to meet them. Along the way they discovered a rucksack of food lying forgotten by a portage, left by whom we shall not say, except that in our defense Jon and I had a lot of other group gear in our canoe and had assumed that someone else had grabbed the rucksack.

It will be an indication of how much food was brought that the missing food had not been noticed, and probably wouldn't have until the end of the trip, except that our choice of Helpers would have been more limited.

Also, the realization that a bag full of food had been lying on the ground for three days with no ursine consequences left a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with the amount of effort we had gone through to get our bear-bag into a tree.  That night's effort would be much less enthusiastic.

With the new crowd, we moved camp to an island on Shell Lake.  Again, the group split up, with the older, more decrepit demographic setting up camp on a lush, pine-dotted promontory.  The younger group took a second campsite halfway along the island.

At the second campsite, the Forest Service-provided latrine followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.  It was carefully positioned the correct 150 feet away from camp, but had a beautiful line-of-sight into the heart of camp, allowing one to feel fully involved in the variety of camp activities no matter what local business was in process of being handled.

New campsite on island
The island was haunted by toads, which as far as haunts are concerned are relatively mild.

Eric's luck in fishing was holding, in that he was catching nothing.  All around him small children were hauling in walleye and small-mouth bass hand over bobber, while his line remained stubbornly limp.  One time he had a nibble, but it was just a lilypad.  While retrieving his line he pulled a little too hard and shot his leech across an observer's starboard bow, and after that his constant collection of onlookers gave him a little more room.  It was hard to stay away, however--watching his curse unfold held a certain morbid fascination, like watching an extremely slow, boring, and watery train wreck.

Day 5

Yet another beautiful day.  Any rain was nothing more than an amusing chuckle at past worries.  There was swimming, hiking, games of capture-the-flag, and of course, day canoe trips to various locations.

Some lakes had enough vegetation that they were difficult to tell from the land.  On one excursion, Jon and I got a half-mile inland before we realized we had missed a turn in the creek.

Returning from visiting a neighboring lake, Jon and I encountered another canoeist who warned us that the "gestapo" were in the vicinity checking canoing and fishing permits.  Later that evening the green-clad rangers stopped by our camp.  Despite the canoeist's warning, any resemblance to Nazi enforcers was strictly superficial--not a jackboot, riding crop, or goosestep to be seen.  In fact, they were very pleasant and casually chatted for a few minutes, glanced briefly at our boat permit, and moved out to the lake to do a little fishing. 

Having observed Eric's difficulty with fishing, Aunt Kristi took it upon herself to break his curse.  After gathering their fishing poles and carefully selecting the largest, most succulent leeches, Kristi led the way up the shoreline, confident of success.

Five minutes later they were back, Eric dripping head-to-toe with a sodden hat sitting crooked on his head.  His curse had chewed him up and spit him out. Apparently a wayward cast had gone into a tree, and when he stepped on a log to retrieve it, the log had turned out to be floating over six feet of water. 

Eric's lack of luck did not extend to the rest of the group.

This beaver was a nightly visitor to the shore by the campsite.

View of the campsite.
With more lightning in the distance that evening, I was worried that the rain we had managed to avoid so far would be unleashed in a downpour of belated intensity.  There were a handful of intrepid trip participants who were sleeping under the stars, so I passed along a tarp I had been using as a tent awning.

A short while later, they decided to move away from the pile of lightning-attracting metal canoe paddles by the shore and set up camp in a clearing further into the woods.  As we started hanging the tarp, it started to sprinkle.  We picked up the pace, anticipating a downpour at any moment.  As we finished setting the tarp up, however, the sprinkling stopped, having pleasantly cooled the air.  Still, there was ominous thunder rumbling, so the group crowded under the tarp for the night.

So close to nature, encounters were bound to happen.  Notable quote from that night: "I was not expecting to find a frog in my pajamas."  So true.  No one does.

Before the trip, anticipating lazy afternoons and long evenings, I had stocked up on Louis L'Amour books.  Tragedy struck this evening, however: having finished my current book, I discovered that my last one was missing.  Civilization suddenly seemed distant and ennui promptly set in.

Day 6

The morning was cold and cloudy.  Jackets were broken out and breakfast fires were built.  I toasted a bagel on a home-built toaster made from weaving a forked stick together, which worked out well until the toaster caught fire and the forks of the stick sprang apart, sending my bagel shooting across camp.

With no Louis L'Amour to occupy my time, I decided to expand the open-air sleepers' simple tarp covering.  Other members of the camp were also bored, and soon we had seven amateur Frank Lloyd Wrights designing an elaborate structure.

After scaling down initial aspirations of a three-story Robinson Crusoesqe treehouse, we started threading together tarps and ponchos into a patchwork covering that gave the finished product its name of "Franken-tent."  While not particularly spacious, it was reasonably comfortable and provided protection from the elements.  Not that the protection was particularly needed.  The elements were already starting to revert back to their persistent sunniness, providing a distressing lack of the misery that makes for the best camping stories.


Later that afternoon we played capture-the-flag, where an enemy amphibious assault across the narrow bay that separated our flag stations was met by wet grass cleverly placed on the steep rocks in such a way as to maximize the opponents' probability of breaking an ankle.  The attack was successfully repulsed and our team ended up victorious.

To warm up, Eric built a lean-to fire, which his wife unkindly compared to a structure closer to a crackhouse, but it got the job done.

One additional happiness: the prodigal Louis L'Amour book was found.  The vacation was saved.

Arcane rituals were practiced ("playing with fire")

Portaging. While not obvious from the picture, the canoe was constructed from an alloy of lead and brick, as I quickly deduced after five minutes of carrying it.

Day 7

The final day of our adventure arrived, with more witheringly good weather.  With only hours to go before leaving, Eric decided to have one last go at breaking his fishing curse.  I threw together a pole made with a stick, six foot length of fishing line, a hook, bobber, and worm scrounged from beneath a rock.  Taking the pole along the shoreline, we found a deep, dark hole, and Eric dropped the line in.  Minutes later, there was a tug on his line and he pulled out an eight-inch bass.  It wouldn't have won any prizes, but it was a fish.  His curse was broken.

Eric was happy, but it seemed tinged with a little apprehension.  Kristi put her finger on the likely reason.  "Until now, he's been able to blame not catching fish on his curse.  Now, if he doesn't catch fish, he's just a bad fisherman."  A good point. 

Photographic evidence of the breaking of Eric's curse.
The trip back to our original entry point was quick, the additional gear and number of people that had joined us midweek offset by the canoing skills gained over the duration of the trip.  We smiled with kindly tolerance at the flailing strokes of groups we passed that were just beginning their trips, while our flashing paddles cut cleaning and smoothly through the water.  Portages were crossed efficiently and smoothly, with little to no gear left behind.  We had come far, and not just milage-wise (kilometer-wise for the portions of the trip done through Canadian waters).

We were canoeists.


Unknown said...

As always, a very enjoyable read. Sounds like crazy fun. Where do I sign up for the next trip? :)

Charity Z said...

That was hilarious! Thanks for sharing the adventure!