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Campfires and Loon Calls
Travels in the Boundary Waters
By Jerry Apps, Step Apps
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2011 Jerry Apps
All rights reserved.
I unfold our map and find Round Lake. We are three lakes and two portages away from entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We begin loading the gear into our 17-foot aluminum Grumman canoe.
"Do we need this much stuff?" Steve asks as we pile the canoe high.
"You agreed to it all," I say.
"Next year we'll do better," he says after pushing the last bag into an unused corner of the canoe. By doing better I'm sure he means bringing a lot less gear — or at least lighter gear.
Soon we are paddling. The morning has turned clear and warm with little wind, so the paddling is easy. Before long, we've gotten into a rhythm that sends the loaded canoe easily through the water, its bow making little gurgling sounds. Steve paddles and steers from the back and I paddle in the front, our gear piled between us. Neither of us says anything as we move silently through the water. I paddle as quietly as I can, thrust, pull, thrust, pull, moving us along but not wanting to interfere with the silence.
Round Lake is about 155 acres and 45 feet deep. After about a mile of paddling, we reach the portage leading to West Round Lake and unload the canoe. With Steve's tutelage, I learn the trick for tipping the canoe over and lifting it on its end so he can slip under and balance the craft on his shoulders. He pulls on one of the packs, I help him hoist the canoe onto his back, and he is off. At this point I cross my fingers that our makeshift yoke, held in place with duct tape, will remain in place. It does.
At the end of the portage, we load everything back into the canoe and make the short paddle across West Round Lake in search of the 50-rod (a rod is 5.5 yards, or 16.5 feet) portage to Edith Lake. According to the map, the boundary line for the BWCAW cuts across the west end of Edith Lake and intersects the portage to Brant Lake, which appears fully within the BWCAW. We paddle across little Edith Lake to the 36-rod portage to Brant Lake. The portages so far have been reasonable — relatively flat but a bit muddy. Steve slogs along the trail with the canoe and a pack, not complaining. I carry a single pack and begin working up a sweat. This is supposed to be fun. Sweating for me usually means work. In the low, marshy places along the portage route mosquitoes find us, swarms of them that attack us without mercy. Steve hates them more than I do, because while carrying the canoe he can't swat them as they drill into his neck and back. Until this point we have seen no mosquitoes, so we haven't put on any repellant. We suffer because of our delinquency.
It is a pleasant paddle in Brant Lake in search of the portage to Gotter Lake, a rather small lake with several islands. We find the portage with little difficulty — surprise, surprise. By this time I've decided that the people who establish portages take great delight in making the portage entrances well-nigh impossible to find. I suspect this is supposed to be some of the fun of canoeing, searching for a portage and trying to decide how accurate the maps are in declaring their location. Maybe it's just me, but a hidden portage entrance quickly becomes an annoyance. And how am I supposed to know the difference between a portage and a game trail where a moose has come to the lake for a drink? I know, I'm supposed to be relaxed and laid-back when I'm canoeing. Mostly I am. But not being able to find a portage ranks right up there with swarms of mosquitoes and menacing black flies.
A quick paddle across Gotter Lake followed by a 50-rod portage and we are in long and narrow Flying Lake, which we follow to Flying Creek. Then a 15-rod portage to a short, interesting paddle in Bingshick Creek, another 13-rod portage, and we reach our goal for the day, Bingshick Lake. I am bushed. My shoulders ache, my back hurts. I have too many mosquito bites. So far we have paddled in seven lakes and portaged 341 rods (1,875.5 yards, or a little over a mile) all on our first day. BWCAW portages are not a walk in the park on well-groomed, sawdust-covered trails. They are hilly, rocky, sometimes wet and muddy, often slippery, and occasionally blocked by a tree that has decided to fall inconveniently across the path. Of course we tote heavy packs, and Steve also carries a canoe. But canoeists are a strange lot, by and large. Seldom do you hear anyone complaining about portages. They are part of the experience and soon become the stuff of canoe stories that tend to be embellished over the years. Nonetheless, portages are hard work, especially for those of us who spend too much time indoors and seldom lift more than a pencil during the day's activity.
We search for a campsite on Bingshick Lake. Campsites are blessedly easier to locate than portages, mostly because you can spot where people have pulled up the canoes and trampled down the grass. Of course, spotting the ever-present fire grate is the final confirmation that you indeed have found a Forest Service–designated campsite, an approved, legal place to camp. According to our map, Bingshick has but two campsites, both on the north side of the lake. I also note that the Kekekabic Hiking Trail cuts by the north side of the lake, so I anticipate seeing a hiker or two plodding along the trail.
Bingshick is about 44 acres, only three-quarters of a mile long and about one-eighth of a mile wide, but we quickly see that it's a beautiful little lake. We pull in at the easternmost campsite and set up camp.
Later I make my first journal entry for the trip:
Tuesday, August 16, 1983. Bingshick Lake
We arrived at the campsite on Bingshick about 1:00 pm. As we began setting up our camp, four loons flew over, calling. The first loon call I had ever heard, and I stopped to watch and listen. The loon call is amazing. Nothing like it. Mysterious. Eerie. Prehistoric. Earlier this morning, we saw several ducks and a bull moose when we drove to our launch site.
We pitched our tent on a rocky site that juts out into the lake. The site is high enough so a breeze seems to always blow, driving away any mosquitoes lurking in the area as well as discouraging any menacing deerflies left over from early summer. Our tent is a considerably used, orange, four-person Eureka that we borrowed from a neighbor.
About 3:00 pm it began raining lightly, and it still is. I am writing this sitting under a big white pine tree, so far so good, I'm staying dry. Steve is reading in the tent. It's a relaxing afternoon.
By suppertime the rain stops. I fire up my new camp stove, boil some water, make two cups of instant vegetable soup (more like petrified vegetables lost in too much salt; surprising how hunger can improve the quality of food), and soon have our first meal of macaroni and cheese ready to eat. I am declared camp cook.
"Whoever owns the stove is the cook," says Steve. I believe he remembers that I am a terrible cook, right up there with my father, who couldn't boil water without burning it. No complaints about the macaroni and cheese, though. The camp cook is off to a good start. We sit on logs that surround the fire grate, eating and watching a pair of loons cruising a few yards in front of the campsite and serenading us with dinner music. Chocolate pudding for dessert. I boil another pot of water, and we sit enjoying instant coffee, the loons, and the smells of the outdoors. After so much time spent in the city, one tends to forget the smell of pine needles, the subtle smell of lake water, and the dense, musky smell of humid night air.
And the sounds — the quiet sounds of water gently lapping against the rocks, the scurrying of a red squirrel visiting the campsite in search of a dropped crumb, the rustling of pine needles as a slight, cooling breeze blows in from the lake. The loons are quiet now.
I listen for the most profound sound of all, the sound of silence. There's none of the background traffic noise that is ever-present in cities and most rural areas, no man-made sounds at all here in this wilderness area.
I am thrust back to my growing-up years on a farm during the latter years of the Great Depression, when my dad, mother, brothers, and I sat on the back porch of the old farmhouse in early evening after the chores were done. Pa instructed us to listen for the sounds of the night, but on many quiet summer evenings there was no sound, save perhaps for the distant dong, dong of a cowbell in a neighbor's pasture half a mile away.
I remember walking with Dad in the woods on a summer day. "Walk quietly," he'd say. "And no talking." He wanted me to tune in to my surroundings, the sounds and sights of the out-of-doors. Now, as I sit looking out over the quiet waters of Bingshick Lake, I am back to my childhood and the lessons I learned from my father about paying attention to my surroundings — the sights and sounds and feelings. Tonight I will sleep well, embraced by the sounds of the night.
* * *
It is warm when I awaken this morning. Dew hangs heavy on everything, dripping from the trees and wetting the tent's rain fly. I feel the previous day's activities; my shoulders ache from portaging the heavy packs and my arms hurt from paddling. I will share none of this with Steve, who is sleeping in. A father doesn't want his son to know he is an out-of-shape wimp. I pour some white gas into the camp stove, pump it up with the built-in pump, light it, and soon I have water boiling. I lower the food bag from its place high in a tree and away from bears and other critters intent on sharing our meals, and I find the bag marked Breakfast. I make myself a cup of instant coffee and spend the next half hour doing nothing except looking out over the quiet waters of Bingshick Lake, watching wisps of fog rise from the cool water. It has been a long time since I spent time doing nothing. It's a good feeling. A liberating feeling. I give myself permission to just sit. But of course I feel I need a reason for this nonproductive behavior. The loud voice in my head that keeps driving me forward is yelling, "Those who just sit are lazy and not worth much!" I need a response to the voice's concerns. Recuperating is my answer. I am weary and sore from the previous day's work. But a quieter voice, one deep in the back of my mind, is whispering, "You need some do-nothing time. Doing nothing from time to time is okay."
With Steve up — moving, smiling, and not complaining at all about a sore back, shoulders, or anything else — I begin cooking up a batch of pancakes. I brought along pancake mix that comes in a plastic container and requires only adding a little water to make the batter. I don't burn the flapjacks, nor are they gooey and uncooked in their centers. It is a good start to the day.
We break camp, load the canoe, and paddle off into the morning in search of the 55-rod portage to Glee Lake. After a short paddle on Glee, we easily find the 25-rod portage to Fay Lake, which is about a mile long and has no campsites. At the end of Fay Lake, we continue paddling into the narrow Club River and War Club Lake. Then a short 15-rod portage into Seahorse Lake, which is at first more a narrow river than a lake. Paddling is relatively easy, although the day is becoming warmer, and I can feel sweat pouring down my back, underneath my ever-present life jacket. (Although I learned to swim when I was a kid, I never step into a canoe or a boat without wearing a life jacket. It's my advice to all who canoe or boat. You just never know when you might find yourself in the water.)
From Seahorse Lake, indeed shaped like a sea horse, we find the 25-rod portage to French Lake and begin to feel a little cocky about our ease in finding portages. This will soon change.
Three-cornered French Lake is only 112 acres, but it's 130 feet deep and boasts both lake trout and yellow perch. Without any difficulty we find the 27-rod portage to Gillis Lake. Now we are no longer paddling in little lakes. Gillis is 570 acres and 180 feet deep and is home to lake trout, northern pike, and yellow perch. Seven campsites are located on the north and west sides of the lake, one of them on an island. Tall trees come down to the water's edge, and rocky outcroppings appear everywhere. Unfortunately for us, the lake's many bays and coves prove a considerable obstacle to finding the portage to Crooked Lake, where we intend to camp for the night. We explore the nooks and crannies of Gillis Lake for the better part of an hour before we find the nearly hidden entrance to the 90-rod Crooked Lake Portage. Once more our confidence in finding portages has been shattered.
Crooked Lake is well named. It has as many bays and coves as Gillis Lake, but it is a bit smaller than Gillis, about 300 acres, and much shallower, only 66 feet at its deepest. We quickly learn as we paddle in Crooked Lake, searching for one of six campsites (three of them on islands), that huge boulders lurk just beneath the surface, a considerable distance from shore in several places. I quickly move from landscape-gazing to boulder-watching, peering into the depths for a monster, canoe-busting boulder. Steve told me earlier that I should keep a keen lookout for underwater rocks when we are near shore, especially as we are rounding points of land that jut out into the lake. But in Crooked Lake, huge underwater rocks seem to appear anywhere and everywhere. We paddle slowly and successfully without any collisions. I am thankful for the sunny day that makes gazing down into the water relatively easy.
We select a campsite with a view of an island directly across a narrow expanse of water. The campsite is high on the rocks, facing mostly south. Today we made six portages for a total of 237 rods, about two-thirds as far as the previous day. Yet I feel like we've done more — especially since we exhausted an hour searching for one of the portages. I have to remind myself that the search was a pleasant paddle, even if we didn't know where we were going. Steve wasn't too concerned that we didn't quickly find the portage. Time for me to take a lesson from the younger generation.
We pitch the tent and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing and munching on trail mix and enjoying lemonade, which I've made from lake water treated with a bacteria-killing product called Potable Aqua. The lake water appears clear and clean — I can see 15 or more feet into it. Still, we know not to drink the water, no matter how clear it may look or how thirsty we may be. Invisible, stomach-upsetting bacteria lurk in even the clearest lake water. Potable Aqua leaves an aftertaste, but mixing the treated water with instant lemonade crystals results in a safe and tasty drink. And on a warm afternoon, lemonade is much appreciated. (In recent years we take the time to boil all our drinking water for a minimum of two minutes, which also does an excellent job of killing waterborne bacteria and other baddies.)
Wednesday, August 17, 1983. Midafternoon. Crooked Lake
Bright sunshine. Hot. We have no thermometer, but I'm guessing high 80s. I'm writing this while sitting on a log by the fire ring at our spectacular campsite. Even Steve, who doesn't comment much about these things, said this is one of the most attractive campsites he's seen. And he's seen a lot of them. For me this campsite is like one you see in an outdoors magazine, nature's beauty at its best. We're on a high jut of stony land, facing south toward a little island. A seagull rookery is about 100 rods down the shore from our campsite — seagulls are everywhere. We've also seen and heard several loons.
In the evening I cook up a batch of dried noodles with cheese and broccoli. Sounds a bit unappetizing, but after a day of paddling and portaging, it's a tasty and filling dinner. As a Depression-era farm boy, I learned to eat just about anything. No complaints, and the camp cook is still in the good graces of the crew.
Thursday, August 18, 1983. 7:00 am. Crooked Lake
The sun is coming up over my left shoulder as I sit looking out over the lake and toward the island a short distance away. Crooked fingers of fog lift from the cool lake water. Today we will stay in camp, relaxing and reading. I look forward to it. My shoulders, arms, and back look forward to it as well.
A breeze from the south whispers into camp and creates a slight chop on the lake. So far this trip, we've had no wind; the lakes are glassy smooth, which makes for good canoeing. I sit here looking out at a rocky island a few hundred yards across the water from our campsite and simply enjoy the view. No great thoughts. No worries.
We spend the day relaxing, napping, and reading. When we tire of those strenuous activities, we climb into the canoe, paddle along shore, and fish. We catch nothing.
Thursday, August 18, 1983. Late afternoon. Crooked Lake
Just finished reading Huxley's Brave New World. What a great book and what a place to read it. Reading Huxley showed me what too much organization and control can do, and why we need places like the Boundary Waters to remind us of another world, perhaps even braver than his, where nature is in charge and little is controlled and predictable.
I'm amazed at how few people we've seen since we've been here; three canoes, that's it. For me this surely is one of the attractions of the place — no elbows in the ribs, so to speak. No loud talking, laughing, radios blaring, boom boxes booming. No truck and auto sound. No exhaust fumes. No motorboats roaring by.
I'm sitting on a rock while I write this. A strong southerly breeze shakes the branches of the spruce and birch trees at the campsite. Waves splash against the stones and rock the canoe, which is tied to a little cedar tree. A gentle, not unpleasant sound.
Excerpted from Campfires and Loon Calls by Jerry Apps, Step Apps. Copyright © 2011 Jerry Apps. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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