Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
(Originally printed in Camping Life in 1998.)

Truly unspoiled wilderness is fast becoming about as common as honest politicians. You know they're out there, somewhere, but you also know you're not likely to find one without a lot of hard searching. Find one, and you know immediately that the search was worthwhile. At least when it comes to the wilderness.

The Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), one million pristine acres of northern Minnesota, is one of the places that reminds you why we keep searching. Although more than 200,000 people visit BWCAW annually, its hundreds of lakes, its 1200 miles of cane routes, and its thousands of species of plant and animal life seem to be utterly untouched by civilization. No McDonalds, no CNN, no phones, no faxes, no email. No gangsta rap, no strip malls, no multiplex cinemas. No crowds, no queues. If it sounds perfect, it's because it just about is.

One of the things about perfection, though, is that it's not always easy to reach. The same can be said for the Boundary Waters. The nearest town of any real size is Ely, Minnesota, which is about a 90-minute drive north of Duluth, which is about a two-hour drive (or 35-minute flight) north of Minneapolis, which is where you'll probably fly if you're coming to the Boundary Waters from anywhere else in North America. After flying into Minneapolis, then taking a puddle-jumper flight to Duluth, then driving to Ely, to pick up the canoes, I felt more than just a little bit like John Candy in the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. (I kind of looked like him, too.)

A hot shower and a reunion with a buddy from Kentucky who goes by "Th' Senatuh" (say it like a pompous southern politician and you’ll get the gist) changed me back into myself again, so we headed to Hill's Wilderness Trips, where Andy Hill had promised to make sure we were properly outfitted for our adventure.

Ely, by the way, has an economy based almost entirely on tourism, so we had about 15 outfitters to choose from, as well as a half-dozen motels, restaurants serving everything from mountain pike to Mexican food, pubs with or without live music and darts, and the usual plethora of "craft" shops that let people with a lot more money than taste buy a bunch of trinkets to as gifts for the folks back home. We chose Hill's Wilderness Trips as our outfitter based on the fact that Andy Hill is licensed to guide in both the U.S. and Canada; that Andy has been outfitting and guiding for more than 30 years; and that Andy has been the guide for three National Geographic photographic expeditions. Not to mention that he's a helluva nice guy who's big fun to hang out with, and that he put us up in one of his two-room A-frame lodges the night before we began our adventure and the night we got back in from the back country.

We'd arranged for a lot of the gear we'd be bringing on our trip to be drop-shipped to Hill's, to save us the hassle of lugging umpteen-dozen boxes through airports, so the scene in Hill's parking lot our first morning was kind of like an early Christmas, with all of us ripping open boxes to see what kind of goodies Santa (or UPS) had brought during the night. Andy played the knowing Dad, critically eyeing every item before passing judgment. "That's good," he'd say, appraising a useful something or other. More often, he'd pick up a gizmo we were oohing and aaahing over, and announce, "This is crap. It'll break the first time you drop it. Watch." And sure enough, a two-foot fall would turn our object of desire into an object of a thousand pieces.

After getting Andy's approval for the gear we'd had shipped in - particularly the Coleman Peak double-burner camp stove that folded up nice and small and still had enough juice to bring a quart of water to a boil in less than five minutes - we started going back over our personal gear, eliminating as much excess baggage as possible. "Be prepared, but not overloaded," was the mantra Andy drilled into us. My natural impulse, when faced with a giant piece of luggage like a backpack, is to fill it to overflowing, then spend the entire trip wearing the same clothes and only brushing my teeth if I've eaten that day. And I usually forget to pack food. This, Andy pointed out, is the definition of boneheaded packing.

Getting the proper gear together took most of the morning, during which time we were introduced to Bob Cary, whose name might not get him a good table in a New York restaurant, but who is legendary among outdoorsmen, particularly those around the Boundary Waters. Cary, now in his 70s, is in what he calls "retirement," which means that he divides his days between running Ely's newspaper, doing his call-in radio show on the local station (the station, by the way, was owned by the late newsman Charles Kuralt, a frequent visitor to Ely and the Boundary Waters), playing drums in a jazz trio at night, writing, producing stunning illustrations for his own books, and still managing to be Ely's number-one raconteur-about-town. Not bad for a guy who says he's glad to be through with regular work.

Over coffee, Cary gave our packs the once-over and reminisced about when he first started coming to the Boundary Waters. "We used to come up here," he laughed, "carrying canvas tents that weighed fifty pounds. Our canoes weighed another hundred pounds or so. Altogether, we'd be portaging with something like two hundred pounds on our shoulders, and we'd sit out there and think we were having a hell of a great time."

It's better now. Our four-man tent weighed less than 10 pounds. A two-man Wenonah Minnesota II Kevlar canoe weighs just 42 pounds. Fully loaded, with pack and canoe, a modern portage only puts about 100 pounds on your shoulders. It's not feather-light, but it's a LOT easier than it used to be.

Visiting the Boundary Waters requires a bit more than just showing up with a canoe and some gear. The number of campsites is limited, so the U.S. Forest Service tries to keep something of a lid on the number of people who are in the area at any given time. An entry permit, which tells the G-men when you're planning on entering and exiting the area, is a necessity. This helps keep crowding and possible human impact on the area to a bare minimum, and it works. For the better part of our trip, we were the only people we saw, which is exactly the way a wilderness should be.

We put in at the Kawishiwi (ka-WISH-uh-wee) Lake Campground, about a 90-minute drive from Ely. The weather was perfect, cool and sunny, and the omens were all positive.

No matter how many times you've been in a canoe, if it's been more than a couple of weeks since your last paddle, the first couple of minutes on the water are spent making sure you don't tip over instead of actually going anywhere. It's worse if there are two of you in the canoe, and it's even worse if the two of you have never paddled together before. I was partnered with Randy Scott, while Stuart Bourdon was paddling solo. Th' Senatuh was slacking, wedged in with Randy and me.

Soon enough, though, the rhythm of the paddles returned and we were cruising across Kawishiwi Lake.

The first thing we noticed was the complete and utter silence. We were the only people visible on the lake, and the only sounds were our paddles in the water. If we stopped paddling, the silence was nearly complete. Far from eerie, the silence was soothing, and we found ourselves going for great stretches of time without even speaking. We listened and paddled, and looked for moose in the woods that surrounded the lake we were gliding across.

It took us about two and a half hours to reach our first campsite, including a couple of short portages. Portages, incidentally, suck. It's not enough that you have to get yourself and all your gear out of the canoe without tipping over, get it all up on your shoulders, and then go traipsing down an overgrown hiking trail. No, you also have to deal with the fact that Boundary Waters maps list portage distances in "rods," which is real handy if you have an ancient Egyptian along to do the rods-to-real distance conversion, but is pretty much useless otherwise. (Technically, 1 rod = 16.5 feet. Don't ask me why.) We finally just measured portages by the numbers on the map. A 10-rod portage = Easy; a 100-rod portage = Not Too Bad; a 200-rod portage = Semi-Tiring; a 1000-rod portage = You Carry the Damn Canoe, You Think It's So Light.

We dealt with the portages, actually making it a badge of honor to make the entire portage without stopping for a quick rest. Randy caught a good-sized walleye pike en route, so dinner was handled. Stuart and I set up camp, Randy cleaned the fish, and Th' Senatuh made the rounds, lending his support.

Sleep comes early in the Boundary Waters, but for me, sleep didn't last long. Shortly after bedding down, just as I was drifting off, I heard a great snuffle that I thought was just another of Stuart's snores. Then I heard a heavy footfall outside the tent, right beside my head and I was wide awake. "A moose," I thought. More crushing footsteps. "A damned HEAVY moose," I thought. A splashing sound. "He’s getting a drink," I thought, "maybe I should peek out of the tent and get a look at him." Just as I began to reach for the zipper to open the tent door, a great roar came from the "moose." I levitated. Randy and Stuart woke up and levitated.

Yogi Bear - not Bullwinkle J. Moose - had been drawn to our campsite by the fish guts left in the water when Randy cleaned the day's catch, and now Yogi was trying to get a grip on our food bag, which was dangling from a tree limb just out of his reach. Looking back, I realize that Yogi was probably a young black bear, not much bigger than an NFL lineman, but right then I figured Yogi to be about 30 feet tall and a little heavier than a Chevy Suburban. In fact, I figured Yogi could eat a Chevy Suburban.

The two or three minutes it took for Yogi to realize he couldn't get into our food and take his leave of camp seemed like hours to me, and I'll never forget wondering, as he lumbered past my side of the tent on his way back into the forest, just how much it was going to hurt when he reached through the tent wall and bit into my soft head.

Needless to say, Yogi didn't behead me. He did wreck my night's sleep, since the sound of a leaf falling ten miles away was suddenly loud enough to wake me right up. I think I even heard the moonlight falling on the tent once or twice.

The next three days were spent exploring. We changed campsites on Day Two, establishing a base camp on a beautiful rock outcropping in Lake Polly. That same day, we spent a solid hour watching a couple of beavers work on a dam. None of us had ever seen beavers in the wild, so we were mesmerized. The beavers felled trees, dragged the trees and branches across the water, and fortified the dam while we watched. As we sat there, silently watching, they even began to show a playful side, actually swimming under our canoes on their travels from the dam to the shore for more material.

We did a couple of long out-and-back trips, the longest being our Day Three trip to Hazel Lake and back. We saw eagles, we saw more beavers, we saw loons, we heard wolves. We didn't see a moose, which was kind of disappointing. We did see the Northern Lights, though, and that kind of made up for the missing moose.

Between explorations, we fished, we swam in the cool water, we baked in the surprisingly warm sun. We fished - at one point Randy had a small bass on a stringer hanging over the side of his canoe, only to have a particularly vicious walleye pike attack the helpless bass. To his credit, Randy landed both fish. What we did mostly was nothing, and it was just what needed to be done.

Too soon, our four days were past and we had to head back to civilization. Our final trip was the longest we took, a little over four miles (according to my Magellan GPS) that took just about five hours to cover. We'd have made better time, but we weren't in any big hurry to leave. There were a lot of people on their way in, though. We passed probably 30 canoes heading into the Boundary Waters as we left, more than we'd seen in our four days on the water combined.

Back in Ely, we took advantage of a hot shower at Hill's A-frame and a festive beverage courtesy of Th' Senatuh before heading out to catch the last couple of sets by Bob Cary's jazz trio, the perfect way to ease ourselves back into the real world.


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