WILD ON THE WATER
Canoeing is still the best way to see the territory where Minnesota meets Canada, discovers Trevor Fishlock
BRIAN Gallagher’s long wilderness journeys take him far away from news. He must have been the last man in America to hear of the twin towers attack, more than a week after it happened. Something about him — the grin, the laconic air, the ancient cap and scrubby growth of beard — reminds me of Charlie Allnut, Humphrey Bogart’s riverboat skipper in The African Queen .
He works as a guide in the Boundary Waters, the vast borderland of lakes and forests where Minnesota meets Canada. No one lives in this tranquil outback. There are no roads, buildings, pylons, phone masts, motorboats, signposts or picnic tables. The only way to travel is to paddle from lake to shining lake on routes pioneered by fur trade voyagers who opened up the north American heartland in the 18th and 19th centuries. I travelled here years ago and the magic endured. I always wanted to go again.
I drive from the twin cities of MinneapolisSt Paul to Duluth, turn right to revisit Highway 61 on the north shore of Lake Superior, turn left at Grand Marais and follow the Gunflint Trail for 96km to meet Gallagher for dinner at Gunflint Lodge.
Next morning we launch a 5m canoe and load our tents and food in canvas bags. I sit in the bow, Gallagher in the stern. The woods along the shore glow yellow in the autumn sunlight. The canoe whispers like silk.
After a while we stop paddling and Gallagher smokes a cigarette as we drift. His love for the lakes has grown from trips with his father, who taught him to canoe and fish for walleye, bass and trout. Later Gallagher qualified as a counsellor, treating drug addicts, and led small groups of them on canoe trips in the Boundary Waters. ‘‘ It couldn’t be a cure but it opened their minds to other possibilities, away from city streets and drugs.’’
Ten years ago he shaped the life he dreamed of and became a canoe guide. He and his wife moved into a timber cabin without electricity or piped water. Gallagher saws a stack of logs for winter, fishes, shoots his permitted ration of deer and trains huskies for sled-racing. ‘‘ I’ll be 50 soon,’’ he says, ‘‘ and I’m looking forward to it.’’
We paddle to the rushy end of the first lake and land to make a portage through the woods to the next. We lift our canvas packs of supplies on to our backs. Gallagher flips the 18kg canoe upside-down on his shoulders and we march through the trees to the shore of the next lake where we reload and paddle on. The entrances to portages are not always plain to see and no signs mark them. Gallagher approves of such purity. ‘‘ It’s a wilderness,’’ he says. ‘‘ You need to read a map and be able to look after yourself.’’
Portages are shown on the map by a red line and are measured in rods. I remember from primary school days that a rod is 51/
2 yards (5m). Our first portage is 68 rods: 374 yards. Another lake traverse and a 30-rod portage brings us to Ham Lake. Gallagher knows a good camping site here. ‘‘ We’ll make a base camp, set up the tents, store the food and lighten the canoe.’’
He throws a rope over a branch of a white pine and hauls up our food pack to keep it out of the reach of black bears. We move easily in the lightened canoe to Cross Bay Lake, where we find a picnic rock for our lunch of bread, cheese and ham. An otter surfaces a few metres off to inspect us. Gallagher pumps lake water through a filter.
‘‘ I neglected to do that once and got giardia. Water from the deep middle of a lake is fine, but not on the shore.’’
During the afternoon we speak to four moose-hunters. ‘‘ Permits to hunt moose are drawn by lottery,’’ Gallagher says, ‘‘ and if you get one it’s likely to be the only chance you’ll have in your life. You have to kill your moose within the 15-day permit period. And when you kill it you have to skin it, saw off the antlers, butcher it and take it out by canoe. A big moose yields 226kg of meat, a lot to carry. When you get your permit, you have four hours’ instruction on how to deal with your kill. Many guys are pretty rough butchers, but it’s a man thing to go home to the family with a pile of moose meat and trophy antlers.’’
Back at camp we forage for wood, saw up logs and light a fire against a rock. The only services the authorities provide are a steel fire grill and a small, discreet latrine without walls in a glade 100m from the camp. The air grows very cold as the light fades and the stars appear. We sip bourbon and Gallagher cuts potatoes and onions, sizzles them in bacon fat and cooks two large steaks in cedar smoke. We wash up carefully and leave no traces of food to tempt the bears. Every speck of litter is consigned to a trash bag which goes in the food pack high up the tree. The strict rule is to carry all rubbish home.
‘‘ Black bears prefer to keep away from people,’’ says Gallagher, ‘‘ but they’re curious and might come and nose around at night. If there’s nothing to eat they’ll move on and you’ll not know they’ve visited. Over the years I’ve met a few troublesome bears and I’ve had to get up from my tent to shoo them away. It’s a question of attitude. Bears will sense fear, so you have to be determined and show authority.’’
I decide that if it comes to attitude with bears, I’ll probably leave it to Gallagher.
I turn in, aware of profound silence. I awake at dawn in my frosted tent and watch mist rolling over the lake, the sun unveiling the golden forest. Squirrels, chipmunks, nuthatches and Canadian jays are busy round the camp. Gallagher lights first a cigarette, then the stove, makes coffee and pancakes. We gather firewood for the evening, hoist our food into the pine tree and head south.
The canoe is intrinsic to the story and romance of this region, the only way to traverse the immense skein of lakes and streams. To Canadians, just over the border, it is an almost sacred national emblem connecting them to their inner voyager.
The old-time traders developed huge muscles paddling their birch canoes at 40 strokes a minute. Ten men paddled the big 12m canoes, which carried as much as four tonnes of cargo.
We meet two hunters in canoes loaded with cargoes of moose meat, the first craft sporting the palmate antlers as a trophy in the bow. We cross Rib and Lower George lakes and paddle 1.6km into Long Island Lake for lunch. We return to base camp after a 32km trip and a warm day in the sun. We light the fire, saw logs and sip bourbon. Gallagher is no believer in freeze-dried camping food. He believes in steak and once again we enjoy his cedar-smoked specials.
He loves the solitude he experiences in the Boundary Waters, but his guiding job brings him the company of all sorts. ‘‘ City folk sometimes find the silence and stillness disturbing, but many come back for more,’’ Gallagher says. ‘‘ All-male groups are often lazy, but the presence of a woman makes them work harder. Parents sometimes bring children too young to enjoy the experience. I meet dysfunctional families in which kids are difficult because parents are afraid to say no to them. They only want to be their best friend. But parenting isn’t a popularity contest. The best clients for me are kids aged 15 to 19 and people over 60: they want to learn.’’
After eggs and bacon next morning, we climb into the canoe and I paddle while Gallagher fishes. We watch otters playing in the sunshine. He catches nothing but we make the sunny morning last and paddle and portage back to the Gunflint Trail. I say goodbye to Gallagher and spend the night at Gunflint Lodge with its entrancing view over the lake to Canada.
Only one thing is missing. People always ask if you’ve seen moose, and I hadn’t. But in the morning I’ve gone only 800m on the Gunflint Trail and there it is, mooching and munching on the waterlogged fringe of the woods: the duty moose. I tick the box. The Daily Telegraph, London
Trevor Fishlock’s canoe trip was arranged and equipped by Gunflint Lodge’s Northwoods Outfitters; www.gunflintoutfitters.com. Hire of a guide costs about $225 a day; hire of canoe, equipment and food supplies costs about $103 a person a day, including bunkhouse accommodation before and after the trip. www.gunflint.com www.exploreminnesota.com
Paddle spot: A traditional metal canoe is pulled up on the shore of Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters wilderness area, a haven for wildlife and adventurers