WILD ON THE WA­TER

Ca­noe­ing is still the best way to see the ter­ri­tory where Min­nesota meets Canada, dis­cov­ers Trevor Fishlock

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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

Check­list

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

Pic­ture: Cor­bis

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

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