North­woods wilder­ness adventure sweeter with age

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OUTDOORS - BRYAN HEN­DRICKS

I am glad I didn’t dis­cover the Bound­ary Waters Ca­noe Area Wilder­ness when I was younger.

New ex­pe­ri­ences keep life ex­cit­ing and fresh, and I am grate­ful that in my rush through youth, I saved some fine wines for later.

The Bound­ary Waters Ca­noe Area Wilder­ness — the BWCA — in Min­nesota is a check­list item for out­doors writ­ers. Some of us, like my friend Tim Mead of Char­lotte, N.C., have made a ca­reer of writ­ing about and pho­tograph­ing the BWCA and its big sis­ter, Quetico Pro­vin­cial Park in neigh­bor­ing On­tario. Mead’s book, Quetico Ad­ven­tures, is a de­fin­i­tive re­source for that area, as is his “Bound­ary Waters Jour­nal.”

The 1 mil­lion-acre BWCA is part of the 3.9 mil­lion-acre Su­pe­rior Na­tional For­est, which sprawls all the way to the western shore of Lake Su­pe­rior. Abut­ting the western end of the Bound­ary Waters is 218,000-acre Voyageurs Na­tional Park. On the Cana­dian side is Quetico Pro­vin­cial Park, which takes in an­other 1.18 mil­lion acres.

This area rep­re­sents the south­ern ex­tent of the Cana­dian Shield, a vast expanse of lakes, low hills and muskeg formed by glacial ero­sion. The dense for­est is com­posed mostly of white cedar, east­ern white pine, white spruce, black spruce, red pine, white birch, aspen and moun­tain ash.

Al­most half of the area, 455,000 acres, is old-growth for­est.

It’s not like the Ozark or Oua­chita Na­tional forests, where you are never more than a quar­ter mile from a road. In north­ern Min­nesota, there’s not much civ­i­liza­tion be­tween you and the North Pole. If you get lost, which can eas­ily hap­pen on land, you can stay lost.

Of this I warned my son Matthew and daugh­ter Amy to tem­per their ex­ploratory ar­dor. They dis­missed th­ese warn­ings as the usual doom prophe­cies of an over­pro­tec­tive par­ent, or more likely, the over­state­ments of an old coot who doesn’t know squat about any­thing. I was 21 once. I re­mem­ber.

They got lost while ex­plor­ing by ca­noe. The BWCA land­scape is mo­not­o­nous and in­dis­tinc­tive. They got a cou­ple of bays over from ours. Ev­ery is­land looks the same, and they spent the en­tire day try­ing to find their way back. They got very hun­gry, very thirsty and very sun­burned.

Be­cause the BWCA is so far north, days are longer than in Arkansas. A false dawn bright­ens the heav­ens start­ing at about 4:30 a.m., but the sun doesn’t ac­tu­ally rise un­til much later.

Sun­light is very bright, very blue and very harsh in th­ese lat­i­tudes, and af­ter sun­set, a false dawn lights the sky un­til about mid­night.

Loons are plen­ti­ful in the BWCA, and since it is breed­ing sea­son, they ser­e­naded us all night with lone­some sound­ing calls.

Bald ea­gles are ubiq­ui­tous, and our is­land even had ruffed grouse. On the two sunny days of our six-day visit, a male grouse drummed lustily.

Co­p­ley Smoak, our host, has a bird call app on his smart­phone. It ag­gra­vated a num­ber of song­birds that flit­ted about look­ing for their ter­ri­to­rial in­ter­lop­ers.

Black bears are plen­ti­ful in this part of the world and can be prob­lem­atic in the BWCA. Our is­land was far sep­a­rated from the main­land, and we min­i­mized food odors to en­sure they didn’t bother us.

Mos­qui­tos both­ered us plenty. Min­nesota skeeters are big­ger than the south­ern va­ri­ety, and they at­tack in as­ton­ish­ing num­bers. Three Ther­maCells did not dis­suade them in the least.

It’s also nest­ing sea­son for all of the var­i­ous tur­tles in the BWCA. Dozens of snappers and slid­ers dug nests and laid eggs be­side our kitchen area and be­side our tents. Crows un­earth many of the nests, so rel­a­tively few eggs hatch.

It was de­light­ful eat­ing fresh fish ev­ery night for sup­per. My big wall­eye was the high­light, but north­ern pike were sur­pris­ingly tasty. Smoak cut them in chunks, and we pulled out the Y-bones as we ate. It’s eas­ier and cleaner than it seems.

A woman named Mindy over­sees the portage be­tween Moose Lake and Bass­wood Lake. She has a trailer com­posed of ply­wood over a frame that’s cov­ered with a non­skid sur­face. Drive your ca­noe or boat onto the ply­wood, and Mindy drives you a cou­ple of hun­dred yards to the next lake for the cost of $16 per ve­hi­cle. It’s as back­woods a rig as you’ll ever see.

“You’d fit right in in Arkansas with a rig like this,” I said.

Mindy seemed de­lighted to hear this.

Yes, I’m glad I stayed away from this place in my youth, but I’m glad my kids ex­pe­ri­enced it in theirs.

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