Northwoods wilderness adventure sweeter with age
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.