It’s Sunday as I write this week’s column. The original plan was that I’d be driving home from Minnesota today after a week in the Boundary Waters with my son. We actually spent five days traveling those wonderful wilderness lakes and portage trails together, but opted to shorten our trip by a couple of days for a variety of reasons.
Adam and I have prided ourselves in always being to make our portages in one trip - canoe, packs and all. Returning for another load means having to walk each portage trail three times (over with the first load, return and over with a second load) before paddling into the next lake. One-trip portages meant carrying double loads, though, and last week’s weather started very hot and steamy for a typical northcountry summer canoe trip. Some of the portages on our chosen route were steeper, rockier and longer than most of the ones we’ve faced in recent years, too. Each of us experienced falls with only minor scrapes and bruises when we lost traction on slippery or steep rocks early in the first day, though, and we decided that making extra trips across each portage trail might be the safer choice. Besides, some of those portage trails are beautiful in their own right as they follow cascading streams or pass under stands of ancient pines. Those are worth enjoying unencumbered by a heavy load. Carrying lighter loads kept at least one hand free to swat at the cloud of mosquitoes that followed us across each portage, too.
Things progressed in pretty normal fashion for trips we’ve taken in the past. Leaving the initial wilderness access point, we shared the trail with other parties heading out on their own adventures. As miles of paddling and several longer portages fell behind us, the crowds thinned and then disappeared. The next couple of days we saw no other people and had the lakes and trails to ourselves. The northcountry had severe storms both Sunday and Monday nights, but, thankfully, we missed the worst of those. There was plenty of lightning and rain during Monday night, but the winds were no more than to be expected in a thunderstorm. We stayed dry, and the cooler air following the storm was most welcomed, too.
We didn’t know until meeting a U.S. Forest Service trail crew on Wednesday morning that several injured people had to be flown out of Loon Lake when large trees blew over onto their tents. That was where we’d been on Sunday night. The crew was working hard to clear more wind-fallen trees from a stretch of portage trail that we had to cross. They were cutting 18" and larger logs with an ax and a two-man cross-cut saw, like the lumber jacks of old used to use. We stayed for awhile to help with our folding camp saw and eventually were able to push and pull our canoe and packs past the blockage. The young man and woman working on that site probably had a half-day’s work ahead of them, yet. The blow-down path left by the storm was obviously miles long, and that crew still had many campsites and miles of portage trails to check and clear. Sadly, some of the trees that the storm felled were old-growth pines that were most likely in excess of 200 years old.
Wilderness travel in a single canoe is a precious experience when shared with a special paddle partner. The storm and the earlier falls we had taken reminded us that there are risks in being so alone and far from help if it was to be needed. It took hours of hard paddling for the uninjured members of the group where people were badly hurt to reach help. It would have taken us even longer to reach help had the need arisen, and that’s assuming that the canoe was still in shape to travel with a solo paddler. When Old Dad (your columnist) ran short of breath early in a mile-long portage on our fifth day out, we paused to ponder the best course of action. A few years ago, we’d have toughed it out and pushed on. There were still some beautiful and remote wilderness lakes to see. Caution overruled that plan, though. We opted, instead, for a shorter, easier route back to civilization. Following that plan soon brought us face-to-face with large groups of canoe trekkers headed back home or headed out. We had to wait to get across portages. Campsites were nearly all taken. The spell was broken, and we just kept paddling until we reached the road access at the Moose River trail head. Some kind fellow travelers gave Adam a ride the seven miles back to where we’d left our truck. There’s pride in being able to cover the miles, tote the loads and weather the storms that accompany wilderness travel. Pride goeth before a fall, though, and we’ll hopefully both be in good shape to head back into the woods next year.