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Not Your Mother’s Boundary Waters Trip

Posted by Rutabaga Staff on 6/3/2013 to Where We Paddle

The first paddling trip of the year can only be done in one place. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. It has long been hailed the “canoe capitol” of the Midwest, and no other clever title is more deserved. If you like endless canoe routes and pristine beauty, then this is definitely a paddler’s paradise. Every May I gather up the gear and head north for a week of bliss. Usually my father and I enjoy this time together as a annual father-son outing, but this year added a new member to the family (in the form of a granddaughter in California) and a commitment he could not avoid. As much as I enjoy a solo trip, I do long for a companion on the first trip of the year. Luckily, I was able to talk fellow ‘Baga Jim Fietzer into joining me for a week in the north country. Jim is one of our most skilled canoeists, yet this would only be his second trip to the Boundary Waters, his first being made the previous year. With this in mind, I was eager to take him on my favorite route so far. Had he the gift of foresight, he may have argued the chosen route instead of letting me “guide” the path.

Now, I like solitude…a lot. And I will do just about anything to attain it. This is why the aforementioned route sits on top of the heap. The main attraction of this sixty mile loop is two days of travel in the Louse River Valley. It is so small and rugged that you are almost guaranteed to see no one for your entire time in the valley. There is, however, a price to pay for this solitude. In portages. I’ll save that for later. No sense in getting Jim upset at this point. He’s bought the ticket; it’s time to take the ride.

So off we went on a beautiful Sunday morning, geared up to the hilt, for our seven day voyage in the canoe capitol of the world. Strapped to our rack were two long solo canoes, the only way to travel in the Boundary Waters. Eight hours later our joy was complete as we pulled into the parking lot of Sawbill Outfitters on Sawbill Lake. Sawbill Outfitters is a great place. They really are there because they love the park and to paddle. In fact, it was a treat to pull over and let Bill, the owner, jog on by with a wave six miles from the Sawbill shop. Way to go Bill! He continued on gravel free. The staff is excellent as well. They take it all in stride, even the jokes about the safety video you are required to watch, every year. The video had to wait till morning, though. Our permit wasn’t available ‘til Monday.

A campsite was obtained and after a short jaunt around camp, a light rain forced a quick set-up and dinner. We went to bed with dreams of a bright morning on the beginning of a long-deserved paddle. We were still dreaming of that bright morning when we awoke to the very dreary morning that greeted us. The rain had continued undaunted overnight. A couple of trips to the Sawbill Headquarters confirmed that meteorologists are morons and that it was our best guess as to wait out the rain or just deal with it. A quick discussion led to a discovery that we had similar distaste for wet tents and that, not being in a hurry, we could wait a while to see if a dry opportunity to get underway would come up. Finally around noon, we could wait no longer. After one permit and one video, we loaded up and launched our boats into Sawbill. As I first dipped my paddle into the water, utterly peace-filled, rain or no rain, I was in paradise.

The rain had actually almost stopped, only visible by the little rings on the water’s surface. We moved slowly up Sawbill Lake, stopping at the end of our first portage for a bite and a conversation with some newcomers to canoe country. From this short thirteen rod portage we paddled down the Kelso River, spilling into tiny Kelso Lake and then back into the river. At this point it’s all lowland marsh and simply spectacular. We were in a trance as we exited the reedy maze and brought our canoes to a halt at the next portage. I think it was at this moment when Jim turned, looked me in the eye and said, “This portage is how long?”

This portage is one of the big reasons we would most likely be in complete serenity for the next two days. It is a little over a mile and a quarter long. Now, for the Boundary Waters, it is far from the longest portage in the park. But for overall difficulty combined with length, it’s a nightmare. I have seen tears spring in the eyes of grown adults when they reach the end of it. I have walked over teenagers crumpled under loads of gear, asking if the hill ever stopped, myself being unable to help or even answer lest I share the same crumpled fate. I have personally kaber-tossed a Kevlar canoe in the middle of it. I’m almost certain Jim wanted me dead halfway through his second trip. You do finally come to end, and once you stop sobbing, you can feel a great sense of accomplishment. Our reward was worth it—blue skies had finally come, and ahead of us was a lake with only one campsite. It made it much easier to ignore our soggy tents.

The next morning was equally gorgeous, with not a cloud in the sky. Slowly we ate breakfast and let our wet gear dry in the bright sun. It was a wonderful day to be alive. I was extremely excited about our goal at the end of this day, Trail Lake. I had stayed there before with my Dad, and it is one of my favorite places in the park. Small and intimate with only two campsites. My first sighting of a moose was on this lake, and I was hoping Jim could have the same experience. We were traveling into areas heavily populated by the big creatures. I had also planned a day of rest on this lake. We would need it after the journey we took to get there.

The Louse River Valley itself is the second reason for the lack of humanity. The scenery is beyond description, but the portages are brutal. They are rarely maintained, and this maintenance is usually only done by the occasional user. Beavers are rampant in the valley, so the geography is constantly changing. A 190-rod portage may suddenly become two. You are unloading on almost 45 degree angles. One portage consists of walking on boulders and then rocks. Another boasts a limestone wall so steep you scramble up by sheer will alone. Needless to say, you feel like a day on Trail Lake was earned. We arrived exhausted but happy, and somewhat surprised to be sharing the lake with another party. They left early the next day and we had the lake to ourselves.

A lay day is generally an introspective time where one spends a lot of time reflecting on everything or nothing at all. Usually a lot of fishing accompanies this. So I will spare the details of this wonderful day, except for the important ones. I caught a monster of a fish and Jim made the best fish dinner I’ve ever had. That night our good luck streak with the rain ended, and once again the rain chased us to bed and welcomed us in the morning.

The rest of the day we explored the river and popped back into the more populated part of the route, starting with Malberg Lake. In fact, it was so populated I started to worry as we made our way south to Polly Lake. Campsites were filling up fast, and I lamented our late start as we cruised past the island campsite I had hoped to occupy that night. Luckily an out-of-the-way site was empty, and we settled in. Jim’s fire skills were put to the test, but we ended up enjoying his handiwork late into the night. The rain had followed a similar pattern and ended earlier that afternoon, breaking into blue skies and now, incredibly bright stars. Our sense of contentment was high as we contemplated the hard work done and awesome places we had been over the past several days. Only one night remained before our return to the Sawbill dock.

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