I don’t know what it is about the Northwoods, but you know it when you get there. You can be driving along the road, and all of a sudden—you’re there. Something changes in the air, in the trees, in the sky and the wildlife. It just happens. Your whole attitude changes. One minute you’re leaving Eau Claire, and the next you’re pulling over the crest of the hill toward Lake Superior. The clouds are rolling off the lake against the western shore and Minnesota is within sight. Duluth is beckoning, and the Boundary Waters beyond that. Everything seems right and good. You have left the world behind and you’ll soon be listening to loons and the splash of water against your canoe.
The drive to northern Minnesota is worth every minute. The more you drive the more you forget about work and phone calls, kids, neighbors, and mowing the lawn. For me Duluth is the big mile marker that means I can relax. As soon as I pass Duluth I know that I’ve made it. I’m in the Northwoods and nothing can dampen my excitement for the trip to come. Duluth itself can be a great destination, but it’s really just the entry to the best part of my trip. From there you’re close, real close to slipping your canoe into the lake and setting out. You can feel, it smell it. It finally becomes real.
The drive up the coast of Lake Superior is one I never tire of. The lake astounds me in its ability to change. Its character is always different: glassy and smooth, rough and angry, calm and inviting. Bright sunshine, hazy fog, or rumbling storms. It changes from day to day and trip to trip. The road dips in and out. Trees whir by and then the lake appears again. Houses and cottages dot the shore as you slow down for the small towns that break up the trip. The towns click by, as do the miles, until you reach the Gunflint Trail—Two Harbors, Beaver Bay, Tofte and Lutsen. Then Grand Marais is just around the corner. Through the tunnel, down the hill, you’re almost there. I love Grand Marais. It holds good memories and the knowledge that many more memories will be created there. Sven and Ole’s, the Superior Trading Post, and the Ben Franklin store all make Grand Marais feel like home. The giant boulders of the brake-water shelter the bay and provide a great place to sit and watch the greatest of the lakes.
For me, Grand Marais is a required stop on the way into the BWCA. I wouldn’t begin to tell anyone else what their trip should include or how it should be done. But this article will be a lot shorter if I don’t take some time and tell the way I like to take my trips. I’m not saying that I’m right or wrong—this is just the way I do it. Like I said, Grand Marais is a stop that must be made. On the way in or the way out, or maybe both. For me a big part of the trip is the drive and the stops along the way—not just the destination. I know plenty of people who push hard and drive straight through in order to get into the park that much earlier or stay that much longer. That’s fine, but stopping for lunch along the shore of Lake Superior is worth the few minutes it takes. A comfortable bed to sleep in and a hearty breakfast before heading into the backcountry is a nice treat. The hot shower or sauna at the outfitter softens the physical reminders of a week sleeping on a rock. The cold beer and thick juicy hamburger are a welcome sight before the drive back to the “real world.” To me, this is all part of the trip. It just wouldn’t be the same without these moments and experiences.
I have accumulated all the gear I need to outfit myself and my friends, on almost any trip we would want to take (It helps to work in a paddlesport shop!), yet I always go through an outfitter for my trips. Why? A few reasons. I like my shower and shave when I come out of the wilderness. I also like knowing that someone is watching my car and knows if I don’t come back. An outfitter will do all these things. Using an outfitter doesn’t have to mean getting the full package through them, it can be whatever level of support you need. Speaking of gear, I have strong opinions and a wealth of knowledge on canoe gear. But here again, I’ll qualify my statements by saying that they are just my opinion and you can take ‘em or leave ‘em.
Well, you’ve parked your car and laid out all of your gear, hopefully already in portage packs. (I really like Granite Gear portage packs for their build, design and durability. A lot of people favor the old fashion packs, like those from Frost River. It really comes down to personal preference.) Your trip is almost at hand. The lake is stretching out before you and small waves lap at the shore. The canoes are creaking against the granite sand as they shift back and forth, ready to leave with or without you. You slip the packs into the canoes, carefully arranged and balanced for the best performance or the easiest access to snacks. Your paddles come out of their bags (yes, I would definitely recommend using a paddle bag). You slip your life jacket on, as do the others in your party. You’re almost ready.
A last final check, you pull the car keys out of your pocket and hand them to the kid who works for the outfitter—maybe your watch should stay behind as well. You climb back to the stern position in the boat. Your partner shoves off and jumps in at the last moment. There is that brief moment of queasiness until you remember that you’ve done this hundred times before and you’re not going to tip over. Slowly you paddle backwards to clear the landing. You keep an eye on the other canoe to be sure they make it away from shore. 20 feet, 100 feet, 100 yards, slowly the landing shrinks away and you’ve turned your canoe toward the imaginary line that is the entrance to the Boundary Waters. You watch for the tree that marks its crossing. The swift motion of the canoe cuts through the water effortlessly. Your paddle dips in and out of the water, again and again. (Again and again and again. A lightweight, comfortable paddle is the most important piece of gear you can own. The canoes you’ll borrow will be fine, the tents will keep you dry, and the packs will carry just fine. But if you spend a week with a bad paddle, you’ll regret it.) You get more comfortable and more at peace. The heat of the sun is burning off the last of the morning fog.
Six hours later, you’ve crossed three lakes and two portages. Your last portage of the day lies before you. Just over a hundred rods and you’ll be onto the lake you’ll call home for the evening. Two trips later and you’re across, ready to go again. You look out across the lake and see the tents of one group. Thankfully, not on the campsite you were hoping for. A quick paddle across the lake and you pull up to what you think is the best campsite on earth (at least for a night or two).
Reaching the first campsite is always a great moment. There are no phone messages to come home to, no TV to watch. All that surrounds you is the great outdoors. The hard granite rock that juts out into the lake will serve as your kitchen, boat landing, sunning rock and inspirational point. The tent goes up slowly and someone sets up a clothesline. Wet boots come off, to be replaced by sandals that have been begging to be put on all day. Slowly the camp comes together. Two little tents occupy the spots that have been deemed worthy. The fire is going and the bear rope is even being discussed. Camp life takes on its own pace. Un-hurried and comfortable, yet everything gets done. The more experienced campers let the “newbies” know what to do. It all happens and no one is tense. The call of a loon breaks through the sounds of camp. This just doesn’t happen in the city.
Six days later, you’ve set-up and broken down camp at three different sites. You’ve covered twelve lakes and done enough portaging. Some days were for travel others were for simply relaxing. These were spent visiting the neighboring waterfalls, searching for moose, and reading a book, sprawled out on the rocks, just like the turtle you spent an hour watching. The paddle back to the outfitter is solemn. You look forward to getting home, but you are also hesitant to leave. There’s always next year.
I love the Boundary Waters. I love the lakes and trees. I love the loons and the occasional moose sightings. I love hanging the bear bag and taking it down the next morning. I love setting up camp and moving it a day later. I love the planning that happens in January and the set-up of gear that happens in the backyard before the trip. There isn’t anything about a trip to the Boundary Waters that I would change. Well, maybe the bugs…but that’s why I go in September.