Wading the Boundary Waters

Ours was a lonely choice.  Most people paddle into the Boundary Waters of Upper Minnesota.  We waded in.

Most people see the boundary waters from a canoe in the middle of a lake. We walked into the land, packs strapped to our backs, our minds filled with legends of early voyageurs portaging loads of beaver pelts and canoes across the paths between the lakes. We were one with history–their rightful descendants–as our packs leaned into our backs, making a small spot of shade to compensate for their weight. We carried our shelter, our equipment and our food for several days of July vacation. With confidence born of years of mountain wilderness trekking, we set out to see this land that was new to us.

The Boundary Waters bordering Canada and Minnesota have not been designed for foot travel. Dotted with lakes, swamps and marshes, this is a land for canoes and paddles. This is not a land for hiking boots and walking sticks. This is not, to the eye of the walker, a land plentifully dotted with lakes. It is a body of water with a sparse smatter of solid ground.

We traveled out from a parking lot filled with canoe-carrying cars. Roof racks topped each car we saw in the back land–the lake land–of Northern Minnesota. Every car but ours had hauled in a canoe.

The trail marker at Entry Point Number 35 warned that we would need a compass. Fine. Wilderness is wilderness, we agreed. A map and a compass and we could find our way. A twenty-mile trail loop, which would take us past six lakes, was our itinerary. It would be an easy three-day trip. The trail, apparent and well-marked on the map, was elusive on the ground. We used beaver dams, moose trails and old logging roads to make our way from wet island to dry island through this land of water. We hoped the matted grasses meant we were on the trail.

We saw bear sign after about a half an hour out: fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail, left there as a punctuation mark at the end of a long sentence of bear pawprints. A small, neat pile, studded with blueberries, placed in the middle of a clearing. From there on, I sang, “Oh, for the life of a bear!” as I broke trail. Damp branches slapped my face. Overhanging limbs grabbed at the top of my pack. Bumped-up roots stubbed my toes. I was trying to keep my feet dry. Or merely damp. There could be bear anywhere, but I was too busy singing and bushwhacking through the shrubbery to contemplate what a surprise encounter might mean. And where was that trail? The Rockies are high, open places–the trail can be seen for miles. Here, the heavy underbrush sometimes obscured any signs of a trail as close as the next step forward.

There is no government out here: no cops, no security, no fire department, and no edicts written in stuffy cubicles by bored bureaucrats. No street signs, and no streets. Just the traveler and the land. And the water, of course. Do stupid stuff, and you could end up as a meal for the wild munchers. But I felt free out here, and maybe that is what draws me to the wild places: it is an opportunity to test my intelligence and skills against the natural state of the Earth. Well, as close as we can get to the natural state of the Earth in places where logging and hunting happen, off and on, since humans invaded this land of the bears and wolves. I like being back in the wild environs of untamed creatures, who live in anarchy, and in relative peace. No one imposes taxes on their berries or their nests. They survive just fine. And they don’t have government-induced wars to fight, either. I don’t think they will eat me unless they are hungry, and there is a lot of other food around here.

I give myself a mental gold star for all the trails and climbs I have navigated successfully. “Successfully” means I came back alive.

Out of the underbrush after an hour of walking, we entered a clearing. The hot sun dried leaf drips from our sleeves and hats. Our shoes and socks remained damp. The clearing proved to be an ancient beaver pond full of dead, sun-bleached trees. Nature’s better Corps of Engineers had left a biodegradable dam here, built so well that the framing still stood after long years of abandonment. These beaver were long gone, trapped out in a frenzy of fur fashion before I was born.

The dam, long and sinuous, was a perfect Jeffersonian curve, holding against the forces of the waters restrained behind its walls. These long years later, decay of the piled and woven branches allowed a dribbling escape. The front side of the dam was a shallow puddle. Tannin from the decaying wood had turned the water the color of strong tea. The smell was strong, too, but not like tea­–more like the underside of a damp and rotting log. We slipped through the low water, wading for a quarter mile. Sometimes we boosted ourselves up a couple of feet to walk the dam ridge. Old but sturdy, the ridge held our weight. I could feel the springy give of the branches, and hear the squish of leaking waters, but mine was the only trembling.

Once across the deserted beaver dam, we entered the wilderness proper. The trees and shrubs closed in, thick secondary growth coming back after years of hard logging. People did not come here very often these days. They skirted this wilderness in canoes, not venturing into the brush and bogs. Who would walk through decaying vegetable goop and slapping branches when they could glide through this wilderness in comparative canoe comfort? The beaver and the big trees were gone. There was little left now to draw man to come into this place. Our trail here was a path used by moose, bear, deer, wolf, and smaller critters. The trail tunneled through the brush, sometimes opening where it picked up an old logging road, more often a path worn through the bush by the hoof of a moose or the bulk of a bear.

The black flies descended. My steps quickened. I tried to leave the buzzing mass behind. We stopped to coat ourselves with repellent, rubbing on Cutter’s and spraying Off across our shoulders and packs. Any insect landing on us now, we assured ourselves, would meet with instant death: surely these bugs were not suicidal. They were. Like kamikaze pilots, they plunged through the fog of poison vapors to reach their intended target–our skin. How in this far-away place had they any idea that human blood would taste good? Did the memory of the earlier humans linger in fly folklore? Could they truly believe one drink worth their lives? They did. We stopped in less than an hour, reinforcing our chemical barriers against the flies and the additional punctures of now-appearing mosquitoes. The second coat helped.

We are used to high mountain country, David and I. We walk the dry slopes of the Rockies and the Sierras, where a fly is a rarity and where a biting fly makes news. We were used to trails we could see, and branches that left our packs alone. In the mountains, it had all become familiar. Cozy. Home. The Boundary Waters area was, to us, truly a trip into the wilderness. Here we encountered the unknown. Here, in this place, our sense of alienation grew with sightings of unknown plants, with stumbles across wet ground, and with each stinging fly bite. We trudged on through early afternoon.

We were on our own, making our way under the power of our own muscles, using our senses to guide us in the right direction, and to protect us from anything that we would rather not encounter too closely for comfort. Hushed scrapings of branches signaled the arrival of a soft breeze. Relief from the still, soaked air. We stopped to shift our packs, and to eat a handful of gorp, and then we shrugged back under our loads and moved on.

We picked a likely spot to camp, at an opening in the thick brush. Our eight-mile hike had left us tired, and fighting flies had worn us down. It felt good to be able to drop the pack and take off boots. The afternoon sun warmed my aching shoulders. We wanted to get water and have tea. A lake stood close by, but between the water and us a thick stand of marsh grass swayed seductively above the swamp which stretched wide along the shore line. Leeches clung to the stems of the grasses. Our boots stuck in the boggy, decaying matter that nourished–and then consumed–the growing plants. There was a lone, blue iris growing there. My favorite flower. David picked it to decorate our dinner table rock.

We gathered dead wood to build a fire. Downed fir trees lay perched above the marsh grass like giant stick bugs standing still. Their bark-bare branches were dry and fine wood for the fire. But where the wood touched the ground, it was dark and sodden, wicking up water and already becoming part of the earth. Over the fire, we boiled water that we had dipped from a stream. The water looked alive. Iodine pellets and a rolling boil gave us a weak sense of security against dangerous microbes.

But what about bear security?

Bears live here. Bears love bacon. We had bacon along, and this was no time to set out tea. A long line over a high tree branch might save food for other days. We managed to balance two food bags high up off the ground. It is supposed to be about eleven feet up to be higher than a black bear’s paw can reach. We tried for twelve. Tired from the hike and irritated by the bugs, we zipped ourselves into the tent. With windows of exquisite, no-see’um netting, we slept in tired oblivion. In the early morning hours of dark, I woke to the sound of crashing brush. Bear? No flashlight at hand. Was our bacon being devoured? In the daylight, David found fresh moose tracks alongside our campsite. The balanced food bags were safe.

Over a breakfast of pancakes and the bear-ignored bacon, we held a campfire conference. It was decided. We would retreat, retracing our steps. We would try to find a lake with walking access. For water. And for fish. We are both trout fishers, but we had heard rumors of big pike in these lakes. The sooner to water, the sooner a good drink and a chance to try a fly. The grass was still wet, but the early hot sun chased us out on the trail. We wanted to make time before the midday heat. After fifty steps, we were soaked to the knees. The flies found us in five minutes. We walked a little faster. Heat and thirst set in soon. By noon, we were praying for a rest and a drink.

Boiled stream water, brown with tannin and treated with iodine, has its own taste. Powdered Gatorade helps. Our thirst compelled us to drink this alien trail water. We ignored the small dead things settled in the bottom of our canteens. The day grew hotter. As we walked, we began to notice our environment more closely. Wild strawberries grew all along our trail and throughout the woods. We had only to bend over to get a handful of delight. I munched strawberries to keep away the need to drink my trail water.

We stopped to rest at a site of two enormous stumps, remains of the giant trees that had been logged here. Tiny specks of blue peeked at us from low bushes. Blueberries! Ripe wild blueberries at our feet! Enjoying the blueberries, we reassessed the area. We figured we could survive out here. We began to feel at home. Bugs would not kill us, nor damp feet rot away. Why, the water actually kept our feet cooler, and the bugs were finding the multiple layers of killer chemicals impenetrable. Survival was possible. We moved on, munching blueberries with an occasional strawberry for a gourmet accent. Life was fine. The trail seemed less forbidding.

Walking back into the opening at the site of the great abandoned beaver dam, we looked at our muddy trail. In the mud were prints of bear, moose, wolf and deer. In this low country, the mud makes perfect casts. Upon the high mountain trails, the dusty wind swirls the tracks away. It was good to feel a sense of trail companionship with the other berry eaters, the other fish eaters, the other water drinkers. We could all live off this abundant land together. We hoped that the bears would not eat all the berries.

We found our lake at the end of a short side trail. It was clear, cool and easy to reach. I didn’t see any leeches. A basalt bounder sloped its black shoulder down into the lake at a gentle angle. It made a short slide for the canoe portage, and a perfect ramp into the lake for the weary packer. We stepped into the lake for a swim. Our clothes dried on the warm basalt boulder. David rigged his fishing gear and caught a pike for dinner; one fish big enough for two people. There was plenty of dry wood for a fire. This was home. We set up our camp next to the lake. Dinner was fresh-caught pike and boiled lake water turned into delicious coffee. We smiled as we closed our eyes to sleep.

The first morning light had just begun to edge the darkness with grey when we heard the screams. Beyond and above us, they pierced the tent and woke us up. Familiar screams from the mountains. Eagle screams. I had to see. I zipped out of the tent, and crouched low under branches to make my way to the boulder slide at the edge of the lake.  From there, I could see into the sky. I sat low near the water, trying to be a part of the rock.

From above and behind me came the sighing of wings. Seven feet of soft dawn shadow slipped across my shoulders, and the rush of wind ruffled my hair. With the calm of one who is at home, the great bald eagle coasted a few feet above the lake. He screamed a message of “don’t fish in my lake” to me, and move off toward his mate, who was floating just above the trees on the far side. She replied. Together, they went in search of other lakes to hunt. Time for our breakfast, too.

Blueberry pancakes from blueberries we had picked, coffee made with good water, and the final two pieces of our bacon made up our last breakfast in the boundary waters. This had been a good trip. We had learned a new environment. We were not strangers here now, but veterans of the struggle and the adventure of this wilderness. Neither of us would be concerned about coming back alone for a few days out here. We had found the good this place had to offer. We had learned more about our own abilities to be free in the wilderness. We could survive. We knew where to find water, and how to thwart the flies.

But next time, we’d bring a canoe. Or wear waders.

iloilo, August 1986

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