IN THE BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS — We had reached what we thought and hoped would be our last portage of the day. We had made our way through one of the most remote and challenging sections of the BWCA wilderness, in the northern third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota.
The U.S. Forest Service says there are more than 2,000 designated campsites in the BWCA, but at that particular moment the only one that mattered lay halfway across Afton Lake, a smallish body of water at one end of the Frost River. We had spent all day traversing the river, an effort that author and explorer Robert Beymer described in his famous guide book: “You are in for one long, exhausting day.” He nailed it.
But I and my three fellow travelers had reached what we thought would be the last of our challenging portages that day. We were hot, dirty, tired, probably a little dehydrated, and definitely ready to set up camp, eat and rest. But, as Beymer warned, there is only one campsite on Afton, and if it is occupied, you are looking at a good two miles or more of portaging and paddling before you encounter another one.
We had reason to be optimistic, however, that the Afton campsite would be available. A party we met coming the other way on the river indicated the campsite was vacant, and we hadn’t any reason to believe we would be facing competition for the one precious campsite. That optimism quickly was dashed when we heard a group loudly coming up behind us — and it was clear they knew the stakes involved in getting to the Afton campsite first.
Instead of portaging around a series of rapids on the Frost River — which is the prudent thing to do if you want to keep your canoe and yourself in one piece — we could hear them crashing through the rapids to save the considerable time it takes to unload a canoe, carry the packs, canoes and other gear over rocks and mud to the other side, and then reload the canoe.
We became aware that the group was the same one we saw the night before on Frost Lake, where we stayed before starting down the Frost River. There was one aluminum canoe and one lighter-weight canoe made of Kevlar. And they were bearing down on us at the worst possible time.
Two of our party — Jon Myre of Eau Claire and Joe Nelson of Elk Lake — had made it through the portage and were waiting for me and my canoe mate, John Lewey of Stanley. When it became clear what was happening, I shouted to Jon to load and take off with Joe to get to the campsite first, and we would come as soon as we got our canoe loaded. Thank goodness we are experienced paddlers, because it was soon clear that the race was on through what remained of the river before it emptied into the lake.
We didn’t see how the race to the campsite was transpiring because we were occupied with getting our canoe ready, and there was a short stretch of river between us and the lake. But Jon and Joe first had to pull their canoe over the last of several beaver dams that spanned the river before they could start down the lake to the campsite. “We didn’t even look back,” Jon said about his race across the beaver dam and onto Afton.
Jon and Joe first went to an area just south of the actual campsite because it had all the hallmarks of a campsite, but soon they zeroed in on the right area. Thankfully, we got there shortly before our competitors, who were still a short distance off shore when John and I pulled up. They floated off shore for a while and stared at us for a while — perhaps hoping that we would eschew the site and head out? — before accepting their fate and heading north.
So why do we do this somewhat crazy activity that requires months of planning just to lug gear and canoes over sometimes treacherous portages to paddle across lakes that frequently are whipped into a frenzy of whitecaps?
It is hard to describe what it is like in the wilderness unless you have experienced it. The late author and ecologist Sigurd Olson, who as president of the Wilderness Society would play a major role in preserving the BWCA for all time, says it best in his book, “Listening Point.”
“And so it must be for all of us who have known the back country. No little sanctuaries along the fringes of civilization ever quite suffice. We must know the wild and all it entails, the bite of a tumpline on the portages, the desperate battling on stormy lakes, the danger and roar of rapids and falls. We must know hunger and thirst and privation and the companionship of men on the outtrails of the world, for all these things are inseparable.”
Everyone has his or her own reason for going to the wilderness. Some go to fish for trophy walleye, northern, smallmouth and lake trout. Some go for the camaraderie that naturally develops when a group of people spends days together fighting all that nature and the terrain can throw at them. Others simply “want to get away from it all.”
“Tough terrain breeds tough men, ” John Lewey said when asked why he needs to go to the wilderness, quoting the Greek historian Herodotus, (John is our group’s resident sherpa, always volunteers to carry the way-too-heavy plastic food barrel, often with another pack in front.) “I go to the BWCA for the camaraderie, the the morning cup of coffee in the surroundings of a beautiful sunrise breaking through the trees and fog coming off of the lake. I go for the ubiquitous challenge upon the terraqueous landscape. I go because I love nature and being a living, breathing part of it.”
Joe Nelson summed up his reasons this way: “The BWCA gives me the opportunity to truly get away from it all with a small group of friends.The further you go in, the fewer people you see, no sounds of civilization except for an occasional jet liner miles above. The unspoiled forest, lakes, and streams are how you would expect them to be hundreds of years ago, and the night stars are all amazing. I hope the BWCA never changes so I may bring my grandchildren up here some day.”
My reasons include a lot of the aforementioned, while some are a bit more pragmatic. Because of my occupation, I live in an ever-connected world of emails, texts, etc. For the vast majority of the BWCA, there is no cellphone service, meaning that for a few days I disconnect from those emails and texts and phone calls. It is a respite I badly need at least once a year.
The annual BWCA trip also provides an incentive to do everything I can to forestall the physical impacts of aging. Simply put, if I want to keep traveling in the wilderness, I will have to keep my most valuable equipment — my body — in good working order. I also enjoy the concept of heading out in the wilderness to survive with nothing more than what we can carry in our canoes. There are no stores in the BWCA, so if you forgot to bring it, you are out of luck.
Sigurd Olson gets the last word, this time about the end of a portage when you see the first glimpses of a lake through the trees as you approach the finish of the trek: “So it is with portages and the first sight of glorious blue through the trees. When I dropped my canoe at last into the water and stood there puffing and blowing and looking down the expanse of the lake, my feeling of accomplishment was one that had been earned.”
Mell, executive director of university communications and external relations at UW-Stout, lives in Eau Claire.