I’ve had a summer full of travel – a lot more than I usually do – and I’m about to go to Greenland in less than two weeks, which will also generate a ton of pictures, so I figured I should probably get some of the summer’s pics and stories posted before I get too far behind!
I spent much of the spring this year traveling to work for Wilderness Medical Associates, teaching WFR courses. My last course of the spring was at the Widjiwagan YMCA camp, outside of Ely, MN. People have been telling me for many years that I need to check out the canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, so I decided to take an extra week off, as long as I was already there, and do a little canoeing and exploring.
My plans were cut a little bit short by some high winds and lightning storms that kicked up on the day that I had intended to go in, so I was stuck waiting for a couple of days while that cleared up, but I finally picked up a really nice, very lightweight Northstar Northwind Solo canoe from Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, MN, and headed up to the Kawishiwi Lake entry point. I had planned to go in for four or five days, but now only really had three, so I just drove up to the put in, and jumped on the water, and figured I would sort out the details as I went.
It was a really cold, grey, cloudy and drizzly day, and I wasn’t in a very good mood already, and it took a while of just paddling and paddling to start to get my head clear. For the first part of the trip, I was paddling through a pretty recent burn zone, too, and the landscape seemed kind of bleak. There were tons of biting insects, and there were a couple of extremely soggy and muddy portages, too. I ran into a beaver dam that wasn’t on any maps, but eventually found my way to Polly Lake, where I had hoped to camp for the first night. I paddled up towards the north end of the lake, and found a really sweet, empty campsite on a big block of granite right over the water.
I set up camp, and then paddled back out in the rain to try some fishing for a while, before calling it a day, and going to bed.
It rained and blew pretty hard that night, and I was really glad I had put an extra tarp over my tent. The next morning was bright and sunny, though, and I decided to get a campfire going to see if I could boost my mood. Crumpled up paper was so damp that it just steamed, and I was just sitting there, feeling cold and damp and grumpy, and I just decided I needed a shift in attitude. What an opportunity to practice a little bushcraft! There had to be some way to make a fire, and so I started wandering in the woods to see what I could find. I ended up discovering a lot of dried pitch on pine trees, and also that if I flaked off the outer scales of bark that were wet, the next layer of bark scales was much drier, and I collected a small handful of that stuff, some pitch, and some birchbark, and ended up getting a nice fire going on the first match after that.
A good campfire improves one’s mood considerably, and I had a nice breakfast, coffee, and laid in the sun by the fire for a while, and decided to explore further into the lakes as a day trip, and leave my camp set up where it was.
I took a day pack and the fishing gear, and headed out, exiting Polly Lake at the north end, and went up through a tiny little unnamed lake, Koma Lake, and finally into Malberg Lake, where there was supposedly decent walleye fishing. I paddled all around the north end of Malberg for a while, stopping and fishing and exploring the long eastern arm, too, and finally decided it was time to head home.
I got back to camp, made dinner, watched my beaver neighbors cruising back and forth, had a shot of rye whisky, and went to bed a much more relaxed and happy camper than I had been the night before.
The next morning, I went fishing again for a while, then finally packed up camp and started back out. The long portages seemed way shorter now that I knew what they were about, and I was back in Kawishiwi before I expected to be and I still had plenty of time to get the canoe back, so I spent a while paddling all around the lake, fishing and scoping it out. I had really, really been hoping to see a moose, and I had paddled through a few places that seemed pretty likely to have some, but there had been no moose anywhere. I was literally a half mile from the take out, and fishing my way around a little island, when I looked across to the shore, and sure enough, there was a moose standing there! She ended up letting me get within a hundred yards or less, before she had enough, and took off, but a few hundred yards later, I ran into another one, too!
I never did catch any fish on this paddling trip, but got some great pictures, and saw a ton of plants that were new to me. I learned that I can paddle and portage a lot faster than the guide books expect, and I know now that when I come back some day, I can plan on traveling much farther each day than the guide books would have suggested. I also realized how uncommon it is for canoeists to know a J stroke. I saw 32 other paddlers while I was in there, most at a distance, but only two of them were using a J-stroke, and they were the USFS rangers who were doing campsite inventory work. I joked to the outfitter back in Tofte that I was going to move to Minnesota and make $50k a summer teaching the J stroke at the BWCA entry points.
I packed up all my gear into the rental car, got in and killed about 100 mosquitos that had gathered inside while I was packing, and headed back to Tofte to return the canoe, and then on to Duluth to fly out the next day. I cannot wait to come back and paddle in the BWCA again.
Oh, and by the way, I can highly recommend Sawtooth Outfitters if you’re needing a canoe or gear in that area, and also the lovely, super light and perfect Northstar Northwind Solo canoe that they rented me.