Northern Tier

Written by Don L.
Assistant Scout Master and Troop 26 Eagle Scout

This summer, several scouts and scout leaders went for a one-week canoeing and camping adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and south-southwest border of Ontario, Canada. “Covering more than 1 million acres, Boundary Waters is the largest wilderness area east of the Rocky Mountains and north of the Everglades. It stretches nearly 200 miles along the U.S.-Canada border and is contiguous with Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, which is also managed as a wilderness area.”
I think canoe trips are more exercise than hiking trips because paddling for 6 or 7 hours a day, with up to 10 portages a day (carrying either a 70-pound gear pack or a 45-pound kevlar canoe on your shoulders up to 3/4 of a mile to an adjacent lake or river) is a full-body workout (abs, gluts, shoulders, balance, stability). Portaging over beaver dams into shin-deep mud and swampy bogs then reaching crystal-clear lakes with perfect temps for swimming. The Boundary Waters region is essentially entirely pristine, fully recovered from logging done in the 19th and early 20th centuries and other environmental impacts. Now it is devoted exclusively to canoeing. It is a dense forest of pine, cedar, aspen, and many, many birch trees. We saw beavers, deer, snapping turtles, red-breasted mergansers, red-winged blackbirds, bald eagles, robins, giant swans, and loons, who make dominating honking noises in the late evening and early hours of darkness (the wilderness equivalent of “chocolate on your pillow”). The loons and the swans take a long time to achieve flight elevation, with their large, awkward wings. We watched a pair struggle to gain altitude to clear the forest that surrounds Tin Can Mike Lake.

The portages are rough trails through the forest, although at times they felt more like jungles, with their many canopy layers and dense undergrowth. There are some lakes, beautiful Indiana Lake for example, with just two campsites on a 50-acre lake, just amazingly remote and pristine, no trails, only reachable by days of vigorous canoeing and portaging. Our weather included perfect blue sky days along with a day and a half on-and-off sudden big wind and afternoon thunderstorms, our interpreter guide could always predict the weather about 15 minutes ahead, so we got off the water, into the forest as refuge, just before the storm would roil the lake and the thunder rippled and clapped above us. Mosquitos were manageable, as long as you moved quickly during portages in dense forests, and you were in your tent by 9:30 pm (the sun was setting about 9:15)…. I killed about 15 mosquitos, including a few just landing on my hands, and I have one big bite, a big red spot, probably mosquito, above my ankle. All my clothes were BugsAway by ExOfficio or sprayed with Permithrin. I used DEET, a squirt on each wrist, only once. Some others claimed multiple bites, not itchy bites like California mosquitos, but with small red dots on their skin.

My crew consisted of four Troop 26 Boy Scouts ages 15-17, super strong (carried packs and canoes better than the dad and I did), super smart (they taught me about Pascals, Newtons, F = M x A, the difference between mass and weight, Dungeons and Dragons [something six?] by overhearing, and trucker’s hitch and other knots), one of their dads, and an “interpreter” (guide), a 20-year old woman, a sophomore from Bemidji State College in Minnesota (with 13 Boundary Waters’ canoe trips under her belt). The seven of us had three canoes and we covered about 60 miles in 6 days on the water, we had one harder day with 13 miles and 10 portages, though, fortunately, the wind was always helping us that day. The interpreter helped with the route plan, but the boys used maps (with very few reference points…. this is big difference from map-reading in the Sierras, where you can easily triangulate using Mt. Ritter and Banner, for example). I taught them everything I know about homophones (wait, byte, 50 more, and we started inventing them, for example, I said “better to put the canoe parallel to shore” and the clever scout said “sure” but pronounced it like a southerner, “shore”), and US history (they were fascinated that Andrew Jackson had two bullets in his body when he was President, one from the Revolutionary War and one, evidently, from one of between 5 and 100 duels he participated in!, and the “full” story of LBJ ducking a moment before the shots rang out, the Mafia connection, and the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, November 22, 1963).

Aluminum canoes weigh about 55 to 60 chunky pounds, kevlar a lithe 45 pounds. I was completely at my limit with kevlar, as you have sometimes 5 to 8 pounds of water in the canoe from dripping boots and pants from the last portage, as you hoist the canoe to your knees in a squat position, then proceed to flip it over, with a clean-and-jerk, to get the yoke, and its stiff pads, on your shoulders. And you’re doing these maneuvers on slippery rocks or up to your ankles or shins in bog mud, the closest I’ve ever been to a CrossFit competition…. then walk a half-mile through jungle forest, while you balance the canoe and keep your balance on some paths which sometimes vaguely resembled the riprap on Taboose Pass. Paddle an hour, repeat portage. I have no idea how aluminum canoes are repeatedly portaged except by gorillas or World’s Strongest Man [or perhaps jack-of-all-trades Mike Schley]. Kevlar handles better and feels more agile, except in heavy winds or currents, when the aluminum canoes with their keels help some.

An interpreter (guide) is part of the package each crew got from the “Northern Tier” Boy Scout outfitter base camp. In addition to invaluable “15-minute advance notice” weather forecasts, she shared college volleyball stories, and inventoried the food and taught cardboard food box tree-hanging methods. Suffice it to say, Sierras black bears would have gotten all the food on the first night. Colby’s polar grey wolves, same thing. I imagine Sierras black bears and Colby’s grey wolves are near the top of the North American animal food chain, Boundary Waters’ black bears are apparently amateurs by comparison, I thought the beavers or even the many turtles were going to get our food. (see photo below of the cardboard bear box in a Duluth pack hanging just right of the bright lights of the setting sun, only about 10 feet off the ground).
If I go missing, now you know where to find me! 

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