Our trip began on
a partly cloudy day. It had rained the day before and now the clouds were
beginning to break up.
We had taxied
part way down the runway when I realized that I had the car keys in my
pocket. My wife Deb had driven us to the Flying Cloud Airport southwest of
Minneapolis. While unloading our camping gear from the trunk, I had put her
keys in my pocket.
Dad turned the
Cessna 172 around, and we taxied back to the terminal. Deb was standing by the
parked planes, her hands on her hips. She shook her fist at us and smiled.
attempt at departure was more successful.
four-year-old son, was strapped in his car seat in the back seat. This was
his first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. My father and I had been
taking the trip to northern Minnesota every summer for the past six years.
Eddie knew how
much I looked forward to these annual outings with my father. The words
"Boundary Waters" were an early addition to his vocabulary. To him, they
represented a mysterious and far-away country. He considered it a major
achievement to be old enough to go along with his Daddy and Grandpa.
"Good thing I
thought of those keys," I said. "What if we had taken off with them and left
"They could have
radioed us from the terminal and told us to come back," Dad said.
He turned the
plane onto the main runway, braked, and revved up the engine. Dad had been a
pilot in World War II, had flown a big lumbering C-47 transport plane "over
the hump" in India an Burma, and ever since had dreamed of flying again. Now at 58 he
was doing it.
I reached back to
Eddie and held his hand. Above the roar of the engine I asked if he was OK.
He nodded, but his face was pale.
Once aloft, he
"Look, Daddy!" he
exclaimed as we passed over Cedar Lake. "It looks like an elephant!"
right," Dad said. "It does look like an elephant."
This was the
first time that I had seen the Minnesota landscape from the sky. On past
trips we had gone by car. From the air, the land seemed nearly covered by
water. The lakes reminded me of silver puddles in a broken road.
Heading north, we
followed the St. Croix River. When we veered northeast, we found ourselves
over the forests of Wisconsin. The sky had cleared except for a few white
puffy clouds. Below us the Namekagon River weaved its way through the
trees and hills to the east. In the distance we could see the blue swelling
of the St. Croix flowage. On a day like this, Dad said, you could see 75
Two years ago Dad
and I and my older brother Larry had canoed the Namekagon from Hayward, where it
is just a fast-moving stream, to its confluence with the St. Croix. Paddling
downstream with few portages made for an easy trip, and negotiating the
rapids added an element of adventure. But we were distracted by the
occasional cabins and bridges that we passed along the way. Abrupt reminders
of civilization, they intruded on our sense of aloneness. We missed the solitude and uninterrupted wilderness of the Boundary Waters.
South of Duluth
Dad asked Eddie if he wanted to fly through a cloud. Above us one drifted
alone against the blue backdrop of the sky. Eddie said yes, and his eyes grew
big as Dad tilted us back in a steep climb. Suddenly the sunshine and blue
sky vanished and we were enshrouded in gray. In another moment the sun and
sky flashed back into view. Eddie turned in his seat to look back at the
cloud, no doubt wondering if we had left a hole.
Superior varying shades of green and blue suggested the depth of the water.
Sailboats like white dots skimmed across its surface. In the distance the
Apostle Islands huddled along the south shore.
Once across the
open water we followed the shoreline. I watched for the North Shore towns
that we had driven through on previous trips and recognized Two Harbors and
Over Tofte the
terrain became hillier, almost mountainous. Far ahead by the Canadian
border, Isle Royale rose from the sea. Below us the jutting rocks turned
from brown to turquoise before they disappeared into the deep blue water.
I noticed some
new resorts along the shore. Perched on a hill a few miles inland was a
cluster of buildings, perhaps condominiums. They were attractive enough, but
I worried about their representing the first stage of a larger, irreversible
development. As I looked inland to the dark hills of the Boundary Waters, I
hoped that their natural beauty and mysterious allure were safe from the
banality of gas stations and shopping malls.
"That should be
Devil’s Track Lake," said Dad, pointing to a long, thin lake not far inland.
If we had had pontoons on our plane, we could have landed it there with no
trouble. The airstrip was on the north end.
Once on the
ground, the first thing I noticed was the fresh air. The mid-June breeze was
laden with the fragrance and odors of spring. The field where the planes
were parked gave off an aroma of sun-baked grass and dirt.
We were greeted
by our outfitter’s son, Bill Hansen, who had driven out to pick us up. He
was there with two of his children, Clare and Carl. Carl, the younger, just
a toddler, had a line of nasty-looking insect bites across his forehead. The
sky was clear and the air was wonderfully fresh. Bill told us that this was
their first really warm day of the season.
The first thing
Eddie did was chase a killdeer around the field. His Grandpa had told him if
he got near its nest it would limp and pretend to have a broken wing to lead
him away. Already I could see that there was no question of his getting
bored or restless.
On the way to the
Sawbill Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Sawbill Trail Bill told us of his
plans to remodel the buildings and expand the operation when he took it over
from his father.
"I’ve got some
ideas," he assured us. "You’ve got to expand to keep up with the
outfitter’s, we rented a canoe, paddles, and life jackets, and bought a
package of freeze-dried peas and carrots that we needed to round out one of
our dinners. The canoe, a 68-pound Alumacraft equipped with a yoke and
shoulder pads for portaging, cost eight dollars a day. The rest of our
equipment we had packed ourselves.
While we carried
our gear down to the lake, Eddie filled his treasure case. At home he was
always picking up junk from the sidewalks – bottle caps and pebbles and pieces of rubber – so I had provided him with a red plastic fishing lure case
for whatever things he might find in the Boundary Waters. Through the clear
plastic lid I saw some moss, two little pine cones, a couple of twigs, and a
Dad was eager to
push off. Although we’re the same height, we had selected paddles of
different lengths. He had placed mine, the shorter, in the stern, indicating
he would let me steer at the start. Eddie sat in front of the yoke with most
of the heavy equipment loaded behind him.
The first strokes
of the paddle required some effort. But soon I felt the familiar
rhythm, and my arms seemed to move of their own accord.
In the first
stretch of open water, we saw a mother loon with her brown, fuzzy baby
riding on her back. Eddie did his loon call but got no response.
Dad and I had
given careful thought to our decision on whether Eddie was old enough to
come this year. In favor of his coming were his love of animals and his
interest in the outdoors – or rather the details of the outdoors. He was
easily occupied, if not preoccupied, by the little things around him.
dangers were the possibility of accidents around the
cooking fire and in the water. The wildlife, we had assured his mother,
posed no real threat. There were no poisonous snakes, the wolves wouldn’t
come near a human, and an encounter with a she-bear and her cub was
unlikely. The most dangerous animal in the North Woods, the bull moose, was
a threat only during the fall rutting season, when it was ill-tempered and
My greatest fear
was that Eddie might wander off the portage trails and get lost in the
woods. Some of the trails between lakes were more than a mile long. It would
be difficult to find a child in the underbrush if you didn’t know where to
start looking. We emphasized to Eddie that when we portaged he had to keep
walking, he had to keep his eye on us, and under no circumstances was he to
step off the trail.
It was already
late afternoon when we took the short portage, only 30 rods or 165 yards,
from Sawbill Lake to Alton Lake. We took the first available campsite we
found, on the east shore of the lake.
As Dad and I
unloaded our gear, Eddie raced around the campsite gathering sticks for the
fire, climbing rocks, and shouting, "I’m a mountain gorilla! I’m a mountain
"Don’t worry," I
assured Dad. "He’ll settle down."
For dinner we had
steak (which we had packed frozen), green beans, and butterscotch pudding.
Dad had brought some red wine in a plastic jug. When empty, the jug would
convert to a water jug. (No glass bottles or metal cans are allowed in the
Boundary Waters.) As we ate, we savored the fresh meat. From here on, it was
lightweight dehydrated food.
With no breeze,
the mosquitoes came out in force at dusk. We hurried through cleanup and
slipped into the tent, zipping the screened flap behind us. We changed from
our clothes, already scented with wood smoke, into our long underwear. It
could easily get down to the 40s during the night.
"Eddie," I said.
"I wonder what Mommy and Katie and Grandmother are doing now."
His response was
quick. "Let’s not talk about them," he said, "or else I’ll be
I was struck by
the maturity in his tone and impressed with how well he knew himself.
The next day was
cool and partly cloudy. The low, fast-moving clouds were characteristic of
the changeable weather of the Boundary Waters. On a number of occasions, Dad
and I have paddled in the rain while the sun was shining on us.
When I came out
of the tent, a little stiff from my night on the ground, Dad had already
started the fire. He was by nature a planner and an organizer, and he liked
fussing around the campsite. The night before he had chopped and split wood,
stacked it, and carefully covered it with plastic to keep it dry. I noticed
that he had moved my wet tennis shoes from where I had left them to a spot
on the rocks where they would catch the morning sun.
On our first
trips together I had been annoyed by his habit of tending to my things. I
didn’t like the implication that I couldn’t take care of myself. But once I
realized how nice it was to get up in the morning and put on shoes that
were, if not dry, at least warm, I stopped worrying about asserting my
independence and allowed myself to enjoy his thoughtfulness.
While Dad and I
were cooking breakfast, Eddie made the rounds of the campsite and the
surrounding area. He reported back to us that he had seen some beautiful
flowers and a few animals.
Grandpa looked up from the skillet. "What kind of animals?"
"A baby moose and
a baby deer," Eddie said without a trace of a smile.
Dad and I gave
each other a look.
"What were they
doing?" Dad asked.
"Oh, they were
playing, standing up and touching their front feet together."
Dad and I
"Come on, Eddie,"
I said. "Here’s your plate. Let’s eat."
said a little later, "I saw a python, too."
Eddie was playing down by the canoe. We must have left it perched
precariously on the rocks and he must have bumped it, because suddenly it
was rolling, bouncing, and clanging down the rocks of the steep bank,
landing with a splash upside-down in the lake.
Terrified at what
he had done, he looked at us, his eyes as big as walnuts.
"It’s all right,"
I assured him. I climbed down to him and gave him a hug. "It wasn’t your
look!" he said, pointing to the overturned and partly submerged canoe. "I
I think it wasn’t
until Dad and I had pulled the canoe from the lake and emptied it that he
believed it would float again.
Although it was
mid-morning by the time we were on the water, we made it to Phoebe Lake by
portage, 144 rods from Alton to Beth Lake, went fine, with Eddie marching
along, carrying his small backpack and two empty water jugs. But the portage
from Beth to Grace Lake, 287 rods and mostly uphill, was a back-breaker.
At one point I
heard Eddie crying on the trail behind me. I dropped two of the smaller bags
I was carrying and ran back to him. Eddie had stopped walking and was
standing in a swarm of mosquitoes. I waved my arms at them, angry that
they were attacking my son. With a single swat I killed five on the top of
his white sailor’s cap. Then I hurriedly applied another coat of insect
"Come on, Eddie,"
I urged him. "Can you run just a little way?"
On Grace Lake,
Eddie’s spirits were lifted when a northern pike struck at a piece of moss
and a pine cone that he was dragging on a string. The fish held on just long
enough to give the line a good tug and for us to catch a glimpse of it.
"Can you believe
that?" exclaimed his Grandpa. "What a fisherman!"
It was then that
I noticed the baby toads in the water jugs.
"All right, what
are those toads doing in the water jugs?" I said. Thinking about how we
would soon be drinking from those jugs, I told him he had to take them out.
they’ll get away in the canoe."
Which, of course,
they did. When Eddie started climbing around after them, I gave in, but only
on two conditions: that he let the toads go before they died and that he
give the jugs a good rinsing before we used them for our water.
From Grace to
Phoebe Lake there were four portages, none of them particularly long, but
coming one after another they were tough. On the last one, we stopped for a
quick dip at a small waterfall and pool. The water was almost unbearably
cold and wonderfully refreshing. The white water looked inviting, so I sat
back and let the current flow around me for as long as I colud stand the cold
My water massage in my rock
Jacuzzi au naturel was spoiled,
however, when I stood up and discovered that my backside was covered, not
with little specks of moss, as I at first thought, but with hundreds of baby
leeches. Apparently, they like to breed in white water because of its high
oxygen content. Although clinging to my skin, they hadn’t fastened
themselves securely, and I was able – with Dad’s help – to brush them off
without having to douse them with salt.
When we reached
Phoebe, we headed for the first little island and stopped for a leisurely
and relaxing lunch break. We picked the most exposed and windiest point of
the island to get away from the mosquitoes, and we made ourselves
comfortable on a big, flat rock in the sun. After pushing so hard that
morning, it was a treat just to sit and enjoy the breeze and watch the lake
and the trees and the sky.
Eddied asked if
he could swim, and I said sure.
Earlier, he had
seemed unusually heavy when I had lifted him from the canoe for the
portages. Either he was gaining weight, I thought, or I was getting tired.
Now as I helped him to undress, I
noticed that the pockets of his overalls were bulging.
Eddie!" I said. "What do you have in your pockets?"
"He reached in
with both hands and pulled out two handfuls of black and brown pebbles.
These are my turtles. I found them by the lake. See?"
I tried to play
along, but I was dog tired. Try as I might, to me they just looked like
little black and brown pebbles.
We declared the
next day a rest day. We decided to spend it fishing and swimming and maybe
paddling around a little in an unloaded canoe.
While out on the
lake, just drifting with the breeze, we met a man and a woman in a canoe.
They turned out to be rangers on their way back from Poet Lake, where they
had seen a moose. With the news of their sighting, we were instantly
transformed into a gang of boys, three generations of us, in search of a
Poet Lake was
long and narrow with a steep shoreline on one side. Connecting only to
Phoebe, it was off the main route and had a remote feeling to it.
We spent a good
part of the day there, climbing the bluffs and scanning the shore with our
binoculars. We had a wonderful time, but saw no moose.
Back on Phoebe,
we spotted a bald eagle that was soon joined by its mate, and we heard the odd
chirping sound of some baby black-backed woodpeckers inside a dead tree.
Near the beaver lodge by our campsite, a beaver swam lazily past our canoe.
Never before had I been so near one in the wild. Its broad back was well
over a foot across. As we drifted closer, it turned slowly onto its back and
used its hind leg to scratch itself under the chin.
"Maybe he escaped
from a circus," Eddie whispered, "or a zoo."
have made Eddie look like he has chicken pox on his forehead. I think this
is as bad as the insects have been on any of our trips. Maybe coming in the
spring rather than late August was not the best idea, but I was liked seeing the Boundary Waters in a different season.
Blooming along the portage trails and on the trails to the biffies were pink
wild roses, purple fireweed, and the white flowers of bunchberry and wild
after dinner, Dad stayed behind on the campsite while Eddie and I went
fishing. He heard something moving noisily through the brush. Looking up,
he saw four legs and a dark hairy chest. It was a moose, not twenty feet
from him, but before he could get a good look it was gone.
When Eddie and I
returned, Dad told us the news. Our campsite was on a large island. Thinking
the moose might swim ashore, we paddled around twice but saw no sign of
That night as we
were going to sleep we were serenaded by the loons. Their song, so wild and
eerie yet playful, is one of the delights of the Boundary Waters. Without
loons, this wilderness would seem less wild.
We slept well
that night, pleased with the events of the day, but disappointed too. We had
seen so much, but we wanted more. We were after moose.
The next day we
moved on. On Knight Lake we caught our first fish, a smallmouth bass and a
northern pike. The pike was good-sized, about three or four pounds,
maybe five or six. When I was getting the hook
out, it suddenly started flailing and flopping about the canoe near Eddie,
who screamed and tried to climb on the equipment to get away. It
gave him a good scare, but he sure liked seeing it.
narrows between Knight and Hazel Lake was like hiking through the woods in a
canoe. It had an intimacy to it that was missing on the larger lakes.
Hazel, a small
lake, had only three campsites, all vacant. We chose the same one Dad and my
brother and I had
camped on five years ago, before Eddie was born. Coming back now made me
realize how much my life had changed since his birth. Deb and I had had a
son and a daughter, I had changed jobs two times, and we had moved from Iowa
City, where I had done my graduate work, to Minneapolis. So much had
happened between these two points in my life, and yet nothing here had
The next morning
we awoke to a thunderstorm. With the rain pelting the nylon, it felt cozy
inside the tent. When Dad and I discussed whether we should take a day trip
to Polly, Eddy started crying, his only crying spell on the trip, so we
decided to cancel our trip.
Why go any
farther? We had arrived at our destination. There was no need to push on.
Before long, the sky cleared. The weather was magnificent, with
sunshine and temperatures in the 70s. We had the lake to ourselves, and we
loafed for two days in its peaceful beauty.
Eddie spent a
good part of the first day in a lookout tree he discovered near the edge of
the water. It was a good climbing tree, a jack pine, with plenty of thick,
low branches. Once aloft, he had an excellent view of the lake. From
time to time, he would climb down and report his sightings: a school of
dolphins swimming by, a herd of moose on the far shore, a couple of pirate
just before dark, I paddled out on the water by myself. The sky was clear
except for a few pink billowy cumulus clouds in the west. I let the canoe
drift with the breeze. The light from the campfire was just a yellow dot on
the dark shoreline now. Nowhere else was there a sign of civilization. I was
The canoe was
moving in the same direction and seemingly at the same speed as the clouds.
I had the sensation of being tethered to them, as though I were stationary
in space, the water and earth incidental as they passed silently by.
The sharp report
of a beaver’s warning slap sounded on the water behind me. Then in the
shadows along the western shore, I saw four distinct white splashes. They
were moving from left to right. I turned the canoe in the wind, but by the
time I got there all was quiet. My guess is that the splashing was a moose
wading in the shallow water. So, between the two of us, Dad and I now had
had a good look at the lower half of one.
We spent our
second day on Hazel exploring the rapids and waterfalls by the west portage
and swimming on the sandy beach north of there. When Dad showed Eddie how to
skip rocks on the water, I was taken back to my childhood in Cincinnati. He
sure could make them bounce! I remember how he had shown my two brothers and
me at Winton Woods almost thirty years ago.
My father is 58
now. He may live another ten years; he may live another twenty or more. But
some day he’ll be gone, and after I’ve lost him these woods and lakes will
hold his presence for me. We’ve had some of our best, most intimate times
here. Though our adult lives are disparate and hurried, we have
managed to find these uninterrupted segments of shared experience.
Perhaps the same
will be true with my son. I know that if I ever come back to Hazel Lake
without him, I’ll stand beneath – rather than climb – his lookout tree. And
if I’m lucky, I’ll see those same pirate ships that once sailed across the
open waters of his boyhood imagination.
paddle was down the river leading from Hazel to Knight and back through the
narrows of Knight. We saw water lilies opening their brilliant yellow pedals
to the morning sun, a great cluster of monarch butterflies clinging to the
lower branches of a tree, a beaver, a deer, and – when we reached Grace Lake
– a badly decayed moose. It was in the water by the shore. The carcass was
covered with hundreds of black flies and the hide, where visible, was gray
and smooth and hairless.
We camped on the
north arm of the lake that evening, a good distance from the dead moose, but
the lake seemed unappealing and we were uncomfortable drinking the water.
"That dead moose
gave me the creeps," Dad said as we sat by the campfire.
"Me, too," I
said. "I’m still hoping we see a whole, live one."
Back on Alton
Lake the next day, we could tell we were nearing the outfitter’s, a major
point of entry into the Boundary Waters. Everywhere were signs of heavy
recreational use – more canoes on the lake, voices drifting across the
water, and campsites worn by frequent use, the underbrush yielding to dirt,
the birches scarred, and the pines stripped of their lower branches.
Eddie and I went for a swim. As usual, Dad offered to do cleanup.
A group of
teenage boys was horsing around in the water. They were about a hundred
yards down the shoreline at the next campsite and within clear earshot of
us. Still enshrouded by the quiet solitude of the past few days, I found
their commotion and energy jarring.
But Eddie was
watching them intently. "Look, Daddy," he said after a while. "They’re
Well, yes, I had
to agree, they were having a good time. In fact, they were having a ball.
And how much more active and interesting their kind of fun must have seemed
to a four-year-old than the quieter way his Grandpa and his Dad enjoyed
Later that night
I paddled out on Alton by myself. It was dusk, a windless evening, and the
mosquitoes were out over the water even in the middle of the lake.
I thought about how much I
had enjoyed this trip – the spring wildflowers, the rain on the tent, the
time with my father, Eddie's excitement about being in the Boundary Waters,
his fascination with the toads and insects – and I thought about his watching those
teenage boys playing in the water. Like most 33-year-olds, I suspect, I
still thought of myself as a very young man, just this side of being a
lively and rambunctious 18-year-old. But Eddie’s comment about how much fun
they were having made me realize that I no longer played anything like an
18-year-old. It was a sobering realization.
Just then a bright sliver of the
moon in the eastern sky caught my eye. I paused in my paddling to watch
it. As it rose slowly over a cloud, it grew from a sliver to a full moon.
Our last morning
of the trip was tough on Eddie. We got an early start breaking camp, but
then had to wait out a thunderstorm huddled under the thick branches of a
cedar tree. When I was handing Eddie to Dad in the canoe, Dad lost his
balance and Eddie got his foot dunked in the cold water. He didn’t much care
for that. Then on the short portage from Alton to Sawbill, the mosquitoes
were so thick, apparently frenzied by the rain, that Dad swallowed and
choked on one of them.
Once across the
portage, we threw our equipment into the canoe and pushed out for open
water, our arms flailing as we tried to paddle. Finally, near where we had
seen the loon with its baby on our way out, we left the mosquitoes behind.
It was only a
ten-minute paddle from there to the outfitter’s dock, but when we arrived
and started to unload we noticed that Eddie, poor guy, had fallen asleep.
We emptied the canoe around him while he sat propped against the
yoke, oblivious to the world around him. He was worn out, but it had been quite a trip for him.
As Eddie and I
were walking up the road to the outfitter’s, he said to me, "I never knew
the Boundary Waters were so neat!"
"What, Eddie?" I
was eager to hear his report.
"I never knew the
Boundary Waters were so neat!" he said. Then he added, "So neat and nice!"
Well, that made
That and the fact
that on the way back to Devil’s Track Lake we saw what we had been hoping
to see. It was lumbering across the road. Our driver slowed down, and we had
a good look.
Finally, there it
was, right in front of us – a whole, live moose!