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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

In search of a whole, live moose

by Stephen Wilbers

First published in The Northern Review (spring 1988)
 

 

Here's a story about my son's first trip to that great and mysterious land, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota.  It takes place in 1983.  Eddy (as he now spells his name) was 4 years old.  My father was 58.

Since 1978, Dad and I have gone on 26 annual week-long canoe trips.  He turned 79 one month after our 2003 trip.  He says that trip will be his last.  But who knows?  Maybe he'll change his mind.  

I tell some of this story in my Boundary Waters books. I hope you enjoy it.

 

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.

Our second attempt at departure was more successful.

Eddie, my 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 Deb stranded?"

"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 relaxed.

"Look, Daddy!" he exclaimed as we passed over Cedar Lake. "It looks like an elephant!"

"Hey, he’s 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 miles.

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.

Over Lake 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 Silver Bay.

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 competition."

At 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 snail shell.

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.

The greatest 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 unpredictable.

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 gorilla!"

"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 lonely."

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.

"Really?" His 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 laughed.

"Come on, Eddie," I said. "Here’s your plate. Let’s eat."

"Grandpa," Eddie said a little later, "I saw a python, too."

After breakfast, 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 fault."

"But, Daddy, look!" he said, pointing to the overturned and partly submerged canoe. "I broke it!"

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 early afternoon.

The first 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 repellent.

"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.

"But, Daddy, 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 water.

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.

"My goodness, 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.

"Look Daddy. 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 moose.

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."

The blackflies 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 strawberries.

That evening 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 him.

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.

Paddling the 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 changed.

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 ships.

That evening, 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 alone.

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.

Our favorite 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.

After dinner, 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 having fun."

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 themselves.

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 my trip.

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!

 

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