Most of my canoeing as a youth was on the waters of Michigan like the Au Sable, Huron, Pine, Manistee, Rifle and Clinton rivers, as well as several inland fresh water lakes. In recent years I have spent many hours on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and a little time on Goose Creek in Northwest Virginia. Being active in scouting most of my life I have always had the itch to experience a voyage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park.
Last fall while attending a BSA National Capitol Area Council Goose Creek District Fall Camp-O-Ree a local troop mentioned that they had reserved a slot for the summer of 2002 to experience National High Adventure at Northern Tier. They indicated that a couple members of their crew had dropped out and that they had openings for three people. Upon hearing this information and then discussing it with two youths in senior leadership roles in our troop we decided this was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse. We immediately offered to fill the openings.
Over the next eight months we prepared for our voyage by reading what we could find, acquired our CPR, Safe Swim Defense, Safety Afloat certifications, completed medical examinations and swim test, requested our Canadian Remote Area Access permits, procured essential equipment and clothing, developed customized exercise and eating programs to ready for the trip.
And when it was upon us, off into the wilderness we went. It was then I quickly realized that paddling in northern Minnesota and Canada is a bit different than what I was use to. In Michigan and Virginia, we would find a body of water, put in a canoe, and stay there. We may travel all day down the river or around the lake but we never needed to exit the water unless it was time to pull out and go home. It is not that way in the BWCAW and Quetico. We spent as much time portaging that first day as we did paddling, and we were all exhausted by days end. Our voyage lasted nine days and eight nights in the wilderness, living on fresh fish, purified water and dehydrated food.
We all survived through the portages, the humidity, the mosquitoes, the biting flies, ticks and leeches. We saw the beauty of the wilderness, heard the haunting calls of loons, flushed many a wood duck and paddled under a dozen bald eagles and around a few moose. We witnessed the Northern Lights, beautiful sunsets and rises, caught fish, swam and observed the pictographs of the Indians.
In all this solitude we purged our minds of the daily hustle of careers, traffic, technology and even population thus allowing each of us to take the time to reflect on the things that are of real importance; family, friends and loved ones and bring a greater appreciation for the priority they hold in our hearts and lives.
We have learned to draw strength from within to pull us through the day and are much better individuals for the experience. I only wish I could have experienced this with my parents, for I know that they would have found the journey to be a challenge yet pleasure in the thought that they were in heaven on earth. I thank them for exposing me to nature, canoeing and scouting as a child, for with out their encouragement I may have never realized the opportunity for what it was when it was first presented.
Yet to be written
Day One: The Journey Begins
The time had finally arrived. We woke up at 3:45AM dressed and were off for the 40-minute drive to Purcellville. We were all to meet at the Purcellville Community Center at 5:00AM to assemble, load gear into the bus and depart for BWI airport. Each participant arrived one by one with different levels of enthusiasm. It was obvious that everyone was ready and excited about our trip. Our bus driver is also the Director of the Community Center. He was very friendly and helpful. To support the scouts he had volunteered to take our crew to the airport. In appreciation everyone in the crew agreed that we would conduct a service project for the community center upon our return.
Each participant loaded their gear onto the bus, said their goodbyes to their families and took a seat on the bus. Once on the bus it was suggested that we take one group photo prior to departing. Everyone exited the bus and grouped together in a pose for all cameras. Once all the moms took their photos we reentered the bus and began our drive to the airport.
The bus was one of those small buses that transport senior citizens around town. The rows of seats were close together leaving very little legroom but were comfortable enough for the trip. During the ride the scouts listened to their portable cd’s, talked, joked and had a good time. The adults discussed what needed to be done and our plans for the day. We also shared past experiences form previous outings. As we got closer to the airport the highway was under just enough construction to cause us to miss our exit. Being the well oriented scouts we all were we took the next exit and began traveling in a direction we believed would get us to the airport. Several dead ends latter we found a main road that did get us there.
Once at the airport we unloaded and headed off to check in. There was a line at check in but due to being in uniform the counter agents let the scouts check in immediately at the First Class check in area. We showed our ID’s checked our luggage, were issued boarding passes and headed off to security. Ever since 9-11 BWI has become the pilot airport for the new security systems and newly created airport security force. Here we did need to stay in line and were thoroughly searched and processed through the heightened security procedures. Once we cleared security we proceeded to our departure gate for an on time departure on Northwest flight 1081 to Minneapolis. Most of the group were seated together on the Boeing 757 and continued their fun and conversations. We had a 2.5 hour layover in Minneapolis thus we all explored the airport and ate lunch. We boarded a SAAB turboprop Northwest flight 3364 and were off to Ely.
The plane did make a stop in Hibbing on the way. Hibbing is a very small town that is best known for supplying iron ore to the factories during WWII to build our military tanks and vehicles. From the air you could see many strip mines in the area. A couple people exited the plane in Hibbing and then we took flight again and finally arrived in Ely at 3:00PM Central time. We had made prior arrangements with a local outfitter (Spirit of the Wilderness) to transport us from the airport to the Northern Tier Scout Base. The vans were not there when we arrived so we made a few calls and waited approximately 40 minutes for them to arrive. We loaded our gear and on the way made a stop at the outfitter.
At the outfitter we explained to Steve, the owner, that several scouts were working on their fishing merit badge and that any instruction and guidance would be greatly appreciated. This was all it took to get Steve to put a big smile on his face and prepare for a thirty-minute overview on fishing in the Boundary Waters and at Quetico. Steve showed various rods, reels, lures, lines and baits. He showed the scouts how to put an artificial worm on a lead head jig and how to tie a couple different knots. He explained the fishing regulations of the US Boundary Waters as well as those of Quetico in Ontario Canada. Most importantly he explained how to fish for walleye, trout, pike and bass.
Steve told us the most likely locations in a lake for each type fish and the techniques to entice them to our hooks. This turned out to be a very productive time, which led to good fishing latter in our trip. Walleye and trout could be found in deep waters in the middle of the lake or at the foot of a rock wall cliff. Fishing for these fish you need to fish anywhere from 30 feet deep to 150 feet deep just off bottom. Bass are more top feeders. He indicated that we would find them at rock cliffs but near the top and that they would hit on spinners, jigs and original floater lures. Pike would best be found in shallow waters and a steel lead line is recommended. He also explained how to get the hook out of a pikes mouth without getting bit. He closed his discussion with a few words about conservation and the outdoor code. With this new information we headed into Steve’s store and made some final purchases to get just the right gear we would need to catch our fish. Once everyone was sure they had the gear they needed for catching record size fish we reloaded into the vans and made our final twenty-minute drive from Ely to Northern Tier.
As we approached Charles L Sommers scout camp we saw the familiar sign for the Northern Tier. We had made it. We were finally here. We immediately unloaded and it started to sprinkle. We began the in processing by reviewing paperwork with a scout in a small wooden structure. We identified our two crews, turned in the crew rosters, medical forms, showed proof of CPR, Safety Afloat, Safe Swim Defense and swim classification. We were then introduced to our interpreters. I was the Adult Advisor for Crew B and Paul for Crew C later referred to as Bravo and Charlie crews. Bravo crew was assigned to Maeve, a 20-year-old economics student from Rice. We were her forth crew for the year and her first for Quetico. By this time it was getting late and we were behind schedule due to our late arrival. We headed straight to the dinning hall and had dinner.
At the dinner table we were separated into the two crews for the remainder of the trip. This allowed us time to get introduced to Maeve and gave her the opportunity to get to learn a little about each of us in Bravo crew. Maeve was never in scouts as a youth and had very little previous exposure to the scouting program. A couple years back while in high school she had paddled the Boundary Waters and enjoyed it so much she though this would be an ideal summer job. She carried herself with great confidence and it was obvious that she would be able to pull her own weight on the trip.
After dinner we went to the quartermaster and reviewed the issued crew gear. We pulled our tents and set them up to make sure they were in working order and not missing any parts. We replaced one broken tent pole and a few missing tent stakes. Pete (Camp Quartermaster) showed us the various stoves, and other gear and then sent us off to the grubmaster. Do to us being so late Maeve had taken the liberty to pull our meals and stow them in the big green plastic boxes for transportation. She reviewed each meal to ensure we had no problems with her selection.
From there we went to the “First Night Orientation” with all the other crews that arrived the same day. We saw a video, were instructed on various rules, regulations, guidelines, outdoor code and expectations. We were informed on how to fend off bear, respect the wilderness and protect ourselves from the elements. Then the camp chaplain led us in a non-denominational religious service. We were dismissed once the service was completed. Outside the room was a large map mounted on a wall. Here we reviewed our route options and finalized our voyage itinerary.
From here we went to the trading post prior to closing to purchase fuel for our stoves and the maps we would need for navigation. By now it was starting to get dark and we still needed to complete our inbound shakedown and be assigned a cabin for the evening. We carried our gear to a pavilion where one by one Maeve looked over our individual gear and made her recommendations as to what we ought to leave behind. During our preparation we had taken every effort to ensure that we packed only that, which was on the Northern Tier documentation or was recommended from other crews that had voyaged before. This turned out to be a very frustrating process. First because the mosquitoes came out in force and second because many of the clothing and other items we brought were to be left behind. Maeve wanted to keep the weight to a minimum to allow us the ability to single portage. Thus no shorts or towels, we were to share lotions and repellants, and eliminate all but the essentials. We were gambling on perfect weather conditions and no emergencies or contingencies. Everyone stowed about one third of their gear to reduce space and weight.
Finally we were done and went to our cabin for the evening. It was now 11:30PM CDT. It had been a very long day. Some crewmembers went straight to sleep while others laid in bed talking about the day’s events and enthusiasm for the next day’s departure. By midnight most were asleep. At 2:00AM I awoke and decided to take a short walk out side. I was extremely careful not to step on gear or bump into the other crewmembers. The sky had cleared of clouds, the stars were bright and off in the distant North Northwest I could see the Northern Lights. I finally started to experience what I had hope to when I first heard about the trip, peace, solitude and all of natures beauty.
Day Two: Hol Ry - Red Eye
We woke up at 5:00AM and made our final preparations. We reassessed our gear and packed that which would be left behind into duffels for storage. We swept out the cabin and went to the chow hall for breakfast. Maeve met us at the chow hall and reviewed some final details with us. We all ate, took our gear to storage and placed our valuables into a safety deposit box. We pulled our final crew gear, fuel and food. Put our personal gear into three large gray Granite packs and the green plastic tubs with food and crew gear into dark green custom packs. We put the two four-man tents, one for the scouts, the other for the adults into the gray packs. Maeve carried her own dome tent and Duluth pack for her personal gear. When all was done we estimate the Gray granite packs to weigh approximately 75 80 pounds each and the green packs to weigh between 80 and 90 pounds each.
Next we went and picked out PFD’s, paddles and our assigned canoes. Our canoes were We-no-na Minnesota II’s made of Kevlar. They weigh in at approximately 45 pounds each. We now needed to get down to the launch dock thus we started our first portage. This was approximately one-quarter mile, which later we refer to all portages in rods (1 rod = 5.5 yards,16.5 feet, or 5.03 meters). The packs weight almost equaled that of three of the scouts. Joey Z (101 lbs), Joe V (102 lbs) and Travis (105 lbs). Tyler weighed 153 lbs and was much taller than the others. The scouts and Mr V carried the packs and paddles while Maeve, Steve and I carried the canoes. It was very difficult carrying the packs and canoes down the steep hill, on the narrow path and well maintained terrain, and this was just the beginning.
We had to wait for several other crews including Charlie crew prior to our departure. Finally our turn came. We placed the canoes in the water; loaded the gear and we launched our voyage at 10:30AM CDT.
Our voyage started in Moose Lake right at the Northern Tier Charles L. Summers base on map F-10. (The W.A. Fisher Company Map Division printed the maps we utilized on our voyage. Map E-15 covers the entire BWCAW and Quetico). We began paddling Northeast up Moose lake. A short distance into the trip we observed another crew from the Charles L Sommers scout camp. You can tell what outfitter a crew used by the logo placed on the front of each canoe. The CLS logo is well recognized and immortalized on the various literature about the Northern Tier. As we got closer Maeve asked us to shout out “Hol Ry” on the count of three. Without questioning we did. No sooner had we gotten the phrase out the other crew respond with “Red Eye”. Apparently years ago a tradition was started based on the past voyagers of the French trading companies. Whole rye representing bread and food, red eye representing the local ale to wash it down in friendship.
As we neared the most North end of the lake we observed our first Bald Eagle. It was a beautiful site and it escorted us onto Newfound Lake. As we continued our travel in a Northeastern direction we observed Bald Eagle number two. We continued past Horseshoe Island and saw our third Bald Eagle as we entered Sucker Lake. By this time we were sure that if we saw another it was an omen that all four scouts would earn the rank of Eagle during their scouting days. We turned Northwest toward Prairie Portage next to a small waterfall. Here we secured our canoes and made the short 20 rod portage to Inlet Bay where we needed to process through Canadian Customs at the ranger station to Quetico Provential Park. We ran into Charlie crew which had recently made the portage with all their gear. It appeared that they had snapped a yoke on one of their canoes and needed to wait for a replacement canoe to be brought to them. Luckily it happened here rather than a couple days latter where it would not have been as easy to rectify the problem.
It was about 12:30PM and the ranger was out to lunch. Actually she was wrapped in a towel out back hanging her laundry. The sign on the door advised us that the office would open at 1:00PM. We sat on the lawn outside the ranger station and had lunch. We were all very pleased that we had paddled approximately eight miles in about two hours. Maeve stated that this was the best pace one of her crews had done yet this year.
While the adults processed through customs and purchased our Canadian fishing licenses the scouts played in the water. The Ranger then had all of us enter the ranger station for a few words of advise, rules, regulations safety and leave no trace. When we were done we made the 20 rod portage back to our canoes and back traced to where we could exit Sucker Lake to Birch Lake. Then it happened, we saw our forth Bald Eagle of the day. The scouts were excited and I was pleased. In all my life I had rarely seen a Bald Eagle and in just a few hours we had seen four. (Now on map F-11)
As time went on we had paddled just over four miles since lunch. Everyone was getting hot and a little run down. We decided to make a stop on a small island near Polaris Lake to take a swim. The sun was bright and the black flies were plentiful. The scouts were jumping off small rocks into the water having a great time. After about one half hour we again launched heading through Birch Lake to a 40-rod portage to Carp Lake. We were a bit disorganized and this was the first true portage with gear. The trail was extremely narrow, full of rocks and went along a shallow stream with white water. It was difficult but manageable. At the other end we reloaded the canoes and headed of on to Carp Lake. No longer could we see the United States. We were now 100% into Canada. About two miles from the portage we found a nice campsite on a big rock. We had to make a climb to get the to site leaving our canoes below.
After pitching our tents, gathering water for the meal and filling our water bottles some began to cook while others took a short swim. When I got the chance I sat on the large rock and just took in the scenery. The sky was clear, the water calm and the sounds of loons were in the air. This was different than the outdoors back home. After dinner we strung up the bear bags and most of the crew went to bed. Joey Z and I took one last swim to cool down and relax prior to retiring for the evening. It was a nice time with my son who indicated that this was turning out to be a wonderful trip. As I went to bed I listened to the songs of the loon on a clear night across the lake.
Day 3: The First Long Portage
Sunday morning came the way Saturday evening left, calm and peaceful. I was awoken to the sounds of birds that were quite foreign to me. They sung a song never before heard and it was quite refreshing. These little birds sang continuously but it was very difficult to spot them as they remained hidden in the tall pine of the North. We casually moseyed around getting dressed, packing gear, preparing breakfast and cleaning the site. Prior to launching we held a mini crew meeting to review our progress from yesterday, the route we’d travel today, agree on the roles each would play as we readied for our days travels. Meave closed the meeting by reading a short essay from a book by Sam Cook titled “Up North”. Maeve indicated that she typically would read a story each night before retiring but because yesterday was such a long day she held off till the morning. “Up North” is a collection of essays and stories written by Sam Cook who portrays the enchanting North Country that is as much a state of mind as a geographical area. It captures the mystic moods, seasonal subtleties and colorful characters that fill the landscape from the Minnesota canoe country.
We loaded our canoes and pushed off traveling Northeast for a couple miles and then Northwest for about another to our first portage of the day. This 15 rod portage took us to Sheridan Lake which we were in for only ¾ of a mile. At that point we came to our second portage of the day 136 rods to “That Man Lake”. This turned out to be one tough cookie. It was extremely rocky, variable elevation, multiple obstacles and large smooth flat rocks extending 10 to 15 feet. Unfortunately they were not level thus once on them you slid as if you were on down hill ice. I was carrying one of the Gray Granite Packs as well as a canoe. I was slipping, twisting, falling and having an extremely difficult time. The pads attached to the yoke intended to make it easier to portage were digging into my shoulder blades between the base of my neck and my shoulder like tent stakes pounded into the ground. This was pure torture. Each step over a rock, down a hill or brush against the tree branches from above drove the pads further into my collarbone. For a while I thought the portage would never end but I finally made it to the other end. Once there I quickly put down the canoe, took off the pack and went back to assist the others.
I later found out that while carrying a heavy gray granite pack, Joey Z did a face plant near the beginning of the portage. To the surprise of those that saw it happen he was not injured. He suffered a few minor abrasions and some bruises but all in all was able to continue the portage carrying Maeves pack the remainder of that portage. After the portage we all took some time to swim, cool down and regain some energy.
We resumed our travels stopping in a couple miles on the last peninsula of That Man Lake prior to our next portage. Here we ate lunch and discussed the day so far. After lunch we continued to a 101-rod portage taking us to “No Man Lake”. While this portage was not well maintained, it was on more level ground and mostly solid dirt making it much easier to cross. No Man Lake is very small and offered two portage options to our next destination. While two canoes found a 60 rod portage, Joey Z, Travis and I found a 32 rod portage. We called out to the others who soon joined us. This portage started out with the first 20 rods up a steep incline then it leveled off for the last 12 rods. It had poor footing and several obstacles. It was extremely difficult to travel and it was becoming very obvious that the further north we traveled the more difficult the portages.
We were now in “This Man Lake” still traveling northeast. As the day went on the strokes of both Joey Z and Travis paddles pushed less and less water. They were going though the motions of paddling but I was doing the bulk of the work. They were tired, worn out and ready to call it a day. The adults in the other canoes indicated that they were experiencing the same with the other two scouts and that they themselves were having a difficult time continuing. I too was experiencing exhaustion and was ready to stop for the evening. Maeve indicated that she had a particular island campsite in mind that another Interpreter had told her about so we pushed on to get there.
We continued on, made a 49 rod portage to “Other Man Lake” (Map F-19), paddled another mile to find that another crew had beaten us to the desired campsite. We shrugged it off ready to camp anywhere and found a nice peninsula campsite providing a perfect view of the evening’s sunset. The evening sky looked like it might rain so we put the rain fly on the tents that evening. We set up camp, hung the bear bags, ate dinner and went fishing from shore. On the very first cast I caught a small large mouth bass, which I released, and I caught another on the third cast. We were very close to a cliff rock face that we believed would be great for catching walleye. Unfortunately the weather did not hold and it started to drizzle.
We all gathered under the dinning fly for our crew meeting and another story from “Up North”. The mosquitoes came out with a vengeance making it very difficult to sit or stand still. When the crew meeting was over the scouts went to their tent and readied for bed. The adults stayed up a little longer for an advisors meeting. When it was over Steve and I took a short swim before retiring for the evening.
Day Four: Moose Muck
We awoke at 5:45AM, made breakfast, broke camp, policed the area and shuffled canoe partners. Up until today I had Travis and Joey Z in my canoe. The other canoes were also father and son teams one day Maeve was with Joe and Joey V the next with Steve and Tyler. Today Maeve would travel with Joey Z and I, Travis teamed up with Joey V and Tyler, leaving Joe V and Steve together.
We traveled a very short distance to our first portage of the day. It was 39 rods and took us to an un-named lake between Other Man Lake, Bit Lake and Bell Lake. The portage started out just fine but quickly turned into a nightmare. It was wet from the rain, had variable elevation, but worst of all, knee-deep mud, referred to as moose muck. It was very much like quick sand in that once in you chad a difficult time moving or getting out. You just sink about two and half to three feet to its bottom . Since this was our first exposure to the muck a couple of the scouts were caught off guard. As they were walking into it they found themselves quickly sinking and fell. Joey V was the first to take the plunge. Once out of the muck we had to ascend up a steep rock face which was un-level, flat, smooth, slippery rock and then down a narrow obstacle laden trail to the lake.
We no sooner launched and we were in search of the next portage. This was marked as a 4-rod portage but became difficult to find. As it turned out the portage had been obstructed by beaver making its entrance obscure when approached. We made the short portage into another unnamed lake and again immediately searched out the next portage 21 rods to Bell Lake. A couple miles later we took an 18-rod and then a 74-rod portage to Fran Lake.
We decided to find a place on Fran Lake for lunch. After lunch the scouts took to the water for a swim. They swam over to a rock that was just under the water marked on the map with a small black cross. These rocks are called Jesus rocks because you can stand on them and it appears that you are walking on water. The scouts all participated in a short swim race that Maeve promised the winner the rights to licking the evenings desert dish. Joey Z won the race.
While paddling I realized that the trees in the area had changed. While the shores further south were covered with Birch, Ash and Pines, mostly Pines, Furs and Cedar covered the lakes in this area. We also began to run across wood ducks, which have feather on the back of their heads resembling that of a woodpecker.
We paddled across Fran Lake and took a 5 rod portage to Slate Lake. We were very fortunate that the water level was high on Slate Lake or we would have been forced to take a 55 rod portage instead of the 5 rods. This put us into as marsh area that was easy to paddle through though it did have far more bugs to content with. We paddled about a mile then came to a 5 rod portage to Saganagona Lake.
Once again Maeve had been informed of a fun uncharted camp site on an island. We headed to it only to find another crew had beaten us to it. Now while it may start to sound like there were people everywhere, it just wasn’t the case. Throughout the entire day we had not passed another crew. It just happened that Saganagona Lake was large and other crews were on it. Shortly we found a site on a rock with a great sunset view, cool breeze and on the way to Silver Falls. We pitched camp and stowed the gear. While the cooking crew prepared dinner, Joey Z and I swam to a rock that protruded out of the water about 200 yards from the camp site. We sat on the small rock and enjoyed the peace of the lake and the sounds of the loon and seagulls. We swam in for dinner, told stories with the crew and as it became dark the mosquitoes came out.
In the tent that night Joe V and I shared many stories while Steve fell asleep. I set my alarm for 1:00Am to see if we could catch the Northern Lights. I fell asleep, and was awoken by the alarm. Unfortunately the Northern Lights were nowhere to be seen.
Day 5: Silver Falls
This morning we awoke at 5:00AM for we had a long day ahead of us. After I got dressed I walked bare foot to the shore with my wet shoes to clean them out. While standing on the rocks edge I slipped on the slippery rock cutting my foot and feel into the cold morning water. I was definitely awake now, quite cool and a bit embarrassed. The cut was minor but I knew it would cause me problems on the portage trails. We broke camp, made breakfast, loaded the canoes and headed off to Silver Falls. It was about 1 ½ mile from camp and then we made a 130-rod portage without our gear to enjoy the falls. The falls were large, and well worth the side trip. We climbed to the rock face and climbed until we were at the very crest of the falls. We all took pictures and listened to the roar of the water as it rushed over the edge and smashed onto the rocks below. This was one of several highlights of the trip. After about an hour we headed back across the 130-rod portage to out canoes.
As we began to paddle on the lake at the mouth of the river where the falls let out I observed a white object at the bottom of the lake. At first glance it reminded me of a skull so I took a second look. The water was clear but not smooth due to the strong current. Again I thought it to be a skull. We canoed around it for a few minutes until I finally got a better look at it only to discover that it was a white plastic Clorax jug. I guess that this was the day I was determined to look like a fool. On we went, back tracking past the location of our camp continued North on Saganagona Lake until we came to a 75-rod portage across Hunter Island. Again we continued North Northeast on Saganagona Lake and spotted a Bald Eagle perched on top of a tall dead tree. We quietly paddled to the tree and we all took pictures of the Eagle.
(Map F-26) Soon afterward we saw a couple deer in a marsh area but by the time we could notify the remainder of the crew it had spooked due to conversation in the other canoes. We took a 50-rod then a 17-rod portage. We stopped for lunch by a small set of waterfalls, took some photos and took back to the water. We immediately came to a 7-rod portage We were now into an area of Quetico that had suffered a fire in 1999. There were no live tall trees remaining. You could see noting but dead trees and small brush and jack pines springing to life for miles. We found a campsite and called it a day.
After we set camp the scouts all went for a swim and found a nice rock to jump from. Later Joey Z and I went fishing and were fortunate enough that Joey caught a good size Large Mouth Bass. This one was going to be served for dinner. Joey was working on the fishing merit badge and wanted to learn how to fillet the fish. So we got the cutting board from the crew gearbox, a fillet knife from Maeve and found a place to carve the fish. The knife turned out to be so dull that it would not be able to cut butter so we ended up utilizing Joey’s pocketknife to cut the fillets. We rinsed off the meat, dipped it in batter and deep-fried it to perfection. After a couple days of dehydrated food the fish was a welcome treat.
Day 6: Hoist the Sail Mate
To get an early start we woke up at 4:30AM. We knew we had a long day ahead of us. We headed north and took a 32 rod portage by Little Falls then a 56 rod portage past Koko Falls and a 48 rod portage at Canyon Falls. Onto Kenny Lake. About one mile later we made a 4-rod portage around Kennehas Falls entering the straights to Atkins Bay. Here we spotted another bald eagle. We enjoyed some beef jerky and continued onto Atkins Bay. We were headed East and had a strong wind coming from the East to the West. We decided to line the three canoes together side by side with the duffers holding them at the yoke and rear thwart. The Bows man held up the longest paddles with the dinning fly strong across them like a sail. The tie down cord was handed to the two duffers in the outside canoes to make sail adjustments and hold it steady. The sterns man utilized the remaining paddles to rudder the craft. We were sailing in no time getting speeds of up to five miles an hour. It was fun, easy and a welcome break from the daily paddling. We were fortunate to keep the wind long enough to cover approximately five miles where we lowered sail to search out our first pictograph on Kawnipi Lake.
We found the first pictograph on South-facing rocks just east of the entrance to Kawa Bay. It contained one drawing on a tan panel rock, immediately below a distinct diagonal fissure. The drawing was of three Maymaygwayshi in a canoe. The canoe is drawn so that it runs left to right, but the figures sitting in the canoe are facing the viewer. That is they are sitting sideways in the canoe and looking at you over the gunwales. Each figure has a large rabbit like ears, horns, or two feathers in their hair. Their arms are bent with elbows out, so that their hands are on their hips.
After observing the magic of the rocks we paddled a short distance to a small island just east. Here we secured our canoes and enjoyed lunch. There were many fresh blueberries on the island, which we picked and ate. We then resumed our travels heading south-southwest into McVicar Bay. We needed to travel another 4 miles before our next portage. The wind was strong, the water choppy and we found it very difficult to get a good pace. We tried to sail but the wind was more of a side wind and made it not possible without a different mast system and riggings. Thus we just paddled on. McVicar Bay is approximately ¼ to ½ mile wide with many peninsulas and smaller bays on both sides. For a short while we lost track of our exact position on the charts and we entered a bay to search out our portage. It was nowhere to be found. Tyler was certain that we needed to continue south to the next small bay but Maeve thought that we may have passed our portage. We all huddled and let the scouts decide our course of action. They agreed with Tyler and we continued south.
Within a half hour we found our portage, you could see the pride on Tyler’s face as we all approached the shore to start the portage. All at once the scouts started to scurry about in excitement. They were all squatting to the ground at the foot of the portage laughing and joking. I wondered what could cause such commotion and then they started to pick up little frogs. Now when I say little, I mean smaller than any frog I had ever seen. These frogs were about 1/8 inch long and there were virtually thousands of them. They were everywhere. It was impossible to walk without stepping on little frogs. The boys attempted to clear the path but eventually gave up because it was an impossible task.
We made our 20-rod portage to a small pond and quickly came to a 36-rod portage to Anubis Lake. By now my I wondered if my shoulders could handle another portage. I was feeling the pain from the canoe even when I did not have a canoe on my shoulders. This was a lingering pain that not only was felt in my shoulder blades but also on the base of my neck on my back. Unfortunately at the south end of Anubis we encountered a 64-rod portage.
It was obvious that the terrain was almost impassable, extremely narrow, filled with jagged rocks, requiring tall step-ups over huge rocks, bending below tree branches and keeping the bow from getting caught in the brush. I assisted everyone get their load on their backs and as it happened I turned out to be the last to get loaded up and begin the portage. No one was in site and shortly no one was in range of my voice. I came across one of those long and wide smooth slipper rocks that were at a 50-degree incline. I slipped a couple of times and fell once. With the weight of the pack on my back and the canoe on my shoulders I found it very difficult to get back up on my feet. I was alone, no help in sight and I keep repeating to myself “In time this too shall pass”. I managed to get up and continue up the steep trail and came to a bolder in the path that was three feet tall. The only way to move forward was to step up over the boulder in one large step. It took all I had to stretch my leg up enough to get my right foot planted on the top of the rock, but I was lacking the strength in my legs to propel my weighted down body up. I tried and tried and fell. I was lying on my side pinned down by the pack and canoe. I was frustrated, discouraged and feeling quite alone. It took me a couple minutes before I could regain my footing and get back up on my feet. Again I tried to climb the rock and finally made it. I continue onward continuing to repeat “In time this too shall pass”. Then I came to a small gorge where the trail required me to cross a small stream while balancing on a slippery log. I was certain that I was going to kiss the ground again when all of a sudden Tyler and Travis appeared. They had made it to the other end of the portage, dropped their load and came back to assist others. They were a very welcome sight to my eyes. They took the canoe off my shoulders in a two-man carry allowing me to complete this portage with only the pack on my back.
Bird Lake (Map F-18) is about 1 mile north to south and ¾ mile east to west. It is shaped like an odd shaped horseshoe with an island at the southwest section of the lake. Just west to the southern portion of the island is a small marsh area that meets up to a much smaller island. Just west of that is a 60-rod portage to Agnes Lake. Of the three canoes I was in the back canoe as we headed across Bird Lake in search of our portage. As we approached the marsh between the two islands one could observe tall marsh foliage in very shallow water. Above the tall weeds I saw something rather large moving west. I stood and could see three moose feeding. I did everything I could to get the attention of the other crewmembers in the canoes in front of me. They were now on the west of the small island and out of view of the marsh. I did not want to startle the moose so I found it quite difficult to get the attention of those in the other canoes who were having a conversation rather loud. I knew that if they cleared the island and were still engaged in conversation the moose would quickly seek cover.
Finally I got their attention and they all became instantly silent. They carefully turned there vessels east as they clearer the island toward the moose rather than west toward the portage. Joe V took several photos while Tyler was attempting to get an unobstructed view. By the time we cleared the island only two moose, a cow and her calf, were in view. They were making their way back to the cover on the large island. I did not have time to get my camera out. Once they were out of view we changed course and went to our portage.
This was a rather long portage and would be the last for the day. It was long and difficult. By this time I had observed that Joey Z was always one of the first to make a portage and he would always drop his load at the other end and run back to assist others. He had turned out to be quite the trooper. I was very proud of him.
Once onto Agness River we quickly came upon an uncharted portage to Agnes Lake. Unfortunately this turned out to be a 100-rod portage. We all made the trek and eventually reloaded the canoes.
We headed south for a couple miles in search of two uncharted camp locations that others had provided to Maeve. We traveled a couple miles and found the remote island just North of a larger island. On the Northeast corner a camper had taken one of the uncharted camps. We had made prior arrangements with Charlie crew that we would attempt to meet up at this camp and we were hopeful that they had beaten us to camp. As my canoe got closer I called out to the camp and discovered that the camper was not from Charlie crew. Instead it was a solo canoeist named Lisa. Lisa is a Middle School teacher from Kenosha, Wisconsin. She frequents the boundary waters and Quetico often. This was her third time doing it solo. She indicated that she had planned to be on the lakes for a 45 day sabbatical. She did tell us that the other uncharted campsite on the opposite side of the island was vacant and welcomed us. We paddled around the island and unloaded our gear. We would take the next day off and spend two nights at this location in an attempt to refresh our selves and hopefully meet up with Charlie Crew.
Once on the island we noticed an abundance of fresh wild blue berries. Maeve indicated that if the scouts picked a couple cups she would make a blueberry pie for dessert. This was all it took to get Joey scrambling for the berries immediately after setting up camp. After about a half hour or so the other scouts joined in to assist him go from location to location in search of ripe berries. They all stopped when it was time for dinner.
Everyone was very worn out from the long day. We built a small campfire, rested, swam, enjoyed a chocolate brownie Maeve made and eventually went to bed.
Day 7: Recharge the Batteries
Seeing that we were not traveling this day everyone slept in and got up whenever they felt like it. It was a great time to recharge the internal batteries and allow the body to heal from the little injuries and pains from the portages. During the morning I herd the call of another bird that I had not yet heard before. I looked to the sky to see a couple of Osprey. These birds have a wingspread 54-72 in.; almost eagle size; females larger than males; sexes outwardly alike; adults very dark brown above; clear white below; breast somewhat spotted or streaked with brown; head largely white like bald eagle, but broad black mark through cheeks, side of neck; bill and claws (talons) black; eyes yellow to brown; cere pale blue; legs and feet green-white; overhead, distinguished by white under parts, narrow wings, black patch at sharp bend, or "wrist", of wings; tail fairly long, narrowly barred; flies with slow powerful wingbeats alternated with glide; usual call is melodious whistle, chewk-chewk-chewk or cheap-cheap-cheap.
One by one the other members of the crew awoke and got out of their tents. With no planned activity we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, morning cocoa and coffee and just relaxed. Joey wanted to complete the canoeing merit badge that he had started a couple months earlier as well as finish the fishing merit badge. I gathered the scouts that were interested and we started to review the requirements of the fishing merit badge. We tied knots, reviewed regulations, and tackled the majority of the requirements.
After lunch while some of the scouts were swimming, Joey Z and I took out a canoe to complete the canoeing merit badge. We capsized the vessel and paddled it to shore. We capsized it and emptied it. Joey slalomed around the island and several obstacles and we up righted a capsized canoe utilizing a second canoe. Joey entered and exited it in deep water without capsizing it and eventually we completed all the remaining requirements.
When we came in we decided to conduct our service project so that the scouts could earn the 50-miler award. We choose to rebuild the fire pit that was in disarray and in need of much repair, maintenance and cleaning. We started by making cuts in the groups away from camp and peeling back the topsoil and greenery. In these holes we buried the years of built up ash and cinders in the fire pit. We then took the pit apart stone by stone and completed smoothed out the area. Then rock-by-rock we build a new, improved fire pit. We built a nice hearth and shelf so that a breeze could naturally fan a fire and a cook could set a trail stove, pots, pans and utensils. The crew did a great job. The fire pit was now ready for the evening’s campfire.
When we finished everyone decided that they would go fishing for a fresh dinner. Joey and I grabbed our fishing gear and headed west to a rock face cliff about a half-mile from the camp. We docked the canoe, traversed the terrain and found a good spot to cast from shore in at the foot of the cliff. Joey caught a couple of Black Bass and a few Small Mouth Bass. We lost a lure to a tree branch but it didn’t seem to matter which lure we used the fish were biting. We reentered our canoe and trolled awhile as well as we found another cliff to fish by. Joey indicated that his groin was getting soar and that he must of hurt himself when we were working on the canoe merit badge requirements hoping in and out of the canoe. We had enough fish for dinner so we headed back to camp.
By the time we got there Joey was in quite a bit of pain. He decided to lie down while I filleted the fish and prepared them for dinner. While I was cooking Joey V and Travis told of their adventures fishing. As it turned out they were sharing a rod and reel. Travis being the seasoned fisherman he was cast the line, rod, reel and all. Unfortunately they were in a deep section of the lake and could only watch it sink into the darkness for the first 50 feet or so. The lake was probably 150 to 200 feet deep. When I finished cooking the fish Joey got up and had a bite to eat. He then went and lie down again to nurse his pain. Latter that evening Maeve made the blueberry cobbler. Joey got up again and ate both his and mine.
Linda also joined us and we talked for a couple hours about the canoe country, her previous travels, and this expedition and about her canoe. Steve took the canoe for a short cruise around the island and was quite impressed with its agility and ease to paddle. It was a 16.5’ We-no-nah Advantage made of Kevlar. Linda indicated that if she were to purchase the canoe again she would move to the Voyager instead which is an additional foot longer than the Advantage. Apparently she found it difficult to track the shorter canoe on the choppy waters of the larger lakes. As the sky darkened with the starry sky the mosquitoes came out. It was time for bed. We extinguished the fire and called it a night.
Day 8: Louisa Falls
We woke up, made coffee and breakfast, broke camp, policed the area and said our good byes to Linda. We loaded the canoes and began our south travel down Agnes Lake. The lake is long, deep and wide. Our goal was to get to a camp near Louisa Falls before we quit for the day. The nice part was that we would have no portages, the downside was that the wind was strong, the water choppy and we would face a head wind most of the way.
At one point when the wind was hitting us broadside we attempted to set sail. Unfortunately it was just too much in front of us not allowing for the sail to billow in the correct direction. Paddling against the wind and on the choppy waters was very difficult and took a great deal of energy. There were a couple pictograms along the route that we wanted to catch so we watched the maps closely.
About three miles south of camp we came across two islands that, taken together, have the rough shape of a butterfly or “V”. A narrow channel separates them at their southern ends. The pictographs were located on the east shore of the west island near the channel. We later learned that this is the largest display on the lake. There is considerable amount of red wash, probably hand smears, on the far left of the rock panel. To the far right, quite high up, is a tiny bear. Beneath it is a vertical line with one short appendage extending out and down near the top. Also found on this site is a cross above and to the right of the hand smears, a canoe with two lines for occupants to the right of the smears, and another canoe with two more elaborate figures in it. In this last drawing, one figure stands with the “arms up” posture, while the other is seated with its arms straight out to the wrist, then slightly down.
A couple miles further south along the western shore, about one half mile north of the small bay leading to the portage to Silence Lake we came across another pictogram. There were two drawings here side by side. Both are faded, the right one more so than the left. These were of snowshoe hares. They have the hare’s characteristically long legs. The ears are somewhat indistinct, but still visible.
We paddled a few more miles south until we decided to stop for lunch and rest up. Even though we had covered at least eight miles by now it seemed like twice that. After lunch we continue south on Agnes Lake toward our destination. In the middle of the afternoon as we neared small island on the east of the lake we spotted a great spot to take a break. On the southern side was a shear rock cliff. Maeve and I canoed around and determined it to be a safe place to do rock jumping. The scouts were excited and we docked the canoes. Joey Z and I scaled the rock to a safe jumping spot. Joey was first over the edge. This was at lease 30 feet in the air and the scouts each took several turns prior to us heading back to the canoes.
About three miles later we came across another pictograph. This was located on an island about three quarters of a mile south of the narrows east of East Lake portage. The drawings of two figures in a canoe are on the east shore of a very small island.
Two miles further south was Louisa Falls. We canoed at the foot of the falls in search of a campsite but this one was already taken. We canoed about one half mile further south and found a perfect location. It was close enough to the falls that you could clearly hear the rushing water crashing against the rocks yet far enough away that other visitors would not bother us. The campsite was located on a small peninsula mostly of a couple extremely large rocks. There was a nice fire pit and several places to set up the tents. The scouts picked a location next to the water in a small clearing at the extreme end of the peninsula facing the falls on the east and the sunset to the west.
After setting up camp Steve, Mr V. and Maeve each took a short nap. Tyler sat around the fire pit with his camera. I took Joe V, Travis and Joey Z back up the lake to the falls. We climbed the steep incline and took some photos of the falls. We then continued to the top and came half way down the other side. Here about midway down the falls the upper falls crashed into a ledge like a terrace which was dammed approximately 10 feet out and then a second set of falls began. This ledge seemed to be a perfect natural whirlpool for visitors to take a swim and play under the falling water. The scouts had a great time trying to see who could make it under the falls. After an hour or so we headed back to camp to make dinner. After dinner the crew went back to the falls for more photos and fun time.
Day 9: The Northern Lights
With only 25 miles or so back to the Charles L Sommers Scout Camp we decided we could take it easy for final two days. We began our travels southwest on Agnes Lake to a 140-rod portage to Meadows Lake (Map F-11). We followed the Northern shore an eight of a mile to a 193-rod portage to Sunday Lake (Map F-10). Even though the day would be short, the long portages took a quick toll on the body. After two days rest from portaging, my shoulders and the back of my neck were immediately in pain. We then traveled southwest a couple mile to 4-rod Singing Brook Portage. This portage went relatively easy and you could immediately tell we were nearing civilization. The portage was full of other travelers and quite congested. We stopped for lunch and talked to folks from other crews about their voyages, fishing tips and other topics of interest. Maeve ran into another crew from the scout camp and the interpreter was one of her friends. Maeve wanted to spend some time with her friend so we agreed to make camp within a short paddling distance to the portage. The other crew would do the same but on the opposite side of the portage.
We paddled for approximately ¾ of a mile when we came across a very small island with a campsite on it. We decided this would be fine. Once on the island we noticed that previous visitors to the island were had not adhered to the principles of “Leave No Trace”. There was white tissue everywhere. It was as if this island had been designated as a latrine. After setting up camp the scouts went around the island picking up as much of the trash as possible putting it into the empty plastic bags our meals had once been packaged. Later that evening they would burn what they could and bury the rest. They definitely left the island in much better condition than they had found it.
While Maeve was visiting her friend several of us went fishing in different directions. Joey Z and I went along the Northwest shores of the lake closest to us while Mr V, Joe V and Tyler went around the peninsula that makes the lake the shape of a horseshoe and fished a good distance from camp. Joey Z. fished while I watched or paddled so that he could troll. He caught a fish big enough for dinner and we headed into camp around 6:30PM. Maeve and Steve had cooked the prepackaged dinner and had already eaten. Joey filleted his fish and cooked it. We then ate the fish and portions of the other food already prepared.
A while later the other canoe returned. Tyler whose fishing rod had broken earlier in the trip fished by dropping line straight down from the canoe while Joey V cast out. Tyler came back to camp with a couple of good size Bass for dinner. Later that evening we enjoyed a large campfire and participated in our final Rose, Thorn and Bud session. It was obvious that everyone while excited to get home was had also learned a lot about nature, them selves and made some close friendships. We all participated in the traditional ash ceremonies as well as burnt Mr V’s towel, which was no longer usable. Mr V tore the towel into strips giving each member of the crew a piece to throw into the fire. Before we did he said a few lines that indicated that the burning of the towel represented leaving the hardships behind and only carrying away the good memories of the trip. One by one we threw our piece of the towel into the flames and watched as the bad memories burnt to ash. The stars were bright, the night air calm, and the loon were singing in the distance. It was now time for bed so we extinguished the fire and made that final trip to our tents.
This was to be our last night on the voyage. One part of me was anxious to return to base while the other did not want to leave the peace and calm of the wilderness. I knew from my previous outings to Philmont that once you physically leave your mind has a hard time returning to the pace of the business world and everyday life. I really enjoyed the time with my son in the wilderness, and knew I would cherish it forever.
That evening after retiring for the night Joe V had fallen asleep shortly after putting his head on his pillow. Steve and I talked for quite a while sharing stories of our careers and family. We noticed the sky lighting up. It was about 11:45PM and to the North Northwest I observed the halo glow of the Northern Lights. It looked like the sky was lit up from a major city in the distance but I knew there was no city, it was just another natural treasure that I would not see for many more years.
Day 10: The Rendezvous
As the morning sun rose so did we. For the final time on this expedition we fixed breakfast, broke camp and loaded the canoes. We had approximately 12 miles ahead of us but we knew it would not be hard. We would not be allowed to reenter camp prior to 2:30PM so we took our time. We made it through Burke Lake in no time and took an 84-rod portage to Bayley Bay on Basswood Lake. This portage had been nicknamed “The Yellow Brick Road” do to its wide trail, sand surface and ease to travel. It was approximately 10 feet wide and completely flat. Many interpreters have completed what they call the Charlie Challenge at this portage. The challenge is where an interpreter carries three Aluminum canoes at one time the entire distance of the portage. We attempted to convince Maeve to take the challenge with the Kevlar canoes but she decided against it. Thus we handled it like all the portages of the past and made it in no time at all. At the other end was a 50 yard long sand beach. This was the first sand we had seen on the entire trip.
We reloaded the canoes and followed the North Shore in an easterly direction until we got to Inlet Bay. Another mile southeast and we came to Prairie Portage. This was the portage we came to on our first day on the water, the last time we saw Charlie crew with the broken yoke. It had at least a dozen crews lined up for the portage as well as processing through Canadian Customs at the ranger station. We made the portage, our final portage of the trip into Sucker Lake and reentered the United States.
Traveling southeast we paddled a couple miles until we went around the peninsula changing our coarse to a southwest direction. We followed Sucker Lake to a small island east of Horseshoe Island and docked the canoes for lunch. It was 10:45 Am so we had plenty time to spare so we swam, talked and ate. The black flies were plentiful at this location making it a somewhat unpleasant experience. We watched a ribbon snake cross the island going from the east to the west. It was about three feet long, green in color with yellow ribbons running the length of its back. It was the first snake we had seen on the entire trip.
By the time we got back into the canoes the afternoon winds had picked up. The waters of Newfound Lake were very choppy with waves approaching a foot. Outfitters motorboats that ferry canoes to Prairie Portage for other crews to begin or end their votyages also were now passing us. The winds were head winds thus it seemed to take a couple strokes of the paddle to get the same momentum only one stroke took earlier in the day.
We rounded the corner from Newfound Lake into Moose Lake and were on the final stretch of the trip. Only three more miles and we would be entering the docks and Charles L. Sommers Scout Camp. By the time we got there my arms were tired and I was ready to call it a day. We approached the docks at 2:39PM, emptied the canoes and then scrubbed them clean. For the final time I put a pack on my back and a canoe on my shoulders and made the trip up the hill to the camps canoe storage place near the Bay Post. We emptied the Granite Packs the Green Duluth Packs hanging them up to dry, turned in our excess food and crew gear. We picked up our personal gear from storage and valuables from the safety deposit box. From hear we headed to our cabin which would serve as or sleeping quarters for the evening. The scouts ran the trash to the dumpsters while the adults finalized some out-processing paperwork.
While we were out-processing Charlie crew made their way back to camp. The scouts shared stories and were having a great time. With our gear in the cabin we all headed to the showers to clean up, shave and brush our teeth. It was nice to have running water, utilize soap and shampoo and get reacquainted to flushing toilets. After freshening up we all went to the trading post and had soda, ice cream and purchase souvenirs.
After dinner we joined all the other crews that returned to camp for a program called the Rendezvous. At this program we sang songs, learned a little history of the area and shared skits or songs from each crew that represented something about their voyage. They were all very well done, rehearsed and fun to watch. As it turned out the reason we never met up with Charlie crew on the lake was that one of their canoes was not properly secured to shore and it had drifted off. It took them several hours before they discovered it gone and then several more hours searching the lake they were on for the now capsized vessel. They did eventually find it and only suffered a lost paddle. Their skit was a song to the tune of the theme of Gilligans Island but the words described their crew’s fate and tale. Another crew had a similar tale thus this must be a somewhat common occurrence.
After the Rendezvous we made our final stop at the soda machines, took another shower to cool down and headed off to bed.
Day 11: Virginia Here We Come
We needed to be out of camp by nine so when we awoke we packed our bags, hit the showers and headed to the chow hall. After breakfast we met up with Maeve and presented her another book written by Sam Cook. She was very grateful and promised to keep in touch. She was assigned to work in the trading post this day and would have Tuesday off. Wednesday she would be assigned another crew and again start all over again. As for us we were to be picked up by the outfitter at nine so we walked to the main entrance by the Northern Tier sign. We posed as a group, both Bravo and Charlie crews, for a picture just before the vans arrived.
On our way back into town we had to make a stop at US Customs and declare anything we brought back across the boarder. This was a short visit seeing that he had nothing to declare. Our plane was scheduled to depart Ely at 3:25PM and it was now 10:30AM. The vans dropped us off in the heart of Ely allowing us time to shop while they watched over our gear. We split up into several groups and hit the town. In Ely are many outfitters, restraints, gift shops and a couple museums and galleries. At lunch I had a hot roast beef sandwich and large Chocolate Malt. I purchased a couple tee shirts and a book about the pictograms on the rocks. We all met up at 1:45PM when the vans took us to the airport.
We unloaded our gear and checked in at the front ticket counter. Our luggage cleared through security and we made it onto our plane for an on time departure. The SAAB went from Ely to Hibbing, took a short layover, then off to Minneapolis. There we had an hour where we got a quick bite to eat and then loaded the Boeing 757 that would take us to BWI. Once in the air Travis realized that he had left his CD’s on the SAAB aircraft that took us from Ely to Minneapolis. In Baltimore he went to the customer service in hopes that they would eventually find the CD’s and send them home.
Most of the crew were picked up by the Purcellville Community Center bus. Steve’s wife picked up Travis, Joey Z, Steve, Tyler and me. We took the most direct route home to Northern Virginia where my wife welcomed me at 12:30AM. It was good to be home.