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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

First Trip by Mike Navin

My story begins at 4 a.m., in the driveway of a total stranger. John Denning, an easy going guy , with a fair amount of orneriness, was having a dispute with his brother Steve, about which of their several bags should be loaded first and where it should be located.

Steve, very logical and meticulous, wanted to lay all of the eight or so bags in the driveway, analyze them as to weight and size, and then load them accordingly, so as make best use of the storage rack on top of the Suburban. I believe John's response was, " Steve, we've got 3 other people to load their gear and then a 10-hour drive, let's throw our stuff in and go!"

I had never meet either of these men and, frankly, had trouble believing that they worked side by side every day, in their house painting business, without coming to blows.

Scott, the third of the Denning brothers and a work acquaintance of mine, was standing off to the side, nervously waiting for his turn to load his 3, bulging, backpacks. I could tell that Scott, a machinist by trade and a perfectionist by nature, did not think that either one of them was doing it right. When his turn came, Scott arranged his bags side by side inside the storage rack, fastened them together with, what I think were, dog collars, and then ran 2 tie-down straps across the 3 identical (of course) packs.

Sitting on the ground, with his back propped against a tree, was Perry Niles, my canoeing partner and friend of 15+ years. In contrast to the Dennings, when I pulled up in front of Perry's house at 3:30 a.m., he was sitting on the curb, leaning against his single backpack, drinking a cup of coffee. By the time I stopped, he was on his feet, with the help of his walking stick, which always accompanied him on outdoor adventures. Before I could get out to see if he needed any help, he had opened the rear doors of the Suburban, thrown his pack in and was climbing in the passenger side, with a thermos of coffee and an extra cup.

After checking my watch for the third time, I starting having second thoughts about inviting the Dennings to join us on this adventure.

Perry and I, although novices to our destination The Canadian Boundary Waters, had several canoeing and primitive camping trips under our belts. The Dennings, on the other hand, had never been in a canoe. I felt obligated to bring the subject up with Perry, since he had never met any of the brothers before this point.

After taking a seat on the ground next to Perry, I said, "Did I screw-up when I invited these three to come along?" As I recall his response to my question was, "Have they ever been in a canoe before?" "No", "Have they ever camped in a tent in the middle of nowhere?" "No", "Will they try to stop me from having a good time?" "Well, of course not", I said. "Then what's the problem, let's get going!" Perry exclaimed, "This is going to be a blast!"

Finally, the Suburban got loaded and our trip officially began. Perry and I had talked about taking a trip like this for years; so to say that we were excited would be an under-statement. Between Des Moines and Duluth our conversations were limited to nervous questions, "Do the bears really come right into your camp to rip-off your food supply?" "Will we be able to use the map without getting lost forever?", "Did we bring the right gear?"

Once we got past Duluth, the questions stopped, we were in awe. We encountered such awesome sites as: Lake Superior, immense forests, and Moose Crossing signs. As we pulled off the highway outside of Ely and drove 2 miles through the forest on a logging road to reach the outfitters, we were like kids with brand new bikes. As the thick timber opened to reveal the rustic cabins, an island-filled lake and the sight of people loading and unloading canoes, we were speechless; we were really going to do this!

After moving our gear into the bunkhouse that we had reserved, we went directly to the dock to check out the facilities. After meeting with our outfitters, we had a plan of action, so we ventured into Ely to have one last look at civilization. The locals that we met in a bar called The Bear Den were more than happy to tell us every story that they had heard (or made-up) about the vicious bears in the Boundary Waters. Although we knew that they were giving us a hard time, I felt the hair on my neck tingle more than once.

At 6 a.m. the next morning we were at the breakfast table, shoveling down huge stacks of pancakes, topped with over-easy eggs, link sausage and maple syrup. Our packs were on the dock, the backpack apiece that Perry and I had brought, and the 9 duffle-bag type packs that held the Denning brothers' necessities.

When we got to the dock, our guide had just finished strapping the canoes onto the rack built on an 18' Jon Boat, which was to be our taxi into the wilderness. As he loaded the last of the brothers' packs in the boat, I recognized a hint of sarcasm when he asked, "Is this your first trip into the Boundary Waters?" I'm sure that we all knew that he was inwardly laughing at our lack of wilderness experience, but you never would have known it, we were going on an adventure of a lifetime!

The trip across Moose Lake and into Canadian waters was a lasting memory in itself.

As the guide maneuvered in and out between islands at top speed, I glanced at my partners in adventure, and saw four, ear-to-ear smiles on wind blown faces. After 2 hrs., the adrenaline was flowing as we unloaded our gear and canoes. My only regret of this whole trip is that I did not have my camera out to get our expressions on film when our guide said, "I'll meet you right here in 5 days," and backed his boat away from the shore. We knew that he would be leaving, but the reality of it hit us like cold water in our faces, we were on our own!

The expression "Learn by your mistakes" was put to use right off the bat. After spending a good half an hour loading our gear in the canoes, while they were still on the shore, because that seemed the easiest way, we discovered that you have to load them while they are in the water in order to have the weight distributed equally. After the rearranging was done, we were ready to go.

As Perry and I started across the lake, we could hear shouts and foul language coming from the Denning canoe. They had pushed away from the shoreline backwards and were arguing over the way to turn the canoe around. At that point, any apprehension that we had from being left by the guide was gone, and was replaced by sidesplitting laughter (at least from Perry and I).

At the first portage, you could either carry your gear around the rapids between Splash and Ensign Lake, or you could paddle up them. The Dennings, not real sure of themselves just yet, choose the walk; Perry and I had to try the rapids. We started 20' from the bottom and gave it our all so that we could hit the rapids at full speed. I could hear the shouts of encouragement from the Dennings as we moved up the white water.

I was worried that I would break my paddle, or my back, as we got within 6 feet of the top and the canoe just seemed to sit in one spot. After coming to the conclusion that we could not make the rapids, I turned around in the canoe to let Perry know that I was giving up the fight, and then I saw the reason. He was leaning his back against his pack, his feet spread out in front of him, and his paddle lay across his lap, I could have killed him.

He had let me paddle up those rapids on my own, while he sat at the back of the canoe grinning. I knew then that we were going to have a great time.

By the time we had crossed Ensign Lake and found our next portage, we were all feeling more at ease in the canoes. Our second portage, between Ensign and Ashigan Lake was approximately 1/8th of a mile, uphill. Perry carried his pack and the canoe while I carried my pack, the fishing poles, paddles and a small tote bag full of fresh fruit and half frozen steaks, that we had purchased in Ely the evening before. The Dennings made two trips apiece.

After reloading the canoes, we crossed Ashigan and decided that we had had enough punishment for one day. After setting up camp and fishing (with no luck), we ate like kings. Perry and I had our steaks, baked potatoes and fresh fruit on angel food cake. The brothers opted for ribs, sweet corn and apple cobbler that John's wife had sent, and we were in heaven.

That night we found out why we got a discount for going so early in the season (3rd week of May), it got down to 22 degrees!!

The morning was brought in with the wild cackling of a loon! John and Perry went on firewood detail; Scott volunteered to cook breakfast for everyone, while Steve and I tore down camp. Perry and I had a dozen eggs and some ham steak that we donated to the cause, but the brothers had enough for an army. Pork chops; breakfast sausage, muffins, fried potatoes, several different juices, milk and coffee were also on the menu.

In return for my advice that they ration their food, the Denning's began a campaign of friendly harassment aimed at Perry and I for bringing freeze-dried and dehydrated food instead of the real food that they had brought in great supply. After our morning feast, we decided to take on our next adventure, a 2-mile portage to Ima Lake.

It was my turn to carry the canoe, while Perry brought the loose gear. Although we had brought special hats with mosquito netting on them, I thought that I might go mad dealing with the thousands, no millions, of mosquitoes that seemed to think that the inside of the canoe that I was carrying on my shoulder was their new home.

I got in some good fishing while we waited for the Dennings to make their second, 4-mile round trip, to retrieve the rest of their essentials. By the time they had got back and reloaded their canoe we decided to break for lunch to fry-up the four small lake trout that Perry and I had caught. Steve got out some potato salad and some jalapeno poppers wrapped in aluminum foil that we threw on the fire. I didn't mention it, but the potato salad didn't smell like it would make it for another meal.

After crossing Vera Lake and a easy mile portage, we canoed through a steep-walled canyon were the water was only about 20' wide, with Indian paintings on the walls and several caves that we could canoe into and come out at a different exit. Our conversation turned to how many Indians or Fur traders had been in these very waters in long past years.

After a couple hours the canyon opened up into Snowshoe Lake, an unforgettable sight. It was not a large lake but it was more than impressive. It had several waterfalls, some as high as 40'. We picked an island in the middle of the lake to set up an early camp. Our camp sat atop a peninsula that stuck out in the lake 100' with 20 to 30' cliffs on one side. It was perfect, as long as you weren't prone to sleepwalking. We could see for miles and were high enough that the wind kept the dreaded mosquitoes away.

As I said earlier, we learned from our mistakes. After the teeth-rattling coldness of last night, we put our tents closer to the fire and gathered plenty of wood. As the fishing had not been kind to us, we had to rely completely on our food packs. Perry and I cooked the last of our fresh food, some minute steak that we had bought frozen the evening that we were in Ely. It was completely thawed and would not have been any good if we did not eat it that night.

The Dennings gorged themselves on lasagna, green beans that were beginning to wilt, and the last of John's apple cobbler. Their potato salad had a funny smell to it, as did the gallon of milk that they had left, and both had to be thrown out. The Dennings did not seem concerned with this turn of events, but Perry and I exchanged a look that read, "These guys are going to be in for trouble."

Morning three was perfect, the sun was already warm, the birds were serenading us and Perry had gotten up early and had the coffee going. I got out the pancake mix, powdered milk, dried strawberries, syrup, and the instant Tang. As John began his day by harassing Perry and I about not having anything left but what he now jokingly referred to as astronaut food, we heard a groan from Scott. He had just lowered their food packs (two of them) from their place at the end of a rope that had been suspended from a tree limb to keep the varmints away. As he raised his head from looking inside the packs his nose was wrinkled in a look of disgust and his eyes had a look of almost panic.

All of their treasure of fresh grub was rotten, and we had three days to go! After the initial shock, we emptied their packs to assess the damage; it was bad, but not a total loss. They had a pound of bacon that was in a sealed package, a bag of oranges, and some cornmeal mix (no milk) that was salvageable. After washing the smell off, we advised the Dennings to cook all of the bacon, before it too went bad, and eat it like jerky through-out the day.

Perry and I decided, after seeing the downtrodden looks on the faces of the brothers, that we would not tease them about their loss, at least for now. Their day went from bad to worst when, at the very first portage of the day, they flipped their canoe. Scott and Steve had gotten out of the canoe, while John stayed in to steady the canoe while it was being unloaded. As I watched with amazement, Steve did something that we had warned against from the beginning, he tried to step into the canoe standing up. As the canoe rolled upside down in what seemed like a fraction of a second, Steve fell on his butt on the shore while John disappeared under water. The look on John's face when he came to the surface was another Kodak moment that we missed.

The ice on these lakes had only been melted 2-3 weeks and the water was frigid. Luckily, they had listened when we told them to put their clothes in zip-lock bags just in case something like this happened. John dried himself and changed clothes in silence and it wasn't until he discovered that the cornmeal mix had not been put in a zip-lock and was ruined, that he had a few things to say, or should I say yell, at Steve.

After setting up camp on Thomas Lake, we suggested that someone do some fishing. As bad as their day had been, it was no surprise that the fish refused to bite. Perry and I cooked up a large pot of dehydrated beef stew, some corn bread, some freeze-dried stir-fry veggies and had some freeze-dried ice cream and blueberry muffins that I had hid away as a surprise. As we chowed, we did our best to pretend not to notice the looks of frustration on the Dennings faces, as they nibbled on the last of their cold bacon and oranges.

We exaggerated the groans of contentment as we finished our meal and began to discuss whether or not we were too full to have dessert now or should wait till later. I didn't immediately know what Perry was up to, when he stood, picked up the pot of stew and headed for the bushes. He turned to me and said "I can't eat any more, so I guess I'll just dump the rest of this out", then turning to the Dennings, he innocently said, "Unless you guys want some." I still chuckle just thinking of that, those boys were starving.

Day Four dawned upon five semi-seasoned canoeists. We had breaking camp and loading/unloading the canoes down to a science. Scott and I fixed breakfast, while the other 3 broke camp and loaded the canoes. After eating we divided up some beef jerky that Perry had made, with only minimal joking, with the Dennings. The weather was great and the scenery was awesome. We crossed 6 lakes that day, finally ending up where we had started our journey, Splash Lake. We had decided to spend our last day on Splash instead of traveling any farther, even though we were not overly happy with the fishing we had encountered so far. On the morning of our last day we decided to split up and spend the entire day trying to change our luck with the fish.

After deciding on a meeting place, Perry and I headed out along the southern shoreline; the Dennings chose to circle some of the islands out in the middle of the lake. Not having a lot of luck, we spent most of the morning talking about whether or not the Dennings would return to the Canadian wilderness with us next time. We believed that, even though they had some bad experiences; losing their food supply, tipping their canoe and less than good luck fishing, they still had a good time and would probably come again. They not only had an opportunity to see Mother Nature up close, but they seemed to have a bond between them that was not noticeable before the trip. Although Perry and I had been on many camping and canoeing trips, we agreed that we too would come away from this experience with a new respect for the great outdoors.

As we neared the rendezvous location, we could sense the change in attitude of the brothers. Although they had enjoyed themselves, the Dennings had, on more than one occasion, mentioned the fact that we had came all the way to Canada, and had not caught "The Big One" like they had hoped for. I could tell by the ear-to-ear grins on their faces that things had changed in that department. First, Scott and John, who were in their canoe, fishing along the bank, each lifted a stringer full of 4-6 lb. bass. When Perry and I were done congratulating them on their catch, Scott spoke up "These are the little ones," as he pointed to shore, where Steve was, with difficulty, lifting a stringer with 2 Northern Pike, that I would have guessed at 15-20 lbs. apiece.

After several pats on the back and picture taking, we each picked a bass for lunch and released the rest of the bounty. Now it was our turn to be on the receiving end of ridicule, for our lack of fishing ability. The rest of the day was spent under a shade tree, waiting for the guide to arrive, not because we were anxious to leave such beautiful surroundings, we were exhausted. All the days and nights of hiking, canoeing, setting up camp only to tear it down the next day, had caught up with us.

Upon arrival at our outfitters, we wasted no time unloading our gear, throwing it into the Suburban and heading for the shower room (which we badly needed). Immediately after that we headed for the cookhouse and one of our outfitters huge T-bones with all the trimmings. That evening, sitting on the dock in lawn-chairs, watching the sun set over Moose Lake was probably one of the most relaxing times in my life.

The ride back to civilization , was great, we went over every event of our trip at least twice. By this time John was even laughing about his brother tipping him over in the freezing water, and Scott lost the scowl on his face, that appeared every time the rotted food story had came up previously. I only run into the Denning brothers by chance every now and then, but there is a kinship that we share that time will never fade.


--article courtesy of

Sixth Sense Northwoods Magic
Waterproofing Prepared Paddler

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