the Great Wet North by
Some people might say that allowing a bunch of white-collar men to
spend a week in a million acre wilderness without close government
supervision is a recipe for disaster. Others might assert that it's
simply nature's way of weeding out the crazy people in our society.
Late in the summer of 2001, eight of us took advantage of a lapse of
sound judgment on the part of the U.S. Forest service and got a permit
to do just that.
My good friend, Ken Strunk, is old enough to be my father. When I was
a kid, he used to take me backpacking yearly in the mountains above Lake
Tahoe, California. Whether he owed my family money, or was doing penance
for some heinous deed committed in a past life, I've never been able to
ascertain. What I do know is that our trips together had a profound
impact on my young life.
I'm now 32, Ken is in his sixties. I live in Maryland, and he in
Texas. A few years ago I contacted him and suggested that we meet for a
backpacking trip ''just like old times.'' Surprisingly, he agreed. Since
then we have enjoyed a tradition of meeting yearly, somewhere in the
country, to rekindle our old friendship. This year, it was decided that
we'd try the boundary waters, somewhere neither of us had ever been
For the boundary waters trip, we both invited friends who were
younger and stronger than we were, in hopes of not having to portage
everything ourselves. Amazingly, they are all still speaking to us after
the trip. Such is the magic of the Boundary Waters.
A good trip starts with good planning, which is half the fun as far
as I am concerned. We made our reservations at the end of March, hoping
to get a permit before they were all booked for the week that we wanted.
I spoke with our outfitters about a suggested route, and let them know
that we'd have an age span of 50 years (17 - 67) going on the trip, so
we needed something that would accommodate us all. We also requested a
week with no rain or bugs, when the fishing is good. Once she quit
laughing, Cheryl suggested starting from Saganaga Lake and doing a
counter-clockwise loop that would bring us back to Seagull Lake. Though
she said that she had done that particular trip in two and a half days,
she said it would make for a relaxing and fun six-day outing. Satisfied,
I made reservations for the eight of us, in four canoes. The outfitter
recommended that we take a tow boat across Saganaga Lake to American
Point and save ourselves about eight miles of hard paddling on the first
day. That sounded like a good idea, even for the sum of $25 per person.
The map at right shows the route that we actually took. It came out
to just over 45 miles, and if Cheryl, our outfitter, did it in two and a
half days, one of us should have proposed to her on the spot. If I were
to do it in two and a half days, it would either have to be: A. In a
float plane or B. While being chased by Sasquatch.
Actually, it turned out to be just the right length for us. Before I
get into the trip, though, I should introduce our group. Ken ''Mountain
Man'' Strunk - Has spent more time in the woods than you've spent
breathing. Oldest (he'd insert ''best looking'') of the bunch. Has
impeccable taste in hats. For us younger guys, having Ken along was a
real challenge to our self-esteem.
John ''Copperfield'' Speer - had a new and entertaining magic
show for us nearly every night of the trip. Especially good at making
dinner disappear. An athletic fellow, if I were his parents I'd have
named him Icahn Chucka Speer.
Gary ''Tiger o' the woods'' Speer - Younger brother of John,
always pining for a golf course. Kept referring to the lakes as ''That
big water trap''. Believes hair is for sissies.
Andy ''Hot Sauce'' Villavicencio - Graduate of the USMC school
of culinary arts. (Never send in a platoon when a battalion will do).
Basically, if it makes your mouth go numb for an hour, it needs more
spice. Never had to use insect repellent, we all enjoyed watching the
mosquitoes that bit him spontaneously combust just after liftoff. Born
in Mexico, Andy started out with a better tan than the rest of us came
Chuck ''Where's Bongo?'' Holton - Planned the trip for a whole
year and still forgot to bring silverware - again. Managed to paddle off
and forget my dog at almost every portage. Found myself saying things
like ''We're here to relax and have a good time, so shut up and
Graham ''Catch & Release'' Davis - SWEARS he caught a huge
Northern, and was so efficient at catch & release that no one else
saw it. An obsessive bather, Graham was always the cleanest one of the
bunch. Makes paddling a canoe almost an act of worship. Screams like a
teenybopper at the sight of anything resembling a leech. Has a high
center of gravity. Refers to himself as ''A man of girth.'' Can carry
all his gear, your gear, and a canoe under each arm.
Cory ''Landlubber'' Falde - one of the teens in the group. Six
foot and fearless, unless forced to swim. Quiet yet witty, He thinks
bathing is for sissies. Environmentalists tried to picket him when we
returned to civilization.
Dusty ''Low Rider'' Mattison - Cory's cousin. Missed his
seven-foot girlfriend almost as much as his seventeen foot Cadillac.
Started to twitch every time he had to get into a canoe with Graham,
because he instinctively KNEW that he was about to get wet. Stayed
surprisingly calm when Bongo absconded with his weeks' supply of beef
jerky. If Graham was the skipper, Dusty would be Gilligan.
Bongo ''Must have jerky!'' Holton - Chuck's intrepid Jack
Russell Terrier. Kept every campsite safe from squirrels - unless it was
naptime. Paid his freight by curling up in the bottom of my sleeping bag
at night and keeping my feet warm.
In the weeks before the trip, we spent quite a bit of time preparing
menus, packing lists, and such. I posted these lists on my website, so
that everyone in our group could participate in discussing important
aspects of the trip, such as whether or not Ghee was an acceptable
substitute for butter. (Just thinking about it makes me want to go
scrape my tongue.)
We decided to try to save as much money (and weight) as possible by dehydrating
some of our own food, rather than purchase punitively expensive
freeze-dried-and-cryogenically-sealed meals that could probably be made
more cheaply if NASA did it. I rifled through our pantry until I found
our long neglected food dehydrator, and went to work. I dried Tomatoes,
Peppers, Onions, mushrooms, etcetera, and over the course of several
weeks, reduced our entire garden to about seven plastic baggies each
containing several ounces of colored powder. I also tried some more
adventuresome items, such as bacon and eggs, oh, and earthworms.
Yes, I dehydrated earthworms. We have GREAT earthworms here in
Maryland, and I wanted to try fishing with some of them, but didn't
think they'd go over well in a carry-on bag, so I dehydrated them. Hey,
they would be used in water anyway, right?
Strangely enough, several days into the trip, when I went looking for
the baggie of earthworms, I couldn't find them. At the end of the trip,
the only food item I had left was the baggie of mushrooms, but I could
have sworn we ate them the first morning in our omelets. I distinctly
remember Graham saying, through a mouthful of omelet, ''These mushrooms
are great! Isn't it funny how everything tastes so different when you
Anyway, after collecting all of the ingredients needed to satisfy the
third revised revision of our menu, I organized them all into paper bags
by meal, so that they could be quickly and easily prepared during the
The eight of us met in Minneapolis from five different states. Some
of us drove; others flew in, so we decided to find a place near the
airport to meet. Later, some of the group noted that the Mall of America
might not have been the best choice, considering that there are more
people there at any given time than there are in Rhode Island. Also, the
walk from the front door to the 73-acre Oshmans Sporting goods store
could have killed less fit men than we. Once there, several of us
feigned heart failure for a few minutes, then we ambled around the store
for about an hour complaining about the lack of selection. We eventually
pooled our resources and purchased approximately 311 pounds of fishing
tackle. While trekking back out to the parking lot we congratulated
ourselves on how much money we would save on food for the trip by
The drive north to Duluth is scenic and relaxing. The pressures of
work went away with my cell phone coverage. Being ever frugal, Ken has
developed a habit of stopping at garage sales whenever he sees them. The
road from Duluth to Grand Marais was peppered with them on this day. I'd
be buzzing along the highway deep in thought, when suddenly Ken would
shriek ''GARAGE SALE!'' while pointing frantically at a small sign on
the side of the road, inevitably about twelve feet in front of us.
Jolted out of my reverie, and judging that there must be a moose in the
road by the pitch of Ken's yelling, I'd screech to a stop on the
shoulder, and everyone would pile out quickly to get away from my
screeching. Most of the sales were depressing because they had for sale
nearly the same items we had just mortgaged ourselves to the hilt
buying, only at about 1/10th the price of Oshmans' Mongo-Store. So, we
did the only sensible thing, we bought more. We stopped at a Pamida
store so that Graham could buy some food. When we returned to the truck,
Bongo was nowhere to be found. Puzzled, we began searching the parking
lot, calling his name. Some folks walking out of the store said
casually, ''Are you all looking for a little dog?''
''Yes, have you seen him?''
''In the shoe department,'' they said, as if one always came across
fat terriers in a Pamida store.
Worried that Bongo might be trying to use my debit card to buy some
beef jerky, I hurried into the store.
I stopped an employee, asking, ''Have you seen a little white dog in
''Was it wearing a red bandana?''
''Uh, yes.'' I wondered just how many little white dogs were in here.
''Last I saw him, he was in the furniture department,'' the employee
''What kind of place is this?'' I wondered, heading for the furniture
Bongo was curled up on a couch, watching a nearby television. He
cheerfully followed me back to the truck as I reflected on the cultural
differences between Duluth, Minnesota and suburban Maryland. Where I
live they probably would have evacuated the store if they caught Bongo
curled up on a couch in the furniture department. I'd have had to pay
hundreds of dollars to bail him out of doggie jail. Here, people barely
We finally made it to Grand Marais; a quaint little town located
approximately forty miles south of the great waterfall that drops off
the edge of the earth. By this time, everyone was hungry, so we headed
over to Sven and Ole's pizza. Cory and Dusty spent most of the meal
trying to explain to the rest of us who Sven and Ole are. Whoever they
are, their pizza isn't cheap. Thinking that the individual sized
Parmesan cheese packets might be a nice addition to some of the meals I
had planned on the trip, I mentioned to our group that we might grab a
few extra packets before we left the restaurant. Believe it or not,
several of our group went a bit overboard, and we ended up with enough
Parmesan cheese packets to outfit a sizeable Italian restaurant. I guess
in the end we got our money's worth out of Sven and Ole.
After dinner, we headed North on the Gunflint Trail to the Gunflint
Northwoods Lodge, where we had reserved a canoer cabin for the night, at
a nice price of $18 per person, which was nearly as much as we'd each
paid Sven and Ole for dinner. The cabins were Spartan and getting into
the top bunks required considerable skill at mountaineering, but for $18
a night, you can't be too picky. There were two bard Owls outside our
door that were really neat. We watched them for a while and then went to
There's nothing like cramming eight men a small, Spartan cabin in
triple bunk beds to make them want to get up early in the morning and
get out and smell the ... well, smell anything other than the inside of
a Spartan, triple bunked cabin where eight men full of Sven & Ole's
pizza spent the night. But especially nice is the smell of
raspberry-oatmeal coffee cake in Gunflint Lodge's dining room. We loaded
up on a huge, delicious breakfast there, like men doomed to eat nothing
but ramen for the next week, which basically we were.
Once we were able to walk again after consuming enough pancakes and
waffles to feed Tajikistan, we went up to the outfitters
to get our remaining canoes and other equipment. The outfitters office
has a back room that is every outdoorsman's dream. Shelves up to the
ceiling stacked with every kind of outdoor gear, from tents to packs to
those little plastic egg cartons. Entering that room, I could almost
hear a chorus of angels, the same ones that I hear when I walk into Home
Depot. We drooled there for a while before the manager, walked in. She
was very helpful in every way, helping us get the rest of our equipment
squared away. I asked if we should pay now or later, and she said it
would have to be later because her computer was down. Further inquiry
revealed that the software she was using just happened to be similar to
a type that I'm quite familiar with, so I offered to have a look at it.
Naively, she agreed. It turned out that we couldn't fix it completely,
but we had fun trying, and were able to make her think it was a little
better than it had been when we started. I thought she was going to kiss
We all jumped in the suburban, now bristling with canoes, paddles and
life preservers. We headed north to the point where the boat was
scheduled to pick us up for the short ride to American Point. Cheryl
said that it was at the end of the road, and she wasn't kidding. Driving
to the pickup point actually felt like driving to the end of the earth.
When we arrived, we found that the boat was only big enough for two
canoes at a time, and so had to make two trips to American point. My GPS
registered an average of 14 miles per hour on the roughly 15 minute
Once we were all back together at American Point, we got to work
adjusting the load placement on our canoes, almost everyone believed
that the best method for doing this was to put the majority of the gear
in MY boat, which I didn't mind, as long as I didn't have to ride with
Then, we set off, eight men on a wild adventure, heading into the
heart of a million acre wilderness.
After a few minutes, we went back to American Point and picked up
Then, we set off again. After a grueling twelve-minute paddle, we
stopped for lunch on an unnamed island near the southwestern tip of
Saganaga Lake. It was there that we decided to follow the tradition of
the intrepid voyagers of days gone by, and began a practice of giving a
strange name to everything we came across. This island, we decided,
would be forever known as OgoshIgotthemunchies Isle.
We set out again, and soon came upon our first portage. It was
approximately seven feet from one lake to the next. This was going to be
a great trip.
Awhile later, we came upon Monument Portage. This one was measured in
rods. A rod is apparently roughly equal to the distance between one end
of your canoe and Muncie, Indiana. Suffice it to say; we all felt we had
been beaten with rods by the time we got all of our gear moved to the
far side of the portage. Hoping that this would be the worst we would
encounter, we optimistically set off southwest down the Canadian
Border. Then, we went back to get Bongo, and set off again.
The portage to Esther Lake showed to be fairly short on the map,
though if we had looked more closely we would have realized that it was
nearly vertical. At this point I was already making plans to add Sherpas
to my packing list for next time. By the time we got everything into
Esther Lake, we were ready to lie down and whimper. We found a campsite
on an island that we named OwIgotacramp. After pitching our tents we set
about making dinner, and testing some of our newfangled fishing gear. We
engaged in a lively discussion about whether or not bears could swim,
and then decided to hang our food just in case. This was easier said
than done, considering that at this early stage of the trip, suspending
our food bag in a tree was about like dangling a piano out of a second
As it got dark, we all sat around the fire and enjoyed the refreshing
smell of bug repellent and singed eyebrows. One by one, we turned in for
the night. Graham and I stayed up for awhile talking and taking in the
beautiful night sky. As we were standing on the lakeshore stargazing, a
snapping turtle the size of Joe Montana snuck up and tried to eat
Grahams foot. We stifled the urge to practice native war cries and
stalked off to bed.
The next morning, we cooked ''Chuck's surprise'' omelets for
breakfast, then cleaned up as Bongo bounced around the campsite like a
Mexican jumping bean chasing a couple of very miffed squirrels. While
dropping the food cache, poor timing on my part nearly killed an
unsuspecting Andy as he rounded the corner, returning from the camp
toilet. No hard feelings though.
We got packed up and, though sore in places we hadn't previously had
places, cheerily shoved off toward the Cherry Lake portage.
The map said 110 rods. I hoped it was a typo. It wasn't. The crossing
left me hypoxic and about two inches shorter. I made a mental note for
our next trip to bring a canoe made of carbon fiber and helium.
Taking our time, we meandered to the southwest, taking it slow so
that we could try out some of the fishing
tackle that we had brought, commenting that since it cost more than my
first car, it had better fill our boats with fish of biblical
proportions. While ''Nessie the Northern'' eluded us for this day, we
caught enough fish to keep our interest. Once my rapaala got snagged and
I had to dive in to save it.
When paddling, we averaged about 3.5 miles per hour, according to my
The wind seemed to be in our faces everywhere we went, except for a
short time in Amoeber Lake, when it was mercifully at our back. I
quickly dug out my poncho and we were able to use it as a sail, making
about 3 mph with little effort.
We found a campsite that evening in Knife Lake, a very nice spot with
lots of room. While Andy and I attended to dinner, the others struggled
to put up our rain tarps, the process of which was quite entertaining to
watch, and which virtually guaranteed that it would not rain that night.
Andy caught a pike, which we attempted to clean and eat, but I think the
mosquitoes got most of it, and us. After dark as I was preparing for
bed, I made an unpleasant discovery that led to another mental note:
Next time bring a tube of toothpaste that is easily distinguishable in
the dark from the tube of Jock-itch cream.
After breakfast the next morning, once we could stand erect, we broke
camp and did a map check. Being the staunch environmentalists that we
are, we decided to alter our route slightly to decrease the number and
length of our portages, so as to leave less impact on the land. Such was
the level of our benevolent concern for nature. Besides, our attempts to
teach Bongo to portage the canoe had been unsuccessful.
At a leisurely pace, we paddled our way toward Jenny Lake, our next
planned campsite. Along the way we saw a Bald Eagle with three of her
young on an island, summarily named ItawtItawabirdie Isle. There were a
couple of very picturesque waterfalls along the way as well. Graham
decided to go wading in one of them. When he climbed up on a rock, he
noticed that a few small leeches had affixed themselves to his bare
legs. If you've never seen a 270-pound linebacker scream like a
twelve-year-old girl at a Ricky Martin concert, while doing an
impression of the entire cast of ''Riverdance'', it's quite a sight. The
fishing was better this day too. By the time we reached our campsite we
had a decent stringer of bass, which we cleaned and ate. There were
quite a few people in the area on this day, and we almost had to race to
get a campsite. While Jenny Lake was a beautiful place, the campsite was
quite a bit more cramped than the last one, due to the incredible amount
of fallen timber from the great storm of 1999. It is virtually
impossible to get off the trail anywhere on land in this section of the
boundary waters. Downed trees lie everywhere in piles, like a giant game
of pickup sticks. This explains why we didn't see any Moose
for our entire trip. They were all over near Ely for a convention when
the storm hit, and have been unable to get back due to all the downed
timber. That, and the portages are a killer.
The next day, at the portage into Alpine Lake, there was a stream
next to the trail that looked passable. It was running a little fast,
and there were a couple of logs down across the water, but it looked
like the boats could make it. After scouting the route thoroughly, we
decided to give it a try. We mentioned our plans to another group with
which we were sharing the portage, and they looked at us as if we were
spouting heresy. Undaunted, we made plans to run the rapids. In order to
be on the safe side, we unloaded the canoes and Ken and the Speer
brothers hiked the gear to the other side. Then Cory and I, on our knees
in the first canoe, took a run down the stream. By cutting very close to
one log, then turning sharply to the right and ducking under the next
log, we were able to make it through the rapids. Victoriously, we
paddled into the far side of the portage.
Then, Graham decided to try it. He somehow talked Dusty into running
it with him, who immediately got a nervous tic in his face. We watched
as they started the run, following our instructions to duck under the
overhanging logs. They performed flawlessly, and after passing under the
logs, popped back up and turned to see if we had witnessed their
triumph. While they were looking back, they hit a rock and capsized.
Dusty flailed around as if he were drowning, confessing sins he had yet
to commit, until he realized that the water was only about a foot deep.
He then stood up and, pulling their waterlogged canoe, he and Graham
sloshed over to the portage. Cory, Andy and I ran the other two canoes
down without further incident.
At camp that night, on the isle wachagottaeat in Alpine Lake, we
fished, swam, and washed clothes. The latrine at this campsite was on
the highest point on the island, with an unobstructed 360-degree view of
the beautiful lake. It was the most scenic toilet I've ever had the
privilege to use. It's a good thing there aren't many people around,
That night, as Andy and I stood talking just far enough from the
waters edge to avoid hungry monster turtles, there was no wind, and the
lake looked like glass. We were able to pick out constellations in the
water. Suddenly, a shooting star came from near the North star,
streaking right for the cup of the big dipper. As it reached the lip of
the cup, it burned out as suddenly as it had appeared, giving the
impression that it had dropped right into the dipper. I half expected to
see a celestial splash. Andy and I looked at each other, wide eyed.
''Did you see that?'' we both exclaimed at once. It was a sight I will
The next day, we planned a short paddle to the north end of Seagull
Lake, where we would make camp early and spend our last full day
relaxing. Plotting the course on my GPS before we left, it looked to be
just about two miles. We headed out, skipping the near portage to try
our luck at a small rapid that offered the possibility of being able to
stay in the boat. After a quick return trip to Wachagottaeat to pick up
Bongo, we found the rapids and sailed through fully loaded with no
problems whatsoever. Seagull Lake lay before us, our last major paddle
of the trip. The wind, of course, was at our front, and we were
beginning to feel it in our shoulders and backs after 45 minutes of
tracking across the lake.
Several of the campsites that we went to were already taken, and when
the sight of a ferocious Jack Russell Terrier didn't scare the occupants
away, we had to keep looking. It might have helped if Bongo had been
awake. At one point in the middle of the lake, we found a large rock
that came within inches of the surface. Cory and Graham took the
opportunity to put on a passion play of sorts for any passersby, Graham
played Peter, and Cory was Jesus, walking on the water. I'm sure the
real Jesus smelled better, though. By this time, if Cory had fallen in
the lake, he might have left a ring.
We secured a campsite and spent the rest of the day reading in the
sun, napping, fishing, and jumping off of a fifteen-foot rock into the
water. Graham kept seeing leeches behind every rock. Bongo sneakily
stole away with any unattended beef jerky. Since John Speer had pretty
much run out of magic tricks that didn't require the use of a hacksaw,
we ate almost everything that we had left and listened to Ken tell us
stories from his experiences in the French and Indian war, or World War
I, I forget which, late into the night.
In the morning, we could almost smell the flapjacks at the Gunflint
Lodge, miles away. It was all we could do not to leave our equipment and
paddle like maniacs the last mile to the takeout point. With great
restraint, we packed up and headed for the boat ramp. From there I ran
to get the Suburban while the rest of the group mugged for pictures,
then we loaded up and sped to the lodge for a very large and satisfying
breakfast. It was nice to be back to civilization, but strange how
quickly the dining room at the lodge emptied out when we showed up. I'm
not sure why the CO2 alarm kept going off either, they ought to get that
After breakfast, we walked back up to the outfitter's office and
returned our equipment, paid our bill, and thanked them. We all bought
clean shirts, and Ken purchased silverware for everyone to forget at
home next year. Sore, but refreshed, we thanked the staff and headed out
Ten minutes later we turned around and went back to get Bongo.