Big Chill: Former Guides Reunite in Minnesota's Boundary Waters by
You've probably heard it said that if you can remember the sixties
then you weren't there. Well, let me introduce you to two gentlemen who
were there . . . and who remember every last minute of it. Tom Evans was
in college, studying for medical school, and working as a guide for
Tuscarora Lodge on the Gunflint Trail. Tom Higgins was finishing high
school and vacationing on the Gunflint with his family.
One fateful week in 1965 Tom Higgins' dad decided his sons needed the
wilderness challenge of a back-country camping trip. He hired the
lodge's young guide, Tom Evans, to take the boys out to Little Sag. This
was Tom Evans' third season with the lodge and he had proven himself
more than qualified to take charge of the two younger men. This chance
occurrence set into motion a string of events which would shape the
lives of these two men for the next 30 years.
The camping trip was a good one. The boys learned the ropes from
their guide and a little something about themselves. They paddled
portaged, swam, and fished. They caught lake trout and filled their
bottomless stomachs with fresh filets and mountains of potatoes.
Somewhere along the line the bonds of a lasting friendship were formed.
Evidently the young guide saw something he liked in Tom Higgins. When
the campfire discussions lead to young Tom's future, the guide suggested
that he consider working for Tuscarora the following summer. He said
he'd put in a good word for him with the owners of the lodge.
Young Tom was skeptical of his chances but followed the advice
anyway. Lo and behold, the summer of 1966 found both Toms guiding for
Tuscarora. Other young men were also hired, but Tom Higgins by virtue of
his previous trip, was designated number two on the guiding totem pole.
This rank would mean the difference between guiding numerous trips that
summer or simply doing the chores around the lodge.
Tom Higgins' first day on the job was undoubtedly one of his most
memorable. No sooner had he unpacked his bags than he was sent back down
the Gunflint Trail to help fight the Hungry Jack forest fire. When he
returned a few days later, blackened and tired, he surely must have felt
that he had earned a little time off. But the lodge was full of guests
who'd come to fish, and Tom's 4 a.m. wake up call the following morning
signaled the first of many early-morning outings he would make that
Little Saganaga Lake was the preferred destination for lake trout and
pike fishing in those days. This was a 5 hour round trip journey from
the lodge that the guides made nearly every day. So while it would be
weeks before that day off would come the young men never complained.
They were wilderness guides--and proud of it.
As you can see, the fact that both young men were called Tom could
get a little troublesome. Once again the veteran guide solved the
problem. He began using both of Tom's given names-- calling him Tom
Karl. Naturally, this was abbreviated to Karl, and it wasn't long before
everyone knew the pair as Tom and Karl.
In the summer of 1967, Tom had to study for medical school, and was
forced to pass up on guiding several longer trips. Luckily for Karl, he
was chosen to go in Tom's place. If not for this guiding, Karl's life
would be very different today. Karl would guide that summer and two more
after it. Eventually, he would marry the oldest daughter of the lodge
owners, and later become a partner in a successful family outfitting
The two men also had the chance, on a number of occasions, to guide
together. This lead to some friendly competition; particularly when it
came to the mile-long Tuscarora portage. Imagine Karl, standing six foot
two, trying his best to keep up with his mentor, who stood only five
Carrying a fully loaded #4 Duluth pack, and a three-horse gas
"trolling" motor in one hand, Tom Evans was never beaten
across the Tuscarora portage. Tom once did the Tusc portage in an
unbelievable 13-1/2 minutes. Check it out on your maps-- it's over a
mile, and anything but flat.
In 1997, almost 30 years to the day since Karl came to guide, the two
men once again set out over the Tusc portage. They guided only
themselves and their wives this time on a long overdue reunion trip.
They sported slightly more modern apparel and equipment than in 1965,
and sported a few gray hairs under their caps.
As they crossed the portage trail, however, time stood still. Both
men trotted along surrounded by the memories of trips taken 30 years
before. They wore small grins as they recognized familiar rocks
barely-remembered milestones telling them how far they had to go. And
when they finally set their canoes down in Tuscarora Lake it was deja vu
all over again.
The reunion trip was a good one. More lake trout were caught and a
few were eaten. The weather was outstanding, allowing the old friends
uninterrupted hours of trolling on their favorite lakes. As they fished
they reminisced about particularly good fishing days in the '60s. They
recalled particularly memorable guests and their antics. And when they
hit a slow stretch while trolling one of them would remember a tactic,
or a place, tried 30 years ago and soon they were catching fish again.
"Hey, Karl, you remember those L.L. Bean rubberized rain
ponchos we used to wear?"
"Yeah, I seem to recall you bought 'em extra large so you
could pull them down over your knees to keep dry."
"That's right! It worked, too, except for my boots. Remember
how the guide shack used to smell so foul with our wet boots every
"Oh, I'll never forget that. Those darn beavers used to have
that Missing Link portage dammed up constantly. We had wet feet all day
even if it didn't rain."
On their first trip together in the '60s, the campfire discussions
were mostly about their futures. On the reunion trip they focused more
often on looking back at the Tuscarora years. There were certainly few
regrets from their summers in the Boundary Waters--few regrets, save
They lost a race against two older guides from another lodge at the
annual guides canoe race on the Trail. The older, more experienced
guides knew to take the outside lane or get bogged down in the middle of
all the canoes. Tom and Karl learned this lesson the hard way and never
forgot it. Many times in life they would take the path less traveled to
avoid getting hung up with the rest of the pack.
Towards the end of the trip, when the men regained their easy
familiarity, they began to discuss plans for the next 30 years. Who
would have guessed, they said, that the doctor who studied so hard back
then would retire early from medicine. And take up a career building
handmade wooden canoes in Canada. Or that the one-time outfitter would
end up making delicate handmade truffles and living in a posh suburb of
Minneapolis. And who would have guessed that it would take 30 years to
return to their favorite place together.
From the first moment their lives intersected it began to change
them. Had they not met, Karl might have gone through life known simply
as Tom. And he might have married someone else if he hadn't stayed
around the lodge those extra summers. Tom Evans might still be
practicing medicine instead of following a dream which crystallized 30
years ago at Tuscarora-- building classic wooden canoes.
As the years went by the two Toms didn't see much of each other, but
their friendship still had an affect on them. Many times, when faced
with decisions, they thought about what the other might do. Occasionally
too they would wonder: who would be the first one over the Tuscarora
portage the next time they met.
Perhaps, right now, you are wondering too.
*For information on Tom's superbly built canoes call him at
This article first appeared in Boundary Waters Journal.