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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 Magazine.com

Junior's Big Adventure by Anne Sherve-Ose

Junior had never been out of the state of Iowa, much less visited a foreign country. In fact, he had never been out of Hamilton County. He rarely left the farm where he was born and raised. He had never gotten a driver's license and didn't own a car. He allowed others to deliver supplies to him, and found all the entertainment he needed around the home place. I had first met Junior only four years earlier, so it wasn't as if our relationship went back for years and years. But there was a strong mutual appreciation that had developed between us during those years, and we enjoyed spending time together. So it was that I found myself this spring thinking that Junior really needed to get off the farm and see a bit of the world. Somehow I convinced him that a kayak trip to the Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario would be just the ticket.

Now Junior was just as unfamiliar with water as he was with towns. I must confess that he rarely took baths, and as far as I know had never even been swimming. But I showed him pictures of the uniquely watery world where we would be traveling, and he didn't seem to be put off by the fact that he would spend most of every day for fifteen days floating many feet away from solid land. I believe he was actually excited at the prospect.

Several weeks before our departure was the day for Junior's first kayak lesson. The plan was that I would sit in the front seat and Junior would sit in the back seat of my two-person kayak. Unfortunately, Junior let me know right away that that plan would never work. I indeed sat in the front seat, but he insisted on sitting in front of me, not on a seat at all, but on the floor. This arrangement wreaked havoc with the balance of the kayak, but I figured I could stow our gear in a way to make it work. Besides, it was just the first day and I didn't want to scare him off, so I let him have his way. He didn't get the hang of paddling very well; in fact, it seemed as if I was doing all the work. But I attributed that to the fact that he had never been in a boat before, and really was quite frightened of the water. Several days before the big trip we had another kayak lesson and things went much more smoothly this time. Junior was able to get in and out of the kayak by himself, without tipping it over, and we made good progress in our paddling. We were ready!

Before we could hit the water, however, we had a 500-mile road trip to make. Our put-in spot was the far end of the Gunflint Trail, which winds for fifty miles north out of Grand Marais, Minnesota. Junior's previous experiences in cars had not been pleasant, so he was very reluctant to participate at all. I had to practically drag him into the vehicle, and for the next eight hours or so he drooled continuously while looking nervously out the window. Needless to say, I did all the driving while he tried to concentrate on happy thoughts.

The next morning we were at the edge of huge Lake Saganaga by 7:00. I advised our shuttle driver to leave us in peace, as our embarkation would not be a pretty sight. We stowed and restowed our gear, and finally fit everything in. It was a good thing that Junior declined using the second seat, as there was a huge drybag sitting upright in it. But it was a beautiful calm sunny morning with water like glass, and we were finally underway.

A few hours later, though, Junior was lamenting the fine weather. I neglected to mention that Junior is black, and apparently he absorbed the sunshine and rays reflected off the water much more quickly than I did. He was soon sweating and panting and letting it be known that he would prefer to be anyplace else in the world other than where he was at that moment. Luckily, a long stop at the Canadian Customs station in Cache Bay helped him to forget his distress, as well as cool him off. Our first meal on the trail, crackers and cheese, rejuvenated us both, and we soon found ourselves at our first portage.

Portaging is an integral part of a Quetico canoe trip, and can often be a grueling, sweaty, bug-infested, profanity-producing, character-building experience. To my surprise, portaging was Junior's favorite part of the kayak trip. He eagerly anticipated each portage, never waiting until we had touched land before he was out of the canoe and checking out the portage path. He never once grumbled about the rocks or downed trees or mosquitoes. Without my advising him, he naturally fell into the role of a seasoned team member: when he reached the other end of the portage, he would immediately turn around to come and help me, or at least see what was taking me so long. It had somehow fallen to me, a 47-year-old female, to always carry the kayak, as well as the big drybag. Junior explained away the inequities of this by reminding me that it wasn't HIS idea to go on this trip in the first place. To prevent a two-week argument, I accepted my role as sherpa and reminded myself that I was simply glad to have Junior's company. Since he wasn't carrying anything on the portages, Junior was free to engage in his latest passion. He had always been interested in animals of all kinds, but had never seen chipmunks before. So he would stalk up and down the portage path looking and listening for chipmunks. When he found one, he would sit down and stare, mesmerized by the idea that such a tiny creature could make so much noise. Junior certainly knows how to find pleasure in the simple things.

Our first campsite's location was similar to many others that followed it: just below a waterfall, where the roaring sound and the smell of fish filled the air night and day. The route we had chosen would take us up the Falls Chain, which is a series of ten or twelve waterfalls separated by small lakes, fast water, and many portages. We liked to finish a portage and then camp, rather than having to face a portage first thing the next morning. The campsites near the portages were ancient, and we could imagine thousands of people over thousands of years before us enjoying the same spot. Lavender irises and deep pink wild roses provided delightful natural landscaping. Unlike the campsites in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, these Quetico campsites did not have steel grills or latrines. However, a stone fire ring was found at each site, as well as evidence of earlier campers who didn't know how to dispose of their own waste. Digging a little hole to use as a latrine should not be such a hard thing to do, but every campsite I stayed in had little piles of half-degraded toilet paper all over in the woods. Junior was upset by this also, and was very discreet in dealing with his bodily functions. As a matter of fact, I never saw him go off to relieve himself ONCE for the first whole week. He, on the other hand, felt a need to always investigate what I was doing when the urge struck me. It was just another of those inequities to which I was becoming accustomed.

The fishing along the Falls Chain route was terrific, and we had bass or northern pike for at least one meal every day, and sometimes two. Junior hadn't ever eaten fresh fish before this trip, but he quickly developed a fondness for them. In fact, he didn't care if they were filleted, scaled, fried, poached, roasted, stewed, or even RAW! He scarfed them down as many and as quickly as he could, and still had room for dessert. Part of the explanation for his obsession with fish can perhaps be attributed to the fact that, in the interest of saving room, we hadn't brought much food. I of course had been counting on my fishing skills to see us through, but I hadn't realized just how big an appetite Junior had. When planning, I figured that if I ate approximately one cup of rice per meal, he would eat the same, so I just doubled the rations. In reality, he ALWAYS ate more than I, and could easily have eaten everything in the food pack by himself. Needless to say, we both finished the trip much thinner than when we started.

Several of the rapids along the Falls Chain were very tempting for us in our kayak, but whenever it was the least bit questionable we decided not to run them. For me, the main reason was that if something happened to me in a section of fast water, what would Junior do? His campcraft, firebuilding, navigating, rescuing, and swimming skills were all suspect. I sincerely doubt that he could have found his way out of the Quetico by himself if I had drowned in a rapids. Also, I would hate to be responsible for something happening to him while we were being daredevils. So although it went against my nature, I had to enjoy many exciting-looking rapids from the portage path. Junior didn't seem to care one way or the other, so it was just as well.

From the very beginning, Junior had been somewhat leery about getting into the kayak. The first few days he was so tentative that he would step in with one foot and then stop. As we all know, a person can't stop halfway through the process. The result of indecision is that the vessel gets pushed away from the land by the foot remaining outside the boat, and the person is left doing the splits before an eventual splash into the water. This is exactly what happened to Junior for the first two or three days. He just couldn't quite work up the nerve to do his kayak-entering in one motion. But after three days of unintentional swimming at every portage's end, he finally decided to just take a flying leap into the kayak, trusting that I would somehow be able to stop his forward momentum before he exited the other side. Although it might have been comical to watch, the system worked for us, and Junior never went swimming again. How anyone can spend two weeks on the water and never WANT to go swimming is beyond me, but that is Junior for you. I never had a swimming buddy the whole trip.

Another of Junior's quirks was that every time we passed solid land, be it an island, a point, or a rock, he figured it would be a good time to stretch his legs. I quickly learned to steer wide of all promontories, or risk suddenly finding half of us gone. His other annoying habit was his desire to kill every horsefly in the Quetico. Once we were in camp it didn't bother me, but his lunging after them in the kayak was unsettling, to say the least.

On day five we reached what would be our home for nearly the next week. Lake Kawnipi is a large, gorgeous, isolated lake squarely in the interior of the Quetico, with many bays and branches shooting off in all directions. We found a perfect campsite, knew it couldn't get any better than that, and decided to stay put. To a campsite aficionado, the perfect Quetico "'home" has a big gently-sloping rock "porch", a log davenport in the "living room", counterspace in the "kitchen", a grassy "bedroom", a private swimming beach, a diving rock, easy access to drinking water, a user-friendly docking area, no noisy neighbors, a plentiful supply of firewood, a cute little island loaded with blueberries just a two-minute swim offshore, areas of both sun and shade, places to get both into the breeze and out of the wind, a paucity of bugs, an abundance of raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, and lots of fish volunteering to give their lives for a bite of a Mepps spinner. Our campsite on Kawnipi had it all, as well as a beautiful view onto three bays of the lake. I realized that people will pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to enjoy a spot boasting solitude and beauty, yet none of those expensive vacation destinations could match this one. And still there was no one there enjoying it but Junior and me! I couldn't imagine why, but no one seemed to want to be on Lake Kawnipi in the middle of July this year. Oh, on occasion we would see a canoe or two off in the distance, but they never came near. In fact, we went for over a week without talking to another human being. Of course, I talked to Junior quite a bit, but he isn't much of a conversationalist. I never knew what he was REALLY thinking.

Several years ago, a forest fire swept down Lake Kawnipi, and our campsite was right at the spot where the fire had stopped. If I looked north, I saw miles and miles of virgin forest. If I turned and looked south, I saw miles and miles of downed dead trees, with an occasional skeleton poking up from the five-foot-high underbrush and saplings. My campsite had four large white pines which had survived the firestorm because of their proximity to the water, but twenty feet farther back the tangled mess of deadwood began. A gigantic white pine had been killed by the fire, but still stood erect, guarding the campsite. Many birds thought this particular tree an ideal roosting spot. Loud seagulls perched in it in the evenings, raucous crows congregated in it in the mornings, and occasionally a heron joined the crowd. One night a bald eagle sat there watching me, so I decided to return the attention. For two hours he remained there, motionless, until dusk obscured my vision. He reminded me of a vulture, patiently waiting for me to topple over from hunger or exhaustion. By morning he was gone.

Within an hour's paddle of our campsite on Kawnipi were two different pictograph sites. These paintings on the vertical faces of rocks along the water were made hundreds of years ago by Native Americans. The Fisher Map Company had kindly included markings on my map for the exact locations, so they were easy to find. It is always a special pleasure to discover pictographs, as they immediately make the history of the area come alive. Moose, birds, tents, people, and snakes are the usual subjects for these paintings, but my favorite pictograph on Kawnipi was of two people in a canoe.

Click here to discuss pictographs

One of the highlights of the trip came in the middle of a frustrating session with my fishing line. I was fishing from the kayak below a waterfall when I got a backlash in my line. I yanked line out, letting it float with the current, while I tried to get to the bottom of the mess. Junior got so bored with the process that he fell asleep. Finally I got the line rewound and looked up to see where I was, and right in front of my eyes, not twenty feet away, was a moose with her two twin tan babies. They were at the edge of the water, munching on aquatic vegetation, just as the books say they are supposed to do. I floated slowly by, and they apparently found me just as fascinating as I found them. Suddenly I remembered that I had my camera with me! After digging it out, I paddled back upstream until I was again even with them. They never batted an eye or took a step while I snapped away. Finally I ran out of film and we slowly drifted apart. What I enjoyed most about this encounter was that the babies were learning from their mother how to deal with people: "Nothing to be afraid of, dears. Just eat your dinner."

After spending six carefree but memorable fish-filled days on Kawnipi, it was time to begin the long paddle back to civilization, albeit at a leisurely pace. One of my fears when in the Quetico is that I will become windbound at the end of a trip and miss my planned exit date. Sure enough, even though we started out with plenty of time to spare, a nasty wind on Lake Saganaga held us captive at American Point for two days. Our kayak was sixteen feet long, just a little shorter than a standard canoe, but it was not a sea kayak. It was designed more for fast water than for ocean waves. It handled the waves pretty well when we were paddling into them, or if the wind was behind us, but waves coming at us broadside were trouble. By the time we stopped that day, our bow was diving into the waves every few strokes, and we were taking on water from the side. Junior, fearing the water, had no desire to brave a windstorm, and I seconded the motion before he had even voiced it. We hit the first campsite we could find, and were exceedingly grateful for it. Thus began the two longest days of the trip. These were the days that tried our souls: too windy to fish, too cold to be outside the tent, too wavy to paddle, too blustery to do anything! To entertain ourselves we played "Scour the Campsite" between naps in the tent. Over the course of the trip, I found two bass lures, a leadhead, four fishhooks, three leaders, two dimes, two pennies, a battery, and a tent peg, not to mention dozens of twist ties.

The second morning at this windblown campsite dawned completely still. We were on the water before the sun was up, beating it for home. The wind did make an appearance a little later in the morning, but by that time we were nearly back to the Gunflint Trail and our waiting car. Poor Junior must have been thinking that this was what he would be doing the rest of his life riding in a kayak, sleeping in a tent, and eating fish for every meal. He had no way of knowing that we were doing it for FUN! I do believe that he was very glad to see our car. Completely forgetting his earlier trepidation about vehicles, he jumped right in and promptly fell asleep. No doubt he began dreaming about home and the simple life of a farm dog: plain old dogfood, cats and rabbits to chase, a quiet garage in which to sleep. If you ask Junior, I think he'll tell you his voyaging days are over. But in my opinion, he was a wonderful companion with a great attitude, and I'd take him again. Two weeks was probably long enough for a solo trip, but I'd go back to Kawnipi in an eyeblink. It was certainly the most memorable of the many Quetico trips I've taken.

Junior is a four-year-old Border Collie who, until this trip, had always been just a plain old farm dog. Anne is assistant professor of music at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa.

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