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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

A Solitary Treasure: Little Indian Sioux South by Toni Babcock

The grip of winter holds tight to the far regions of northern Minnesota. That spring however, heralded an early thaw. For us, it was time to plan an adventure in the wild. Now that we've become ''empty-nesters,'' we look forward to these long weekend forays into the forest.

My husband Kerry and I love to camp as early in the season as possible. The bugs are lethargic, or non-existent, and the cooler temperatures are to our liking. Kerry chose a four-day trip early in May that he had taken solo a few years before. We would travel upstream about nine miles on the Little Indian Sioux River into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and continue on to Bootleg Lake. Our entry point would be thirty-three miles west of Ely, off the Echo Trail. Kerry liked Bootleg Lake because of its remoteness and the fact that it had only two campsites on the entire lake.

We left St. Paul Minnesota on Thursday morning during rush hour, which is no problem when you're leaving the throngs, not joining them! It's especially sweet when you've got a canoe strapped on top of your vehicle and know there won't be any work for you for a while. Traveling north on 35E, the vista broadens as the landscape begins to pave the way to something grand and beautiful. It's a rush I always feel as I'm about to be re-introduced to that gem of the north woods, Lake Superior. I watch for the first outcrop of Canadian Shield granite so typical of the region, just south of Little Otter Tail Creek. Then I know we're almost there.

Stepping out of your vehicle on the North Shore evokes a deep sense of gratitude for your sense of smell. There's nothing like inhaling the intoxicating mix of this Great Lake and the plethora of pines, and new growth, so hallmark to the region. That was our experience as we stepped out to stretch on Thompson Hill with Duluth spreading out below the bluff. Lake Superior was a beautiful display, but then she never disappoints. Whatever her mood might be, it's always an occasion to treasure and admire her.

After our brief respite, we continued north on scenic Hwy. 61 and turned onto Hwy. 2 going north toward the legendary town of Ely. At Ely we picked up our camping permit at the International Wolf Center; a must see attraction for those interested in learning the facts and fables surrounding the timber wolf. The forest service employee warned us of "tinder dry" conditions and of the subsequent campfire ban. He also told us Little Indian Sioux was "really low" for this time of year and hoped we would make it. In my mind, the beginning of a long awaited camping trip is not the place to invent worries, when you're there to leave them behind. I chose a more optimistic outlook. The skies were blue and unclouded and that was good enough for me.

We headed west out of Ely onto the Echo Trail. It's a rambling and narrow dirt road snaking left and right, up and down through thick forest. Bucolic lakes tucked in the woods greeted us on several turns. Within an hour we would park the van and leave its shelter behind. By the time we actually pushed out on the river it was 3:30 in the afternoon!

We're partial to our canoe, a white sixteen-foot fiberglass Old Town Canadienne. It glides through flat water with grace and speed and has been surprisingly efficient in white water. Knowing we had several miles of narrow, twisty river to paddle upstream, we combined our effort, not furiously, but, shall we say, with definite purpose!

The river was encompassed most of the way with a large span of bog on either side. An occasional point of land met with the river providing a possible emergency, makeshift campsite. The best plan was to stay in the deepest channel, usually the center of the river, which ranged in width from sixty to one hundred feet, narrowing gradually the further upstream we traveled. These narrow, flat-water rivers in the bog are a great place to observe wildlife. We saw several bird and duck varieties, and were startled by a disgruntled beaver that dived at our canoe with great enthusiasm! Best of all, we came face to curious face with a stately moose grazing near the bank as we paddled around a bend. She sauntered off into the woods when we got too close.

Four to five miles later we approached the base of Sioux Falls. A simple eight-rod portage carried us over the falls, which dropped twelve to fifteen feet. It's not a long drop as waterfalls go, but an impressive and scenic tumble into the river below. Three quarters of a mile later, we hiked a 120-rod portage (a rod being about sixteen feet), paddled again and hiked a 60 rod portage, then continued on the river until it came to a fork. Here we turned onto the Little Pony River, which gradually became more and more difficult to navigate. I was beginning to tire. ''When will we reach the next portage?'' I asked. The sun was low and soon nightfall would be closing in on us. I was starting to feel uneasy. ''Shouldn't we have an alternative plan if we can't make it? This looks like a good place to camp.'' Kerry is rarely moved by my nervous suggestions. He was a far cry from calling it quits and settling for an undesignated campsite. We just needed to make one more portage.

The river became so shallow and bony that it was impossible to continue. We thought the portage had to be at this point and noticed what looked like a trail into the woods. We got out and hiked it but the trail disappeared abruptly; other campers had evidently made the same assumption. Time to whip out the trusty map. Kerry noticed a small stream in front of us that did not coincide with where we should have been. He came to the conclusion that the portage had to be farther up the river. We were supposed to have been on the southern, not the northern side of the stream. There did seem to be somewhat of a trail leading over the bog. Like a bloodhound on a mission, my husband took off to test his theory while I stayed by the packs. After fifteen minutes or so, a few loud snaps from the woods finally prompted me to call out Kerry's name even though I hated shouting in the wilderness. I was relieved to hear the distant reply ''I found it! I'm coming!'' Whew! He had been breaking branches to clear the trail.

We loaded ourselves with packs and started over the dry bog. The exhaustion, hunger, and nightfall were getting to me. It was about 8:30 p.m. Thankfully, the much sought for portage was fairly flat and easy to maneuver. Our first load was managed without a flashlight, but the second load was too dark to risk it. We had to struggle around three deadfalls, one being so thick we resorted to pushing the canoe over the top. I began to burst through the bramble in kamikaze fashion, my attitude disintegrating to ''don't get mad, get even.'' Clearly my love for all things wild was being challenged at this point.

Nothing beats the pure relief of pealing the straps of a heavy backpack off your shoulders at the end of your last portage. Laying our burdens down and pushing out onto Bootleg Lake was like a religious experience. Bootleg was divine in the dark. All my ill will towards the woods was shed at the end of the trail. Moonlight shimmered over placid water. The cool breeze, sounds and smells were so pleasant and inviting, our pace decreased. We were now finally able to allow the pleasures of a night in the north woods to penetrate our thoughts and beings. Heading toward the far end of the lake, we scanned the surface of the water with our flashlight to avoid submerged rocks. Nearing shore, when we spotted the vague outline of a fire grate over a ridge, we knew we had found our campsite.

Setting up camp at night is usually an interesting experience. Our double mantle lantern proved indispensable. Erecting our dome tent resulted in a broken aluminum tent support. Chalk it up to hastiness. We improvised by duct taping a wooden splint to the fractured pole. It kept the tent up fine for the weekend we were there. Duct tape also served another invaluable purpose. Call it the ''duct tape tick trap.'' Hang a loop of duct tape sticky side out. Affix offending tick to tape. You won't have to worry about that one anymore!

Water was placed on the camp stove to boil for supper, which turned out to be a disappointment. Camp cooking for us typically fluctuates from the fair, to the extraordinaire, to the ''not fit for a bear.'' Our meal unhappily fell somewhere toward the latter; boiled containers of lasagna ''a la plastic''... burp. The last major task was hoisting our food pack into what one outdoors guru has humorously called ''the bear tree.'' Then happily (after the obligatory wood tick check), we crashed into our sleeping bags, wiped out but content.

It wasn't a bump in the night that woke us out of a dead sleep, but the haunting cry of a loon about 4:30 a.m. Perhaps my imagination is as wild as the night, but it seemed to call ''You're here, the night is wild and dark, and you are safe and warm. Here I am to serenade you, no care for the sleep.'' No problem, this is the stuff dreams are made of.

We unanimously agreed to consecrate the next day a day of rest. A simple breakfast followed by reading, writing, or whatever we felt like doing, was the order of the day. The loons seemed quite active and vocal, for mating reasons I assume. Three popped up playfully in the water, dancing and flapping their wings on the surface of the lake just a few yards from our campsite.

We also had time to plan our departure on Sunday. Instead of taking the shallow Little Pony River out, we had the option of hiking a 200-rod portage at the end of the lake, which would take us back to the Little Indian Sioux River. Saturday we scoped out the trail. It's one of the best portages I've ever taken. Much of it travels directly on top of exposed bedrock, which was laced with patches of beautiful lichen, cresting to a lovely open field of boulders scattered whimsically about. Former wayfarers had strategically stacked rocks, or "cairns", where the trail was difficult to see. Perhaps native people long ago had gone to the trouble of lining parts of the path with small boulders for what seemed merely esthetic value. The stone placement looked ancient, being partially buried and covered with moss. This place had a warm, happy and encouraging feeling about it. I looked forward to the trip the next day.

At the end of the portage a picturesque view of Little Indian Sioux greeted us; a winding glassy blue ribbon of water reflecting azure skies and golden grasses. Tamarack trees rose out of the bog like silent sentinels beyond the river. We decided to paddle upstream several miles to the Little Trout Lake portage for an afternoon of sightseeing and reflection. Ample time was taken for lunch on a high point where we soaked in the sun and took video and photographs of the panorama below and beyond. Times as these leave you deeply conscious of the privilege and rarity of being able to experience this kind of solitude.

Sunday morning was another gorgeous spring day. We were packed and slipping away from the shore of our north woods paradise at about 8:00 a.m. We took the portage at the end of Bootleg Lake as planned with pleasure. The load seems lighter when you are delighted with the beauty of your path. This was a truth I could take with me out of the woods.

Our second portage went around a wonderful playful set of rapids yielding plenty of photographic opportunity. The river was low and the rocks plentiful enough to walk in and around the cascades of water. It was here, leaning over a large boulder to get "just the right shot", that I looked up. There in front of me lay a large, perfect eagle feather. Later, on the river, I allowed myself to feel cheated because a bald eagle soaring overhead would not fly closer to give me a better look at its magnificent flight. Perhaps I had forgotten that wilderness is not a place where one controls or commands the whim and wisdom of the wild, but a place where hearts can take flight, where spirits can soar like an eagle. It's a place where strength, vision, renewal, and endurance are forged. Wind and wings had carried the eagle away, but I was left with a feather keepsake to remind me of the true beauty and meaning of this special place. That was even better.

Two more portages and a long paddle brought us out of the BWCA at about 4:30 p.m. In spite of it being fishing opener weekend, we never saw another human being during our entire trip. That's the beauty of choosing a trip that's more arduous and less traveled. You know you'll be able to find the quiet and connection to the wilderness that you're looking for. You know that here in this place, you'll find your own solitary treasure.


--article courtesy of

San Souci Winter Sojourn

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