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Lumbering Along Wilderness Routes: Day Trips, Part 3 by Heather Monthei

Hot coffee and oatmeal with granola helped take the chill off the 34 degree pre-dawn hours. Our words nearly froze in front of our lips as Marshall and I sat at our camper table and finalized our plans for the day.

By daybreak we were jolting down the washboarded rural road on our way to Isabella Lake. Thick steam blanketed the marshy areas where tiny rivulets meandered through hummocks of grass. A covey of spruce grouse shivered as they scurried from the ditch into the woods. The slanted rays of the rising sun radiated down on the gravel ruts while the frost on the pines sparkled like flocking on Christmas trees. A puddle in the roadway had a thin skin of ice.

Marshall and I pulled over at the Island River bridge to unload the canoe and to fill out our day-use permit before continuing up to toward Isabella Lake. The only vehicle we saw belonged to a hunter; his camouflaged jacket and bright orange hat disappeared in the dust as he stirred up the gravel roadway.

The spacious Isabella parking lot opened doors to several possibilities for future adventures. The Pow-Wow Hiking Trail started at the west end of the parking lot while a well trod 35 rod walkway led east to Isabella Lake. The latter path lured us through the woods for our first glimpse of this popular lake. The surrounding forest floor was carpeted with thick caribou moss, its seafoam green contrasting against the rusty pine needles lying on the ground. Log steps marked the #35 BWCA entry point. Light winds whistled in the tree tops while small waves created foam along the sandy beach.

Donning our day packs, and carrying paddles and life jackets, we followed the moose prints along the dirt road on the mile walk back to the Island River where we had left our canoe. Our agenda included a trip to Rice Lake via the western channel of the Island River and returning to the car via Isabella Lake. If time allowed, and weather conditions were favorable, we might even continue to Boga Lake and paddle some of the Perent River.

The fog was just starting to dissipate by the time we hit the water. Sunlight filtered through the clouds, casting a golden hue against the trees along the shore. The air was still; the only disturbance of the water's surface was an occasional fish jumping.

It was so quiet I could hear my own thoughts. A bald eagle soared gracefully overhead and landed in a tree further down the river while a piliated woodpecker pounded away at a dying Jack pine. Wild rice lined the waterway, but the main channel lacked the choking reeds we had experienced on the eastern end of the river.

Twin cedars shared a rocky base at the 11 rod portage; a small outcrop reached over tiny caves where water lapped at the river's edge. Glacial erratics were piled on top of one another and filled the narrow stream.

It was a short paddle over to the 10 rod trail that led to the Isabella River. We must have been following someone with a hole in his pocket, for the change I was finding along the way now totaled seventy-eight cents.

Marshall and I took advantage of the amenities at an Isabella River campsite and tarried to have a mid-morning snack. Further down the river a beaver went about his daily chores. An otter sunned himself on a rock until we paddled closer. After somersaulting into the water he bobbed up and down and chattered a scolding for our trespassing in his domain.

The next 130 rods drew us closer to Rice Lake. The trail was dark and damp, much like a rain forest. The cedars in this area were larger than most, some measured two feet in diameter. Massive boulders lay scattered in the waterway just before the channel narrowed down to enter Rice Lake.

I learned quickly to be wary of anything with the name "rice" in it. Rice Lake was appropriately christened, for we had to literally bushwhack through the thick "meadow" of rice and horsetails. I stopped to check my map as we questioned where the lake actually began. The island in the middle of the lake was getting closer, but the rice was still so thick that it wasn't practical to continue. Perhaps it would be better to tour that area in the spring when the water level might be higher.

The Isabella River was remarkably quiet; no float planes or distant motors disturbed our solitude. Swamp sparrows flitted around the lily pads and whirligigs etched little v-trails on the mirror-like surface of the shallow water.

A solo paddler passed by going in the opposite direction, the first person we had seen all day. His passenger, a creamy gray Siberian husky, rode in the bow and called out a mournful greeting in a series of whines and howls.

The Pow Wow Hiking Trail bridge stood out in the trees where it crossed the rapids at the next portage. Water sparkled and foamed as it tumbled over the cluster of rocks. We must have by-passed the official landing to the 28 rod path and caught it somewhere in the middle; it took only minutes to cross.

Isabella is a large round lake with several islands, but the gloomy sky didn't lend any character to the body of water. Several fishermen were trying their luck in various locations, and bright colored tents stood on some of the sites. An immature eagle and a crow argued on a small island while Mama eagle watched from further down the shore.

The water was still relatively calm so we paddled on past the landing steps and continued toward Boga Lake. It seemed to take forever to reach the notch in the trees where a 15 rod portage led to the next body of water. The shoreline seemed to inch by from our perspective in the middle of the lake.

A ruffed grouse drummed somewhere in the brush along the short portage to Boga Lake, his distinctive beat thumping like a lazy motor in the distance. Two cozy campsites remained vacant; one solitary squirrel scampered in the fallen leaves gathering a cache of winter rations. Two large rocks fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the middle of the water.

Fatigued from the long day of exploring, we felt sluggish on our first crossing of Isabella Lake. It had been difficult to focus on details from the middle of the lake, making the trip seem endless. On our return trip, however, we had regained our energy and moved like a horse going back to the stable, gliding swiftly along the southern shore toward the landing. The wind was building, and swells bounced us along as we rode the growing waves. The darkening sky was thick with clouds and we were glad to be heading in.

The log steps at the landing were a welcome sight after the long but satisfying day. The air was quickly turning bitterly cold as we portaged back to the parking lot. Maples along the trail were yellow and brown; their pink and green seeds spiraled slowly to the ground.

Rows of replanted red pines stood high on the ridge overlooking the parking lot and invited us for a closer look. The plantation had been home to the former Forest Center community which had been active in the middle of the last century. Marshall was quick to discern the railroad grade, an elevated strip of land which was now overgrown with trees and grass.

The former Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railroad intersected the portage at a 30 degree angle, linking the village to the outside world through the now dense forest. As my eyes followed the narrow grade which was still vaguely visible, the subtle whistle of the wind in the trees around me contrasted to the blasts of the phantom steam engines of the past.

We loaded our gear in the car and then took time to read the Forest Service signboard which told about the local logging history:

"Between the years of 1949 and 1964 the town of Forest Center was located in this area. Used as a logging camp of the Tomahawk Timber Lumber Company, there were as many as 250 people and 53 homes. The camp also had a school, recreation and restaurant hall, store, lumber mill and more. The loggers worked the area with as many as 112 horses cutting 100,000 to 150,000 cords per year. Upon the closing of the camp the buildings were moved or dismantled with many of its residents relocating in Isabella and other area communities."

One of the joys of our BWCA excursions is the time we spend exploring the various areas for artifacts. Relics from bygone eras can be found all over the Superior National Forest and designated wilderness where resorts, trapping, logging and mining operations were present. With this search in mind Marshall and I slowly moseyed around the grounds to glean a little of its history.

We didn't have to go far; a rusty rake was nailed to a tree just outside the parking lot privy, and some twisted metal packing straps lay not far behind the small building. Various pieces of corroded iron leaned against several neighboring trees. The Forest Center was one of Lake County's last logging villages. While most of the area camps housed only the logging crews, the town of Forest Center had been a family settlement. In the historical account, "By Water and Rail", author Hugh Bishop claims that even the women became involved in the livelihood; many of those working in the pulpwood sawmill were lumberjack wives.

The town of Forest Center was a progressive community with everything from a post office to a roller rink, coffee shop and even a laundry. Homes, some of them trailer houses and some mere shacks, relocated from other more primitive camps; a generator supplied electricity, and indoor plumbing was a real bonus. Working right up to the time of the BWCA wilderness designation, residents remained dedicated to town they called home to the very end of the operation.

A thick carpet of brown needles padded our feet as we trudged up the hill. Wandering between the rows of tall pines we visualized the streets as they might have looked fifty years ago. I could imagine a woman hanging her laundry on a clothesline strung between the trees. Perhaps her little girl had played jacks near that very boulder or a group of boys had amused themselves with a game of marbles in that nearby clearing. This neighborhood had been filled with real people; their silent ghosts were all that were left in the abandoned logging town.

My imagination ran wild as I tried to picture the village with its many buildings. Somewhere on those acres a schoolhouse once stood, a building with the pungent aroma of a wood burning stove and welcoming smoke curling from its chimney, a playground where children might have gathered for a game of ball until the clanging of the teacher's hand-held bell called them inside.

Where was the recreation hall with its boisterous laughter? The honky-tonk piano had been silenced years ago, but distant chords still plunked in my mind's ear. In the hush of this cloudy fall day, it was difficult to imagine the whining chainsaws and the clatter of the steam-driven sawmill.

Poking through the rows of trees, my pastor-husband looked for signs of the Forest Center church. The worship center was now part of a natural sanctuary where only a sapling bowed to its Creator.

Thick cushions of moss grew in mounds near an opening in the woods while red-capped soldiers formed a minute army on a rotting stump. Purple ironwood, asters and creamy lily of the valley grew in profusion near a foundation; Marshall guessed that the asphalt floor must have been part of a garage.

Another foundation lay discretely nestled amongst the dense trees. Corroded tin cans and a fuse box added more pieces to the puzzle, and further up the hill we found a rusted cable, nuts, bolts, jar rings, springs and a disintegrating gas can. The top of the ridge opened into a grassy bald area dominated by an immense but perfectly formed blue spruce tree. This clearing was the location where the sawmill once stood. Daisies and goldenrod formed a garden of yellow surrounding a cement slab and pieces of cinderblock, roofing material, and pipe tile. Other rusty treasures hid under shrubs where falling leaves attempted to bury the remnants of history.

The small spot of orange sunlight peaked through the jagged tear in the clouds along the western horizon. Marshall and I took a last look at the forest which offered so much history. The familiar landmarks which had been part of so many lives had faded over the years and all but disappeared for today's visitors. So also was our journey drawing to a close.

To see the other parts of Heather Monthei's series on day trips, go to:


       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine


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