Magic on the Frost River by
We stand on our outfitter's dock with a postage-stamp sized paddling
resume; a morning on Moose Lake and an afternoon on the Kawishiwi River.
We're here to limber up rusty canoeing skills before our first
canoe-camping trip. The plan is to thrash around a point to a nearby
restaurant. A half dozen strokes and our canoe veers 90 degrees. Much
splashing brings us back around and we set off on a sinuous 200 yards to
exhaustion. The folks back at the outfitters dock appear to look on in
horror. I can see it in their eyes; wishing we had signed a more
iron-clad liability release.
Next morning, rain. As Lori and I tote our packs across the parking
lot, we exchange greetings with the wettest people I have ever seen.
They broke camp early, paddled in, and are ready to leave. In fact, they
may have been ready to leave for a few days.
Undaunted, we head for the outfitter's store, where we pick up our
remaining gear and catch a ride to County Road 47 and the Round Lake
landing. From there it will be five days, 20 lakes, and 35
around the Frost River loop; we hope.
Drizzle paints impressionistic backdrops as we push off; just the
tonic for two desert rats fleeing the searing Southwestern sun. Our
canoe glides effortlessly into the weeds as the channel turns and we
don't. But soon we are at the first portage and still sitting upright.
A young couple are loading packs, helped by their son and daughter.
We stop, paddles across the gunwales, content to let them finish. ''I
think there's room to pull in on this side,'' the woman calls. She
doesn't know we're student drivers or the danger of luring us toward
their sparkling red canoe, which bobs like a target off our bow.
When Lori was 10, the kids climbed into a senescent Ford and drove
through an open farm field. Lori took the wheel, with prairie stretching
unbroken to Nebraska, save for a moldering corn picker far in the
distance. The car and the corn picker were drawn together like magnets.
So, we wait, avoiding a canoeing style fender bender.
Several portages later, we paddle into Long Island Lake. Rain yields
to shirt-sleeve sunshine and we slip into the comfortable nomadic amble
of wilderness travel. We have been here before; not to this lake, but to
this feeling on Southwestern backpacking trips stretching back 25 years.
And we are here by genetic connection to wanderings spanning perhaps a
million years. Humans have always been nomads. We want to move, to
travel, to cross the portage for no other reason than to see what lies
When I feel like this, I see myself retiring to a cabin on the
Canadian Shield, tied to civilization by a slender thread of bush-plane
drops. I would spend hours chopping firewood; pausing to admire our
cabin hewn from the landscape. I would fill my days wandering the woods,
ambling with nature.
Lori finds this difficult to imagine, given that I've never cut
firewood and diagnose minor aches as tropical diseases requiring
emergency treatment. And she wonders how I will make my Saturday morning
forays to Starbucks.
Back to reality. We glide through a tight channel, rocks skimming
inches below our keel, and emerge into the main arm of Long Island Lake;
where it seems everyone in the BWCA has decided to camp.
Incompetent paddling has left our arms aching. We yearn for a shady
campsite. Should we continue on our route to the last campsite before
Long Island River? If it's taken, reaching the next camp will require
two more portages. Or should we head to the eastern end of the lake,
hoping for a spot off the main route? The point is closer. We keep going
and soon are unloading our packs. The point even includes a windswept
Half an hour later a red squirrel erupts above us. He blasts volumes
in that tape-rewind voice, and it's all about us. Though most red
squirrels need a stress management seminar, he has a point. The
neighborhood is going to hell. We haven't simply overturned the packs,
but it looks like it. Gear stretches from fire pit to tent site and over
to the canoe as we try to organize ourselves.
Before the trip, I envisioned our first evening in camp, coffee cup
in hand, tent pitched, lazing back as the north country pastels washed
across the horizon. I had forgotten that this scene first requires
finding the stove, pot, and coffee; as well as figuring out how to set
up the tent.
After we finally organize the gear, unearth the pot and light the
stove, dinner is prepared. Setting up the tent is easier than it looks.
Hanging the food pack is a huge pain.
I tie rocks to ropes. I toss ropes. I tangle ropes. After an hour, I
am still seeking a suitable branch. Climbing trees might be an option,
but I'm not 30-something anymore. Heck, I'm not 40-something anymore. I
figure losing the chili-mac to a bear beats paddling out with a broken
collar bone any day.
Dusk is on us. I am not sitting coffee cup in hand. No suitable
branch is in sight. In fact, none of our campsites would boast those
high, bare, isolated branches that star in Forest Service videos.
Then I remember the words of Cliff Jacobsen. In ''Boundary Waters
Canoe Camping with Style,'' Cliff recommends wrapping the food in
plastic so there are no odors and setting the pack in the woods well
away from camp and well off trails; the theory being that bears look for
food in familiar places and don't randomly forage the woods for canoe
This takes a leap of faith, but we have no choice at this point. I'm
not sleeping next to 30,000 calories of bear bait. Next morning I drag
the unmolested food pack back to camp, and this becomes our M.O. for the
rest of the trip. In the future, I'll do the same, but with a couple
bear-resistant canisters on the off chance that some Einstein bruin
learns to circle camps hunting for packs.
Mist embraces the lake as day two begins. We finally sit coffee cup
in hand, gazing out on still, mystical green, and limpid blue water.
Loons' throaty tremolos roll across the plate-glass surface as they beat
wings on liquid runways.
This will be a half day to Frost Lake. We are still tired from the
flight and drive that linked Tucson to the Gunflint Trail and from our
trip to Long Island Lake. We need an indolent afternoon before tackling
the Frost River.
Our canoeing skills edge up from hopeless to dismal. Our gear is
organized, our portaging routine down pat. We find portaging is like
backpacking, except for the 16-foot-long hunk of
cloth that bangs every tree and snags every branch from this lake to the
Portaging reminds me of my college job at a moving company on
Chicago's south side. Unloading, carrying, and loading three substantial
canoe packs several times a day gives me the kind of workout I used to
get on third-floor walkups; only in the canoe country the payoff is
In the weeks before the trip, Lori and I learned paddling theory from
''Path of the Paddle'' by Bill Mason, ''Canoe
Country Camping'' by Michael Furtman, and the ''Complete Wilderness
Paddler'' by James West Davidson and John Rugge. On the way to Frost
Lake, we try to remember the drawings and photos as we experiment with
ragged J-strokes, stern sweeps, and draw, pry, and hut strokes.
At the Gordon Lake portage, we meet three young people; a woman and a
man in a tandem canoe, and another guy paddling a solo canoe. They
shoulder three small packs, hoist the canoes, and are off at warp speed.
We double-portaged this stretch, which meant walking it three times.
The folks we met were over in a single pass. Lori and I look at one
another. She utters an ancient backpacking mantra, ''light is right.''
A beaver dam blocks our route where Unload Lake tumbles into Frost
Lake. But a social trail snakes into the trees on our left. We bypassed
the portage because high water seemed to make it superfluous. Now we
unload the packs and struggle through the bush toward the portage trail.
Only a couple rods separate the canoe and path, but it's tough going. As
our canoe grabs a branch and I lurch sideways, two guys paddle up to the
dam, step out, slide their canoe over and are on their way. OK, so
that's how it's done.
Next morning our paddles hit the water at 8 a.m. It will be a long
day of wading shallows, portaging rough paths, and dodging canoe-eating
rocks. By 9 a.m. we have double-portaged the 130 rods from Frost Lake to
the Frost River, leaving more crowded August canoe routes for small
streams and tiny, peaceful lakes.
The Frost River isn't worn smooth. On the 10-rod portage beyond
Octopus Lake we manhandle the canoe and packs over rocks and downed
trees to a tricky, boulder-strewn landing.
As we struggle, a furry flash triggers my peripheral vision. Before I
can turn, the vision vanishes in the water. Then it is across the
channel, peering over a hillock, wondering what we are or, perhaps, why
we look so inept. He stares. We stare back. He stares some more; bright
eyes puzzled. Finally, deciding we are harmless at a distance, he
nervously trots along the shoreline, his luxurious, deep-brown coat
glistening in the sunlight.
In the city, much of our experience is second-hand, filtered, or not
even real. We're distracted; our minds are seldom fully engaged. Seeing
this mink, we're entirely in the moment. This is what draws many of us
to wilderness, the chance to switch off civilization's autopilot; to
become fully alive and aware of our surrounding.
In ''Walden,'' Thoreau puts it this way. ''I went to the woods
because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts
of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when
I came to die, discover that I had not lived.''
Shortly, I am confronting the essential fact that I'd better step
cautiously or the canoe and I will do an X-games thing, tumbling down
the steep slope into Pencil Lake. We are on the portage from Chase Lake,
which is only 10 rods away from Bologna Lake. Bologna offers the sole
campsite on this long stretch between Frost and Afton Lakes.
This is boreal forest as Radisson and Groseillers must have seen it,
and we realize that even at canoe pace we are traveling too fast. A
better itinerary would include a half-day paddle from Frost to Bologna,
and maybe even a layover at Bologna Lake to soak in the forest's
A side trail leads off the Pencil Lake portage to a sun-dappled lunch
spot where the stream cascades over bedrock. Water leaps and giggles,
delighting in the slide down ancient, glacier-scarred rock. Again, we
feel hurried. We laze in the sun, but a pragmatic mental voice cautions
that the unknown, twisting river, and several portages, separate us from
the next campsite. We don't know it, but Frost River's most difficult
stretch lies just ahead. The stream is narrow and boulder-strewn between
Pencil Lake and the 10-rod portage about halfway to Afton Lake. We pick
our way through the rocks, sometimes backpaddling to look for better
line; sometimes jumping in to float and lift the canoe.
On the 10-rod portage just beyond Pencil Lake, we are again lugging
our double-portage load. I am carrying the canoe along the narrow path
when my boot slips on exposed roots and I slide down the bank in an
instant. Other than a scraped shin, I'm OK. So is the canoe. But it
scares Lori, who hears the crash when I'm out of sight.
With many miles and portages yet to go, a sprained or broken ankle
would make life difficult in this remote area. But wilderness travel
comes with risks. Without them, backcountry canoeing loses its freedom.
With freedom comes the sometimes terrifying notion of taking
responsibility for yourself.
If you screw up in the city, paramedics, cops, support groups, or
your mom often bail you out. In the wilderness, no one will step in to
save you from bad decisions or inattention. Freedom means paying
attention, living in the moment, being alive.
We take a GPS reading between Pencil and Afton. At this rate, we
won't reach Afton before 6 p.m. and we have no guarantee that the lake's
lone campsite will be free. Two more portages and a long haul separate
Aftons campsite from the next one at Whipped Lake.
We don't know it, but on this particular summer day the slowest part
is behind us. Unusually high water floats us over all the beaver dams
but one. At low-water times, this stretch can become one liftover after
Soon we twist through a channel maze, where the river divides and we
can't determine if we are facing two channels or a channel and dead-end
bay. We pick our way and lose track of our location. We round a sweeping
bend and the channel opens wide. After hours on the narrow, twisting
river, it is like coming to the ocean. I look at my watch. 5 p.m.. Can
this be Afton Lake already?
Lori spots the campsite. It's empty and beautiful. Not just because
we have spent nine hours on the water, although that helps, but because
it sits high; providing sweeping views across the lake and surrounding
Many locals come calling; a three-toed woodpecker, a garter snake
that slithers past the grill, and a large beetle that climbs up my arm.
I am highly prized by industrial-strength beetles. One will crawl up
behind my ear the following evening.
The resident chipmunk also is here, pestering us for food or, barring
that, ready to boldly walk up and take it. If chipmunks were big as
bears, we could all forget about canoe trips.
Evening comes and this time I do get to sit, coffee cup in hand,
watching as the wind drops, the country grows silent, and the first
stars appear. Well, mostly silent, save for a million-mosquito serenade
from the adjacent marsh. When we crawl into the tent, I give thanks for
canoe country; and mosquito netting.
Day four starts with the trip's toughest portage. It's steep at both
ends and includes a step off a three-foot ledge on the downhill slope
into Fente Lake. Lori and I work together to muscle the canoe past the
ledge and other obstacles.
The Fente Lake portage is one of the filters that keep the Frost
River wild. The day before we met two other canoes; five people in all.
And that is during August, when paddlers are lining up at some portages
like Saturday shoppers in a grocery line.
We stop for lunch on a rocky outcrop west of Mora's three islands and
then paddle up the small channel northwest of its big island. My map
shows the channel going through, but we find a short liftover at the
end. If the water were another foot or so lower, Mora's ''big island''
would be a peninsula.
We have been spoiled by the solitude of the Frost River and are
somehow surprised to find the campsites occupied as we paddle west of
the islands on Crooked Lake.
As we approach the portage for Gillis around 2 p.m., Lori notes that
going across Gillis will commit us to the route through Brandt Lake back
to our takeout at Round. ''Let's camp on Crooked and leave our options
open,'' she says. ''We can look at the map. Maybe we'll want to go back
through Tuscarora.'' No argument from me.
We have been doing the hut stroke; you know, six strokes or so on one
side, say ''hut'' to your partner, switch sides, take six strokes on the
other side, say ''hut,'' and so on. Lori thinks we are doing this
because it's a clever racing stroke. I haven't told her my arms are so
tired that six strokes are all I can manage on one side.
At home, scanning maps and dreaming about the Boundary Waters, I
would have scoffed at puttering around camp on a lazy afternoon. I
wanted to move, to drink in the country, to be a voyager on the long
water road through canoe country. Now lying around camp seems exactly
what I've come for.
The northernmost campsite on Crooked is empty and quiet. Two resident
loons are preening, swimming and talking nearby. I lay back on the
smooth, warm rock at the water's edge and join their party through my
binoculars. Looking at loons, I often feel that if I concentrate just a
little harder, some deep secret will be revealed; that any bird with red
eyes and checked feathers knows a lot more than he or she is letting on.
Lori calls this overactive imagination and is happy to let the loons
keep their secrets while she naps in the warm shade.
Day five begins with Whiskey Jacks, or Canadian Jays, at breakfast. I
figure Whiskey Jacks know almost as much as loons. And they prove me
right. After surveying our campsite for about 60 seconds, they leave in
disgust, headed for better fare elsewhere. A coffee cup full of granola
and hot milk doesn't fit the Whiskey Jack high life. But it's great for
lazy campers. Finish the cereal, fill that cup with coffee, swish it
around, and drain the cereal dregs. The payoff; no dishes to wash.
While we break camp, a beaver swims through the channel. Later, we
spot him again, stop paddling, and sit to watch. But not for long. He
dives with a booming splash that echoes across the glass-smooth water,
through the soft, early-morning light.
As we rest on the 366-rod portage
from Tuscarora to Missing Link Lake, a young guy jogs up the trail under
an aluminum canoe. ''I'm trying to make it in 20 minutes,'' he pants as
he sweeps by. We recognize the folly of this.
The maturity of our years gives us the wisdom to quietly leapfrog our
gear. We snack, enjoy the views, and take two hours to double-portage;
all the time, of course, secretly wishing that we were 20-something and
running with an aluminum canoe.
This long portage and the one between Missing Link and Round slow us,
easing our transition to cars, long drives, and flights home. We have
time to reflect on this trip and to begin planning the next one. We have
no doubt there will be another canoe trip. A single exposure to
Northwoods magic isn't going to be nearly enough.