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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

Sharing the Treasure by Heather Monthei

It took only a little bit of arm-twisting for our college-age niece to talk my husband and me into taking her on a short springtime paddle. Tracy was eager to see this wilderness paradise we so lovingly describe to her and to learn everything there was to know about canoe camping in the great northwoods.

I hoped that Tracy's first wilderness canoe trip would be a wonderful adventure. We wanted to share all the excitement we had experienced in the last seven years we'd been coming to the Boundary Waters. However, it was a tall order for a three day trip.

So we chose the Timber-Frear loop in the Superior National Forest just south of the BWCA itself. The flyer from the Forest Service showed a map with half a dozen lakes and an old article published in the Boundary Waters Journal showed how to expand the route to include Finger Lake, and the Cross River, so we could do a loop right back to our entrypoint on Whitefish Lake. We hoped this would be just the thing for Tracy's first trip.

It was mid-afternoon when the three of us arrived at the landing at Whitefish Lake. The absence of any other vehicles in the parking lot was an encouraging sign for the solitude we were anticipating. Eager to begin our paddling adventure, we quickly loaded our gear into our canoe and pushed away from the civilization Tracy was used to.

The 65 rod portage to Elbow Lake was relatively level and held no big surprises for our small crew. Several small muddy spots were patched with log corduroy walkways and one area suggested a past logging history where the shorter undergrowth allowed abundant sunshine to flood in.

On the first lake we watched those funny little water striders etching little v-trails on the water's surface while a young eagle sat scanning the lake from his perch on the top of an old pine tree. We were in awe of the puffy cumulous clouds which were mirrored in the crystalline lake in a huge pool of blue.

Our longer, 140 rod, portage to Lost Lake was located in the northwest crook of Elbow Lake. The uphill grade on the portage path sported a light green ground cover just beginning to unfurl. Tiny cobalt blue butterflies flitted around enjoying the warmth of one of the first warm spring days. Several old windfalls lay along the edge of the path and a couple of old wooden canoe rests were still present along the trail. These rests were the first noticeable difference that we noted between the Superior National Forest and the BWCA federal wilderness.

(Editor's note: Canoe rests used to be on nearly every portage in the BWCA but, under recent management plans, the Forest Service decided to take them down a couple of years back. The canoe rests were simply strong branches, or limbs, attached across two nearby trees where you could rest the bow of your canoe on a longer portage. If you're smart, and using a super-light kevlar canoe on your next trip, you won't miss them.)

An eagle soared high overhead on a thermal breeze as we paddled across Lost Lake. His bright white head, and golden bill and legs, contrasted starkly against his jet black body. We wondered what we looked like to him, so far below.

An easy 120 rod portage took us over to Frear Lake and intersected an overgrown logging road along the way. White spring anemones and trillium carpeted the ground on both sides of the trail and large green ferns were unfolding their lacy fronds. A display of magnificent wood carvings lay to the side of the trail where an ambitious beaver had gnawed through a huge old tree; the carefully sharpened points of the trunk lay at right angles to each other where the old pine had finally toppled.

(Editor's note: Beavers do not know where a tree will fall. There have actually been recorded instances of a beaver being killed by the very tree they were cutting down! Oops!)

The first campsite on Frear Lake was not hard to find at all. Three cross-cut logs, which had been fashioned long ago into benches near the fire grate, and a wooden picnic table were visible from the water's edge. This was another difference we noted between the Superior National Forest and the BWCA wilderness; those old wooden picnic tables are no longer found in the BWCA campsites.

(Editor's note: The old wooden picnic tables some of you remember from BWCA campsites are no longer present either as the Forest Service also removed them a few years back. Those old tables were built mostly back in the 30's and 40's by the federally funded YCC and CCC programs and were carved with the intials of hundreds of paddlers who used them in the intervening years.)

I took a little time to tidy up the campsite while my husband, Marshal, and Tracy set up the tents and hung the food cache. The forest around us consisted mostly of spruce, white pine, and the beautiful paper birch trees. Patches of tiny white anemones formed a blanket of snow-like flowers.

The narrow path behind the tents led to the latrine box where a camper had left a generous supply of toilet tissue sealed in a coffee can. The site showed further signs of regular use with the discovery of a barbecue grill discretely stashed behind some bushes. Even more amusing was the bag of charcoal conveniently tucked under its lid.

It felt good to kick off our boots and dry our sweaty feet in the cool breeze coming off the lake. Gnat-like flies pestered us in the warmth of the late afternoon until we donned our headnets for a little relief. It wasn't easy to eat dinner with our headnets on but the bugs began to retreat as the sun disappeared behind the trees.

A herring gull paid us a neighborly visit, cautiously watching us and hoping for a tidbit while we ate our dinner. Gathering courage he jumped up on the fire grate to get a better view and then paced back and forth before searching our canoe. He tried hard to be nonchalant in his begging but was nevertheless making his request very clear.

(Editor's note: When camping outside of the BWCA, in the Superior National Forest, you may not always find a steel fire grate in a campsite. You should carry a small grate to cook on in case you don't find one. You are also not required to camp in the approved campsites like you are in the BWCA wilderness area.)

Chickadees and white-throated sparrows joined in song as we gathered dead wood for a campfire and chorus frogs sang in a wonderful mass choir from the marsh to the south of our site. A beaver swam slowly by our site, silhouetted by the dusky sky, and left a long v-trail behind him in the reflected water. As evening approached the call of loons echoed across the lake in a concert of hoots, tremolos and yodels. The warmth of the campfire added to the peace and tranquility of the evening. Tracy eagerly maintained a good fire as we sat for hours staring into the dancing flames. A few sparks spiraled upward and jumped between the hot glowing coals.

A white-throated sparrow woke me up before dawn with his clear brilliant song. The light rain which had fallen after midnight had stopped and a gentle breeze was already drying out the tents. The temperature had gone into the lower 50's during the night and, by morning, the clearing sky promised us a good day for paddling.

Dry, fuzzy leaf casings dropped on the picnic table, just missing our scrambled eggs and granola, as we ate breakfast the next day. The morning stillness painted a picture of solitude as we still had seen no other people. It was near 10 a.m. when Marshall loaded the canoe and, as is our habit, we all donned our life jackets. I was startled to hear a loud buzzing sound around my ears until Tracy's laughter alerted me to the flighty hummingbird who was circling my head. This was the second time I've had this happen in the northwoods lakes. The tiny birds seem to be fascinated with my bright red life vest.

As if that weren't enough we were then treated to another rare observation as we sat mesmerized as an osprey darted quickly from a tree branch and plunged into the water, plucking a fish from its depths before flying out of our sight. What a privilege to watch the wilderness creatures in action! And what a thrill for Tracy on her first morning in the canoe country.

The increasing wind created little ripples on the surface of the water and, thankfully, also kept the mosquitos at bay. Before long, however, that gentle breeze had increased to a blustery gale, and the harmless waves became tumultuous whitecaps. The three of us dug our paddles into the steely gray breakers and battled the fierce winds as we attempted to get to the next portage.

My hat nearly blew off my head and then caught the edge of my clip-on sunglasses, flicking them off and tossing them to the bottom of the lake. The turbulent water beat against our canoe and sent a two-foot wave of water over the bow of our canoe and right into my lap!

It was a relief when we edged toward the portage where we could stretch our arm muscles to ease the stiffness. The landing was marshy, and the only way to get to solid ground was by wading to the shore. Tracy's boots were not very high and water poured over their tops, saturating her shoes and feet. She proved to be a good trooper, though, and we all had a good laugh as she emptied the water onto the muddy bank.

An overgrown road crossed the trail again on this portage so we spent some time exploring the paths for whatever secrets they might hold. The road leading north came to an abrupt dead-end where remnants of a deteriorated structure, possibly an old outhouse, lay partially hidden in the undergrowth. The path running south passed a makeshift campsite and more discarded fire grates, aluminum cans, and a battered folding lawn chair.

The portage crossed the primitive road and skirted the rocky rapids leading to a small pond not shown on our map. We named this body of water ''Tracy Lake'' in honor of our new ''voyageurette'' and were relieved to see its calm waters.

Rhododendron and blueberry bushes were plentiful along the trail and spring beauties, anemone, and bunchberry added color to the drab forest floor. Tracy found a black mother wolf-spider carrying her sack of eggs beneath her. Several piles of fresh wolf scat lay along the trail, imbedded with hair from a recent meal.

The wind picked up again on Timber Lake as pewter-colored clouds gathered to the west and crept across the sky in our direction. We were glad to reach the 45 rod portage back to Elbow Lake and a spot where we could find a site for a rest break.

The wind on the northern end of Elbow Lake was just as challenging so we pulled into the first campsite for lunch. Situated on the northern shore it was somewhat sheltered, and we set up a temporary clothesline to dry Tracy's soaking socks. Large cedar trees formed windows through which to view the lake, and I occasionally checked the churning waves beyond the narrows through my binoculars.

The quick movement of a rusty-colored pine marten caught our attention as he scampered through the campsite, his big fluffy tail bouncing after him. His eyes were wide with alarm when he saw us, and he wasted no time disappearing into a thicket.

Tracy got her chance to portage the canoe on the 30 rod portage over to Finger Lake, and she bore her burden like a veteran tripper. Her positive attitude, and enthusiasm to learn the ways of the backcountry, added a fun dimension to our trip.

The wind played havoc with our canoe again as we paddled down the length of Finger Lake. Feathering the paddles against the threatening gusts we passed the single campsite on the lake and continued to the southern bay where we found refuge at the opening to the Cross River.

It took us three hours to navigate the hairpin curves which threaded through the hummocks of grass, weeds, and spindly bushes that were just coming into leaf. Dried grasses crunched like straw as we pushed against them with our paddles to guide our canoe through the winding channel. Riffles laden with rocks kept us alert and we were able to run most of them without bouncing off the boulders below.

In the shallow areas we had to get out and walk the canoe over the rocks. We were grateful to be traveling downstream with the current as we tackled one small obstacle after another. Several times we had to pull the canoe over beaver dams and at one point we portaged over a grassy hummock and around a fallen tree which blocked the waterway.

Although the Cross River was beautiful and relaxing the twisting channel seemed endless. Each time we rounded the bend we were sure that the opening to the lake would be there. It was nearly 6:30 p.m. when we finally made it to South Wigwam Lake so we had to forgo our planned side trips to North Wigwam and Cross River lakes. In fact, we would be doing well to get through the portage to Whitefish and to find a campsite while there was still daylight.

As we ventured out into South Wigwam the wind picked up and we braced ourselves for a vigorous paddle to the opposite side. Thick masses of reeds lined the lake and surrounded nearly the entire body of water. We stopped along the shore several times to examine their stiff, segmented stems.

Traveling in the direction of the river channel and portage, we searched for the entrance to Whitefish Lake as we worked our way toward the end of the lake. Not finding it the first time, we turned and retraced the shoreline, examining every inch of the northwest side. The opening which was seemed so obvious on our map was simply not there in reality. The thick grass had created such a dense barrier that any outlet to the channel was completely blocked. The water was too shallow to pole our way through the thick grass and there seemed to be no solid footing on the spongy bog to get out for a better look. It appeared that the overgrown grasses had simply defeated our attempts to get to Whitefish Lake.

Our anxiety increased with the wind as whitecaps were now tossing us in every direction. We each sat there feeling helpless on the edge of the lake with no apparent portage to our destination and no campsites on the lake that we could see.

There was an increasing urgency to get off the water when a gust of wind caught Marshall's hat, flipping it off his head. He was able to grab it just as it hit the surface of the water. It was now 7 o'clock, and the sun was casting its golden glow and illuminating the tall grasses around the shadow of our canoe. We weighed our options, and our choices seemed terribly few.

Paddling three hours back up the river, against the current, over beaver dams and up riffles, and portaging around fallen trees under darkening skies was definitely not an option. Visualizing the winding river channel in the beam of our flashlight seemed like a nightmare. We considered bushwhacking through the woods to Whitefish Lake, an idea abandoned quickly because of the distance and rough unfamiliar terrain. We considered camping in the nearby woods, but none of us were comfortable with that alternative either.

A quick study of our map showed an old logging road which ran high along the ridge bordering the southern shore of the lake. The only landing available was at the portage to Cross River Lake which intersected the primitive dirt road. There was a wide parking area where the road crossed the culvert over the stream bed; a high sandy bluff on the opposite side offered a striking overview of the Cross River Lake below. We considered the possibility of making a make-shift camp at one of these spots and held a brief pow-wow to discuss our options.

Quick calculations from our map estimated a four mile walk to the parking lot at Whitefish Lake, and it was quickly decided that Tracy and I would trek back to get the car while Marshall would stay with our gear. Equipped with granola bars, water, coats, and a flashlight, Tracy and I started to follow the road up the hill to the top of the ridge where we gazed through the woods at South Wigwam Lake below. North Wigwam lay to the north, but any channels to Whitefish were imperceptible even from this high vantage point.

We had walked about a half mile when I suddenly remembered that my car keys were safely hidden in the top of my pack. Tracy and I gave a desperate sigh, then laughed, as we turned and jogged back to Marshall and our gear. It was 7:50 p.m. when we resumed our hike, now 5 miles in length, back to the car. The sun was throwing peach splotches in the sky. My thoughts that perhaps there might be a house somewhere along the road were foolish for we had not seen any evidence of human activity even on the more traveled routes in the area. I doubted if anyone had even driven this road for a very long time.

The unmaintained dirt road contained deep ruts, mud-packed washed-out areas, and three different trees which had fallen and blocked more than half the width. I took mental notes of the obstacles we would have to avoid to get our minivan over this primitive lane. Remains of a logging operation lay to our left near the point where we came to the gravel Forest Road #357.

Tracy and I talked and giggled at the absurdity of the situation and wondered how many hidden pairs of eyes were watching us from the dense forest. Our vigilance increased as we noted several sets of moose tracks imbedded in gravel. Occasionally we felt as if we were being followed, but we realized this was just part of our fatigue and our minds were playing tricks on us.

The wind settled down after the sun set, and the long brisk walk made us feel warm and we questioned why we had brought along our burdensome coats. We measured our progress as we passed Besho Lake and hoped we'd make it back to the parking lot before dark. It was 9:15 when we arrived at the car, and we both breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the latrine there.

As we drove back to South Wigwam Lake we noticed two dark forms in the distance and watched as a mama moose crossed the road with her calf and disappeared into the forest. The sight of these majestic creatures accented this remote setting. The minivan creaked and groaned as we slowly made our way down the unmaintained logging road. I tried desperately to miss the ruts and skirt the windfalls, but there was no way to avoid a clunk as I inched the vehicle over a boulder half-buried in the middle of the roadway.

Marshall had piled all our belongings at the parking area and had spent the time dozing and enjoying the solitude while we were gone. Upon our return we hastened to load the car and then crawled carefully back over the abandoned road, alert to the many obstacles lurking in the headlights.

It seemed very light for that time of night, and as I glanced at the heavens, I understood why. Bright streaks of light announced the onset of the northern lights, the aurora borealis, and I stopped the car to get a better look. A circular halo hovered above us with light streaming out in all directions and undulating over the entire sky. Overhead the luminescence pulsed and wavered with increasing frequency as it reached in all directions. The glow was so intense that it was the dark contrasting areas of the sky that appeared to move. We had seen northern lights many times in the past but this display was one of the most impressive. Tracy had never seen the northern lights before and I was so glad that we could share this spectacle with her.

As we drove back to the forest service campground, we were treated to another close-up encounter with a cow moose who ambled out of the woods and sauntered down the side of the road. Blinded by our headlights she stopped and stared at us in confusion, then turned and trotted down the road while keeping a comfortable distance from our creeping vehicle. Pulling to a stop in the middle of the road, we watched her as she slowly made her way to the center of the gravel road where she stopped to show us her impressive profile. She looked first at us and then turned away to admire her shadow which was projected by our headlights. Gawking back at us she stood her ground in the middle of the road. Tracy sat there, wide-eyed, saying over and over again: ''She's so big!'' The beautiful moose lingered in the road for a few more minutes before finally continuing to the other side. It seemed a fitting end to our journey.

How does one evaluate a successful trip? We had hoped to introduce Tracy to the many wonders that the northwoods offers and I think we achieved that objective. We had shown her both the exhilarating features and the challenging feats with which one has to deal with in the wilderness. We had warm sunshine during the day, cool rains at night, gentle breezes and wild winds on the lakes we traversed. We had seen eagles, an osprey, loons, beavers, a pine marten, and several moose. We had gotten stuck in the mud and waded through marshes. We had portages that were simple and some that were challenging. And, perhaps most importantly, we showed her what it was like to be faced with decisions all along the way.

And then our adventure was crowned with the wonder of the aurora borealis. Tracy's enthusiasm for the Minnesota northwoods had grown and blossomed in just a few days and we all felt the bonding of an experience shared. We know it won't be the last trip she will make to the canoe country. She is now firmly hooked on these wilderness treasures, just like the rest of us.

(Editor's Note: There are many fine camping and canoeing adventures to be had outside of the federally controlled BWCA wilderness area. No permits or user fees are required and you may bring, and pack out, canned and bottled goods. Information on these areas, and possible routes, may be obtained at U.S. Forest Service offices.)


--article courtesy of

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