Search this site or the web        powered by FreeFind
  Site search Web search



Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

This article has been provided in partnership with:

Boundary Waters

A Sixth Sense by Bert Heep

This past summer my wife, Diane, and I made a dream come true. We paddled in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Quetico Provincial Park for the entire summer. Previously, every time we finished a canoe trip, no matter how long it was, we would lament the fact that it was too short and talk about how great it would be when we could retire and spend an entire season paddling.

Ultimately, we decided not to wait, however, and determined to make it happen now, as opposed to the infamous ''someday''. In February of 1999, we began the process of planning and making all of the arrangements necessary for such an undertaking; coordinating sabbaticals from our jobs, planning routes, started dehydrating food, saving money so we could pay our bills, and making countless lists of tasks to be done before we could wet our paddles.

Most of all, we began counting the days and dreaming about the day our adventure would actually begin. Finally, on May 22, in the year 2000, Diane and I pushed off from the landing at Lake One and began an odyssey that would end on September 22, 2000. Our lives would be changed forever and in ways we could never imagine.

Part of the Family

It was hard to imagine spending the next four months in our canoe and in the Canoe Country. Except for short resupply exits, and a two-week period when Diane was ill, we spent the entire time paddling and ended up covering most of the Quetico and large portions of the Boundary Waters. We actually made our dream come true!

If you have paddled the lakes and rivers of the canoe country, walked its ancient portages, pitched your tent on a bed of pine needles, sat on a slab of granite looking out over calm waters as the evening sun spreads its golden light, and drifted off to sleep to the haunting call of a loon, you are part of a special family. A family that is bonded together by a passion for paddling and a love of wild places. We are willing victims of that siren call which rings in our ears and draws us back again and again. No matter how many trips we have taken, no matter how many years we have paddled, we never get enough.

Journal Memories

During our adventure I kept a journal and faithfully made some sort of entry each day. There were days when all I wrote were details about our route, observations on the weather and wildlife, what we had for supper, or what our campsite was like; the kind of mundane entries that would bore anybody else.

There were also those times when the writing juices would really flow and my fingers would cramp from writing for so long. Often this would happen on layover days or when I found myself sitting under a tarp during an all day rain. Give me a mug of tea, a small fire for ambience, the smell of wood smoke, the sound of rain on the tarp, and a comfortable spot for my camp chair, and I can fill an entire notebook.

I had one such day on Cirrus Lake at the beginning of a 25 day trip that began at Beaverhouse Lake. A few days earlier, Diane and I had driven up to the Beaverhouse entry with Sam Cook and Steve Therrien. Sam, the outdoor writer for the Duluth News Tribune, wanted to do an article about our summer-long adventure and thought it would be good if he spent a few days with us before writing the story. Sam loves to paddle, and will jump at any opportunity to be on the water and call it "work". Sam's friend, Steve, lives in Superior Wisconsin, and is a teacher and fly fishing guide on the Brule River.

We drove up from Ely in a rain that would not quit and listened to a weather forecast on the radio that made us wonder if we should delay the start of our trip or at least grow webbed feet. We pushed on, however, and were rewarded with three days of almost steady rain. So we found a beautiful camping spot on Cirrus Lake and hunkered down there.

The day Sam and Steve left us to head back to Duluth, Diane and I sat under a tarp, drank tea, read, and wrote in our journals. It was the kind of day that could frustrate you at the beginning of a trip, especially if your trip was only a week long. There would be that sense of urgency to get moving. But Diane and I were going to be out for almost a month on this trip, so we savored the opportunity to relax and enjoy the day for what it was. This is what I wrote that day.

Fireside Reflections

Back in science class we all learned that we have five senses. We see, smell, touch, taste, and hear. It seems to me that when we are in the wilderness, however, we are much more aware of these senses than when we are in our everyday lives. We use and depend on them far more than normal. Ponder these thoughts with me if you will.

Sight. Ever notice how much you look to the sky when you are canoeing? Watching clouds, wanting to be prepared for the thunderstorm that can come out of nowhere, and looking for evidence of wind on the water or in the trees? We have all seen the deep green of pine trees against the background of an impossibly blue sky, long vistas down an island studded lake, a ridge of red pine trees whose trunks glow with the soft light of a setting sun, or the pulsing intensity of embers in a dying fire.

Smell. The incredible scent of pine needles warmed by the sun. The smell of wood smoke or the pungent fragrance of pine resin from a burning pine knot. The smell of clean pure air, the fragrance of crushed balsam needles, the sage-like aroma of sweet gale crushed in your hand. Or the aroma of freshly caught walleye frying in a pan. Fragrances which bring back sweet memories.

On the other hand, how about the smell of a sweaty shirt that you have worn for 14 days, the unforgettable odor of methane gas as you slosh through what we natives affectionately call ''loon-shit'', or the undeniable aroma that wafts up from the ubiquitous boundary waters biffy? These too are the smells of wilderness. Conjuring their own memories.

Touch. Can you imagine the feel of your paddle in your hand right now? Sure, you can. Or the feel of the gunwales of your canoe on your knees as you apply pressure to keep your proper position. The shock of cold water as you jump in the lake, even in August, or the warmth of the sun on your back after several days of clouds and rain. That pine cone or rock poking up under the tent floor; right in the middle of your back. How about the smoke in your eyes that causes tears to flow and follows you everywhere as you cook dinner over a fire.

Or the ache of muscles that scream out after a mile-long portage. And who can forget the pull on your line as a lake trout hangs on the bottom and refuses to come up. Or the soft breeze on your face as you look out over another picture-postcard view.

Taste. Peanut butter and jelly every day for four months, tender walleye hot out of the pan, a drink of cold pure water as you paddle across a lake. Blueberries, raspberries, and wild strawberries picked alongside a portage. That special taste as you use a pine needle for a tooth pick. The sharp salty taste of your own sweat after a long, hot portage. Or the wonderful flavor of crisp bacon and fresh eggs early in the trip, or a mug of steaming tea on a cold windy day.

Everything seems to taste better in the wilderness. Try some of that freeze-dried food at home and you'll see what I mean.

Sounds. We all have awakened in the early morning to hear wind in the pines and then laid in our tent wondering how big the waves were out on the lake and if we would be wind bound. Or the sound of your precious canoe scraping that rock lurking below the surface, the crackling of a fire, a chorus of birds waking you up at four in the morning, the sound of rain hitting the water as a squall blows across the lake. Or the comforting sound of rain on your tent as you snuggle down in your bag.

Then, there is the sound of a waterfall or rapids around the bend, lightning getting closer with every strike, the wind in your ears as you paddle into a head wind, the whisper like sound that your paddle makes as it slices through the water. And the incredibly loud sound of hundreds of mosquitoes buzzing outside your tent, the rush of air through the wings of a raven that flies closely overheard, or the sound of the white throated sparrow that you never tire of hearing.

Ever heard the sound of ''silence''? If you have, you know what I mean. Last, but certainly not least, the sound of loons, loons, loons. The near perfect manifestation of wilderness.


Now that I've got you all warmed up with memories buzzing around in your head, let me ask you this. Have you ever wished that you had more senses or at least the ability to make the ones you have work better? To be more in tune with what was going on around you, so that you could really appreciate the wonder and beauty of your experience.

Wouldn't it be great if we had a ''sixth sense'' that would allow us to re-live past experiences all over again with the same kind of intensity? I have found myself thinking these thoughts, wishing for that kind of awareness, and coveting that ''sixth sense''.

On our summer long trip I often reminded myself of the need to be vigilant to make sure that I was experiencing everything to its fullest. I knew that the months would fly by, and I did not want to get to the end of our adventure and wish I had been more observant or attuned to my surroundings.

Those of you who are able to paddle for only a week or so each year will probably laugh at my concerns, thinking that with four months to paddle there would not be much chance of that happening. But I have found that whether I am out for a week or an entire summer it is easy to get desensitized. Then after the trip is all over, I wish I had paid more attention and tried to burn the details into my memory so I could pull them up later on.

However, as we all know, after the trip is over, and all the gear is put away, all that is left are the memories. We look at maps and read our journal entries, trying to bring back all of the images and feelings of the experience; but most of the time all we can muster is a hazy general good feeling that pales in comparison to the real thing.

Even photos fall short. How often have we tried to show a photo of some incredible scene to someone else and apologized by saying that it looked better in real life? We can't capture that third dimension on film any better than we can in our mind.

I wish that I had a nickel for every time that I have commented about how wonderful it would be if we could find a way to bottle the smell of white pine needles warming in the sun, or the wonderful fall smell of decay that we associate with a portage in late September. But, we can't do it. Nothing replaces actually being there. No matter how hard we try, we can't re-stimulate our senses. In the long run, this is probably best.

Maybe this why we can talk about those incredibly hard portages with a hint of bravado and say that they weren't all that bad. Or brag about how terrible the mosquitoes and black flies were and forget the misery they created and how they almost drove us crazy.

Maybe this is what keeps us coming back. Wanting to recapture those special feelings that can only be experienced in the moment. I think that it might be good that we can't just pull these feelings back up on command. Most certainly, they would lose some of their specialness if we could. Perhaps a fleeting moment of awe or wonder is all we need. Perhaps these things simply sit deep in our soul, nurturing us without our even knowing it.

So, until we can be on the water, and once again have our senses stimulated, we will have to be content with second best; the memories. I don't know about you, but I think I am glad I don't have that sixth sense. It makes me look forward to the next paddling season with the same excitement year after year.

See you on the water!



--article courtesy of

Sans Souci Winter Sojourn
Close Call at Tiger Bay Pushing to Blackstone

Free Shipping & No Sales Tax on $40 or More!
Your Banner Could be Here