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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

Seeking a Treasure by Heather Monthei

The steady drizzle failed to dampen our spirits as Marshall and I launched our canoe into Flour Lake. We were on a historical quest this time in search of the Spaulding Mine.

A 90 rod portage took us to East Bearskin Lake, our official entry point into the BWCA. Two recent blowdowns blocked the path near an overgrown logging road which intersected the trail. Huge moose tracks sank deep in the mud while wolf scat sat on the edge of a rock. A white-throated sparrow accompanied us on our trek providing background music while raindrops dripped off tree branches.

Marshall found a sign post with a map of the trails; the primitive road linked the cabins on East Bearskin Lake to an old logging camp near Moon Lake. Raindrops dimpled the placid lake surface sending out a flurry of concentric circles; mist played havoc with our glasses. My Gortex jacket must have died over the winter, for it was soon saturated on the inside. A small hole in my rubber boot caused further dismay as I stepped into the water to help load the canoe. This trip would be a soggy one.

We arrived at Canoe Lake about 4:30 and settled at the campsite across from the Alder portage. I christened the site ''Soaking Solitude'' as I fixed our campstove dinner under our rain shelter. A few worn areas at the top of the roof revealed more leaky spots and increased my frustration. We had endured 24 hours of continuous rain.

A small channel to our west opened into Paddle Lake so I pointed the canoe in that direction while Marshall filtered water from the stern. It was unusually quiet; we had seen virtually no wildlife except for a pair of loons on the lake. Even the squirrels and chipmunks had retreated from the rain. It was too wet for a campfire so we turned in shortly after 8 p.m.; falling asleep immediately.

I awoke at 5:30 to the sound of water dripping off the trees. It was 40 degrees, and the rain was starting to dwindle. The sound of the rapids across the lake drifted through the haze. The loons had yodeled throughout the night, and a chorus of chickadees, red-eyes vireos, and white-throated sparrows took over in the morning light.

A red squirrel scolded us from an overhead branch while we ate a leisurely breakfast and scanned our surroundings. A cluster of small cedars leaned over the bank examining their reflections in the water below. A nightcrawler draped his slimy body over one of the smooth roots.

We were in the canoe by 7:30 paddling to Spaulding Lake in search of the mine and its relics. An article about this historical site in Boundary Waters Journal (''The Spaulding Mine Story,'' Spring, 1991, had inspired this trip, and we were eager to find the boiler and winch which were pictured in the feature. Further study of local history motivated us to see it firsthand. We had hoped this trip would be early enough in the spring for us to find the shaft and artifacts before they were veiled in thick green foliage.

The sun occasionally teased us from under the shroud of clouds as we paddled across Canoe Lake. The loons looked magnified in the mist, their dark forms silhouetted against the silver water. Steam drifted down the lake, blowing like low clouds on the surface of the water. The wind had changed direction so it was in our faces once again. My fingers felt icy and stiff as they worked the paddle in the damp chill.

A wooden crib dock lay submerged at the landing of Crystal Lake, and two lonely campsites sat along the shore. The long narrow body of water was well named; its transparent waters reflecting the breaking clouds overhead.

A 40 rod trail took us to pristine Spaulding Lake. The historical site for which we sought was developed in the 1880's when Captain William Spaulding explored the area. Geological formations convinced the captain that Indians had mined the territory in the past, and a small vein of silver persuaded him to build a cabin and haul in the equipment needed for the task. His prospecting was to no avail, however, and Spaulding quickly faded into history leaving only the lake name as a sign of his endeavor.

The song of a flowing creek lured us to the general area, but any trace of a landing was non-existent. Alder bushes crowded the banks, and swamp iris spiked upward awaiting future blossoms. The shiny green leaves of the ground cover were barely unfolding which should have promised good exploring conditions. The blowdowns, however, created a thick tangle of limbs through which we carefully maneuvered.

After bushwacking through the brush, we easily found the remains of Spaulding's cabin. The roof had caved in, but all four walls were basically standing. The window casings were intact, as was the door frame, and we went inside to examine the decay. An old iron heating stove stood in the middle of the large room partially buried in rubble while a ruste frying pan and lantern lay against the wall near the doorway. The thin sheets of tin which had been used on the inside of the log chinking flapped loosely in the breeze. Part of a hinge hung loosely at the entrance, and square nails protruded from the logs; the door itself had deteriorated long ago. In the yard an oven door and pile of rusted cans lay under some bushes along with part of a clay flower pot. A corroded lid from a can sported a label that clearly read: ''Full weight 1 lb. Royal Baking Powder--Absolutely Pure.''

Behind the cabin was a rocky ridge where I found a broken crock, shiny brown inside and dull gray on the outside. A reddish-brown false morel mushroom looked like a discarded brain where it sat on the ground surrounded by blooming white anemone and decaying leaves. Marshall and I carefully explored the ridge, then searched the surrounding woods before returning to the cabin.

Nature was slowly reclaiming this historical spot and concealing any evidence of its former life. It was difficult to picture this overgrown thicket in action as it attempted to mine silver. Although we were disappointed that we never found the shaft, winch or boiler, we nevertheless felt privileged to step back in history and visit this awesome place.

The 232 rods to Pine Lake was no worse than any other 3/4 mile portage that crosses three ridges. It began with a very steep ascent while windfalls lay draped across the trail near the top of the first crest. I felt every day of my age and more as we mounted "cardiac mountain." The trail offered switchbacks through the birch timber and worked its way down to the first valley. The wet leaves were slippery underfoot, and we had to use caution on the slick roots and rocks. Then just as the path finally leveled out, a muddy bog impeded the way. As we struggled up the second incline, I noted the scat of both bear and wolf who had recently shared the trail.

A wood plank boardwalk provided easy going over a trickling brook which lead to a grassy marsh. A nosegay of golden marsh marigolds sat nestled at the corner of the wooden walkway, and a parade of bright yellow bouquets marched along the stream-bed. Dandelions, wild strawberries and violets added more color to the path while raspberry bushes were bursting their buds and ferns were starting to unfurl. Cat-tails waded in the neighboring swamp.

The side-trip to Johnson Falls was a refreshing change of pace; we stashed our gear near the landing and started the half mile hike. A series of beaver dams created an impressive pond en route. Marshall and I played "limbo" with some of the downed trees which blocked the path and climbed over some of the lower windfalls.

I had been under the impression that Johnson Falls was a single cascade. When large boulders on the hillside led us to an upper level, however, we discovered a second crystal cataract spilling from the higher elevation. As we continued climbing, a third waterfall flowed into another small pool.

The next 25 rod portage took us to Caribou Lake where a combined effort of beaver and wind had constructed a natural spillway at the entry. Amazingly the wind was actually at our backs as we paddled up the long channel. It was no surprise when we felt mist sprinkle our jackets once more. A pair of loons swam close to the canoe, apparently not disturbed by our intrusion.

We paddled down the lake past a small bay. The grassy clearing at the third campsite from the west end attracted my attention, and we pulled ashore to check its possibilities. A short path lead from the lake to the opening where a small tent pad lay nestled in the trees along the edge. The fire ring was placed out in the open space, while rusted remnants of antiquity lay in piles in the undergrowth. The "striped grass" revealed an old railroad grade confirming my suspicions; I named our overnight home "Caribou Logging Camp."

The rain started again in earnest just after we set up our shelter, and we ate our stroganoff and jerky with background music of spring peepers and songbirds. We had a little time to explore the grounds in-between raindrops. A rusted railroad spike and metal file lay propped against the fire grate while corroded tin cans, grates, and barrels sat under a neighboring pine. Part of a stove door had "patented August 17, 1886" embossed on the rim. There is a fine line between trash and treasures when one stumbles across rusty relics in the woods. That which might be considered "junk" in the wilderness suddenly becomes "artifacts" in light of their historical background.

Marshall and I slept in until 6 a.m. Songbirds echoed throughout the forest, a ruffed grouse resumed his low pitched drumming, and an owl and bullfrog added to the morning cacophony. The thermometer read 40 degrees, and the rain which fell on and off all night had momentarily ceased.

The hashbrowns and scrambled eggs tasted great and gave us energy to explore our neighborhood. Our clearing showed a multitude of grassy mounds, and the surrounding forest contained a half dozen foundations about two feet high and covered with dirt. From the considerable size of the foundations we surmised they were probably barracks perhaps covered by the Forest Service to camouflage the signs of human habitation. Greening foliage nearly hid the square footings; a birch tree growing from the top of one foundation measured more than 6'' in diameter showing the length of time these footings had been there. One smaller foundation revealed a doorway, and a five foot deep sinkhole was filled with water and debris. A chewed up scrap of leather lay on the path while more tin cans, part of an embossed stove door and other iron parts hid underneath the surrounding bushes. Part of a radiator and a corroded pan lay near a rotting log boardwalk.

The drumming which had seemed so distant earlier suddenly sounded very close, and I peered between the branches to see a ruffed grouse sitting comfortably on top of one of the foundations. Standing motionless I watched him until he drummed his distinct rhythm. His unique thumping sounded like the rumble of distant thunder as he flapped his wings, so low in tone that I could feel his beat through the ground.

Marshall and I followed the railroad grade to the west, finding pieces of wooden ties and railroad spikes along the way. The trail continued west and led to the next campsite, a small opening right in the middle of the path. Since it was vacant we took time to explore the small, wooded site. Not far down the trail we came to the third site which was perched on a huge granite cliff. Boulders had fallen into the crack in the precipice creating a small cave underneath. Neither of the two sites had relics or showed any evidence of the logging operation. The trail continued to the west, but it was time for us to return to our site.

We learned later from historian and Cook County native, Wes Hedstrom, that the lumbering camp had belonged to the Weyerhaeuser Logging Company and operated for one short year in 1929. There were several camps on the surrounding lakes all of which were laced together with narrow gauge railroad tracks. I tried to visualize a party of lumberjacks as they labored over their saws or feasted around the horsedrawn "swingdingle." We felt privileged to catch a glimpse of its heritage.

We paddled our canoe slowly past our neighboring campsites to examine them from the water. I imagine anyone staying there would have no idea of the historical site which lay a mere stone's throw away. Our footprints mingled with the moose imprints along the muddy 60 rod trail to Deer Lake. The portage began straight up what felt like a 45 degree angle and offered two more windfalls. It wasn't the first time we had to slide the canoe over downed trees and pick it up on the other side.

Where the trail came to a flat intersection, a grassy logging road took us to the next lake. This road, I learned later, was part of another railroad grade. It was a good place for some trail mix and refreshing water.

There was considerable storm damage on the 20 rod portage to Moon Lake. Some of the victimized trees which had been cleared from the trail were more than two feet in diameter; one log had a hollow channel clear through its length. The musky smell of a wet animal made me wonder how many critters had used that log for shelter.

The first part of the portage had a stream-bed flowing out from it, and we stumbled over boulders to get the canoe onto dry land. A pair of eagles watched us with wary eyes from their nest in a neighboring dead tree. One of the raptors had just flown over us with more dried grasses to reinforce his home while the other sat guard.

It didn't take long for Marshall to find the boot-sucking mud on the 75 rods back to Flour Lake. The trail had more than its share of roots and rocks, and overgrown brush crowded the narrow path. Moose sign was scattered along the way; both large and small tracks told us a cow moose and calf had passed this direction. Crystalline waters fell over mossy stones in a series of cataracts to our left.

The portage ended at a clearing which was labeled as another logging camp, but we found no signs of foundations or relics other than a few rusty cans. ''Logging Camp Trail'' intersected the pathway at the landing. Signs posted at Flour Lake told us we had come to part of the ''Moose Ridge Trail'' a popular cross-country skiing route. After a quick lunch we explored the grassy trail that led up the ridge, but we could barely see the deep valley below us through the thick stand of birch.

It was 3 p.m. when we reached our car at the Flour Lake landing. Several fishermen near the Golden Eagle Resort were the first people we had seen on the entire trip. A loon yodeled a haunting farewell as we loaded our mini-van.

What were the treasures we were seeking on our wilderness trip? The obvious goal was the Spaulding Mine, the winch, boiler and other artifacts. We sometimes find wealth in golden sunsets and spectacular northern lights, and we always value our encounters with moose and other wildlife.

Sometimes, however, the riches for which we seek are not the ones we find. While those jewels remained elusive on this trip, we found the historical gems in our lumbering camp. There we had stumbled upon a veritable museum of artifacts, and it turned out to be a highlight of our wilderness trip. The focus of our trip may have changed along the way and then, unlike Spaulding, we did find our real treasure, a wealth of memories which will be cherished far longer than any silver deposits.

--article courtesy of

Manitou Mounds Pictographs
Sigurd Olson Ernest Oberholtzer

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