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Boundary Waters Magazine.com

In Search of Bull Moose at Baskatong by Toni Babcock

The wilderness has a wisdom all its own, and it's good we take time out of our busy lives to listen. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is such a wilderness. I have come to this place with a vision of what it should bring me, and stepped out of this expectation with a whole new perspective. This is an account of my brief rendezvous with the BWCA, and how it helped me understand once again, what wild places are really all about.

My husband Kerry and I have an unusual conversation piece on our coffee table. It's a magazine ''rack'' of sorts; wide enough to fit two stacks of large books or magazines, and accented with twelve tines. This half rack of a bull moose was shed in the woods at Lake Baskatong and bought from a friend twelve years ago. Kerry held out the rack in front of him and tried to imagine the size of the gargantuan moose once attached to it. It had to have been a mighty big bull. We hoped it was a sign of what awaited us on this secluded spot in the BWCA. Our hopes were fueled by an obscure fact we learned from Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a book by Robert Beymer. We read, ''...moose are not an uncommon sight throughout the area. In fact, the densest population of moose in all of Minnesota is found in the region just west of Kawishiwi Lake.'' We pulled out the map, and there was our destination; Lake Baskatong, just west of Kawishiwi Lake.



As is our usual preference, we planned our trip in May, right after ice out and the week before fishing opener. This would assure us of few bugs and few people too. Along with the usual camping cargo, we packed video gear in anticipation of the thrill of spotting and taping moose in their natural habitat. On May 8th, 2001, we drove to the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area by way of the Sawbill Trail.

From our map we could see that Lake Baskatong was only a meander away from the more popular route to Lake Polly. It was a lonely lake, situated off to itself with no outlet to any other major route, and had only two campsites. We would have the entire lake to ourselves during our four day stay, and would see no one else until we portaged out.

As we pushed onto Kawishiwi Lake with our loaded canoe, the temperature was a cool 60 degrees and the winds were brisk at about 25 to 30 miles an hour. We would aim the boat straight into the headwind, and paddle hard to an outlet across the lake that would lead us through a mile long channel of water to Square Lake. About 12 minutes into our paddle, Kerry alerted me to the far southwest shore opposite our direction. We discerned the clear outline of a moose walking along the bank. From our distant vantage point, it was difficult to tell if it was a bull against the back drop of thick pine and birch. We debated whether or not to take a detour to investigate, but the wind and waves were testy and it was late in the afternoon. Forging ahead seemed a more logical choice, so we paddled on to Square Lake

One portage! I'd never taken a trip in the BWCA with only one portage. Our portage from Square Lake to Baskatong was about sixty-nine rods in length and fairly flat. Sure, I like the physical challenge and exercise from multi-portage trips, but once in a while an easy route is a welcome one, and this portage took us to an intimate hideaway that proved just as remote as the others. Moose scat was spotted at frequent intervals along the trail. We surmised this would be a good place to stake out during our stay, and wait for a moose sighting. Pushing off our canoe onto Lake Baskatong, we paddled a short distance around a point of land where we spotted a fire grate on shore. We landed our boat and proceeded to set up camp.

That night was cold and clear, and I had packed to stay warm. My sleeping attire was a layered combo of synthetic long underwear, large cotton tee-shirt, fleece pants, thick wool sweater, double thick socks with slippers, knit hat, and the topper: a big green fleece affair, shaped like a gown with two knit openings in the bottom for my feet. I looked like a cross between a penguin, and Gumby. When I stepped out of the tent to greet Kerry at the campfire, he looked at me incredulously, and shook his head in disbelief. Unflinching, I claimed my spot on a worn log next to the crackling fire. I my age I deserved to stay warm, I reasoned. That night, cozy in my ''Gumby suit'', I was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic mating call of frogs along the shore. Their urgent whining seemed to resurrect from the dead at around sunset. Frost settled in slowly, as it often does on a cold spring night in the north, but the tip of my nose was the only place with a chill.

The next day I woke to the most beautiful cacophony of bird song I have ever heard. I was struck by the brightness and complexity of this free concert attending me as I lay spellbound in my sleeping bag. It was one of those serendipitous moments in the wild that left me awestruck. That morning, the temperature rose quickly to a comfortable 60+ degrees. We were eager to get breakfast out of the way, and paddle around the bays and inlets of the lake.

After eating, Kerry loaded his video gear in the canoe and we started on our mini-adventure. We paddled to a prime spot and landed the boat, thinking perhaps a hike through the dense brush off shore would lead us to a recently shed moose rack. Unfortunately, stepping over a downed pine, Kerry's trailing foot caught on a broken branch as he was stepping forward. Instinctively he reached to grab the tree, and the palm of his hand landed on a three inch pencil sharp twig, which impaled the skin 1/2'' deep and broke off. I was aghast as he calmly pulled out the nasty shard of wood. One never thinks they need to put the first aid kit in the canoe on these little jaunts. From now on, perhaps we should reconsider! Nevertheless, it didn't hinder him from fulfilling his quest. He got the footage he came for, before returning to camp to doctor his hand.

Later in the day, we crossed the lake to scope out the other campsite, and discovered a huge expanse of rugged bog around a point as far back as we could see. Baskatong, we would learn, was full of mystery and surprise. Kerry was puzzled as he studied several dead tree stumps sticking up like broken bones along the shore. ''I think the entire lake is at least five feet deeper than it was at one time'' he commented. I was pre-occupied with moose musing. This would be a perfect place to spot one, I thought. Besides that, our campsite was an obvious hang-out. A large, matted bed of grass a few feet from our tent marked the spot where an animal had bedded down. I found a thick tuft of moose hair nearby. But the prize of actually spotting a moose, close range in its natural habitat, would continue to elude us.

That night was overcast, bringing warmer temperatures, so I folded my Gumby suit and retired it under my head for a pillow. Hunkered down in the tent, about fifteen minutes after lights were out, Kerry picked up the "kerploosh" sound of a large hoofed animal stepping in and out of the muck near the boggy shoreline beside our campsite. We both heard an ensuing round of splashing water. This was not the familiar splash and slap of a beaver. I sat up and we listened for a few moments, then Kerry shone the flashlight out the tent door. By then, whatever it was had disappeared. This was just another mystery we would have to guess about; a phantom in the dark, like so many other noises you might hear on a cool, black night in the wild.

The next morning after breakfast, we decided to return to the portage and pick a spot in the woods to sit and wait for a chance encounter. Kerry brought his video gear, as well as a camera for photos. I brought reading material, two sharp pencils and a note pad to journal with. We waited...and I obsessed about whether or not we should have pursued the moose we saw on the southwest shore of Kawishiwi. We would be breaking camp and returning to the cities the next day! Actually, we knew the probability that a bull moose (or any other moose for that matter) would come sauntering down the portage, stopping to pose for pictures was slim. Nonetheless, I could think of a lot worse ways I could be spending my time! That night we would embark on another plan of action. Since we usually spot moose near bogs and shorelines, we would slip our canoe across Baskatong, to the large bog we had visited the day before, and hopefully be rewarded.

Uncomfortably, it began to dawn on me that I had not come to this place searching for the "Bull Moose of Baskatong". I had come here looking for a good story; something I could write about with a great ring to it, and I was beginning to feel a little silly. On a deeper level, I knew in my soul what I have always come to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area looking for. I come to find that point in my existence, where I depart from a life regulated by the necessary duties of modern living, to once again discover the wonder of a primal land. I come to gain a fresh perspective about the purpose of my life, and to relish the time spent in the grandeur of a great wild place.

We spent our last evening in the bog as we had planned, watching and waiting. I sat backwards in the bow of our canoe nestled in the tall grasses, admiring my husband with his video camera, and the small field of lichen across the shore which disappeared into the forest. Our personalities as opposite as they could be, still we whispered in the reeds with this shared love of the wilderness that entwined our hearts together, enjoying each others company; tucked in the hollow of our white canoe. As the sun was setting, we paddled back to camp. Elusive dreams of moose sightings would have to wait.

Our last morning at Lake Baskatong was overcast, and seasonably cool. The wind was light and the lake easy to paddle. We decided to continue exploring as much of its several bays and inlets as we had time for. According to the map, there was an outlet to a small stream that led to Kawishiwi River. As we paddled along, Kerry once again commented that the lake seemed unusually high, even for spring. The section of the lake where we would find the outlet, narrowed into a long bay. As we neared the far end, we were astonished to discover the mystery of the high water. Beavers, those little furry rascals, had built a mighty dam across 100 feet or more of Lake Baskatong! The drop to the stream below was at least six feet!

With our eyes wide with amazement, we paddled across the dam surveying the architectural skill of these incredible little construction workers. After tying up the boat to a stump on shore, we hiked to the base of the dam for another perspective. A mature conifer tree and other brush had grown out of the center of the dam, proving it had been there, and maintained for decades. An old sawed log jutted out from the base, evidence that this area was probably used by loggers. Had loggers built a crude sluice across this spot to flush logs downstream? Did beavers move in, build it up and maintain it after they left, or did they dam this spot long before the loggers? More mysteries. There was a tangled portage next to the dam, which was very hard to discern, except for orange plastic ties someone had attached to tree branches along the way. The portage was not on the map and obviously rarely used. We followed it a few hundred feet and discovered an old rusty, eight foot long horse trough probably discarded from a logging camp. Although we left with more questions then we had answers, we enjoyed that hike and our speculations, trying to piece together the history of this incredible place.

Paddling back to camp, we admired the beautiful rock islands along the way. One island in particular, still stands out in my mind. The lake lapped at the shore of its dainty gray bedrock, speckled with lace of sea foam green lichen. It was landscaped with young pines; one prominent in the center, and surrounded by smaller, sibling pines arranged in a random symmetry that surpassed any master gardener's design. These are the places that stop you in your tracks, and make you want to become a part of that quiet serenity, basking in the warm sun, soaking in the wonder.

Once back at camp, we ate a simple lunch, packed our gear, and journeyed home to our lives in the city. Driving out on the Sawbill Trail, we noticed the deep imprints of moose hooves along both sides of the road. They went on and on, then disappeared into the forest. These were the tracks of the magnificent creatures whose appearance had eluded us. These were the tracks that had stepped over a border to civilization and back again, to a life of instinct and survival we could never know. And once again I learned to listen to the wisdom of the wild. Nature's portals often open by surprise, and can't be forced. I should have known. It is as it should be. I can wait for the breathless, heart pounding moment. Perhaps again, someday at Baskatong.

--article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine.com

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