The alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. Waning crescent moon. Clear September sky. I alert my son in the adjoining bedroom. “Jimmy! Time to go!” We gulp coffee and depart hastily, leaving Sandy silhouetted in the glow of the garage light. She has fortified us amply for the long drive: sandwiches, oatmeal cookies, and a bagful of apples she picked in the orchard yesterday. With our shit-brindle brown canoe strapped on top of Jimmy’s van and the interior crammed with gear, we munch our way north up Highway 23 across hilly Wisconsin farmland wreathed in mist, toward Reedsburg and the Interstate.
Ten sun-drenched hours later, we pull up to the outfitter’s dock at the end of an inlet on Saganaga Lake, a couple of miles from the Canadian border. This is where the Gunflint Trail, a winding two-lane blacktop, terminates. On the Canadian side, Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park; on the Minnesota side, the Superior National Forest’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Together, 3,500 square miles of unadulterated getaway. More than a thousand lakes, many linked by rivers and historic portage trails. No roads, no resorts, no residents. Voyageur country. Moose country. Wolf country.
Jimmy, a modishly bewhiskered husband, father, musician, teacher, carpenter, and savvy outdoorsman, has been canoe camping here for years. He usually paddles solo. When he invited me to join him this time, I had my doubts. I wasn’t the only one. My brother, Tom, said he thought even considering it at my age, seventy-five, was crazy. Sandy, too, was dubious.
I told Jimmy to count me in. Why? Partly because he and I had never done a canoe trip before, just the two of us. Partly because the more I thought about it the more I wanted to see the Boundary Waters again. Besides, I asked myself, how often does a codger like me — retired editor, cancer survivor, grandfather of eight, troublemaker — get a chance like this? Dude. Go for it.
I stepped up my workouts. Then my back started giving me trouble. When I warned Jimmy I was having second thoughts, he told me not to worry. “We’ll take it slow and easy,” he said. “No need to kill ourselves. Trust me: It’ll be a piece of cake.”
Now, road-weary but eager to start paddling, we learn there’s good news and bad. There is enough daylight left, the outfitter assures us, for one of his boat hands to take us to a drop-off island. From there we should be able to reach the campsite Jimmy has in mind before dark. But a forest fire has shut down Monument Portage, a main gateway for parties embarking from the Gunflint. Our plan was to tackle Monument in the morning. Can we bypass it and still get where we want to go? Jimmy digs his maps out of a gear bag and quickly locates what appears to be another way in, on the Canadian side. It involves three portages not officially designated as such, and one unnamed lake. The outfitter takes a look, tracing the route with a stubby pencil. He says he thinks it should be doable.
The boat guy is waiting on the dock. We help him pile our stuff onto a bulky, beat-up aluminum craft with an overhead canoe rack and a vintage twenty-five horsepower Johnson outboard. Jimmy checks to make sure I’ve got a fleece under my windbreaker. We’re in for a chilly, hull-slamming ride.
Puttering cautiously at first, we wind through narrow shallows between stony hills studded with charred snags. Clunk. The propeller nicks a rock. “Water’s low,” the guy says. “It’s been really dry this year.” Short-cropped blonde hair, sturdy, early twenties. He informs us he’s from Hibbing. Clunk. Jimmy replies, “Bob Dylan’s hometown.” The guy’s impressed. “Wow! Hardly anybody knows that.” Jimmy and I exchange a quick glance. It’s the only thing anybody knows about Hibbing.
Then, suddenly, we’re barreling full-speed into the exhilarating vastness of Saganaga. Bucking the wind, bashing across whitecaps. Thump! Thump! Thump! Piney islands dot the horizon like pincushions. Deep blue sky, verging on purple; enormous clouds. Thump! Thump! Thump!
Finally, Hook Island. From here on, motors prohibited; paddling only. Our chauffeur rams us onto a sandy beach. We unload and reload while the snarl of the departing boat fades away. First, two big green Hudson’s Bay packs. The heaviest contains food, the other clothes, toilet paper, water filter, stove, gas canisters. Next, the blue waterproof pack (sleeping bags, tents, tarps) and Sandy’s old purple backpack (hatchet, saw, rainwear, jackets, hats, gloves). Last: tackle box, fishing rods, paddles.
Jimmy grabs the gunnels and clambers across the cargo to the stern seat, and I shove off. Here we go! The canoe rides low but once we get underway it slices through the waves without shipping a drop. The island recedes.
So familiar, this feeling. When I was a kid, the mere act of setting out to go fishing in a rowboat was enough to inspire a frisson of anticipation. Now here I am all these years later experiencing the same thing, only more so. That’s the magic of casting off. You never know what will happen next. Soon enough, though, you realize it’s not the destination that matters: it’s appreciating what you need to do to get there. Paddle, old-timer!
Two loons pop up nearby, beads glistening on their ebony heads. One has a minnow wriggling in its beak. An omen? They inspect us then disappear as abruptly as they surfaced.
Before we left the island, Jimmy showed me the campsite on the map. “That’s pretty far,” I said.
“Not really,” he said. “Only a couple miles, if that.”
“But it’s getting dark fast. What if somebody’s already there? We’ll be screwed. Totally shafted.”
“We’ll be fine,” he said, pretending to ignore my exaggerated panic. “We’ll just find another place. Not a problem.”
Not a problem for him, maybe. Already, my arms and shoulders are doing a slow burn.
I spot what we’re shooting for, a point coming up on the right. But, no. We pass that point and keep paddling, toward another one we couldn’t see before. It’s so easy to get disoriented on big water. Hits you right away: no depth perception. Islands look like points, points look like islands, bays hide behind peninsulas. Everything runs together.
We’re in luck. The campsite is unoccupied, and pristine. Not so much as a candy wrapper or a cigarette butt. Like us, most of the 20,000 canoeists allowed into the Quetico each year are repeat visitors — aficionados who take good care of the place.
I’ve tried to track down the provenance of Quetico. It supposedly comes from an Ojibwa word that itself may derive from a Cree expression referring, perhaps, to an ancient spirit of beauty. The nature writer Sigurd Olson, a lifelong enthusiast, called this region “the singing wilderness.” What I can see from here is beautiful, yes, but edgy — a primitive, rock-faced landscape that hasn’t changed much since the glaciers receded 11,000 years ago, leaving it fractured, gouged, chiseled.
The tip of this campsite is softened somewhat by big trees, brush, and a thin mantle of duff. The fireplace is the standard Quetico version, an imposing heap of rocks several feet wide at the base. Next to it, a pile of kindling left days or weeks ago by the previous occupants. We unload and get cracking on the tents. Jimmy’s is up in no time. While I fumble with mine, he opens packs and yanks out tools, rope, gear, utensils, and plastic food containers. Fetches water from the lake in a collapsible bucket and pumps it through a filter into four Nalgene containers. Finds a rock the size of a softball, ties the end of a long, coiled rope around it and hurls it over the lowest branch of a red pine tree, about a dozen feet off the ground. Unties the rock and knots the rope through the straps of the food pack. When my tent’s up, we get back in the canoe and reconnoiter the nearby shoreline for firewood. Crazy busy! By the time we have a blaze going, it’s almost dark.
Now we can kick back and enjoy a couple of screwdrivers: vodka and Tang mixed with water from one of those Nalgene containers. “To the trip!” I say. “To the trip!” he says. We gaze at the fire, savor the smoky aroma, talk about the day, recall other trips with the family. Soon the vodka, generously administered, makes itself felt. The bartender pours two more.
Nippy enough for jackets and wool hats. Between the swaying crowns of the big pines we can see glittering pinpricks of light. Suddenly, bone tired. Quick supper: sausage, cheese, bread. Brush teeth. Repack everything. Stash under the overturned canoe. It takes both of us hauling on the rope to get the food pack high enough to elude any bears that might happen by. With that, I’m ready to collapse. “Have a good one!” Or, as it turns out, not.
In my tent, I discover I neglected to fully inflate my mattress pad. Also, the zipper on my sleeping bag is busted. Earlier, I ridiculed Jimmy for bringing a pillow. Me, macho man that I am, I wad my jacket into a stuff sack. Lumpy, but whatever. Flashlight off, and I’m out. But not for long. Cold, uncomfortable. Two interruptions to answer nature’s call. As in: Flashlight on. Boots on. Open tent screen. Ziiiiiiiiiiiippp! Open vestibule. Ziiiiiiiiiiiippp! Crawl out. Piss. Crawl back in, shivering. Close vestibule. Ziiiiiiiiiiiippp! Close tent screen. Ziiiiiiiiiiiippp! Boots off. Flashlight off. Next door, Jimmy’s snoring approaches chainsaw decibel levels. My makeshift pillow sucks.
By the time I roll out, my partner has a fire going and the gas stove hissing. Brisk, clear morning. Bluest of blue skies, just the way I remember. “We must’ve died and gone to Heaven,” I say. Jimmy hands me a mug of coffee strong enough to blister paint. Breakfast: oatmeal in a packet. Add hot water and stir. Yuk.
Another big day ahead. Break camp. Repack. Reload. The wind, coming straight out of the west now, smacks us as soon as we get around the peninsula the campsite is on. First stop: the Quetico ranger station, a neat old log cabin on an island in the middle of Cache Bay. It’s closed for the season but we have to self-register anyway. Shove off again, heading south across still more big water.
Turbulent. Tough paddling. Switch sides often. From time to time, we hear a helicopter and smell smoke. Once, we see a float plane making a beeline toward the fire.
After reaching a long, barren peninsula, we look for two opposed points almost touching, like the pincers on a crayfish claw. Turns out the crease between them is plugged by a beaver dam. Haul across to find ourselves on a smallish lake of no particular distinction. Jimmy points his paddle at a notch in the hills where the map indicates our portage should start.
As we approach the brushy shoreline, I watch the water change from green to gold. Shadowy boulders as big as houses materialize beneath us. Then, piles of rocks and skeletons of trees. Then, gravel and sand and minnows darting away before we scrape onto the bank.
Bushwhacking, we can’t find the trail. Jimmy disappears. I return to the canoe. After a while, he hollers. He’s located a path but when I get there with the canoe I can’t see it. “Obviously not used much,” he says.
On the map, this trek to the nameless lake looks to be about the same distance as Monument, a quarter of a mile or so. Not bad. Or at least it wouldn’t be bad if it didn’t go straight up. Jimmy lifts the lighter of the two Hudson’s Bay packs so I can slip into the shoulder straps and cinch them up. I get started. He follows with Sandy’s purple backpack and the canoe.
The alleged trail is so hard to make out I keep wandering off and have to backtrack. Mostly, though, it’s steep. I stop often, bending over, hands on knees, to take the strain off my hips and shoulders. Soon, Jimmy passes me and surges ahead, an upside-down canoe with legs, thrashing through the brush.
Trudging along, I reflect on the differences between us. He’s about the same size I was at his age, only sturdier. Carpentry makes more muscle than typing at a desk all day, and playing the trumpet builds up lung power. He’s better looking, too. But less expressive. I used to tease him about that when he was a toddler: “He won’t smile!” And he seldom did. Wasn’t unhappy. Just an independent little cuss determined not to smile just because his dad or some other jerk wanted him to. Fast forward forty-five years: bigger package, same product.
The trail turns into an obstacle course of immense fallen trees. Getting over them presents a serious challenge. Each time I finish squirming across one huge trunk, I need a moment to rest before taking on the next one. Trust me: It’ll be a piece of cake. Is it my imagination or did he really say that?
Halfway down the far side of the hill, I encounter my partner hurrying back to fetch the other stuff. He is whistling, something he’s always done when he’s happy. “You’re almost there!” he says.
It’s been more than thirty years now since Jimmy and his younger sister, Susy, accompanied Sandy and me on our very first Boundary Waters adventure. By then, Shawn and Amy were away at college. I was in my freelancing mode and had wangled an assignment to do a canoe-trip story for a travel magazine, which meant we were obliged to take along a photographer — from Brooklyn, for God’s sake — who didn’t know a canoe from a canary. As the head of the family, I was in charge. That meant racing back and forth on portages, first carrying one canoe, then helping Jimmy with the other one, then assisting with the packs, all the while reassuring everyone, “You’re almost there! You’re almost there!” Now Jimmy’s in charge and I’m the one who receives encouragement.
When I finally do get there, what little breath I have left is taken away by the lake we’ve found. It’s fucking gorgeous. Got some size to it, maybe 400 or 500 acres, but downright cozy compared to Saganaga. Irregularly shaped. Framed on two sides by imposing purplish-red cliffs. I can see a small island, shaped like a little volcano.
I start back and here comes Jimmy with the food pack. He is not whistling. His face is streaked with sweat. “You’re almost there!” I tell him. By the time I return, he has loaded up and we’re ready to go.
We make straight for the volcano, where we find another Bunyanesque fireplace. Behind it I discover a stash of firewood, sawed, from the look and feel of it, years ago. The island has about as much surface as seven or eight basketball courts. Most of it is taken up by a steep granite slope splotched with lichen. The rest consists of a sparse stand of scraggly jack pines with just enough open space to accommodate two tents. The fireplace is on top of the slope, next to the trees. It’s cramped, but what the hell. We offload and start setting up. “Hey, who knows, we might decide to stay here for a while,” Jimmy says. “What more could you want?”
The answer to that question almost turns out to be: a canoe. I glance up in time to see one drifting past the island. It looks familiar.
“Shit!” Jimmy exclaims. He bolts down the slope, charges into the water and grabs the trailing end of the canoe rope just as a gust of wind comes up. He pulls the canoe ashore and ties it, securely, this time, to a shrub. Headline: Alert Northwoods Guide Saves The Day!
After fishing for an hour or so with no luck, we return to our monticello for Tang cocktails, another quick supper and early retirement. The senior citizen is pooped. Tomorrow? Serious fishing.
Calm morning. Unseasonably warm. Mist curling across the lake. The trees on the sunrise side are obscured by a different kind of haze. We smelled smoke as soon as we woke up. Is the forest fire coming closer? The helicopters, back at work, still sound far away.
Coffee, yes! But no place to sit and enjoy it without risking a spill. This slope is turning out to be an aggravation. Back home, we take things like tables, counters, and floors for granted. Here, the absence of level surfaces reminds us that there’s a reason why we need them. It’s called gravity, and it’s making us look stupid, as Alert Northwoods Guide demonstrates when he breaks out his tackle box and starts messing around with his stuff. “Oops, hey, grab that reel, willya? . . . Oops, hey, grab that rod!” Eventually, he gives up and puts the tackle box away.
“Maybe it’s not such a great campsite after all,” he says.
“It’s a great lake.”
“It’s a pretty lake,” he says. “We won’t know if it’s a great lake until we go fishing in it.”
We go fishing in it all day.
First, we try casting bucktails, spoons, and surface lures around the island and over a couple of shallow, rocky bars extending out from it. “This is not right,” Jimmy says. “You have to go deep.”
Ever since he started coming up here, my partner has been a proponent of trolling in the middle of lakes. That’s not how I learned to fish at the family cabin in Northern Wisconsin and it’s not how I taught him. What you do is, you row a boat parallel to the shoreline and repeatedly cast an artificial lure, preferably, in my case, one that floats and makes noise, along the edges of reed beds and whatnot. It takes skill and concentration, and it’s a pretty good way to catch fish.
“Oh, come on,” I say. “Deep water’s a desert. No weeds, no nothing.”
But after a while, he’s had it. “Okay,” he says. “This ain’t working.”
He removes from his tackle box a yellow plastic thing that looks like a flashlight. He informs me it’s a depth finder. He dips it in the water, flips a switch and reads the number illuminated on a gauge. I paddle around while he takes soundings. Amazing how deep the water is — up to 120 feet in some spots. We go over to the cliffs to take a reading there. They tower sixty or seventy feet above us. Up close, they’re brown, and flecked with yellow lichen. According to the gizmo, the water is sixty-five feet deep at the base and drops off sharply from there.
This, the Guide determines, is where we will start trolling. He picks up a rod. “Pay attention,” he says, “so you’ll know how to do this.” He attaches a shovel-nosed lure about four inches long and shaped like a banana to the leader at the end of his line, which has a thumb-sized lead weight tied on about a foot and a half above the leader. After I start paddling, he drops the lure over the side. It dives out of sight, wriggling, and he gradually feeds out the line. “Notice I did not cast the lure,” he says. “If you do cast this rig, with that big weight, it can helicopter itself into a helluva mess.” He instructs me to paddle not too slow and not too fast. “Just half-assed,” he says.
In a few minutes, Jimmy announces: “Got one!” Sure enough. His rod is bent into a U-shape. I can hear the line play out as the fish takes off. Soon, it’s in the canoe. A lake trout, two pounds or so.
Hard to believe in all the time I’ve logged up here that this is the first lake trout I’ve seen. It’s a marvel. The vivid white spots on its green-grayish skin look like they’ve just been dabbed with a brush by an artist. Creamy belly. Prominent dorsal fin, forked tail, hooked nose. Impressive teeth. Jimmy tells me these fish can get up to thirty or forty pounds, but smaller is better, he says, when it comes to cooking and eating, which this one soon will. He puts it on a stringer.
Now I’m pumped. Lake trout belong to a family of salmon-like fish found only in the Far North. Some folks call them “char.” Others call them “Mackinaw” or “togue.” The Cree called them “dwellers of the deep.” And here we are, catching them. One, anyway.
Jimmy offers me the rod and picks up his paddle. “Now you try it,” he says. I take the rod and cast the lure out as far as I can. “You’re not a very good listener, are you?” he says.
Oops. I forgot. He just told me not to cast this thing. I suffer his rebuke silently, full of remorse. Not really. Pretty funny. You’re not a very good listener, are you?Spoken without rancor. Just a statement of fact.
In his boyhood, my namesake was not what you’d call a wiseass but he had little patience with negligence, even if the offending individual was a distinguished ancient such as myself. Ditto phonies. The put-down he came up with one day for his school band director said it all: “He thinks he’s a character, but he’s not.” An instant family classic, not just because it was so apt but even more because it distilled what had already, at that early age, become a calcified world view: If it’s bullshit, I’m not interested. He’s a Virgo to the core. Fastidious, analytical, not easily deceived.
The afternoon wears on, the sun beats down and the temperature rises but, alas, the fish do not. Until, just as we’re ready to call it quits, Jimmy hooks another dweller of the deep. It, too, ends up on the stringer. Now we have enough. But first, a canoe run for firewood. Back on the island, we saw up and split the cedar and pine snags we collected. Make fire. Haul water. Filter water. Unpack plastic food containers, taking care to prop them up with stones and sticks to prevent sliding.
Sunset. Fire popping and crackling. Nobody here but us, a pair of loons, and an eagle roosting in a tree atop the cliff we visited earlier. Happy hour! Screwdrivers! “To a great little island!”
We lean back in our folding camp chairs, tin cups in hand because we dare not put them down. Moments pass in companionable silence.
“Regardez la reflections un la mare,” Jimmy says, referring, I guess, to the mirror-image of the opposite shoreline on the lake’s glassy surface. He thinks it’s funny to pretend he knows French. Sometimes it is.
“Oui. Tres mucho magnifique,” I reply.
“Regardez also le fumez ala flambeau le forest,” he says, referring, I suppose, to the smoke infiltrating the treetops again. It’s disquieting to realize the forest fire continues to burn.
“Oui,” I reply.
Daylight’s fading. Time for Guide to become Chef. My job: Fetch whatever the Chef requires. He has organized the food supplies the same way he organizes everything: painstakingly. The half dozen plastic boxes are labeled “Breakfast,” “Lunch,” “Condiments,” and so on. Yes, “Condiments.” The contents are sorted into ziplock bags and within each ziplock sorted yet again into smaller plastic bags. He knows where everything is. He says, for example, without looking up from the sliced onions he is frying in a pan on the grill that he has ingeniously stabilized with rocks over the fire, “Grab me the margarine in the yellow plastic squirt bottle in the condiments box,” or “I need the paprika, that red tin in the spices bag.”
He has laid out the tools and cookware he will need so everything’s within easy reach. Once he begins, he is all business. No small talk. Everything’s done with a purpose. No motion wasted. He cooks things simultaneously, simmering the dehydrated peas and carrots in one pan while boiling water for the dehydrated mashed potatoes in another. At the same time, he tends to the filleted trout baking with lemon juice, the onions, and a seasoned stuffing — did he say Pepperidge Farms? — in tinfoil over a separate bed of coals he has piled up near the grill.
Dinner is served hot on blue tin plates. It is, like the reflections on the lake, magnifique. I salute the Chef with what remains of my second screwdriver. This, I tell him, is without a doubt the best meal I have ever had.
Afterwards, a post-feast stupor. Rouse myself to wash dishes in the dark while the other fellow packs everything up. Fire-gazing. Lights out. In the middle of the night, I hear coyotes yapping. Then a wolf takes over. It sounds like an alarm siren revving up. Reminds me of the wolves I used to hear across the lake from our cabin a lifetime ago.
Gusty, cloudy and dark. I can tell a front is moving in because I’m so stiff I can hardly pull on my boots. We decide early to pack up before it starts to rain. Been here, done this. Time to move on!
Breaking camp is already getting old. Roll up air mattress. Stuff sleeping bag in sack. Cram everything else into duffle bag. Shove that bag into another bag. Once again, Jimmy moves from chore to chore while I bumble around trying to get my act together. We leave the island as good as we found it and set off across the lake in a drizzle toward our next portage.
The trail — not a trail, really, but a streambed — begins in a grotto-like bower of overhanging cedars. The drizzle makes the already slippery footing even worse. Jimmy hoists a pack onto his back, jerks the canoe overhead and takes off, striding confidently from stone to stone. I shuffle along with the blue gear bag, the tackle box, and the paddles. Slow and easy, Methuselah. Don’t get careless.
Very special here. The rocks are carpeted with a thick, iridescent moss. The ferns are enormous, the biggest I’ve ever seen. Likewise, the thick-trunked cedars and spruce. Feels like I’m trudging into the geologic past. Also feels like I’m about to keel over. Huffing, puffing. Having an earnest conversation with my heart about whether we should join the one million other Americans who will experience a myocardial infarction this year.
It’s a short portage, actually, and a short paddle across the shallow pond it takes us to, but the next one, the map says, is longer and tougher. Okay. Unload. Carry. Bitch. But oh, my, look where we end up.
The trail delivers us to a spectacular bay, bounded by a long, high ridge on the left and a hill on the right, both covered with thick foliage and topped by a ragged sentry line of white pines. At the far end, a half mile or so from where we’re standing, I can see still more water shimmering beyond what looks like some kind of bottleneck opening. The map shows this is all part of one crazy big lake that links up with a bunch of other lakes. If Monument hadn’t been closed, we would have accessed this bay through that bottleneck, which is what Jimmy did the first time he came here a few years ago.
He had paddled in one afternoon to scout around when he saw two adult moose and two calves standing in shallow water on one side of a point. He put ashore on the other side and snuck up behind some bushes where he could spy on the unsuspecting creatures while they fed among the lily pads. That’s how he discovered what is without any question the best canoe campsite in all of North America. It takes only a few minutes for us to get there from the portage put-in.
Compared to the cramped quarters we just vacated, this is the Waldorf Astoria. It’s the point that has everything: plenty of level, open ground carpeted with needles shed by several Guinness World Record red pine trees; a broad rock shelf good for casting from shore; to-die-for lake views; and a pair of thick logs conveniently situated next to the fireplace. There’s even a table some crafty woodsmen — Boy Scouts, maybe, or, who knows, perhaps old Sig and some of his pals — hewed years ago out of six-foot lengths of pine. From the looks of it, this place hasn’t been occupied in a while. We set about making ourselves at home.
Jimmy decides to put up a tarp to keep our gear and ourselves dry. Standing on the table, he lashes the front corners to two red pines. Then he ties the back end to a tree uprooted by the wind not long ago. We hear a plane fly by every now and then, heading to and from the fire, which we figure must be several miles south of us. Our point is “pointing” right at it.
By the time we’re done setting up, the skies have cleared. We get back in the canoe and troll the length of our bay under cottony puffs sailing briskly out of the West. Choppy water. When we reach the bottleneck, we’re ready to try something else. Jigging. Casting. Near shore. Over an offshore ledge. Speculation about where to fish gives way to banter. My 1970s Garcia level-wind reel, with its black braided nylon line, is the object of some derision. His sissified ultra-ultra-whatever spinning equipment is likewise remarked upon.
We come upon a smallish bay-within-the-bay sheltered inside the bottleneck. Calm, relatively shallow — maybe ten or twelve feet at the deepest. One side is dappled with lily pads. I put on a medium-size black Mepps bucktail and loft a couple of casts along the edge of the pads. Nothing. Then I throw one in the opposite direction. Wham! There’s a dead weight on the end of my line.
For the next ten minutes or so, whatever I’m attached to pretty much has its way with us. Hauls the canoe around, makes one run after another, hunkers down on the bottom and refuses to budge. Finally, I manage to reel in enough line to glimpse the torpedo-like body and toothy maw of a northern pike. But not just any old northern pike. Oh, no. Sizewise, this one is in the same ballpark with those saltwater crocodiles that eat people in Africa. This is the kind of fish you don’t want to think about when you jump in a lake to go for a swim. No individual with a lively imagination would relish immersing his or her private parts in the same body of water with a creature like this.
Eventually, the object of my concern allows itself to be brought alongside. Gingerly, Jimmy grips it behind the gill covers and removes the Mepps from the corner of its mouth with his needle-nosed pliers. After I snap a picture, he releases his grip and we watch the leviathan descend slowly — nonchalantly, it seems — out of sight.
“Now let’s see if we can rustle up something a little smaller,” I say. “You know, like, something that will fit into a frying pan.” My voice sounds funny, as if I’ve just swallowed a few gulps of laughing gas.
A few more casts. The Guide clears his throat. I have a pretty good idea what’s coming. “I always enjoy watching somebody else catch a big fish more than I enjoy catching one myself,” he says.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “We’ll get you one tomorrow.”
“Seriously,” he says. “I get a much bigger kick out of watching.”
“We’ll get you one tomorrow.”
“No, I mean it. I’ve caught so many. That was great. Really enjoyed it.
It turns out fish will not be on the menu tonight. Empty-handed, we make a snag run. Back at Camp Waldorf, the usual drudgery, mitigated by vodka, gives rise to idle squabbling over who has caught the biggest fish over the years and who has had the most fun watching other people catch the biggest fish. The Chef’s mac and cheese is delicious. Better even, we agree, than fish, which, after all, we can have anytime.
Slept with my clothes on. Pants, long underwear, and two fleeces; two pairs of socks, wool hat. Still froze my buns off. Not a sound except for Jimmy’s snoring and farting. And a single wolf again, barely audible in the distance, which got me to thinking. A birder I knew used to say, “Any place that’s good enough for loons and eagles is good enough for me.” I feel the same way about wolves and wolf country.
Over the years, I’ve had many encounters with grizzlies, black bears, and moose but only two with wolves. Sandy was with me the first time. We were camped beside a braided creek in Alaska’s Brooks Range that summer afternoon when we thought we saw something peering over the top of a willow bush on the other side. Hello? Sure enough, a lanky black wolf with one ear flopped over its forehead was checking us out. It looked so goofy, teetering on its hind legs like a dog in a circus act, we laughed out loud. After a moment or two, its curiosity apparently satisfied, the entertainer dropped down and trotted off, waving its bushy tail as if it didn’t have a care in the world.
Got a different perspective when I was aloft in a ski plane with the bear biologist Lynn Rogers in the early 80s. We weren’t far from where Jimmy and I are now when the pilot alerted us to a classic Northwood’s tableau. Directly below, a pack of wolves, strung out in single file, was lunging through the deep snow on the trail of an enormous bull moose, which we could see but the wolves couldn’t. “He’s way too big for them!” Lynn shouted. “They won’t dare mess with him.” He was right. When we flew back a few hours later, the moose hadn’t budged and the wolves were nowhere to be seen.
Pancakes for breakfast. Bacon! Maple syrup!
This will be another fishing day, good weather or bad, and there’s no telling which. One minute, showers pepper the tarp; next, shafts of sunlight and patches of blue. The wind’s blowing every which way and by the time we get out on the water, the clouds are putting on a show; yesterday’s dainty sailboats have turned into stately clipper ships.
Alert Northwood’s Guide is the first to comment on the foliage. “All it takes is one cold night,” he says in the clipped monotone he employs when issuing a statement of indisputable fact. He is referring to the touches of yellow we see on the birches and poplars, and vivid splotches of red on the maples. Along the shoreline, the blueberry and dogwood bushes are turning scarlet, which makes the dead cedars, leaning over the water like bleached fish skeletons, appear even whiter.
“That’s a misconception,” I say. “Temperature has nothing to do with leaf color.”
“Temperature has everything to do with it,” he says.
His bristly look has given way to a neglectful shagginess. His complexion is weathered, and perhaps unwashed. He insists on tugging the visor of his cap down over his forehead in a manner that does not make him appear more intelligent, especially when, as now, he is squinting in the glare of the sunlight reflecting off the water.
“No, it’s all about photosynthesis,” I say. “Days get shorter, less sunlight. You can look it up.”
“Don’t have to look it up. Some stuff is just common knowledge.”
“A lot of common knowledge is nonsense.”
We troll up to the bottleneck. Then, a little jigging in Big Fish Bay, the scene of yesterday’s excitement, where Jimmy brings up a bass. Can’t keep it on a stringer all day so back it goes. Thereafter, more trolling in the fjord-like body of water on the other side of the bottleneck. It’s about a mile long, maybe an eighth of a mile wide, and more than 200 feet deep. Anyplace else it would be considered extraordinary. Stunning! A jewel! Glorious! Here it’s just business as usual.
Nothing doing. Except for a lone eagle that keeps circling in the same place, as if suspended on a wire.
My back’s killing me so we take a break and check out a nearby portage trail. It follows a brook that leads to a pond in a cattail marsh, where we hear otters snuffling and snorting before we see them. A pair with two or three young. Hard to tell how many. They’re in constant motion, somersaulting, diving, playing tag. Eventually we end up at a lake that, like all the lakes up here, invites exploration. Maybe tomorrow.
On the return hike, we acknowledge a happy circumstance. Since we started out, the mosquitoes, black flies, and no-see-ums that can make life miserable here have been conspicuous by their absence. Whether that’s due to the drought or cold nights or both, this is no small blessing. When the black flies and no-see-ums are at their worst, a week spent in the Quetico feels like a season in hell.
Paddling back to the Waldorf for a lunch break, we battle a stiff north wind. Grey skies again, no blue. “Looks like an occluded front,” Jimmy says as we haul up the canoe.
“What’s an occluded front?”
“It’s a depression,” he says.
“I thought a depression is when people are out of work. Or in a funk.”
“I’m talking about the weather, Dude. It’s, like, some kind of upper atmosphere disturbance. Low pressure, clouds, rain.”
We find the plastic box labeled “Lunch.”
“So, are you predicting rain?”
“I’m saying rain is a definite likelihood,” he replies.
“So . . . Is it going to warm up or get colder or what?”
He’s working on a mouthful of peanuts. “Well, don’t hold me to this,” he says. “This morning I was sure we were in for a cold spell, but now because of the occluded front I’m thinking it could go either way. Let’s just say it’s extremely unstable.” Of such scintillating conversations are canoe trips made.
We decide on a plan. I’m going to stay here and write up some notes. He’s going to do some more fishing. When he gets back, we will figure out what to do next. That’s the plan. He puts a big rock in the front of the canoe for ballast. I’m about to shove him off when the inevitable finally happens: I get my ass handed to me. I fail to notice the scum on the rock shelf at the water’s edge. Both feet go out from under and I land hard on my tailbone.
When you injure yourself due to carelessness or stupidity, the embarrassment is worse than the pain. But the pain lasts longer. Back at headquarters, I find it’s impossible to bend over, stand up, sit down, or breathe. Otherwise I am okay. I can, with difficulty, lower myself to the ground, rest my weight on one buttock or the other and lean back against a tree. By this time, the pain has subsided to 9.8 on a 10-point scale. Groaning does not help.
The goofy chipmunk that’s been panhandling ever since we got here shows up to offer sympathy. Actually, it’s after some lemon drops in my pocket and when it starts to crawl in I brush it away. Late afternoon. Golden light glinting off the bay. Pine smells. Wind sounds.
Jimmy returns with photos of two impressive fish, a lake trout and a northern pike, both of which he decided were too big to keep. “That’s great,” I say. “I was hoping you’d join the club today. Congratulations.”
He wants to go back out while they’re still hitting. “I know where we can pick up a couple of bass for supper,” he says. “I guarantee it.”
I request an injury exemption but he insists. I use a life jacket as a cushion, which alleviates my discomfort not at all. He does catch two bass, but they are small and so back they go. Instead of fish we settle for hummus on pita bread — and taboulli! The Chef’s versatility is a never-ending source of amazement. By 8:00 p.m. it’s dark, the chores are done, and I’m in my tent. The pain index is down to 9.7.
Rained all night. Cozy. Stayed warm for a change but the tailbone kept me awake. Very unsettled morning. Dark, drizzly, wind from all directions. Huddling under the tarp with our coffee, the Weatherman and I exchange meteorological observations.
“Some kind of conversion going on up there,” he says. “Don’t like all those black clouds.”
“Looks like a Stradivarius thermal to me,” I say.
“What with all this East wind and such,” he says, “the fishing should definitely be better during the crepuscular hours.”
He abruptly starts up the necessary path. “Got to take care of business,” he says.
“Crepuscular?” No answer.
Donned rain gear before shoving off but by the time we get up to the fjord the storms have passed and the clouds are piling up. Huge gobs of whipped cream. Very cinematic. Too bad Jimmy can’t get out his trumpet and produce a suitable fanfare. Strauss? Wagner? We troll uneventfully. That eagle is still hanging around. We find out why when we’re startled by a loud ripping noise and look up in time to see the big raptor slam into the water and emerge, flapping, with a fish in its talons. The sound we heard must have been wing feathers vibrating when the brakes were applied at the end of that dive.
“Guess he knows something we don’t,” I say.
“She probably knows a lot we don’t,” the Guide replies sagely.
Watching him or her lumber off with its catch, I’m reminded of the week I spent years ago in Upper Michigan with a pair of eagle-counters I was profiling for Sports Illustrated. Jack Holt was the climber. While he examined and banded the chicks he found in treetop nests, Sergei Postapulsky, a portly, fifty-ish, perpetual graduate student with a thick moustache and even thicker accent, stayed below recording data. One morning, a youngster bailed from a nest Holt was disturbing and fluttered unharmed to the ground. It was as big as a turkey. Postapulsky gathered it up and held out one of its preposterously large feet for me to examine. It resembled a hand. Three toes in front and one in back, each displaying a long, sharp talon. The lemon yellow “palm” looked invitingly soft and puffy. “Don’t!” Postapulsky exclaimed, reading my mind. “Touch dat and dose talons vill puncture your finger before you can blink!”
More trolling. Back spasms. Stiff legs. Sore everything. Then, wham! Another dead weight on my line. By the time Jimmy gets his jig reeled in, the wind has muscled us close to shore, where there’s a lot of tumult going on, waves crashing on rocks, backwash and whatnot. He paddles furiously to get us out of there.
The creature I’ve got on makes run after run. I don’t want to exhaust it but with all that line out it takes forever to bring it up. When it does surface, the size of its hooked beak tells us we’re dealing with another trophy. Not as impressive as the Brobdingnagian freak I caught the other day, maybe, but definitely worth a grip-and-grin photo.
When I get it alongside and grab the line, the trout does something I’ve never seen before. It twirls like a watch on a chain, wrapping the leader around its snout once, twice. Then suddenly it’s gone. I look at Jimmy. “What the hell?”
“Teeth cut the line,” he says, shaking his head. “The leader was too short. You’re supposed to use a longer leader for trout. I thought I had some in my tackle box but after we got here I realized I forgot.” Lake trout, he explains, have a thing about twirling like that. A long leader lessens the likelihood they’ll be able to roll up to the line and cut it.
I feel bad. Would have thrown the fish back anyhow, but with its mouth wired shut like that it’ll have a tough time surviving. Jimmy looks upset.
“Not your fault,” I say. “You had to remember everything.”
We try jigging in shallow water but the wind won’t cooperate. Ashore, Jimmy finds a rock to use as an anchor. He ties it on the end of the canoe rope and we drop it in the mouth of Big Fish Bay. Now we can put the paddles down and concentrate on fishing. “I guarantee you supper,” he says. “Fifty bucks if I’m wrong.”
Half an hour goes by. I’m feeling richer by the minute. I’m also feeling serious pain. “Jimmy,” I say, “it’s time to pay up.”
“Okay, one last cast,” he says.
He puts a black plastic worm on the jig and whips it out. Bang! A big bass. Another cast. Bang! Another big bass.
On a nearby rock shelf, in the wind and rain, The Bass Master cleans and deftly fillets his catch, using a Swedish knife that looks identical to the one he borrowed from me fifteen or twenty years ago. “Better here than at our place,” he says, meaning the pile of fish heads and guts. Meaning bears.
Returning to camp, we see a smoky haze in the treetops. Smell it, too. In spite of all the moisture, the forest fire is still going strong. No sound of copters. Maybe the rangers decided to let it burn itself out.
Back at Fort Self-Reliance, Jimmy dusts the fillets with flour and slices onions while I attend to libations, kvetch about my aching posterior, and feed the fire. Notwithstanding constant wind and drizzle, the intrepid Chef goes about his business. In no time, it seems, pausing only to acknowledge his screwdrivers, he produces yet another remarkable feast: mashed potatoes, pasta salad, fried onions, and crispy brown nuggets of bass pan-fried to perfection in a sizzling admixture of bacon fat and oil. Reclining on the damp ground in our rain gear with our backs against a log, we make quick work of it.
“I was wrong the other night,” I say. “This is the best meal I’ve ever had. Tres magnifique!”
“Gracias si vous plait!” he replies.
I tote water and do dishes. He packs everything away. I’m beginning to be ready to be done. The constant inconvenience . . . such a hassle! Always packing, unpacking, re-packing, organizing, re-organizing, looking for something; coping with annoyances like knots, buckles, and backlashes; using fingers that don’t work because they’re cold, nicked up, numb, or stiff. Even the simple act of taking a leak is complicated by the need to fumble through four layers of garments — rain pants, jeans, long underwear, boxers.
I knew this would happen. It always does. It’s like the punch line of that old poker joke: Just wait for rigor mortis to set in. As fun as it is to get away from it all, sooner or later I begin to look forward to getting back to it all.
Does my partner feel the same way? Not a chance. He’s a glutton for punishment, like the pair of bearded, burly thirty-somethings Sandy and I encountered near Atikokan one morning years ago. We were starting out. They were finishing up. Each man was carrying a canoe and a bulging Hudson’s Bay pack. They were running up the long, steep hill from the dock, laughing and whooping as they chugged past us. Their smiling wives, each lugging a pack and a pair of paddles, told us it was a tradition. “They always race to the parking lot at the end of a trip,” one of them said. “Loser buys breakfast!” said the other.
Postprandial fire-gazing. We talk of many things, of canoes and booze and bear attacks, of cabbages and kings. . . Music, actually. Jimmy’s upcoming gigs, and how he feels about relinquishing the baton with the university jazz band after leading it for so many years. Missing Sandy. How Mac and Robbie are doing in school. How Catherine feels about her students this year. What Jimmy hears from his sisters. What we hear from his sisters. We reminisce about grandparents and great-grandparents, none of whom would be caught dead doing what we’re doing. We muse about what a piece of cake this is compared to the rigors the GIs in Afghanistan have to endure for months on end, and how wimpy we’d look to the brigades of French-Canadian fur traders who, for all we know, camped on this same point centuries ago. I grumble about carrying forty or fifty pounds. Those doughty little pipe-smokers thought nothing of shouldering two or three ninety-pound bundles of fur for miles, followed by several compatriots lugging a 300-pound birchbark canoe. What’s more, they loved it! Used to sing songs about how much fun it was!!
It’s raining and blowing again.
“I saw a few snowflakes this morning,” I say.
“Yeah, me too,” he says.
“If starts snowing for real, we’ll be in deep shit. Imagine slipping and sliding around here in a blizzard. Frostbite. Hypothermia. What a mess. Huge disaster.”
“No, we’d be all right,” he says, yawning. “Put on some more clothes. Keep a fire going. Not a problem. Good night.”
Another lousy morning. One cloudburst after another. To counter the gloom, the Weatherman offers assurances before we head out that the skies will be clear by 2:00 p.m. “I guarantee it.”
Shoving off, I nearly capsize the canoe. My stiff legs are so unresponsive to instructions from my brain that I lurch onto my seat like a sackful of potatoes. The Guide holds his tongue.
The way things look, we don’t expect much action and we don’t get any. Then mid-morning the wind changes and so does our luck. Casting in a weedy bay we haven’t tried before, I drop a Mepps next to a stump, a northern strikes, I lose it. Very next cast, next to some lily pads, a bass strikes, I lose it. Two more casts, bang! A big northern. This one I get alongside. Jimmy unhooks and releases.
“This is the way Canadian fishing is supposed to be,” I say. Whereupon he brings up a nice bass and puts it on the stringer.
More clouds barrel in, greenish pallor, black-bottomed, low, moving fast. Here we go again.
I ask: “You want to change your forecast?”
He says: “Nope.”
“Still clearing by 2:00?”
“I won’t hold you to it,” I tease. “Even though you guaranteed it.”
“I’m good. No problem.”
It starts raining cats and dogs and a multitude of other creatures. The fish stop hitting. We go out deeper and see a speck coming toward us through the murk. It turns into a canoe. The paddlers are maintaining a brisk rhythm, smooth and steady. Guy in back gives a quick salute. Must be going to that lake we checked out the other day. Maybe Monument’s open now.
While I watch the receding canoe morph back into a speck, Jimmy’s busy catching a nice lake trout, which goes on the stringer with the nice bass. It would be nice, I am thinking, to get a nice walleye or two, as well.
Lunch on the point that forms the bottleneck. Heck of a campsite. Not as sheltered or unobtrusive as ours, but plenty okay. Cheese, dried fruit, candy bars.
Now it’s cold — too cold for bare hands. Jimmy breaks out two pairs of cotton gloves and two pairs of thin plastic “over gloves” that keep the cotton gloves dry. Perfect for fishing, but the fishing is far from perfect. We get skunked.
Back in camp a little after 2:00 p.m. The sun is out. “See,” Jimmy says. “What’d I tell you?”
“In this kind of weather,” I say, “you could predict almost anything and be right.”
“You couldn’t predict almost anything for exactly 2:00 and be right.”
The Guide decides, for convenience’s sake, to clean the fish here. He digs out some newspapers he brought along just in case and spreads the Entertainment section of The New York Times across the log table. Then he lays the trout and the bass on top of Lil Wayne and initiates surgery, which reveals that this trout, like the others we’ve cleaned, has been feeding on crayfish; its stomach and intestines are full of partially digested carcasses with little claws. Which leads me to wonder if, like lobsters, these much smaller crustaceans migrate to deep water for the winter.
Next, a garbage run. We dump the contents of the Entertainment section on a point across the bay where ravens and other scavengers can get at them, then collect a canoe-full of deadwood on the way back. We’ll use the bloody Timesto help start the fire tonight. Nothing goes to waste out here, certainly not all the news that’s fit to print.
While he’s offloading the wood, I prepare a little nature quiz for him. It consists of five specimens I line up on a rock: a pinch of moss; a leaf from a red dogwood bush; and sprigs of black spruce, balsam fir, and white cedar. When he sees this, he gives me a look.
“It’s a test,” I say. “Let’s see how many can you identify.”
He gets the moss, the spruce, the fir, and the cedar. He insists the red dogwood is an alder.
“Four out of five, not bad,” I say. “I’m impressed.”
Tomorrow is a travel day, with only a sandwich at the end. That means this evening’s repast will be the Last Supper. And a fine one it is, too: baked fish, redolent with stovetop dressing; Thai rice, with garlic and red peppers; and mashed potatoes. Jimmy’s toast on this penultimate night is deeply felt: “To the fish!” “To the fish!” I respond, “and to the Chef!”
Afterwards, cleanup and check down. By now, the food pack is so light I can haul it up myself. Scheduled entertainment: more fire gazing, punctuated by the Guide’s customary belching and farting. It’s the Quetico version of the beans scene in Blazing Saddles. But Blazing Saddles is a Western. This is a Northern. We need a new title. Blazing Paddles?
Funny how things work out. The two of us have had more to say to each other during the past week than has been the case in lo these many years. Family get-togethers are great but typically they boil down to, “Hi kids, how’s it goin’, what’s new, grab another beer, hey the game’s starting, here’s your hamburger, pass the catsup.” Too many people and not enough time to find out how things are really goin’.
This is different. We poke at the coals, gape at the sparks dancing in the updraft and free-associate out loud. Tonight Jimmy divulges stuff I’ve only wondered about. Surprised to find out he and Catherine are better off financially than Sandy and I were at their age. That’s because they don’t junk up their lives with a lot of crap they don’t need. Jimmy’s carpentry business is coming along. He’s thinking year-to-year now, not month-to-month. As for the political nonsense at the music school, he says he’s going to miss the jazz band but that’s what happens when you speak truth to power. He has no regrets. I tell him I’m proud of him.
Finally, a perfect high-pressure day — until it isn’t. We break camp and take off. Twinges of regret paddling out of the fjord. Some last looks around. I snap a few mental pictures.
We’re bound for Monument. Jimmy figures we can exit that way even if newcomers still aren’t being allowed in.
Shore lunch on the Minnesota side, below the hill where a homesteader named Ben Ambrose resided for more than sixty years. Quite a story. When Uncle Sam tightened up restrictions on the Boundary Waters in the 1970s, Ambrose and one other longtime wilderness resident, Dorothy Molter, aka “the root beer lady,” received special permission to continue occupying federal land. Molter acquired her nickname by selling root beer to dozens of canoe parties each summer. Ambrose was not the soda-pop type. He lived reclusively in a tiny cabin, gardened, fished, trapped, cut prodigious amounts of firewood. Grand Marais, the nearest town, was fifty miles away; he visited infrequently. One winter, he left his six-year-old daughter in the care of a teenaged babysitter and disappeared. Didn’t show up again until spring. Strange guy.
Jimmy has seen the homestead site so he elects to go fishing while I climb the hill. Ambrose’s cabin is long gone but its footprint remains. So does a brick terrace, some fancy stonework and steps, and a landscaped hole for, of all things, a flag pole. From the top of the hill, I can make out my partner in our canoe. The view to the tall bluffs across the water is breathtaking. Easy to see why Ambrose stuck it out here well into his 80s. Location, location, location.
When I get back, the Guide is still absent. To kill time, I wander down a trail that winds behind Ambrose’s hill through the woods to, guess what, another lake. Muddy shoreline. I skip a few stones and try to imagine what it must have been like to live here. Only gradually do I become aware of a large, dark presence about thirty yards away. Yep, a moose. She’s looking right at me and probably wondering how I can be so oblivious. My first thought: I hope I’m not standing between her and her calf. I once saw a video that recorded in gruesome detail what a protective moose mother did to an unsuspecting pedestrian one snowy afternoon in Anchorage. I would prefer not to have that happen to me here.
The moose and I decide, simultaneously, to part company. As I head back up the trail, I can hear her thundering through the underbrush on a parallel course, grunting and bleating as she goes. I suppose she’s alerting her offspring and decide it might be a good idea for me to keep up a running commentary, whistle, and clap my hands as I walk, so everybody knows where everybody is. No surprises.
I tell Jimmy all about it when we reunite. We recall other moose incidents, including the time an enraged mother came after Sandy, Susy, and I when we were canoeing down a creek near Kawnippi, another big Quetico lake. Turned out we could paddle faster than Mama could swim but she got so close I could have reached back and tapped her on the nose.
People who come to the Boundary Waters expecting to see lots of wildlife are often disappointed. One creature they are apt to encounter is the one they’d rather not. Black bears seem to intuit that canoe campers are easy pickings and the more success they have, the more bothersome they become. Sandy and I have had to run off food-seeking bears on a number of occasions. Jimmy and a pal spent an entire night in their canoe after a bear ran them off and made short work of everything in their food pack, right down to the last M&M.
Unlike problem bears, moose — which have undergone an alarming population decline here in recent years — usually make themselves scarce when people are around. But then, wildlife in general is scarce in these parts. On a typical day back home, we’re unsurprised to see deer, turkeys, possums, and raccoons in our back yard. Sometimes a coyote shows up. The living in southwestern Wisconsin is easy. Hilly forestland interspersed with hay, corn, and soybean fields; ample water, few people. Further north, the living is not easy. The habitat is anything but food-rich and wildlife is correspondingly sparse.
When we get to Monument, we see no signs of recent use. Jimmy does the horse work again, hoisting the canoe and a pack while his gimpy client plods along behind with lighter stuff. The famous portage turns out to be not a big deal. At the other end, we find an official keep-out notice nailed on a post with a handwritten postscript, in red ink, exempting Quetico-bound parties. Who knows when that qualifier was added?
Lovely, river-like paddle en route to Saganaga, but a nasty wedge of black clouds is coming after us. Wind picks up. “Looks like we’re in for it!” I holler. “If we get caught in the middle of Sag when that baby hits, we’re toast! You know what they say about lightning and boats. Maybe we should pull over now and wait it out.”
Jimmy shrugs. “Nah, we’ll be okay,” he says. “We can take shelter if it gets bad. Not to worry.”
He’s right. The storm passes. No problem. Arrive mid-afternoonish at the same campsite we used the first night out, and find it just as we left it, the pile of firewood intact. Finish setting up before the rain starts and retire to our respective abodes, him to read, me to catch up on notes. I’m beat and he is, too. Break camp, two portages, a long paddle, make camp . . . a lot of work.
So. We’re almost done. Out my tent “window” I see grey sky and grey water separated by a thin black band of terra firma. Rain pattering. Jimmy clearing his throat. Otherwise, not a sound. Perfect silence. Cherish it, Dude.
I don’t go in much for reflection but every once in a while I do get caught up in the moment. Such as now. For Jimmy, this is just the end of another Quetico trip but for me it’s the end of the line. My paddling days are over. Hell, I’d only be fooling myself if I thought otherwise. If I tried again next year, chances are I’d end up busting something a lot worse than my tailbone. This is what people mean when they say growing old is all about letting go. Sooner or later, every superannuated voyageur has to call it quits and now it’s my turn. Sad? Yes and no. Growing old is about acceptance, too, and we Midwesterners are pretty good at that. Not surrendering, or giving up. Just having the grace to realize when it’s time to stop being a burden and get out of the way.
We all know there’s a last time for everything but so often in life we don’t recognize one as such until long after it has passed — the last conversation I had with Gram, the last time I took Mom out for a drive in the country, the last time I read “The Night Before Christmas” to the kids. This one I do recognize. I’ve pretty much understood all along this will likely be my farewell canoe trip and that has focused my mind. Been paying close attention. Haven’t missed much. My notebook’s full. Long after we’ve hauled out and strapped the canoe back on top of Jimmy’s van, I’ll continue to appreciate what we needed to do to get here. Not just the paddling, but everything else, too. This is a gift, one that in no small way helps ease the loss.
The camera’s rolling in fast reverse now. Break camp. Paddle to Hook Island. A final loon encounter en route. Unload. The boat guy shows up at 10:30 a.m. sharp. Back in Jimmy’s van and on the road before noon. Never has a seat cushion felt so good.
The further we drive on the Gunflint, the better the weather. By the time we get to Grand Marais, it’s gorgeous. Tidy little tourist town’s bustling with weekend leaf-peepers, many of them breakfasting at the Bluewater Café, where we find a table. Orange juice! Coffee! Eggs, sausage, and American fries! Prepared by someone else while we sit and wait! Brought to us by a nice lady we don’t even know! This is unbelievable!
It’s unremarkable in Grand Marais to see rough looking characters emerge from the woods but in this crowd, today, we seem to be, well, special. Our fellow diners consist entirely of hygienically correct individuals dressed like L.L. Bean models. While one woman obsesses over the messages on her cell phone, her bored partner, I notice, is giving us the fish eye. It occurs to me that the grizzled old panhandler I just glimpsed in the men’s-room mirror is not someone I would want to sit next to in a restaurant, either.
While Jimmy takes his turn, I observe two middle-aged couples at a nearby table bow their heads and hold hands. One of the men is quietly saying grace. Wholesome Minnesota folks. Overstuffed, bespectacled fellows with short-cropped grey hair, neat salt-and-pepper beards. Sweaters. The women are fit, demure, cute. Academics, perhaps.
Back in the car, we turn on the radio to catch up on the news. Here we go. Re-entering the world of Ipods and Apps, Twitters and Tweets, Facebook and Yelps, Blackberries and Apples. It’s a world Jimmy and I can’t always relate to but it’s also one that has treated both of us pretty well. Maybe that’s why I found the humble thanksgiving I witnessed at the café to be oddly moving. I’m an irreligious person but I, too, have much to be grateful for, not least of all the wilderness experience I just shared with my son.
“Well, Jimmy,” I say. “It was special.” What I meant was thank you but that’s how it came out.
“Yep, it was,” he replies, not taking his eyes off the road.
Lake Superior is a blur of blue on our left now. Hard to believe this is our ninth day. How could it have gone by so fucking fast? But then, how could seventy-five years have gone by so fucking fast? I’m reminded of the droll way Sandy’s Dad used to rush us out the door at the end of a visit. “Here’s your coat. Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry? Say goodbye.”
All right, then. For the last time: Goodbye, Quetico!
Homeward bound. Expectant families eagerly awaiting our return. They are chilling beer, grilling meats, warming my slippers. Or maybe not. One thing we do know: We can count on hot showers, soft beds, and flush toilets. I’m ready.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.