No, I was not interested in going there. After all, the only wilderness worth anything was mountains. (more on mountains soon) Who would wish to visit a land devoid of mountains and covered in dark northern forests and grey, gloomy lakes? Far better to head south west, to the Rocky Mountains. Then one day my view changed. I came across a book of sheer delight: “Canoe Country, Snowshoe Country” I just had to go there and so we did, several times.
“There” is the incredible land of lakes, rivers and forest in Northern Minnesota, lying along the Canadian border just west of Lake Superior. From here, even today, you can canoe through wilderness for thousands of miles all the way to the Arctic Ocean or Hudson Bay. I am talking specifically of the vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness which comprises a million acres of rivers, lakes and forests within the 3 million acre Superior National Forest. To the west lies Voyageurs National Park, and to the north, a physical extension of the BWCAW, lies the large Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, 60 miles by 40 miles. It is awe-inspiring to think that one can canoe from here across Canada to the Arctic Ocean
National Geographic, so I have been told, has stated that the Boundary Waters is one of only 50 places on earth that everyone should visit at least once. This is the most ancient of lands, part of the Canadian Shield; an intricate wilderness of lakes, rivers, waterfalls, ancient rocks and forests. It is a land of intense listening, intense silence and deepest stillness; a land magical beyond measure; a land of solitude: true wilderness. I now appreciate why Sigurd Olson called it the Singing Wilderness and had this to say about it:
The singing wilderness has to do with The calling of the loons, northern lights, and the great silences of a land lying north west of Lake Superior. It is concerned with the simple joys, the timelessness and perspective found in a way of life that is close to the past. I have heard the singing in many places, but I seem to hear it best in the wilderness lake country of the Quetico-Superior, where travel is still by pack and canoe over the ancient trails of the Indians and the Voyageurs
Portages between the lakes and around the falls and rapids have been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by the Native Americans, who have left us their pictographs and petroglyphs, and by the Voyageurs of the 19th century fur trade who travelled up here in their huge 40 foot long birch bark canoes paddling at the rate of 70 strokes a minute, all the way from Montreal in the distant east. It is a wild land even today, and if one is quiet one may still see much wildlife, including black bears, moose, mink, deer, beaver, otters, eagles and loons. The calls of the loons evoke the very spirit of these northern lakes: their calls are unbelievably wild, primeval and haunting. Once heard you will never forget them, and always they will remind you of the north.
On my first trip to the BWCAW, we drove the 4-5 hours from St Paul/Minneapolis to Ely, a little town on the edge of the Boundary Waters and picked up our entry permits. The next day we started that first journey of mine, down Mudro Lake, into Fourtown Lake and a succession of other lakes. (It was autumn, the best time of the year up there) and even though the first couple of days were overcast, I was completely won over by the beauty of the place. There is a stillness and a silence there that is deeper than anything I have experienced in the mountains. Magnificent reflections are painted on utterly still water. The land breathes silence, stillness, vastness, eternity, and unfathomable knowledge since the beginning of time. It is remote, and there is incredible isolation. It is a stern land, girt by impenetrable forest and rock-bound shores and is incredibly beautiful, the north woods backlit and shimmering in shades of green, and the blue waters, sometimes studded with islands, sparkling in the light. We have stopped at campsites for lunch and then, totally overwhelmed by the beauty in front of us, stayed the night as well. Even in the overcast there is great beauty. One can paddle for weeks here and scarcely see another soul.
Apart from the sheer beauty and the more settled weather of autumn, another good time is in the spring, after the weather has warmed up, but before the mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums of summer are out in enough strength to drive you mad. The advantage with the spring is the wealth of wild flowers you will see. The forests, or north woods as they are called, are incredibly rich and verdant. I came to love what I had once thought was “dark and gloomy”. There are the evergreens – the spruces, pines, cedars, and balsams; their scents, the sun shining on the needles, the sound of the breezes soughing through them and of course, the greens of the deciduous trees, with the sun shining through, are incredibly beautiful. The under story is comprised of shrubs and saplings, and on the ground there is a dense mat of plant life. You will find ferns, exquisite lichens and fungi, mosses, and wildflowers including False Lily of the Valley, Star Flower, Bunchberry (miniature dogwood) and Blue Bead Lilies. If you are lucky you will also see the beautiful pink Lady Slipper orchids.
We learned not to attempt to achieve goals. It is better to travel hopefully. We certainly had goals and routes, but we learned not to stick to plans and schedules. We allowed ourselves to be sidetracked, to be beguiled into staying several days in one place. This way we had time to discover what the wildlife was doing, and find the wildflowers. How else could we have discovered the evening trips of a pair of beavers and to have been able to watch them only ten feet from us as they came up out of the water to forage in the gloaming? How else would we have found the time to float on the sunset? We have drifted close to loons and had them play about us, repeatedly surfacing and then diving under the canoe, clearly visible in the clear water. On another occasion we charmed a chipmunk into taking crumbs from our hands. Travelling quietly, we often came around a corner or up to a portage to find a deer only feet away, watching us. On wonderful warm, spring days we have spent magical hours exploring bays and islands, the canoe whispering through water lilies, their yellow flowers reflected perfectly in the water, while underneath the water their stems, golden in the light, descended to what appeared to be golden leaves on the bottom. On other occasions we have paddled in the rain, the world a brilliant monochrome of sharp reality and even sharper reflections, the stillness palpable, the raindrops falling with a plop and creating darker imprints on the grey water. And on one magical, mellow autumn day we spent our time immersed in the scenery. The shores were a blaze of red and gold, the water was perfectly still, and the sky seemed to merge with the water so that we were not sure if we were upside down on the clouds or on the water. We drifted in between rocky islets containing one or two twisted, gnarled and stunted pines in surreal Japanese prints come to life and landed on an island for morning tea to absorb the golden scene, singing of eternity, in front of us.
Without the time to linger we would not have been able to sit and watch the light changing on the water through the day, become conscious of the breezes and the clouds, immerse ourselves in the most incredible reflections, smell the scent of dead pine needles rising from the sun-warmed ground and let the spirit of the place seep into our souls. Sigurd Olson, in his book “Open Horizons” writes “ The coming of day and night, the eternal watching of the skies, sunrises, sunsets, the tell-tale story of winds in the manoeuvring of clouds, the interwoven pattern of rain and mist, cycles of cold and warmth, even the changing vegetation, all these filtered into their consciousness as they did into mine. Once having lost our dependence on cosmic events, it was not always easy to regain it. Whilst I had sensed its influence long before, the actual comprehension of time being endless and relative with all life flowing into its stream, took more than blind acceptance or a few hours removal from civilization.”
Of course, storms up here can be severe with bad lightening and one is advised not to camp at the base of tall trees or over a network of tree roots. Easier said than done. Every campsite we ever used was amongst tall pines and over a network of roots. I well remember a long hard day of 7 hours paddling interspersed with 8 portages. Finally we arrived at Horse Lake where a gale was blowing, whipping up dangerous waves. A canoe is a wonderful craft, so light and fragile that it becomes part of the reflections and transports you into the environment in a way heavier craft cannot do, but in waves you realize that you are vulnerable. As we travelled down the lake, we found all the few campsites taken. We reached the end of the lake. It was getting dark, a wild storm was brewing and we were exhausted. The terrain and vegetation was such that there was nowhere to camp on the shore. We turned around and fought our way into the wind and waves to an island with a small clearing just big enough for our tent. No sooner had we crawled inside the tent than the storm broke with a fury. The next afternoon, when the storm had abated, we moved to a vacant campsite, but the experience of storm had been a good one. The sunset that evening, as so often happens after a storm, was incredible, with a fiery red sun sinking through the rifts in the clouds and reflecting a fiery path across a dark lake to our feet. The next morning we were awakened and summoned by the heavy crash of a beaver’s tail on the water close to our tent. We went outside to a magical pre dawn light. The lake was mirror smooth, with the most astounding reflections while lake and sky were bathed in a sheet of colour ranging from mauve to pink. To cap it all, mists, catching the colours, were rising and falling, hiding and disclosing islands. The morning was unreal, ethereal and magical.
We, and the world, held our breath.
Is our development-crazed world going to end up ruining what is left of the very wild places which sustain our fragile earth, the very wildness which allows the earth and all on it to live and breathe?