Having waxed eloquent on my last two posts about this Boundary Waters canoe trip, I think it’s time to delve more into the raw details of the trip. For those of you interested in routes, logistics and statistics, this post is right up your alley.
This was a four-day trip, starting with an overnight stay in a bunkhouse at Tuscarora Lodge. After a hearty breakfast there, we took advantage of their tow to American Point on Saganaga Lake. It gave us a good head start on a huge lake, and allowed us to venture further afield. The route took us in a circle that followed the Canadian border, then dipped south to travel through smaller lakes and head back east again to finish on Round Lake at the lodge.
This was our longest day of paddling and fewest portages. We were fortunate to have calm waters, which made for rapid progress and easy navigation through big lakes. We were on the popular border route, with Canadian shores on our right, and US soil on the left. Other canoes were common, but it was far from crowded, and there was no danger of coming up short when it came to finding an available campsite. Much of the area we traveled through was “burn zone” from earlier forest fires. Regrowth was evident and healthy, but the tall barren trunks of charred trees still towered over the new greenery. While not exactly attractive, particularly in contrast with untouched forest, it was a measure of reality and the natural forces of nature. It was fascinating to see the stark boundaries of the burn zone, leaving the mystery of why some areas burned and adjacent trees did not.
We camped on Knife Lake and set up camp just in time to see and hear thunderstorms rolling in all around us. We watched the skies, waiting and wondering if it was going to come our way. To our North, the sky turned yellow below the clouds. A dark form developed and rose into the sky, looking unmistakably like smoke. Our suspicions were confirmed at the conclusion of our trip when we learned that the storms had ignited forest fires on the Canadian side. Rain did come our way, but later gave way to a clear and calm evening with a deep red sunset. Our final reward of the day was a green display of Northern Lights that mimicked the shape of the island opposite us, moving and undulating along that wavy line.
We awoke to a strong wind, which remained with us throughout our paddling this day. We were mostly on smaller lakes, however, which helped reduce the impact of the wind. The exception was Kekekabic Lake, which challenged us with stiff resistance and big waves. We had more portages, but they were still fairly short. It was gradual training for what was to come in later days. We had hoped to canoe out of the burn zone, but it persisted on at least some shores all day. In selecting our campsite on Fraser Lake, we made sure that it was not within our view. We had left the border route, but we were still within close enough range that canoes were still a fairly common sight.
This was our shortest day of canoeing, both in distance and time. We reached our campsite by 12:30, leaving us a lazy afternoon in which to hunker down alongside the lake with a good book. All intentions to go for a swim waned as the day cooled off. So instead, we roused ourselves for a short paddle across the lake to have our dinner and watch the sunset from a large rock outcropping high above the lake. We did find one advantage to being in the proximity of the burn zone – firewood was plentiful and dry. Our campfires ignited instantly and never lacked for fuel.
The morning was clear, chilly and calm with mist rising off the lake and the sun’s golden glow on the opposite shore. It was beautiful to be out on the water in the early morning hours. Today’s route included numerous small lakes linked by frequent portages, and growing in length. By this time, we’d left all other canoeists behind and enjoyed the solitude of tree-ringed lakes, alternating pine and deciduous forests. Portages bore the mark of infrequent use, overgrown with bushes and branches that challenged the height of the overturned canoe as it navigated the path. Fall began to manifest itself, with golden leaves carpeting the surface of one trail. To us, the added impediments were worth it for the isolation.
Our lesser traveled route also presented other challenges. What appeared to be the long arm of a lake on the map felt more like a marshland. But it was navigable. What looked like it should be a clear blue lake was shallow and filled with lily pads. We canoed over them. What should have been a portage wasn’t. It was a swamp. So we canoed through it, dodging dead trees. We ultimately found a path to the next lake, but not where it was marked on the map.
We finished up on Little Saganaga Lake. It was a beautiful lake filled with enough islands to make it especially attractive but confusing to navigate. Paddling around islands and peninsulas we located a beautiful campsite that afforded us expansive views. At sunset, we had colorful displays in multiple directions. We were also serenaded by a lone wolf, who howled continuously and was answered only by the loons on the lake. He repeated his performance in the middle of the night.
Our final day provided a wide range of weather. While the morning was calm and misty, the wind came up by the time we launched our canoe, and clouds filled the sky. We pushed our way across the open waters of Little Saganaga, and moved on into smaller lakes. We traveled along Carl’s favorite portage, from Little Saganaga to Mora Lake. Covered in pines and following alongside a briskly flowing river that tumbled over rocks, it was definitely the most scenic of our trip. The further we went that day, the more we re-encountered burn zone and reached more populated lakes. It wasn’t the kind of day that encourage lingering, so we paddled on in quiet appreciation of our surroundings.
Reaching Tuscarora Lake, we hit a double-whammy. The rain began in earnest, and the wind whipped across the wide expanse of water. Fortunately the shower was short in duration, although it provided a good drenching – the first of our trip, so we couldn’t complain. By hiding behind islands, we avoided as much wind as possible. And our reward? The Tuscarora portage. The Big One. Approximately 428 rods in length with uphill to start and mud in the middle. Its length defines its difficulty. But it’s also a badge of honor to complete. We encountered a veritable traffic jam at its start, with a solo canoeist following in our footsteps (he was glad to talk to us after 10 days on his own), and four heavily laden guys completing the portage from the other direction. We were back in civilized territory.
We conquered the portage, which left us just two lakes and a lesser portage to our final destination. It was bittersweet to paddle that section – a feeling of completion and satisfaction over the success of our trip mixed with the sad reality that it was coming to an end. We had a shower, dry clothes and a good meal to look forward to. But we both would have traded it all for another four days of canoeing in our grubby gear.