Dip Dip and Swing

Our paddles keen and bright,
Flashing like silver;
Swift as the wild goose flight,
Dip, dip, and swing.

That old Girl Scout song infiltrates my brain, repeats over and over again, accompanying the strokes that propel our canoe.  I’ve been yearning for this.  There is no escape quite like launching a canoe and becoming one with the water.  Losing myself in the pristine wilderness, the tree-ringed lakes, and the silence broken only by loon calls and the swish of our paddles.

Molly Rich canoe Sawbill Lake

I’ve been lobbying for a trip to the Boundary Waters.  To camp and sit by the fire.  To look beyond at the brilliant stars.  To hope for an Aurora. To crawl out of the tent in the morning and drink my coffee while looking out at the calm water.  To set out and paddle the whole day long.  But it wasn’t in the cards.

While in Grand Marais with our son Erik and his wife, Katie, we went up the Sawbill Trail and rented two canoes for the day.  Rich and I paddled one, they shared one with their dog, Finley who rode complacently in the duffer spot.

Erik Katie paddling Sawbill Lake

It all came flooding back.  That Boundary Waters feeling, the seclusion, the lack of technology and urgency which pervades our lives.  Just us and the water.  Dip dip and swing.

We traveled the length of Sawbill Lake, surfing the rollers stirred up by a strong south wind.  All the while knowing we would have to paddle back again into that same wind.  But we forged onward regardless.  An 80 rod portage took us into Ada Creek where we found quiet backwaters to have a floating lunch.  Finley wondered why we didn’t portage more often so he could run.  It was all good.Erik Rich portaging canoes

Yes, it was a brutal return battling into the wind.  But it did the trick.  I didn’t think about COVID all day.  I didn’t worry about wearing a mask, washing my hands for 20 seconds or who was in my circle.  All I had to do was paddle.  Dip, dip and swing.

This morning Rich and I launched a canoe once again.  We are staying in a secluded lake home at Gunflint Pines Resort, which comes complete with private lakefront, a canoe, and our own fire ring on the shore.  Gunflint Lake is not quite in the Boundary Waters, but close enough.  The fog was just lifting from our end of the lake when we pushed off.

Our dock at Gunflint Pines

It was calm as we crossed the large lake in the early morning.  Our destination was Magnetic Lake, but we accidentally sidetracked into a quiet inlet instead.  I didn’t  care.  Nascent fall colors accented the forest reflected in the calm waters.  We pondered the international border that ran along our route, the US to our left, Canada on our right.  The rest of the world didn’t exist.  Dip, dip and swing.

Canoeing Gunflint LakeMolly canoeing Gunflint Lake

We couldn’t help but be attracted to the ornate golden estate that populated the opposite shore on Magnetic Lake.  It turned out to be on the island we were encouraged to encircle, and I insisted we do so.  I was intrigued with the intricate carvings on the perfectly maintained structures and flower boxes with red blooms.

Magnetic Lake

The wind came up and challenged us on our return.  It wouldn’t be a canoe trip without requiring a bit of extra effort.  The far shoreline advanced ever so slowly as we beat our way into the waves, back across the endless expanse of water.  We poured all we had into the task.  It’s all that mattered.  Just as I wanted.  Dip, dip and swing.

What are the odds?

It was a month ago that we decided to do a cycling trip in Wisconsin. Having just returned from St. Louis in early May, the thought of repeating that long drive again in June for a family wedding was, well, not the most appealing. The solution? Stop and bicycle, of course!

Molly looking out over the Wisconsin River

Rich picked the route, and since he does 99% of the planning for these adventures and is very good at it, I tend to trust his work and show up when the time comes. In my defense, I did ask him where we were going, but I got only a vague answer. I probably asked when he was preoccupied with editing his bird photos. I should know better. By the time we left, I knew we were going to cycle along the Wisconsin River.

Meanwhile, our two sons decided to meet up for a weekend of canoeing. Since Erik lives in Minneapolis and Carl is in Milwaukee, they chose somewhere in Wisconsin halfway between them. They were about as communicative about their plans as Rich was. In fact, I first heard about their trip from our daughter.

It was only after completing our cycling trip that I thought to ask the boys where they were going. “Oh, somewhere on the Wisconsin River,” Erik replied. When I pried the details out of them, I had to laugh. They are about to cover a good share of the same stretch of river we just did!

The boys' entry and exit points circled in green

As Erik put it, the Wisconsin River must have been calling to the Hoegs this week. What are the odds of that happening?


Then and Now

The picture caught my eye right away.  Dad’s old photo album had a photo that he labeled “New Road to the Porcupine Mountains” dated 1936.  We traveled that same road this summer on our cycling trip.  What was just being built in Dad’s day is a mature road in mine.

Soon my eyes were scanning other photos as I worked my way through the albums, looking for familiar sights.  It didn’t take long.  Dad went to college in Houghton, so I easily found another common location on the Keweenah Peninsula, the Eagle Harbor lighthouse.  He took his picture from the water, I took mine from land.

We both visited Copper Harbor, although Dad must have gone up Brockway Mountain Drive to get to the overlook for a broad sweeping view.  Since we were on bicycles, we declined the additional climb.  But I think it would have been worth it.

Another album brought a trip to the Canadian Rockies.  We too traveled there this summer.  Who can resist Lake Louise and the pretty hike along the lake to look back at the big chateau?  Apparently neither my dad nor I could.

We had more than travels in common.  Dad loved to ski, and I discovered that he skied the trails as well as the slopes as a young man.  I too took to the trails in the UP last winter.


Dad and Mom enjoyed canoeing.  I don’t think they ever went to the Boundary Waters, like I did with my son Carl.  I think they preferred more sedate day trips.  And fashion wear.

Some things are timeless.  It feels good to know that Dad and I chose the same places to visit.  We chose the same outdoor activities.  And we took the same pictures.  Lasting memories, then and now.

Canoe Route – By the Stats

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.

48.5 Total Miles
28 Portages
2,201 Rods of Portaging (6.88 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +313 ft

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.

Day 1:
18.1 Total Miles
4 Portages
95 Rods of Portaging (0.28 Miles)
Net Elevation Change -49 ft
Major lakes – Saganaga, Ottertrack, and Knife

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.

Day 2:
7.6 Total Miles
9 Portages
393 Rods of Portaging (1.23 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +148 ft
Major lakes – Knife, Kekekabic, and Fraser

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.

Day 3:
10.9 Total Miles
11 Portages
925 Rods of Portaging (2.89 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +64 ft
Major lakes – Fraser, Sagus, Makwa, Elton, and Little Saganaga

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.

Day 4:
11.9 Total Miles
7 Portages
793 Rods of Portaging (2.48 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +150 ft
Major lakes – Little Saganaga, Mora, Crooked, Tuscarora, and Round

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.

Making Memories in the BWCA

This canoe trip was a gift from the three men in my life.  My husband, Rich, graciously supported me in venturing off with our son for four days in the BWCA – a place he also adores and would much rather have been than staying home and putting in long, grueling days on a big project approaching its go-live at work.  I’m not sure I could have buried my envy as well as he did.  Our youngest son, Erik, generously offered up his new hiking equipment, the latest in backpacking technology.  I clearly benefited from his warm yet compact down sleeping bag and sleep mat, and we relished the way his lightweight tent practically assembled itself each night.  And finally, our oldest son Carl, who shared four days with me in his favorite wilderness and made the whole trip possible.

Despite the fact that I am passionate about exercise and religiously run, cycle, swim or ski significant distances nearly every day, my fitness level does not necessarily translate to physical strength.  And size has to figure into this as well – at 5’1″ I was no match for Carl’s over 6′ frame.  So when it came time to divide up our carefully selected gear, Carl stacked the deck by strategically placing all the heavier equipment and food in his large “Duluth Pack,” leaving me the clothing and lighter weight fill for my backpack.  Add to that the fact that he portaged the canoe as well, he really carried a load – nearly 100 lb. he figures, which probably compares to about 25 lb. for me.  It amazed me how he could swing that canoe overhead in a single motion to rest on his shoulders which already bore the weight of his pack.  Ah, youth!  Down the portage trail he would hike, at a rigorous pace which left me following at a much slower and deliberate speed.

Balance has never been a strong point for me, and at first the added weight distribution of the backpack left me teetering over rocks and clumsily choosing my footing among the frequent roots crossing the trail.  But Carl showed infinite patience, waiting for me at the next lake with a cheery greeting for my efforts.  But it didn’t end there.  He loaded and unloaded my pack from the canoe at each juncture, and held it out for me to slip into, just like he was helping me into a mink coat.  And he always positioned the canoe so I had the best vantage point for getting in and out without slipping.  While I longed for the days when that was not necessary, I chose to relish being pampered and so well looked after.

We canoed long miles and tackled numerous portages, one as long as 425 rods.  I was amazed to learn after the fact that we paddled 18 miles on our first day out!  It helped that we had calm waters and traveled through large lakes with few portages to interrupt our progress.  Another day was the opposite – it felt like hiking with a bit of canoeing to tie the bits of land together.  But we were both eager to go the distance.  To explore.  To see new lakes and forests.  To just be in the Boundary Waters.  Energy and endurance were never an issue.  We always had capacity to do more.  Even if I knew Carl’s paddling strokes were doing more to carry us forward than mine, I was still eager to do my part and earn my keep in the canoe.

Camp time was equally important as that spent on the water.  Carl displayed his prowess in building fires, creative cooking over the camp stove, and carving out time to relax and read in beautiful surroundings with views of the water.  Mornings, while I packed our gear in the tent, Carl would start a fire and announce “Hot water is ready for coffee.”  What great service!  One afternoon he proposed a “remote dinner” which took us across the lake to an enormous rock rising out of the lake.  We scaled up the back to perch on the edge towering over the water – a glorious site for our dinner and nightly sunset.

And speaking of sunsets, they were both prolific and memorable.  Each night was different.  Each night was special.  And we never grew tired of watching the sun paint colors in the sky that reflected in the pure waters below.  The brilliance of the sun was matched only by the campfires that followed.  We spent hours staring into the coals, watching them glow, flicker and spark.  I think evenings were our favorite part of the day.

When I thought about it, Carl probably carried as much and worked as hard as he would on one of his solo canoe trips.  So perhaps from that perspective it was like doing a solo trip with a companion.  But the shared experiences and resulting memories can’t be measured.  The mutual enthusiasm over the trip, the wonder in admiring our surroundings, the camaraderie when faced with challenges, the unspoken agreement over the division of chores, the prevailing positive attitudes, the companionable silences, the good company – they will remain with me forever.

Boundary Waters Basics

Trees, rocks, water and sky.  And a canoe in which to explore it all.  That’s all it takes, and it’s all one needs.  Okay, a few extras like a tent, camp stove and freeze dried food come in handy.  But completing our fourth day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area today really drove home how it’s all about simplicity and back to the basics.

I loved how we were able to reduce our lives to only the essentials that we needed and could carry on a single portage.  (No double portaging for this duo!)  Getting up in the morning consisted of wriggling back into the same clothes in the warmth of a sleeping bag.  A quick brush of my teeth and running a damp wash cloth over my face constituted my daily makeup routine.  Question: If my hair looks a mess in the Boundary Waters and there is only my son to see it, is it still messy?  Answer: It doesn’t matter!

Life’s biggest concern was weather.  Is it calm or windy?  Is it sunny or raining?  Is it warm or cold?  We had some of each every day.  And we enjoyed it all.  Our greatest decisions were selecting a campsite.  Requirements were 1) a good view, 2) nice environs, 3) a fire ring with ample sitting benches,  4) open to the breeze to keep the few bugs away, 5) a good sunning rock.  We canoed further if necessary in search of one that met our criteria.  Meals were easy –  which flavor bagel to have, or what dinner packet to open.  It all tasted fantastic.

Long periods would go by in silence.  That is the beauty of it all.  Conversation is not necessary.  It is enough to be lost in one’s own thoughts.  And there is plenty of time for thought when spending all day in the outdoors.  Silence also invited in nature’s sounds – the flapping of a hundred geese’s wings flying overhead in impeccable V-formation, the lapping of the water against the shore, the melodic cry of the loons, and even the howling of a lone wolf at dusk.

Sunsets were the highlight of our days, and the evening’s entertainment.  If our campsite didn’t afford a good view, we canoed to a spot that did.  Campfires were our bedtime stories.  Filled with movement, color, heat and a mesmerizing glow, they lulled us into sleepiness.  The only things that could draw us away were splendid showings of Northern Lights or skies filled with brilliant stars.  And we saw both.

The longer we were there the better it got.  Everything else melted away and assumed a status of insignificance.  The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a national treasure.  But more important is the personal treasure it gives in return.  Trees, rocks, water and sky.  And a return to basics.

From Pedals to Paddles

We’ve been home from our bike trip less than a week, and I’m already packing again for another adventure.  I’m trading in my husband’s company for that of our oldest son, Carl, and switching from pedaling to paddling.  Having immersed himself in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for four months last summer by working at Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters and spending every day off work out on the water in a canoe, Carl developed a new passion.  Now that he is a working man with a real job out in DC, his opportunities to canoe are much rarer.  So when he decided he wanted to come home for a canoe trip and was looking for others to join him, I volunteered immediately.  There is a lot to be said for this retired status!

I will readily admit that I am not as well conditioned for this one as for the cycling trip.  The closest to training I’ve come is a couple of mild kayak outings at our cabin.  But somehow I’m sure I will manage.

I fee like I’m going on a trip with a real guide.  After all his experience last summer, Carl knows the ropes well – what gear to bring, how best to pack, what dried foods taste the best, and how to portage efficiently.  I know I’m in good hands.  He’s already done all the planning for the route.  All I need do is pack my stuff, hop in the car and shove off with him.

We’ll be starting off at Tuscarora Lodge – of course.  After a night in a bunk house, and availing ourselves of a hot and plentiful French Toast breakfast, we will begin our trip.  Carl has arranged for us to get a tow to our starting point.  So first we get a ride to Saganaga Lake (the green line), then they tow us in with our canoe to a remote staring point (the red line) – cool, I’ve never done that before!  From there, we will spend four days canoeing back to Tuscarora on Round Lake (the blue line).  I haven’t delved into the details too much (I’ve been a bit distracted with that little bike ride we did) but I’m sure it is an aggressive route.  Carl wouldn’t want to do it any other way, and I’m game.

I’m looking forward to unplugging.  Even on our bike trip, we each hunkered down with our iPads and wrote blog posts each night.  There’s no choice on this trip.  Any posts will have to wait until after we’re back to civilization.  Carl may do a little fishing.  If it stays warm enough, we’ll hop in for a swim.  We’re bringing paperback books and a deck of cards.  Evenings are for staring into campfires and stargazing.

I feel very privileged to be going on this trip.  How many twenty-something guys are willing to go on a canoe trip with their mom?   I’m glad mine is.

Maligne Lake – Timing is Everything

Molly canoeing on Maligne Lake

Our plan was to spend the day canoeing on Maligne Lake. We held off until Friday, as it had the best weather forecast during our stay in Jasper. The rain did indeed cease, and the clouds lifted enough to reveal the mountains, mostly. There even were small patches of blue sky. We got an early start to maximize our time on the water. But our timing was off. Emergency road maintenance on the only road to the lake required a 2-day closure at starting at 1:00pm. Today. All day suddenly became a few hours. We did get out in the canoe, and the lake was blissfully calm. It was great canoeing weather, and we relished the quiet and peaceful environs. Maligne Lake is about 14 miles long, and we probably only saw the first couple of miles. But it was preferable to seeing more of it from one of the tour boats. The canoe was more our style.

Mama bear and three cubs

On our way up to Maligne Lake, we had impeccable timing. A mama bear and three cubs were placidly eating plants on the narrow strip of land between the road and the river. We were only the second car in what became a major “wildlife jam” and had a close up view of the activity. They were easily in sight, and the curious cubs kept coming up to the road to inspect the truck in front of us. Surprisingly, mama bear never followed them, but she certainly kept her eye out and we had no doubt she would follow rapidly if necessary. The cubs were especially active, and the group kept us entertained until they finally moved to a more obscured spot behind some bushes. That was our best bear sighting yet!

Erik after conquerying Patricia Lake

The afternoon turned out to be beautiful. The sun came out and it even felt warm. We did some more hiking then enjoyed spending time around our resort, which was on Patricia Lake just outside Jasper. Erik kept eying the lake and the challenge it presented… Sure it was cold, but should he jump in? Yes, why not! First he made sure the hot tub was ready, then into the water he went – much to the amazement and amusement of other guests. Leave it to a Minnesotan!

We topped off the day by returning to Earl’s restaurant in Jasper, this time dining on the outdoor patio. They had heaters and blankets, just in case, but we didn’t even need them. The timing was just right for dining al fresco.