Scenery and Solitude in the BWCA | Part 4

This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.

Day 3

We woke up to weather so beautiful the nastiness the day before felt like just a bad dream.  The sky was clear as a bell and the water had been restored to the glassiness we’d seen in all the pre-trip brochures and photos. The steady sound of Rebecca Falls had us sleeping pretty soundly through the night and we woke up ready for a gorgeous day in the Quetico.

First order of business, breakfast! We were officially down to dehydrated camp food by this point, so I made an omelet with ingredients from a plastic bag. Jeff refers to powdered eggs as “shamalamas” rather than dignifying them with the moniker of actual “eggs” — so we enjoyed the best shamalama omelet the Quetico has ever seen.

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Multi-tasking: cooking shamalamas while swatting mosquitoes.

And let’s talk about mosquitoes. I’ve mentioned them a few times, but I’m not sure if I’m accurately painting the picture. They are ruthless, show-no-mercy, little bitches. You cover your legs and ankles in DEET, they go for the arms. You wear sleeves, they go for the face. There is no escaping them. There were moments during the trip that we could slap a shoulder or a shin and hit three or four at a time — their entire little lives are one sad suicide mission. We decided that — at camp — everything we did must be a one-handed job, leaving the second hand free for mosquito swatting. If you think you need both hands to do something, you better be very sure you need both — because you will pay dearly. And we reached an agreement that slapping each other in the name of mosquito-killing was perfectly acceptable for the duration of our trip.

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Blurry, early-morning campers.

Portaging on day three was a chore. We had four total portages — three of them considered long. One in particular, the longest of the day, had been marked by John on our map as “muddy”. Friends, everything out there is muddy. If you feel like it deserves a special “muddy” designation — it’s MUDDY. It was an 80r and when we got to the mouth of the portage there were two paths. Hmm. Rather than shlep our gear down a “muddy”, 80r portage only to discover we had chosen the wrong trail, we each took off down one of the trails to see where they led. As it turns out, enough people got tired of portaging the “muddy” Bottle Portage they must have blazed an alternate route — both trails ended up the same place. The catch – because there had to be one – was that the alternate route was incredibly rocky and straight up a hill. So you could choose “muddy enough to be mistaken for quicksand” or “uphill both ways through jagged rocks”. For all of a quarter mile (the 80r), we chose the hilly rocks. We took it slow — portaging a canoe and three 40lb packs through loosely-defined, rocky trail isn’t fun, but it was certainly better than the mud. And – lucky us! – the trails merged toward the other side in time for us to enjoy the last 100 feet of the mud regardless of our choice! Best of both worlds!

Mostly, portages are a short break from paddling. They aren’t scenic — in fact most are hidden in corners of lakes — and they aren’t entertaining — they are the means to get from one lake to the next. But we did have a bit of excitement at the mouth of one of our last portages in the Quetico on Day 3. As we reached the other side we noticed someone had left a fishing pole sitting on a rock. We’d been careful not to forget anything with all the loading/unloading at portages, but it’s understandable that someone might get in a hurry and leave a piece of gear behind.

While plenty of people go to the BWCA specifically for fishing, we hadn’t. We didn’t have fishing licenses or any fishing equipment — we were there for the canoeing and camping. But Jeff grabbed the fishing pole — with lure — and asked me to take his picture. “Fishing” in the Quetico.

He made one cast.

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“Holy crap, I caught a fish!”

I immediately flipped the switch from still photos to video.

Fishing in the Quetico from Sarah Hood on Vimeo.

{Click here if you don’t see a video.}

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Jeff with his catch: a northern pike.

Obviously, we threw it back. No reason to get crossways with Canadian game and fish authorities. We put the little guy back in the water and gave him a good thump to snap him back to reality — and he eventually swam away.

You can tell by the map below that we flirted with the international boundary for a few miles the first part of the day, but around lunchtime we passed back into Minnesota and didn’t look back. On the map you can easily tell the Minnesota land from the Canadian land — the US land is marked by the topographic contour lines while the Canadian areas of the map are purely land/water landmarks.

We knew we were near the border, but we didn’t immediately put it together until we’d seen several of these little silver guys embedded in rocks along the shoreline.

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Near the international boundary.

Until Day 3, Jeff had done 100% of the canoe portaging. I earned my keep by carrying packs and other gear, but I had left the canoe wrangling completely up to him. And while I was sure it wasn’t a cakewalk, I started to think maybe I might want to try it. It couldn’t be THAT hard.

And if I was going to portage that thing you can bet I wanted proof. Incidentally, the video also serves as proof that I ran it right into a tree… Ignore that.

Proof that Sarah Portaged the Canoe from Sarah Hood on Vimeo.

{Click here if you don’t see a video.}

Remember what I said about committing both hands to any single task? Well consider canoe portaging the ultimate two-handed job. It’s like a giant seesaw you have to keep balanced. On your shoulders. While walking. Over uneven terrain. MUCH harder than it looks.

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The calm, ideal weather on Day 3 made for smooth sailing, and we covered ground easily. We planned to camp along the western shore of Lake Agnes (map below) and found a great little spot in the southernmost designated campsite along the lake. This was the third evening in a row we’d had a nice rock landing between our campsite and the water and we decided to take full advantage — we dragged our sleeping pads out of the tent and down onto the rock for a nap before dinner.

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During the last few hours of paddling that afternoon, we realized how much ground we were covering — pretty efficiently — and we started to consider the balance of our itinerary. It was Tuesday and we were scheduled to stay in the woods until Thursday, but we were moving faster than that. A combination of no timeouts for fishing, the threat of more weather like we saw on Day 2, and the gorgeous weather we had on Day 3 — and we were running ahead of schedule. So we whipped out the satellite phone and made the call to John for an earlier pick-up. (Yes… at the last minute we decided to pay the extra fee for rental of a satellite phone. We are PARENTS after all. And going out there, opting out of the simple sat phone rental, felt a little too much like the crazy guy who walked a tightrope across the Grand Canyon and passed on the safety net…)

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So we’d be heading out a day early, but we weren’t missing anything! We’d covered our entire route, seen the incredible Boundary Waters area, camped in absolute solitude for three nights, and had an amazing adventure. The only thing we’d miss out on was more mosquitoes.

The next three photos are of Lake Agnes, from our campsite. Taken at slightly different viewpoints and at slightly different times of the afternoon and evening — but from the same spot. Click any of them to enlarge and enjoy detail. It was a genuinely beautiful area.

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That night, I was finally able to get all pieces of our dinner ready at the same time — I can’t even do that at home sometimes! Mashed potatoes with chicken gravy and peas. And vanilla mousse with raspberries for dessert! We licked that plate clean!

Night 3

After dinner we sat out on our “porch” and just enjoyed the stillness. One of the biggest differences between this trip and previous ones was the social factor. On other adventures we’ve not only had a guide, but at least one other couple to meet and get to know. In camp in the evenings there were jokes and stories to tell, and personalities to entertain us. This time, we really just enjoyed the downtime. This week, as I explained to a coworker WHY we go on these trips, he remarked, “that seems like a lot of work just for some solitude.” And maybe it is. But it is so, so worth it.

The water was calm that evening except for a family of beavers swimming past us about 50 yards away. We were facing away from the sunset, but it cast a beautiful reflection across the entire lake. We could tell there were a handful of other parties camped at various points on the lake as sounds from their camps traveled remarkably well across the glassy water.

That night, in contrast to the constant white noise of Rebecca Falls the night before, the lake was silent. No wind. No rain. No falls. Just the night sounds from the woods. In some ways it was harder to sleep with all that quiet, and we knew it was our last night out there so we were anxious about heading back the next day.

This post is part of a series, click here for the full story.

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3 Responses to Scenery and Solitude in the BWCA | Part 4

  1. Lyndi at nwafoodie August 8, 2013 at 8:40 am #

    Sarah, I am loving these series! It brings me back to my 15 year old self, canoeing those same boundary waters. It was magical.

    I remember the camp instructors talking about the “lights in the bottom of the lake that shows when you enter Canada.” Around the campfire that night, innocently I remarked, “you know, I never did see those lights.”

    Blank faces.

    Eruption of laughter.

    Ugh.

    The innocence and believability of a 15yr old girl from North Carolina.

    Silly little innocent 15yr old me.

    • Mother Hood August 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

      Lyndi, this is hilarious! We joked about a dotted line in the water and how handy that would be! :) Haha!

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