Wednesday, August 17, 2011

BWCAW – Elemental

Why go there? Because it’s elemental. You pull out of the garage at 8:15, leaving the computer, the clients, the Tea Party, the unmowed lawn, and the half-painted woodwork behind, and six hours later you’re near the Canadian border, heading out across a pristine lake in an aluminum canoe, wondering where you’ll be setting up your tent for the night.

We hadn’t been on the water more than half an hour when I spotted a moose emerging from the woods on a back bay. That’s unusual. But therein lies the enduring interest—in the BWCA you never know quite what’s going to happen. The moose was a quarter-mile away, but with binoculars we could see it perfectly.

We camped at a familiar site on the north end of the lake, not far from the portage. I paddled out to get some water, hunted down a dead tree in the woods behind camp, assembled the all-important camp chairs, which consist of little more than some plastic rods and webbing to support a folder air mattress.

The wind was gusty and we weren’t entirely into the swing of things yet, though Hilary went swimming almost immediately and then gathered some blueberries. A little honey bee came by as we were sitting in the dirt, reading or looking out across the bay at the clumps of black clouds forming in the distance. Hilary held out her finger and the bee landed on it.

Two parties were fishing out in the bay. We could hear them exchanging pleasantries from time to time but they obviously weren’t together. Both canoes disappeared as dinner time approached but reappeared later for a few more hours of fishing before the sky grew dark.

Returning from our evening paddle, we passed right between the two canoes. As we approached the man in the bow of one of them got a strike. His buddy got the net out and they landed the fish. The man with the net then lifted an impressive string of fish out of the water.

“Walleye,” he said. (It’s hard to imagine how they’ll eat all those fish.)

Our dinner consisted of turkey jerky and almonds, followed by coffee made with water heated over the campfire. As we sat on the rocks a swarm of dragonflies appeared above us, just as they had years ago at this same spot.

Spectacular sunset, wisps of cloud tinted copper or pink, with one big dark clump near the horizon.

The transit from Sawbill to Cherokee Lake takes you through some interesting country, with small lakes, streams, portages, reeds, creeks, and mossy escarpments. At one point a beaver dam has raised the water level in a slough, making the boggy stretch easier to navigate and turning a 92-rod portage into a 12-rod portage. That’s OK with me.

We came upon a couple of spotted sandpipers on Cherokee Creek and admired the water lilies and pitcher plants. A raven crossed the creek ahead of us several times, monitoring our progress.

Cherokee Lake itself is a gem, and I suspect many parties just head up there and sit for a few days. The lake is studded with islands and the countryside to the north and easy is hilly, which gives the lake itself some added drama.

We took a campsite on the west side of the lake, much improved since the last time we camped there. There’s more greenery and the tent site has been artificially leveled with clay and a few well-placed logs.

The weather took a turn for the worse, with deep rumbling in the distance, darkening skies…yet with patches of blue sky still prominent. The wind seemed to come with the clouds, with fierce squalls followed by patches of utter calm.

This is what you do. You sit under the tarp and wait for the rain to come. An innocuous sprinkle from time to time, but at 3:30 all the serious weather was still passing us by to the south and east. Our moment will come.

Wandering the high rocks behind the campsite, I notice that the forest is very healthy. Very little dead brush, few deadfalls. Mountain ash here and there, jack pine, balsam, bitch. Blueberry season is over.

Time for a nap in the tent. It’s like a furnace in there, but the deer flies won’t get you. The wind rises; the wind dies down. A seagull flaps by fairly high. I adjust the straps on the tarp, cinch them up.

It started to rain in earnest at 6. A few minutes of hard rain, but medium to light for the most part. Again and again, it seems to be letting up—it’s an aural illusion. If it were happening as often as it seems to be, the rain would have quit long ago.

We cooked and ate our “pouch” dinner of beef stroganoff under the tarp. When I rather cavalierly dumped a pool of water that had collected above our heads over the edge, it began gushing along a path between the exposed rocks and dirt directly under the tarp past where we were sitting, rendering the chairs useless.

It occurred to us eventually to put on our raincoats. We heated water for coffee. I could no longer stand erect under the tarp, but had the options of crouching over, squatting like a Japanese baseball player, or stepping out into the rain.

It was a soft rain, not a pelting rain. I enjoyed wandering the campsite, looking out at the dark gray clouds in every direction.

Just as it started ro rainin earnest, three canoes had passed on the far side of the channel. Scrutinizing them with binoculars I could see they were thirty-something men with shaved heads and muscle shirts. They bivouacked on a island a half-mile away, but left again before the rain quit, no doubt due to the coming darkness. Finding a campsite of Cherokee can be tough at that time of the day, regardless of the weather. I felt sorry for them.

The rain finally let up at eight. I made a fire (with wood I'd prudently tucked under the tarp) and we watched the vague orb of the moon rise through the thinning clouds.


Michel said...

Nice writing. Sounds fantastic...for a few seconds I almost felt like I was there with you.

Jerry Apps said...

Enjoyed reading how you "braved" the storm. Jerry