It's worth asking:
Why would anyone drive for six hours, then pile into a very small and tippy watercraft, paddle into the wind for a hour in misty 50 degree weather, then stop on some rocks and string up a tarp to block the wind and drizzle—all for the purpose of reading a book?
Why? because it's fun. It's expansive. It's challenging. It's elemental.
It's also unpredictable, which adds to the drama.
In the BWCA, you never know where you're going to camp. Campsites are sometimes spaced miles apart, and if the one you're counting on is occupied, you have no choice but to move on.
Our recent trip to the BWCA was somewhat different because we spent the first night in Superior, Wisconsin. That made it easier to move up the North Shore at an unhurried pace the next morning on our way to the Gunflint Trail. We pulled in to the outfitter at Gunflint Lodge to buy a few fire-starters. (It had been raining a lot and dry firewood might be hard to come by in the woods.) The woman behind the counter gave me a whole bag of brown, oily, bubble-gum-like slabs...for free. That's the late-season discount, I guess.
As we continued west toward trail's end, past luscious green swamps (no moose) and huge pillows of white granitic bedrock (the Saganaga Batholith), we passed a sign pointing to a "Seagull Landing" that I'd seen many times before but never had the time to follow. I'd seen the road on maps and knew roughly where it came out onto the lake, however, and considering the direction and force of the wind, it occurred to me it might be a better place to embark from than the channel we usually use. At least it was worth exploring.
Thus we found ourselves a few minutes later paddling across a part of Seagull Lake we'd never seen before. Once having pulled ourselves into the protection of a cluster of islands, we spotted a campsite open , and took it.
It was 1 pm. Our paddling was over. My camp notes (in part) read as follows:
"Spent about an hour rigging up our tarp amid a grove of mid-sized cedar tees—an awkward enterprise and an awkward result, but it served us well, keeping off both the wind and the intermittent mist and drizzle. Patches of blue sky appeared three or four times during the afternoon, but they were fleeting. It was mostly gray and a little bit cold. I was happy I'd bought a sweater at the thrift shop in Grand Marais on the way up.
"We sat on our chairs reading at the edge of the woods, where the wind was less severe, then scampered down the hill to the tarp when the mist started in. (Some people wouldn't think this was much fun.) I had my stocking cap on all afternoon. At one point I went off into the woods to get some firewood and came upon a spruce grouse. Bright red eyebrow. Otherwise hard to see, though he was standing on a log ten feet in front of me."
It was a pleasant afternoon, and it got better when the wind died down and bigger patches of blue sky started to appear overhead about 6 p.m. I took down the tarp; it had been flapping all afternoon and was no longer of much use. We were enjoying the evening sun in the clouds and never got around to making a fire, though we heated water on the stove for our traditional mug of powdered Swiss mocha.
It was deadly still and quiet after the sun went down. Then the loons in the channel in front of the tent started to call loudly, maybe five birds (but maybe only two or three) exchanging their hilarity in an overlapping call and response.
"The stars last night were amazing. The crescent moon had set by the time I went out to pee and the entire sky was illuminated by stars of great intensity and size. They looked like holes poked in the blue-black firmament with a blunt instrument, through which blazing white light was pouring. Every part of the sky was filled, but I'd just woken up and the dimmer stars didn't register. It was a thrilling sight and I should have lingered to appreciate it more fully, but I was barefoot, the ground was wet, and it was maybe 50 degrees.
"The wind has shifted. It's now milder, coming from the south. We took a two-and-a-half hour paddle through the warren of islands out to the Palisades and then south into the wind around Three Mile Island, where most of the countryside is in wretched shape due to a forest fire that passed through in 2007.
When we got back we rigged up the tarp at the other end of the campsite. Then lunch. Then more sitting. Listening to the chatter of the kingfishers. Watching a family of six mergansers fishing together along the shoreline.
Now the water in the channel shimmers with golden sunlight muted by the haze, and everything has a blue-green caste. I've picked up a book a Zen poems I brought along. Reading or not reading, it's largely the same.
And now I hear voices in the distance, though only one canoe has passed this way in the last 24 hours, and those voices are sometimes an illusion, a trick of the wind.
When you're in camp, you spend a lot of time doing nothing. The campsite is huge, open, and grassy. You can look to the west for at least a mile, and we sometimes see parties of distant canoes heading out from the channel we were planning to embark from.
Right now I'm staring at a clump of birch trees that's maybe five years old.
Further down the hill, I see a solitary tree that might have taken root just last year.