Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BWCA - Always Something New

Every August we head north to the border country. We try to leave the house early—say 8:15—and pick up a sandwich at the Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth, having previously purchased a huge bag of chips at a gas station. A half-hour later it's a quick picnic on the billion-year-old lava flows at Gooseberry Park. At the ranger station in Tofte we watch the obligatory video about wilderness manners--approved methods of gathering firewood, picking up twisties left by your boorish predecessors at the campsite, and filtering the water (we never do). Finally we hit the lake. It's ten minutes to three. Not bad!

A slight wind at our back, easy paddling up the lake for an hour, familiar scenes, the bay where we saw the moose in the distance, the rocky channel where we sometimes bang the canoe. Utter peace and quiet, though another canoe has been moving slowly up the far side of the lake. We might be traveling at two miles an hour, sitting erect in the canoe, rhythmically stroking. There is no faster way to do it, and anyway, who would want to?

The big question is, which (if any) campsites will be open on the north end?

There's a nice one just beyond the narrows, a mile and a half up the lake, but some kids are swimming there, and a woman is leaning against a rock as if she's posing for a travel brochure circa 1925. I was tempted to shout out: "Are you guys camping there?" but it looked pretty obvious, though I never caught sight of a tent.

There was smoke rising from the trees at the campsite behind the island on the west shore. Soon a tent came into view at the classic rock-shelf site in the middle of the upper arm. We continued north to the campsite in the shallow bay where the creek comes out, along the way glancing through a channel with binoculars to verify that the premier campsite in the east bay was occupied. (It was.)

The site we were headed for was a good one, and it proved to be open. Hallelujah!

It's true, we camped here for three days two years ago, due to the fact that our canoe sprang a leak. It would have been nice to have a new point of perspective on the lake. But I'm not complaining. If all the campsites in the vicinity had been filled, it would have been another half-hour of paddling (mostly in the opposite direction) to reach another one.

When you reach camp that first night, the subliminal fog of campsite anxiety lifts. It feels good to be back in the North Woods, and this campsite holds a lot of memories. A moose once appeared in the creek right behind the tent at sunset, right there. Four loons cavorted in the mist one morning, right there in the bay. A beaver once swam right up to shore while we were sitting nearby reading, just to see who was there.       

This time the great event turned out to be overhead. We had eaten a freeze-dried dinner (some sort of lasagna) and I then made a fire to keep us amused until the moon came up. Darkness descended, the moon rose but was still obscured by the trees, and three bright stars appeared low in the southern sky. It was obvious to me that several of them were planets. One was a huge, red, shimmering orb; the second, maybe ten degrees to the east, was also red and shimmering, though smaller. A third "star," white rather than red, was fifteen degrees above that second star, forming a brilliant triangle that you don't normally see in that part of the night sky.

I tried to remember what I'd read back home in my daily online astronomy report. Something about Saturn reversing direction, though I couldn't remember the details or the technical terms. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was looking at the constellation Scorpio. So that huge red "star" might well be Antares. But it was much bigger than usual, Maybe a planet was directly in front of it?

Such speculations ended in a resolve to "look it up when we get home." At the time, the sight itself was mysterious, awesome. A portent? Not likely. But it looked thrilling framed by pines in a southern sky that had not yet grown dark.

(I did look it up when we got home. The huge red twinkling orb was Mars. The smaller red orb was Antares. The bright white "star" above was Saturn.)

As the moon rose above the trees, the campsite was bathed in moonlight. The fire was still doing well, and we nursed the remaining wood to keep it alive as long as possible.

At times like this, it's enough just to stand in the dark and look at the fire or the sky and listen to nothing. But as we stood there, I heard something moving through the woods on the other side of the bay. It wasn't the frisky hops of a squirrel, which can sound like the approach of a much larger mammal. It wasn't as dramatic as the thrashing, crashing sounds of a moose that's rubbing velvet off his antlers, moaning all the while.

This was a leafy, dragging sound, followed by a soft "fuff, fuff, fuff, fuff."

"What the hell is that!" I said.

"That sounds like a beaver gnawing on a tree," Hilary said. In the dark? The guy must have been hungry.
Soon I heard a second sound coming from the same direction, like the muted moan of a human baby crossed with the meow of a cat. Again and again. Was this a juvenile beaver saying, 
"Come on, Mom, let's go home"?

These are the little things that you remember from a canoe trip. Also, the explosion of mushrooms on a portage trail, the incessant cheeping from the spruce trees near camp that turn out to be a family of myrtle warblers, the sunsets that you watch for an hour, taking note of each subtle change in illumination until the entire world goes dark and all you've got is your flashlight.

We make camp early and read in the afternoon. It's important to bring several books--not necessarily about "nature." On this trip my little BWCA library consisted of The Unwritten Philosophy by F.M. Cornfield; So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell; A Little Misunderstanding of No Importance, by Antonio Tabucchi; and a Penguin anthology, A Book of English Essays.

I read Oliver Goldsmith's description of an evening at Vauxhall Gardens. And I read Richard Smoley's description of his years as a student at Oxford in a book called The Dice Game of Shiva. I read a story by Tabucchi called "Bitterness and Clouds." But I didn't read much.

After spending four or five hours in the sun, I'm more likely to be listening to the canoe rattling against the rocks as it bobs in the wind. It isn't a soothing sound. The gentle lapping of the waves against the aluminum is pleasant, but the metal clanging lightly against the rock is less so. If I was up at the campsite, I'd be looking down toward the landing from time to time to see if the canoe was floating away.

We saw a vole run across the path one afternoon. And on another occasion a huge blue dragonfly landed on the leg of my shorts and clung there so long, seemingly quite content, that I decided I'd walk over to the pack, get out my camera, and take a picture. After three or four steps he took off. But I thank him for the visit.

On our second day we portaged in to Burnt Lake. Something new. The water there is green, rather than blue. The lake is 23 feet deep at its deepest point. (I looked it up later). It's a decent lake, but not a great lake. We secured the last open campsite at 11:30 in the morning. Four hours later two canoes went by. There was nothing down that way except a single campsite, out of sight behind a reedy island but already occupied by two fishermen and their three sons.

Later I saw the two canoes coming back up the far side of the bay, maybe 500 yards away. I had difficulty imagining where they were going to spend the night.

A noisy and aggressive red squirrel had gnawed through the canvas of our food pack, which we'd left lying on the ground. I hung it by a rope from a tree branch and five minutes later I noticed he'd shimmied down the rope and was gnawing away again. We kept that pack in the tent that night. (A calculated risk ... but we haven't encountered a bear up here in thirty years.)

Around dinnertime a storm approached. The clouds were magnificent. Sunlight penetrated the wall of rain from the side, turning it into a golden curtain.

On our third day we came upon a magnificent campsite on the NW arm of Sawbill Lake. (If you know the area, you can see we're just puttering around.) What makes a campsite magnificent? Lots of rocks, open space, shade...and three rock-shelf reading rooms facing south onto the lake.

The swimming here was grand.

In late afternoon we took a short portage and then paddled up the Kelso River, which was utterly still and beautiful as the air got cooler and the shadows from the west shore grew longer.

Our camp stove had quit working, but we scraped together enough wood without working too hard to heat a pot of water, and we fixed a simple meal. It came in a foil bag and was called "Wild Thyme Turkey" but there was no thyme in it. I'm not sure there was any turkey. It consisted of a soupy stew with chewy TVP-like bits, half-cooked peas, isolated pieces of wild rice that had never opened...and so on. All the same, it was hot and it tasted good enough.

There were four loons out in the bay--two adults and two juveniles, all of them the same size. We sat watching them move silently across the water as we ate our meal. One of the adults occasionally extended his neck at an awkward angle and emitted a loud plaintive call.

 The North Woods is like a deck of cards: always the same, yet always dealing out something new.  


David Grothe said...

Thanks, John. Lovely description. Makes me want to be there.

Macaroni said...

Thanks, Dave!