Exploring Minnesota's Boundary Waters Wilderness, a million acres in northeastern Minnesota spotted with lakes and bordering Ontario and its Quetico Provincial Park.
By: John Byorth
All there is to do during a canoe tow is listen to the hum of the 25-horsepower motor, feel the wind, and watch the shoreline pass in a green blur. Or, like me, you can wonder how a first timer (like myself) to Minnesota ' s Boundary Waters could find his way around if, say, the map blew into the fire and burned up, or the canoe swamped and the map sank.
Staying lost doesn't look a chore. For one, thick boreal forest made up of jack pine, birch, aspen, balsam fir, spruce, and the occasional red and white pine covers everything that is not one of a seemingly million lakes. Shorelines bulge with green and the thickness goes on and on and on. This has the effect of hiding any telling features that might otherwise lend a hand in negotiating its basic flatness.
Most people could wander within a hundred feet of a road and never know it. But that's why people come to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a million acres in northeastern Minnesota spotted with lakes and bordering Ontario and its Quetico Provincial Park. People come to wander around, paddle, camp, fish, and take it easy without reminders of what they came to get away from. So many people come here, in fact, that it is the most frequently visited land within the National Wilderness System, seeing some 200,000 visitors per year on its 1,100 lakes.
On my first morning in the Boundary Waters, the number 200,000 seemed entirely plausible. As our outfitter, Bob LaTourell, Jr., towed us across Moose and Sucker lakes to the entry portage into Birch Lake, I saw people. But they were in scattered parties, both fresh and weathered, paddling and motoring around. With me was Telluride-based photographer Ace Kvale and his brother Kevin, a real estate agent from the Twin Cities. We were set for a week-long saunter to experience this popular place, and to find out what is so special about it to all these folks.
The motor shut off and we coasted into portage. Bob jumped out to catch us at shoreline. He is a stout man with muscles that serve his work ethic well. When he is moving, he is working. When he is working, he deters any ideas you may have of helping out because he moves with such swiftness and efficiency, you would only get in the way. He's been doing this since he could stand up, same as his younger twin sisters. They are the third generation of LaTourells to tow, guide, and outfit in the Boundary Waters.
In a matter of minutes Bob unloaded our gear, started the motor, and was gone. Silence fell and the first, and most unusual of many things that makes this place special became evident: no motors. We were standing at the point of departure between a peripheral zone of motorized "semi-primitive" wilderness and the beginning of paddle-only wilderness.
Motors are allowed only on 18 peripheral lakes as a result of almost 35 years of political and legal sparring. Back in 1957, the Boundary Waters (then called the Superior National Forest Roadless Area) inspired Minnesota's Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey to sponsor the Wilderness Bill. His intent was to preserve all "roadless" (wilderness) areas. But because northern Minnesotans had much to lose in the way of traditional local life and their extractive industries, local resistance proved stalwart, hindering passage of the bill until Humphrey made concessions, one of which was to allow motorboats.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 made exceptions for historically established motorized waterways. Some environmental groups sued for changes to the act, finding some success in the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978. This legislation strengthened wilderness protections as well as phasing out additional motorized waterways and portages, but it also reaffirmed some motorized usage. Today, some consider the semi-primitive motorized area less of a wilderness, and perhaps it is, but as Ace, Kevin, and I transferred our pile of gear from one wilderness shore to another, I looked over my shoulder at the motorized zone, then toward the interior of the Boundary Waters. Folks on both sides seemed to be enjoying themselves, motors or no motors.
There are two basic ways to go about seeing the Boundary Waters: base camp or trek. Base campers usually set up elaborate camps on choice sites, then day trip to various lakes to fish or just investigate unseen waters. The advantages of base camping are many: one setup and one takedown, portages are much lighter, and no worries over daily competition for good sites. The alternative, trekking, includes everything you try to avoid with a base camp, but it is the way to go if you want to put on mileage and see a greater variety of lakes and terrain. With more than 1,200 miles of routes and 80 entry points, there is variety.
We fell into the trekking mode. Our plan was to make a loop around the Knife Lake chain to Lake Kekekabic, and exit near Ensign Lake. The LaTourells had outfitted us with two Kevlar We-no-nah canoes, a single and a double.
We struck out over Birch Lake toward Carp Lake. I noticed that canoeing had not gotten any easier since my father taught me 15 years ago. (Being in the single canoe, I had no one to blame but myself, whereas Ace and Kevin had each other.) Two or three strokes on one side, whoops, I'm veering. Drag to correct. Two or three on the other side, whoops, I'm veering the other way. The water behind me wore an essing wake of foam on disturbed glass, a documented snafu.
It took nearly the entirety of Birch Lake to figure a rhythm, but I finally felt in control enough to look around. As soon as I began observing the lush shoreline, amber-eyed loons, or pure waters - pure enough that some drink it unfiltered - I began swerving. Nevertheless, we made it to the Carp Lake portage, which introduced us to the "rod."
Portages are measured in rods, each 16.5 feet, the length of a standard canoe. If ever there was a cumbersome measurement, it's the rod. Why not feet? yards? miles? meters? We gave up trying to figure out actual footage; converting 16.5 feet into anything meaningful became impossibly boring. (Though, admittedly, after a week of thinking in terms of rods, other measurements seem strange, and you start converting everything into rods - like, how many rods it is from Ely to Minneapolis.)
Portaging soon taught us the benefits of Kevlar canoes. They are half the weight of aluminum models, and are easy to mount and carry. Flip them onto your shoulders, balance, and fly through portages (the same routes Chippewas forged between lakes as they traveled between seasonal camps).
A few minutes into the next lake I convinced myself I was ready to handle fishing and paddling at the same time. I rigged up an ultralight outfit, intent on landing at least one of the Boundary Waters' feature fish: pike, walleye, smallmouth bass or lake trout. I had not touched a spinning rod and reel since, well, I was 12 and my big brother, Peedo, caught a big brown trout and let me play it for a few turns before he landed it. Afterward, he handed it to me for a moment of shared pride. I dropped it.
I cast a cigar-size minnow bait in a blue finish - recommended for overcast days - flipped the reel bail, and wedged the rod between my Duluth pack and some other junk behind me. I began trolling, paddling slowly until I looked up to see a miniature Ace and Kevin, seemingly miles ahead of me.
To catch up, I paddled hard, nailing every stroke to retain a swift, straight line. This, apparently, was the key trolling speed; a tap, tap, tap got my attention, and I twisted around to see the tip of the rod bobbing up and down: fish! I unburied the rod handle and quickly set the hook. The momentum of the canoe wavered and turned me sideways.
I hadn't even really tried, and there I was, reeling in my first pike. During moments when the fish displayed submission, I cranked the handle fast, hoping for progress before the fish burst into another powerful lash and run. Because I was using an ultralight, that pike felt like a shark. And it might as well have been a shark; I got the fish to the canoe, where the toothy little guy bit me the second I tried to remove the treble hook with needlenose pliers. Inexperience ruled; the pliers plunged to the depths of Carp Lake along with my pike.
Finger bleeding, I caught up with Ace and Kevin. We continued through a series of smaller lakes to Knife Lake, where the famous "Root Beer Lady" lived and where, years ago, the LaTourell family managed a resort. According to Bob LaTourell Sr., the fly-in resort he and his father managed was closed in 1949 when President Truman implemented an air ban over the roadless areas. When the Wilderness Act passed 15 years later, resorts and cabins within the newly deemed Boundary Waters Canoe Area had to go too.
Except for the Root Beer Lady. Her real name was Dorothy Molter, and she became famous for serving (what else?) root beer to generation after generation of locals and visitors. A close friend of the LaTourells, Dorothy Molter avoided their fate and remained at her home on Knife Lake with the help of public outcry, both local and distant, until she died more than 20 years later. A pilgrimage to her island, some say, is requisite to a proper Boundary Waters experience.
After visiting her island, we began inspecting campsites. Most are well-used and show the wear and tear of all those yearly visitors. If there is anything that detracts from the wilderness feel of the place, it is the campsites. High visitor use prompted the U.S. Forest Service to designate campsites on official Boundary Waters maps to keep impact to minimum areas. Nevertheless, some sites are better than others, so we pushed on, believing that on every lake there is a perfect site.
When we finally decided on our first site, a small island on the south arm of Knife, it began to rain heavily. From this point on, time became blurs between meals, portages, lakes, and potential campsites. Ambitious schedules and daily routines came and went with the storms, and trekking no longer focused on accomplishment. Even writing this, my notes quit going day to day, instead from thought to thought. In the Boundary Waters, you just have to mellow out.
Like any wilderness area, there are a few peculiarities that make the Boundary Waters unique and complete. Of course, you will hear about some of these things before you even dip a paddle into the water. Like sighting a moose or eagle, or hearing the cry and echo of the loon, or experiencing the bite and buzz of the mosquito.
Everyone who has been to the area will tell you about the Minnesota state bird, the mosquito. Some recommend covering every inch of your body with netting and Deet. We were lucky: Our trek was in the last week of August and mostly vacant of bugs. I didn't even notice any bugs until after our second day, when we camped on Hansen Lake, one of the links of the Knife Lake chain. I was attempting to catch some smallmouth bass on a popper when a flurry of little black flies, called sand flies, attacked my ankles. Their bite is something like a tiny screwdriver jabbed into your skin and twisted around. What is worse is that they are impossible to swat and kill because they are so fast.
People might warn you about bugs, but you won't learn other bits of local lore until you get there. The first of which will be the Duluth pack, named after the major metro area in northern Minnesota. It is a regular canvas knapsack with a flap top and shoulder harness. The thing is synonymous with the Boundary Waters. I mentioned I had an external-frame backpack that should fit well in a canoe and received nothing other than polite rebuttals like, "Aw, geez, that's really great, you know, but what you want is a Duluth pack, see, because . . ."
The number of reasons a Minnesotan can come up with for using a bag that fits like a sack of potatoes is truly amazing. The most important of which, and only real reason, is that they fit in a canoe like a glove, balancing the load square center.
And balancing the load square center is key, I learned, paddling through whitecap waves on larger water like the south arm of the Knife and Lake Kekekabic. No matter how hard I tried to stay perpendicular to the waves, alternating sides and various strokes, the canoe's tail end kept swinging around like a car on ice. Putting too much weight in the back of a single canoe tweaks trim and control, so no matter how hard you try to keep head-long, you fishtail. Re-balance the load, hug the shore, and try again.
After trekking through 24 lakes, we concluded that larger water tends to have an invariability. Shorelines take on a monotony of green and lakes begin to look the same - just from different angles. Smaller lakes, however, introduce an intimacy with the cragginess of the rocky shores and variety of trees, revealing diverse contours and appearance. The greatest thing with small water is its calmness, disturbed only by the sound of loons.
Regardless of whether or not some vistas are similar in appearance, they all seem to be of virgin quality, as if human history had yet to begin here. This is what is most special about the Boundary Waters and why people come here. Despite centuries of human use, there still exists a feeling of unadulterated wilderness in the boreal forests, pure waters, and fish and game. Starker A. Leopold called this "a reasonable illusion," an appearance of untouched ecological processes in the midst of a long human history. The illusion is only aesthetic, however, and it is the rich human history that makes it an extraordinary place, indeed.
Ely, Minn., is just one city that serves as a jumpoff into the Boundary Waters, but it is the star of the Northwoods. Sitting on the southern shore of Miners Lake and just a mile south of Shagawa Lake, Ely offers dozens of resorts, outfitters, and stores to make your trip complete.
I recommend LaTourell's Moose Lake Outfitters, (800) 365-4531 or