IN THE BOUNDARY WATERS
The idea for the paddle into Moon Lake gathered steam about midday, and soon we assembled needed provisions.
We’d strap a couple of canoes to a boat, and run up East Bearskin Lake to a slight opening in the shoreline, and from there portage the canoes into Moon, in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, also toting paddles, rods, reels, tackle, life jackets and bait.
The portage would be 115 rods long; up and down, and muddy.
High in the sky when we crossed into Moon, the summer sun on the return trip would appear only as an orange bruise on the western horizon, the portage by then a mere footpath beneath a darkened canopy of pine, spruce and aspen.
With luck, we’d lug back a sampling of Moon’s walleyes, their flanks dark green and golden, stained by the tannic waters that meet and flow along the Minnesota-Ontario border. Those waters over time have been crossed by the Sioux, the Chippewa, the French Canadians whose strong backs built Europe’s early fur trade, and now by boaters and paddlers — young, old and in between.
Weeklong trips into the BWCA are ideal, and those lasting longer, better still. But time is a luxury unequally distributed, person to person, and even summer to summer.
So when canoe country beckons, with its campfires and shore lunches, still waters and rapids, loons and mergansers, bear and moose, and lob pines in the distance, you get up and go, putting your shoulder to a paddle and enjoying piecemeal, if necessary, what once were weeklong excursions.
“See you on the other side,” John Weyrauch said, his canoe’s padded yoke balancing the craft easily on his shoulders, bow to stern, as he began the hike from East Bearskin to Moon.
For 20 years and more, John and his wife, Jodi, have passed the third week of July on East Bearskin Lake, staying at Bearskin Lodge, along the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota-Ontario border country.
During that time, their kids have grown up, family dogs have come and gone, and come again, and countless fish have been caught, filleted, fried and laid on plates alongside hash browns and summer ears of corn.
Also, a cadre of friends have been made; families who like the Weyrauchs are bonded by a common desire during the third week of July to bivouac near the wilderness in relative comfort, while day-tripping to a variety of lakes, seeking fish.
Over the years, kids who once were infants became toddlers, then finished high school and college, and now are marrying and having children of their own.
The constant in the lives of each is this midsummer rendezvous. It’s then that pilgrimages north are made, and members of these now quite-extended families settle in once again on East Bearskin, memories of years past welling up as they arrive.
Last week, for a few days, I joined the group, as did my wife, Jan, and now, on this portage leading to Moon, I watched as Jan zipped up her bug jacket and stepped ahead, paddles and other gear in tow.
Ahead of us, in addition to the Weyrauchs, were Tom and Nancy Ellsworth of Excelsior and their daughters, Anne of Falcon Heights and Katie of Minneapolis. Also along were Anne’s husband, Matt Levine, and Katie’s boyfriend, Robert Bjerken of Minneapolis.
Four canoes in all, we would appear a small flotilla, and the plan was to fish with slip bobbers and employ leeches to fool walleyes on their evening bite.
Or we wouldn’t fool anything.
Either way, high pressure had settled over Quetico-Superior country, cumulus clouds pillowed above us harmlessly and my canoe seemed weightless as I swung it overhead.
Cathedral-like, trees surrounding the portage formed a sort of sanctuary against everything that was routine.
I thought: I really should have been up here already this summer. And I wished our two boys could have made the trip.
“Coming?” Jan said.
“Right behind you.”
And I pointed the canoe toward Moon Lake.
We paddled to the far end of Moon, believing, as all anglers do, that good fishing requires effort. A couple of tent sites on the lake were occupied, and campfire smoke rose from each, telltale, perhaps of the coming dinner hour.
Already when we arrived, the Ellsworths were casting baits into water 10 or 12 feet deep. A stringer swinging from one canoe gunnel indicated some takers had been found.
Jan likes to fish, but doesn’t get on the water as much as I do, and I hoped she would catch something.
“Maybe we should have gone to Crocodile,” I said.
Crocodile is another nearby lake. The walleye bite there, we knew, had been excellent. But the portage into it from East Bearskin was twice as long as the one into Moon. We would need an entire day for that trip.
“We’ll catch them here,” Jan said.
I had rigged her line with a slip bobber, mine also, and from each swung eighth-ounce jigs, hers chartreuse, mine orange.
John and Jodi, I knew, were fishing with plain hooks beneath their bobbers, so we’d see how they did.
In time, visitors decompress in Gunflint Territory, and bobber fishing, which allows anglers to carpet-bomb fish-holding hot spots from a distance, lubricates this process, requiring Type A personalities especially to ratchet down their activity expectations.
But only a short while passed before Jan said, “Bobber down,” announcing it in the manner of a bad actor in a cheap cop thriller.
A smart aleck in Tom’s boat mimicked, “Bobber down.”
“Bobber down,” croaked another.
This was a good walleye Jan had hooked, 18 inches, and when the fish had been brought alongside the canoe, I cradled it in a net, and swung it aboard.
Everyone should have nights like this.
Fish bit. Good friends were within sight and earshot of one another. And day succumbed to night seamlessly.
Jan and I kept four plump walleyes; the others, similar amounts.
When the voyageurs paddled this country so long ago, they swung 40 or more strokes a minute and stopped every hour or so for a smoke of tobacco. Their 25-foot North canoes carried 3,000 pounds of fur and pemmican, and on Lake Superior, for the long journeys back to the St. Lawrence, they switched to their big Montreal canoes.
History suggests that these early travelers followed paths trampled by the Sioux and the Chippewa, sang as they paddled, and sang perhaps still more each early summer at Grand Portage, on Lake Superior, when they gathered to trade furs and to party.
Our return trips were more leisurely.
We hiked the darkened portage from Moon into East Bearskin, where we again strapped our canoes onto boats.
Then we wound among the lake’s shadows, our small outboards whining as we vectored toward the lake’s far end, where our cabins awaited, their paned windows yellow with faint light, beacons against the dark in this good country.