The balance of our first-day paddle along the border route passed with ease, down the middle of South Lake with the wind at our backs. But challenges lay ahead.
Brad Shannon, my friend and a longtime Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) guide didn’t like the looks of the first two campsites we surveyed, but he approved the last one on the lake, on a rocky promontory alongside the portage to Rat Lake.
Being our group of five’s first night together, we hadn’t yet assumed our setup roles, so it took a while to erect tents, hang a tarp and sling a hammock and rainfly between two trees. Our load included two personal portage packs (one shared by Brad, my son Aidan, and me, and the other shared by Bob Timmons and Aaron Lavinsky); separate food, stove and equipment packs; a knapsack full of fishing gear; a saddlebag for my dog, Crosby; and all of Aaron’s photo and video gear.
With camp set, Aidan, 14, pushed off in a canoe to fish, one of his favorite activities. I extracted from the food pack a first-night luxury: five T-bone steaks that I’d procured in the Twin Cities, vacuum-sealed and frozen. Brad added some charcoal to the pack, too. And then Aidan paddled back to camp with two smallmouth bass, which he proceeded to fillet. This was going to be a banquet.
Then someone said, “That sky in the west doesn’t look so good.” The same wind that had been our ally all day now carried dark, threatening clouds, bursts of lightning and thunder.
Our wood fire stoked hot, we dumped the charcoal on the embers. “I think we’ll get dinner in before the storm hits,” Brad said without confidence, donning his rain gear. As he pushed sliced potatoes and onions around an overflowing Bethany skillet, I placed the first two steaks on our campsite’s fire grate. Then, the skies opened.
Raindrops sizzled on the grate. Brad occasionally pulled a potato slice out of the skillet and bit into it. “Not yet done,” he kept saying. I plucked the first two steaks off the fire and plated them. As I dropped the remaining three on the grate, someone yelled at Crosby — he’d snatched the first two off the plate and into the mud. I decided Aidan and I would eat those, which we did, standing in the downpour.
The storm passed, as storms do, giving way to an awe-inspiring sunset. However, everything was soaked, including Aidan’s hammock, so when the time came he climbed into the tent between Brad and me and the damp dog. If I slept that night, I don’t remember it.
We awoke with the sun and started water for coffee. After pancakes and applesauce, we went about the unsavory task of rolling up and packing wet gear. The day promised to be a relatively easy one, with a paddle of less than one-third of the 15 miles we’d put behind us on day one, and two short portages. Our goal was Rose Lake, famous for Stairway Portage, gorgeous vistas and epic walleye fishing. We’d even been tipped off to a premiere campsite on the southwest corner of the lake, near the stairway and with easy access to a walleye hole.
We came out of the long and winding straits on the west end of Rose into a formidable headwind. Almost immediately, we crossed paths with another canoe coming the opposite direction, the first we’d seen, and then another pair of canoeists looking eager to dock somewhere. Even though it was only 10 a.m., I figured we’d better hustle to grab our preferred site, so we paddled harder, but to no avail. When we got there, a young couple was perched on a rock, an upturned canoe by their side. They affirmed that they were staying for the night.
So we turned up the lake, into the wind. With several more campsites on Rose Lake, I was unconcerned. But the next one was occupied, and the next, and the next. When we got to the last site on the lake, also unavailable, we faced a daunting dilemma: We could either cross the border that runs mid-lake and camp (illegally) in Canada, or we could tackle Long Portage, a 660-rod beast that we all feared, and after which we’d have to paddle at least 4 more miles to find a site.
As we gunnelled-up to discuss our options, a voice came from shore. “Hey, we decided that we’re leaving. You can have this site.” Relief washed over me, as I had been considering how to inspire my already exhausted teenager to put in many more hours of portaging and paddling.
We steered our canoes to shore, stood in knee-deep water, and waited for the previous tenants to depart. As they finally pushed off and we thanked them, one said, "We were told to beware of a charging porcupine at this site, but we didn't see it. Good luck!”
Clearly distracted, I hit my head hard on a downed white pine as I was pulling a canoe from the water. Within minutes, a bloody knot formed at my nonexistent hairline. Although it hurt, it could have been much worse, which put a bit of a scare into me — serious injuries out here have serious consequences. Aidan comforted me and continued to check my wound for the rest of the trip, which will remain a sweet memory for me.
The Border Route Hiking Trail ran right through our campsite, so we had various visitors throughout the afternoon and evening. A father and his two sons came through and told us that they’d heard grunting at their site the night before and awoke to find moose tracks around their tent. A solo hiker stopped briefly to chat — he was putting in some big miles to meet a friend for a canoe trip. And at around 6 p.m., a somewhat bewildered grandfather and grandson appeared on foot at our camp asking where they could find a site for themselves.
The wind was too daunting to paddle back down Rose, so we decided to forgo our plans for walleye fishing and a hike up Stairway Portage to look out over the palisades. “Things don’t always go your way out here,” I explained to Aidan, my head still throbbing. “You don’t get the site you want, the weather doesn’t cooperate, someone gets hurt. You’ve got to be flexible.”
We fished for smallmouth on our end of the lake, ate chicken stew and Oreo pie for dinner, and silently considered Long Portage, the challenge that awaited us in the morning.
Tony Jones is a freelance writer and theologian, and lives in Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.