We were paddling under a brilliant azure sky in a remote sun-splashed bay of the boundary waters last May, lazily fishing for lake trout, when we spotted it: a huge white blotch among green pines high on the far shoreline.
“What the heck is that?” I asked.
The four of us paddled across the calm water to check it out.
“Ice,” said Steve Lampman of Ely as we got closer. High atop the steep rock ledge was a large swath of alabaster ice several feet thick. Though temperatures were in the 40s and 50s and ice and snow had long ago melted in the waterway within the wilds of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness-Quetico, this north-exposed chunk was clinging to life, evidence of the long, cold winter.
My buddies and I have been paddling canoe country for more than 40 years, and we’ve encountered ice and patches of snow during early-spring trips, but never anything like this. We immediately pulled our canoes ashore and climbed up the ridge for a closer inspection.
The sheet of ice had built up from water running off the hillside. And it was going to take many more warm days to make it vanish.
We later chiseled off chunks and brought them back to camp to cool pre-dinner cocktails.
Such are the joys of early-season canoe trips.
For years, we’ve launched the paddle season with an early May trip to the BWCA or neighboring Quetico Provincial Park. Early on, the impetus was simple: catch lake trout.
Lakers often can be caught at or near the surface in the spring when water temperatures are still ice-cold. Later, as lakes warm, trout descend to deep water, making them much more difficult to catch, especially from a canoe.
The treasured orange trout flesh is a tasty switch from the usual white walleye meat we eat on summer trips.
Timing is key: go too late and those trout might be deep and tough to catch. Go too early and you might face ice on lakes — likely this year what with the extended winterlike weather. One year, a friend and I paddled past large sheets of honeycombed black ice on a large lake.
Over the years, the allure of that early spring canoe trip became more about reconnecting with old friends. An added bonus: no bugs and few other paddlers.
For many of us, it’s the simple joy of dipping a paddle into water and gliding across a lake in a canoe after months of snow, ice and cold.
A special time
When we first started those spring trips in the 1970s, it was rare to see early-season travelers. Over the years, more adventurers figured out that spring — and fall, too — are great times to paddle.
Still, it’s not unusual to have a lake all to yourself.
“Definitely the spring and fall is the time to go if you want to dodge the bugs and have a super-quiet experience,” said Trevor Gibb, Quetico Park superintendent, based at Atikokan, Ontario.
“I’ve been out in May the last few years and haven’t seen anyone else. It’s just nice to take the canoe out of hibernation and hit the water for the first time.”
We saw two other canoes in the distance on our five-day trip last spring into Quetico, just across the BWCA border. Otherwise we had the wilderness to ourselves.
The numbers tell the story: Last July in Quetico, about 3,300 people visited the backcountry. Only about 800 paddled last May. September saw around 937 visitors, and just 85 were recorded last October.
We caught plenty of feisty lake trout, though not in the numbers we had hoped for. That’s one thing we’ve learned: There are never any guarantees when fishing.
“It’s super-neat catching trout in shallow water in the spring and having that first fish fry over a campfire,” Gibb said. “I’ve found that right after ice-out, the fishing usually isn’t as good as a week or two later.”
Still we caught enough for fish tacos one night: chunks of fried trout wrapped in a tortilla with browned onions and topped with coleslaw.
Leaving our base camp for the day, we paddled several small lakes and trekked across portages into another clearwater lake trout like, and caught fish there, too. We hiked in woods blanketed with pine needles. And even basked in the sun, sans shirts, one afternoon.
The nights and mornings were crisp; thin ice formed in water buckets one morning. With no bugs, we sat around a crackling fire each night, telling stories. Or just staring into the crimson embers.
Mornings were equally sedate. We sipped coffee and watched fog burn off the lake.
Our campsite was on a small rocky point, set among pines and cedars. Several other campsites are just a stone’s throw away.
We’ve been on the bay in the summer when all of the campsites are full and one can hear the mumbled conversations, banging of pots or occasional shriek from neighbors at night.
But last May, with the campfire cracking, there was only silence beneath a canopy of stars.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoor writer. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.