A gentle rain fell as we paddled our heavily laden canoes down the snaking little river choked with water lilies and water smartweed. Tamarack, bog and fragrant sedge grasses lined the edges.
The drizzle was an ominous beginning to a five-day end-of-summer trek into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — a yearly family tradition. The 20-foot-wide river was an intimate paddle, the polar opposite of paddling an expansive lake. And, because it was late August, there were virtually no pesky mosquitoes.
Also missing: summer heat. When we left the Twin Cities, it had been a steamy 85 degrees. Not only was it gray and sprinkling four hours north, but the temperature was a fall-like 60. We’d had high hopes of swimming and sitting out on granite outcrops, basking in the sunshine like turtles.
“I just want to see the sun,’’ said my oldest daughter.
As it turned out, the sun was mostly a no-show. The weather was overcast and cool. Every day.
Though the weather was a disappointment, we still found what we came for: fresh walleyes fried golden brown on a campfire, pancakes with just-picked wild blueberries, rock outcrops aplenty to sit with a good book; a pervasive silence and solitude, broken only by loons calling at dusk and waves gently lapping the shore, and that omnipresent sweet scent of pines.
It was family bonding time.
As I grabbed my camera to document my two daughters struggling to drag their canoe over a 5-foot-high beaver dam blocking the river, my youngest quipped: “We need help, Dad, not photos.’’
Hard work ... or not?
I was in college when I made my first trip to the BWCA. A roommate and I strapped an aluminum canoe atop my 1967 Pontiac Firebird — not exactly an ideal vehicle — jammed packs in the tiny back seat and drove to the Gunflint Trail. I had no clue what to expect, but like most visitors, I quickly was hooked. I’ve been back every year for the past 40, and have explored much of the BWCA and neighboring Quetico Provincial Park.
The goal in those early trips often was to see as many lakes as we could. Which meant long days paddling and portaging. Fishing and relaxing were secondary. Reading a book or napping? Forget it.
But in recent years, I do less portaging and more fishing, exploring and relaxing. My thought: Once you find a great campsite on a beautiful lake that offers some decent fishing, why go farther?
We took that theory to the extreme this year, carrying our gear across just two portages before coming to our destination lake, where we camped for four nights.
The campsite was slightly familiar: We had set up tents there 18 years ago, when our girls were just tykes. That year they brought dolls and danced on the big boulder in camp, pretending they were gymnasts in the Olympics. This year, they brought several boxes of pinot grigio wine and a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” on their Kindle.
Oh, how times have changed.
Fishin’ was hot
If you’ve never fished the BWCA, you might imagine easy pickings, considering how relatively little pressure the lakes get compared to a Mille Lacs, Leech or Vermilion. And you’d mostly be right. Fishing can be tremendous, though like a mutual fund, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.
Fishing is fishing, even in the wilderness. We always bring plenty of food and don’t count on the walleyes biting. That said, we almost always catch some fish.
And when the stars align — as they did this year — the fishing can be out of this world.
The smallmouth bass and walleyes were voracious. A friend from Ely came in and fished with me for the day, and it was one we’ll long remember. We caught bass and walleyes, one after another, pretty much nonstop, using jigs and leeches or crawlers.
“Oh baby, what a fighter,’’ Steve exclaimed as a smallie leapt from the water. “Oh man, I love these bass.’’
We caught walleyes, too, 16- to 20-inch beauties, more than enough for a fish fry that evening.
S’mores and more
My wife always brings fixings for s’mores, never mind that our kids now are 20-something adults. We toasted marshmallows over glowing embers, sandwiched them between graham crackers and a chunk of chocolate, and gobbled them. Then, as the embers died, she and the kids retreated to their tents and I laid on the flat granite rock near shore, listened to the waves gently lap the shoreline and stared up at a sky full of stars — the only night they were visible.
After 40 years, I never tire of the place. In fact, its allure seems to grow stronger with each passing year. Perhaps, at age 62, I realize I don’t have an infinite number of trips left, so I cherish each one even more.
I pondered that, lying in the darkness, as loons called in the distance.
Doug Smith firstname.lastname@example.org