A growl elbowed its way into my dream.
The next growl ended the dream, and any hope of more sleep.
"Bear," I said, perhaps aloud, and I reached for my headlamp and glasses.
A third growl eased the bear concern, but my worries didn't go away.
"Bill, you OK?" I asked.
"No," he said.
My 18-year-old son, Billy, was retching outside his tent. That's my weights-and-cardio kid, the one who was going to do the heaviest lifting as we paddled out from deep inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It would be a long day, even with his help.
And we were going to get very little.
• • •
Nick Fitzgerald is 18, raised in Richfield, but these days there's probably a government definition of homeless that applies to him. He's my nephew, and life hasn't been simple for him since the sudden death of his father about the time Nick became a teenager.
Nick knows he could come live with us, but he hasn't, and he won't. We live in the country. He's a city kid, his face and body pierced variously -- self-piercings, most of these -- and garnished with jewelry. Tattoos decorate many visible spots and some others.
It had been a couple of years since I'd seen Nick when I had a reservation for a BWCA entry permit and nobody to join me.
I mentioned it to Billy, who keeps in touch with Nick.
"Can I ask Nick if he wants to go?" Billy wondered.
"Do you really think he'd do it?" I asked.
The response, I knew from when Nick was younger, was correct.
"He'd do anything to go fishing."
The plan involved four days to Ely and beyond. Mistakes were made. That tight schedule was one, but perhaps the biggest was this: When I woke up ill -- and contagious, it turned out -- we entered the wilderness anyway.
• • •
The 10 miles of Stuart River between Entry Point 19 and glorious Stuart Lake include six portages, the first one monstrous, 1 1/2 miles long. Three beaver dams also interrupted our trip downstream. One was a skyscraper, the main reason the river upstream was flush.
We paddled and portaged for 10 hours, our trip slowed by my condition and a missed portage, before we arrived at Stuart Lake.
A friend had told of a remarkable campsite, and it was open. As we eased onto a flat landing, Billy jumped from the canoe. He followed a smooth rock that formed a sidewalk to the fire grate, then beyond to a log bench on a west-facing point, then into a pine forest nearly clear at ground level.
"Tell your friend he was right," Billy shouted.
And then ...
"Dad, can Nick and I fish?"
Going unsaid: He wanted me to set up camp.
"Geez, Bill, I'm sick," I whined.
"I did half of your work today," he said, and I conceded that as truth, dug out the reels, rods and leeches and pointed to the lake.
A walleye bit immediately on a jig cast from shore, then others were caught from the canoe. That remained the pace at Stuart Lake, where dark water keeps daytime walleye fishing good even in late July and where evening is a fish-a-minute proposition.
• • •
We'd planned to fish that final morning, but Billy's illness wiped out that thought. I was feeling better, and I packed in light rain as dawn broke.
First stop, the waterfall -- which hadn't been there before. The river was now shooting into the lake, brown water blasting 3 feet over a precipice.
This was deemed interesting. Foreboding would have been more accurate.
Illness dropped Billy to his knees on the first portage, and it was clear my packhorse would have trouble just crossing the portages. It would be mostly up to me and Nick to get us and our four heavy packs out. Nick, I noticed, was wearing his rain gear, but now the sun was out, a warm, humid day ahead.
"Nick, you'd better get yourself more comfortable," I said.
"But the mosquitoes ..." he said.
The mosquitoes weren't bothering me and hadn't.
"What mosquitoes?" I asked.
Billy interrupted. "Dad, have you seen his arms?"
Pulling off the rain gear, Nick revealed arms swelled from bites. It turns out he was the only dish on this three-item buffet that interested the mosquitoes.
I pondered dumping the gear in the woods and retrieving it later. Instead, I asked Nick for his attention, and then for his determination. Despite mosquitoes, despite heat, despite inexperience, he needed to be an important part of this push out of the wilderness.
I take no credit for what happened next and for the next 12 hours. That second, Nick grasped the seriousness of the situation and set to work.
• • •
"Dad, are you sure this is the right river?" Billy asked.
Nothing looked familiar.
"It's the only river, Bill."
The water was running high and stubbornly against us. Current took the bow where it wanted. Portage landings were muddy, the river washing over spots we'd walked on before.
After a couple of hours of wondering, we found the answer to Billy's question. Around a bend, the big beaver dam came into view, in two pieces. The center was blown out, washed away.
And so was most of the water.
An hour's worth of river remained above that dam, except it took us several times that long to cover it, mud hampering us.
Billy tried to help but was often bent over in agony. Gatorade didn't stay down. He hadn't eaten for 18 hours and wouldn't consider it for another 18.
Nick just kept working.
At the next landing, 15 yards of sucking mud separated what was left of the river from solid ground. Each attempt to carry a bag through it was exhausting.
It came as a relief that there was water on the other side of that portage, a rock barrier pooling it.
A short run of river later we faced that final mile-and-a-half portage, mostly uphill in this direction. The plan: Nick and Billy would each take a bag and a paddle and go up at whatever pace Billy could keep. I would shuttle two bags and the canoe.
They left, and I grabbed the heaviest bag and started counting out 500 steps. I'd concluded it would take about 2,500 steps with each item to reach the end.
So 500 steps with the heavy bag. Drop it, walk back, grab the lighter bag and go 500 steps. Drop it, go back, grab the canoe.
Those 500 steps with the canoe came too easy, so I took 500 more. Then 500 more, and now I wasn't stopping. It turned out to be, happily, 2,350 steps before the forest lightened, indicating the end of the path. As I neared, Nick and Billy popped into view.
"Where are the other bags?" Nick asked.
"At least a mile back," I said.
I got a concession out of him that he would grab the light bag and leave the heavier one for me, and off he went. Billy's condition worried me. I told him to wait in the shade.
Nick and I soon met again, him on the way up, me going down. He had a single comment, with a smile: "It was farther than a mile."
About 500 steps remained on my trip up when I raised my eyes from the rocky footing. I saw Nick headed toward me, ready to finish my work.
I didn't give up that bag.
Nick Fitzgerald, city kid, had done enough.