Odyssey ahead in the BWCA

Prologue of a five-part series
By Tony Jones, Special to the Star Tribune and Bob Timmons, Star Tribune
Photos/video by Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune
July 12, 2019

Tracing a North Woods border route of water and land that has transported people of every ilk for centuries, a group's canoe trip in early June through the eastern lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was every bit a trip into the past. It also informed the present and was classic adventure. Over the next five weeks, we'll tell of the trip on a historic water trail, of its joys and challenges, and of a new appreciation, for a father and son, of the BWCA's diverse beauty. Join the adventure.

Aaron Lavinsky
Video (01:23) Boundary Waters Passage, a special five-part series at startribune.com/bwca, begins July 19.

The trip at a glance

A group of five — including Tony Jones' son Aidan and close friend Brad Shannon — began the five-day, 40-plus mile paddle June 11 on Gunflint Lake. The group entered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness at South Lake. What follows is a snapshot of the journey and the region covered.Illustration by Mark Boswell,
Star Tribune

BWCA map

DAY 1 Gunflint Lake

About halfway between Rainy Lake and Lake Superior along the Voyageur's Highway, the lake boasts the iconic Gunflint Lodge — the launch spot for our group. Gunflint is named for deposits of chert, a 2-billion-year-old black rock that both Ojibwe Indians and voyageurs used to spark their flintlock rifles. The Gunflint Trail, which runs northwest from Grand Marais, Minn., to the BWCA, takes its name from the lake.Height of Land

An 80-rod (quarter-mile) portage between North and South lakes, Height of Land Portage is entry point No. 58 into the BWCA. It also stands on the Laurentian Divide, meaning that water to its north and west flows to Hudson Bay and water to its south and east flows to Lake Superior. First-time voyageurs were baptized here, a tradition that our group continued when we arrived.DAY 2 Rose Lake

The voyageurs first called it Small Fish Lake for its quantity of suckers; then they named it Lac Roseau, meaning "lake of reeds" because of its shallowness. The French, however, was corrupted in translation to Rose Lake. Much of its shoreline burned in a 900-acre fire in 1936. Today it's a popular lake for fishing, so popular that our group of five and a dog had a hard time finding a place to sleep.Stairway Portage

As the name implies, this 80-rod portage is a wooden staircase — two actually, of more than 90 steps each. From Rose Lake to Duncan Lake, the stairs cover an elevation change of about 120 feet, and they parallel the pretty Rose Falls. Duncan Lake, with seven campsites, is known for great fishing.DAY 3 Long Portage

One of the longest portages in the BWCA, Long Portage stretches 660 rods (about 2 ¼ miles) between Rose and Rove lakes. Two-thirds of those rods follow the railroad grade laid in the 1920s by the General Logging Co., making for a relatively flat portage. But it's still a long grind, as our group discovered over 90 minutes.Posés and pipes

Voyageurs didn't measure their distances in miles or feet. They measured portages by "posés," a posé being French for a spot where burdens are laid down. So a lengthy portage might have three or four resting spots, or posés. And on lakes, they paddled for 50 minutes per hour, stopping to smoke a pipe in the last 10 minutes. Thus, the length of a lake was measured in pipes.Moose sighting

A cow moose and her calf were spotted on the Minnesota shore of Watap Lake — a reminder of their fragile existence and declining numbers in the state. The legislature recently funded research involving the University of Minnesota and multiple agencies, which will intensify the study of a brainworm parasite and its transmission from deer — lethal to moose.DAY 4 Mountain Lake

Mountain and Moose (deep and clear) and North and South Fowl lakes (shallow and murky) are linked by proximity but are a study in contrasts. The Fowl lakes are part of the Pigeon River Valley and, like Moose and Mountain lakes, framed by dramatic cliffs that make this part of border country so iconic.Settlement artifacts

The BWCA is rife with historical artifacts. At some spots you can view railroad tracks — and in one lake a submerged steam engine — left by 19th-century loggers. Mysterious pictographs painted byAmerican Indians over 500 years ago can be viewed on several palisades. And on the shores of South Fowl Lake, archaeologists have discovered arrowheads dating to 10,000 B.C. But, remember, none of these can be removed from the BWCA.Geographical wonder

The landscape of these eastern lakes was shaped by erosion over millions of years — hard layers forming the arresting cliffs, soft layers eroding and forming basins for the lakes. All of it started more than a billion years ago when the region was one big sea before the Rove Formation, producing a layer of gray, sedimentary rock for which Rove Lake is named.DAY 5 South Fowl Lake

The South and North Fowl lakes are dotted with islands. Entering from Moose Lake and seeing cabins was a reminder that the lakes fall outside the BWCA. Our group's final night was spent on a buggy island — appropriate on the swampy, shallow South Fowl.Pigeon River

This river, one of the largest rivers in northern Minnesota and fed by lakes like Mountain to the west, was a key water trail for the voyageurs plying their fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, and before that, native people. The river's legendary 9-mile "Grand Portage" stretches to Lake Superior.Little John Lake

The journey had it all, a full BWCA experience in a short amount of time. Our group put in the miles by paddle (nearly 43) and portaged 12 times between 18 lakes. Some, like Little Gunflint and Little North early in the trip, were but quiet respites between their bigger namesakes. "I sensed the voyageurs alongside us as we paddled and portaged."Tony Jones Author and theologian"This trip deepened my appreciation of what's real and true — time in the wild."Bob Timmons Star Tribune Outdoors Weekend section editor BOUNDARY WATERS PASSAGE

A special five-part series at startribune.com/bwca