We paddled off under a blue sky and bright sun on Schulze Lake, and within minutes spotted a duck and her brood. Four goldfinches awaited us by the first forested portage trail.
We hiked on, each holding an end handle on the canoe with life jackets, paddles and lunch pack inside for the quarter-mile portage. We soon encountered the only large mammals we saw in four hours: a line of plodding horses bearing bored-looking kids from a private camp on a nearby lake.
Ten minutes later, we slid our canoe through the lily pads into tree-lined Portage Lake, one of the prettiest on the trip. Not in any rush, we circled the small lake and spied an eagle gliding overhead.
"It is beautiful, kind of like a wilderness," said my daughter Joy, a 28-year-old triathlete who has guided YMCA campers on trips around the Gunflint Trail in the Boundary Waters near Canada.
But we were in Eagan.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park is a miniature Boundary Waters Canoe Area, with some advantages:
• You only drive to Eagan, not the five-plus hours to get north of Ely.
• The portage trails between lakes are a quarter-mile at most, shorter than their BWCA counterparts.
• Well-marked portages make it a lot more difficult to get lost.
• If you do get lost, your cellphone works. Befuddled paddlers or hikers have called park workers who talk them back to civilization. Cells seldom work in the BWCA.
"We call it Boundary Waters South," said Katie Pata, operations coordinator for the Dakota County parks. "It's a real little oasis."
People are starting to catch on, although the park has only rented an annual average of 200 canoes for the portage trips in the past five years. Many more do just a single lake.
The 2,000-acre park offers a mini-wilderness paddle and portage experience that Pata and others say is unique in the metro area.
"It's the only one I know of," said Michelle Snider, executive director of the Minnesota Park and Recreation Association in Fridley. Anoka County has a chain of lakes with waterway connections but no portage trails, a spokeswoman said.
The Eagan park has nine ponds and lakes linked by portage trails offering 3- or 5-mile trips that take from three to five hours.
As Boundary Waters veterans, daughter and I ventured into the suburban park last month. We rented a 50-pound canoe ($35 a day or $8 an hour including life jackets, paddles and a small water-tight box) at the visitor's center.
On the trail, we met a Hastings woman on her maiden kayak voyage. She paddled fine, but portaging was rough. Park staff had equipped her with a two-wheeled device to put on the back end of the rented kayak as she pulled it down the trail.
But despite our combined efforts, the wheels kept sliding sideways and dumping the kayak. She headed back for remedial attention.
As for Joy, she decided to solo the next 530-foot portage (French for "carry") to O'Brien Lake. With a hand from Dad, Joy swung the green canoe aloft and landed the padded yoke on her shoulders. She headed up a 100-foot hill through the shady woodland. I lugged the paddles, lunch pack and life jackets and decided the canoe was preferable.
O'Brien is the trek's cleanest and most swimmable lake, besides Schulze, as attested by Camp Butwin kids splashing about a dock and playing on rubber rafts. The next four pools were increasingly infested with lily pads and roots, but were graced with short portage paths. On Bridge Pond, we spotted a few houses and a yellow, happy face sign hiding in the trees to the left as we entered. A FedEx truck trundled down a dirt road toward a house.
We ate sandwiches and pineapple on a portage bench overlooking pristine white lilies and yellow spatterdock flowers amidst the pads on Jensen Lake. The big lake marks the end of the water trail which stops just short of Pilot Knob Road, the park's western boundary. We gazed from our bench across a long arm of Jensen at a forested, semi-mountainous ridge.
A funny thing happened...
On the paddle back we took a side loop off O'Brien, adding peaceful, wooded portages to Cattail Lake, and another quarter-miler back to Portage Lake. Since I portaged both jaunts, Joy took off with the canoe on our last hike to Schulze Lake.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Schulze.
Despite frequent trail sign posts with icons of a dark, canoe-topped guy, Joy was not apparent when her parent reached Schulze. I found the Boundary Waters fan on a nearby hiking trail. So what did my favorite guide think of the suburban oasis?
"It was a very good training ground for the Boundary Waters. But it was pretty drastically different," she said, recalling the horse brigade, power lines, and FedEx truck.
"It's almost like wilderness. You can kid yourself when don't see anything and almost can't hear the highway."
I envy her. She was leading a Gunflint Trail paddle last week.
Jim Adams • 952-746-328-