Paddling across White Iron Lake, I looked up at the sky, cloudless and blue. Then I glided around a bend and spotted them: a pair of slim maple trees, rising from the rocky shoreline, burst into a brilliant orange.
It was still early. Mid-September. In this northern edge of Minnesota, just outside Ely, most of the trees still shimmered green. But from our canoes, my paddling group witnessed hints that autumn, in all its brilliance, would soon arrive.
“It’s the perfect time to be up here,” one of our guides, Devan, later told us.
“Oh, you say that to all the groups,” laughed Georganne, who had trekked here from Oakland, Calif., with her husband and two 20-something sons.
But the weekend would back up his claim: Comfortable temperatures. Fewer people — and perhaps more important — fewer mosquitoes. And those slim, orange maple trees, with more to come. It was as if all the forest’s color had gravitated toward the water.
We had gravitated there, too. We had come to canoe, to explore just the edge of an epic wilderness of lakes, rivers and rapids. This trip, put on by Wilderness Inquiry, proved more easygoing than my past pack-and-portage excursions into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Each evening, we returned to a cozy lodge on a pine-covered peninsula on White Iron Lake.
The weekend had been billed as an “amazing trip for leaf-peepers.” As the trip approached, swaths of the DNR’s color-coded state map — which Minnesotans eye each fall — had begun turning yellow and orange. But the Ely area?
Stubbornly, disappointingly green.
Still, as the van headed north, I hoped.
Our canoe guides, manning the wheel and the music, picked a song I seized as a good omen. In aching harmony and amid a steel guitar, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss sang: “Leaves were falling just like embers/ In colors red and gold they set us on fire/ Burning just like a moonbeam in our eyes.”
We had other goals besides leaves, of course. One man in our small group, the pediatrician from Oakland, had brought his wife and sons to experience the sight that as a Minnesota youth he had fallen in love with — “the view of a sunny lake from underneath a portaged canoe.” Karen, in her 70s, wanted to explore her beloved Boundary Waters with the help of a guide and the comfort of a bed. Devan, always quick to identify a bird in flight, hoped to see a bull moose.
I craved time in a canoe.
My camping and canoeing trips had relied, for too long, on men who boasted more gear and experience than I had. Who knew how to start a fire despite the rain and — if I’m being honest — were willing to carry the canoe on their shoulders from one lake to the next. On this trip, I vowed to pay more attention to the maps and the weather and the knots used to tie up canoes. I wanted to be able to venture into the Boundary Waters on my own next time.
The two Wilderness Inquiry guys, clad in Chaco sandals and sporting tans, let me look over their shoulders as they marked their maps and made their plans. But Karen, who had navigated this part of the state many times before, became my guide, too.
The power of water
From the dock, on that first evening, we measured the time to sunset with our fingers. I stretched out my arms toward the blaze, cocking my palms perpendicular. Each finger between the sun and the horizon represented 15 minutes. Six fingers meant an hour and a half of light left.
The brothers stripped off their shirts and grabbed a pair of paddleboards, launching themselves out onto the lake. Their dad watched them paddle in the waning light.
“You haven’t really been to a place,” he said, “until you’ve been in the water.”
I awoke the next morning to the sound of rain peppering the roof and the smell of onions frying in a cast iron pan. After exploring the Boundary Waters by backpack, I was struck by the luxury. A roof! A kitchen!
We gathered at the long wooden table, drinking coffee and checking the weather on our phones. The rain would pass, our guides promised.
Karen looked up from “Listening Point,” the book that naturalist Sigurd Olson wrote about his retreat on Burntside Lake, not 20 miles from here, and began reading aloud. Olson was describing a paddle in the dark, when “the lake evoked a spell.” Water’s power, he surmised, springs from the fact that “man’s history is woven into waterways. …
“A mountain, a desert, or a great forest might serve his need of strength, but water reflects his inner needs. Its all-enveloping quality, its complete diffusion into the surrounding environment, the fact it is never twice quite the same and each approach to it is a new adventure, give it a meaning all its own.”
When Karen was done with the passage, Georganne sighed. “That’s beautiful.”
A visitor dropped by, a dog at his heels. Arctic explorer Paul Schurke and his wife own this lodge, which specializes in winter dog sled excursions. But in the warmer months, he lends the place to Wilderness Inquiry, the company he cofounded with Greg Lais while at St. John’s University. (This little lodge is lonely and forlorn all summer,” he said. “Mostly we wait until the snow flies — which it will very soon.”)
Wearing a baseball cap and a sweet, crooked smile, Schurke welcomed the group.
“We like to think you’re in a very special place,” he said. “You’re at the entry point to the most popular, beloved, heavily visited protected wilderness area on Planet Earth and, for that matter, in the Milky Way galaxy.”
Outside this cabin, Schurke said, gesturing to the door, are 2,000 lakes, “almost all of which are clean enough that you could dip your cup in and drink from them.
“Although Wilderness Inquiry wouldn’t recommend it.”
Our guides were right: The skies cleared. We drove east, to the Lake One trailhead, and dipped our Kevlar canoes into the water.
Creatures of the water
Across Fall Lake, in the distance, an animal swam, creating ripples of water that spread and disappeared long before reaching our canoe. The animal was deep, strong. But what was it?
“Hard to tell,” Devan said, leaning forward. “A deer, maybe.”
Or maybe a moose? We called over to the other canoe, careful not to shout too loud. Their eyes widened. We had been talking moose all weekend, hoping to see one on our hike to Kawishiwi Falls. Or from the road. But on the water? We had never considered such a thing.
We took off, pulling the clear water back with our paddles as quickly as we could.
As we got closer, the swimmer looked smaller. A deer indeed, its short antlers sticking out above the water. We watched it swim toward shore.
A paddle, an island respite and another paddle later, Devan spotted another swimmer, much smaller this time. A beaver, someone predicted.
I dug my paddle into the water quickly, deeply, using every skill I had learned over these past few days, until we got close. Closer. Its figure finally became clearer: a red squirrel, dog-paddling toward shore.
We laughed so hard our canoe shook.
Then we took our time, paddling and pausing, exploring the lakes’ edges and its fauna. Moss the color of rust. Lily pads, turning from green to gold. At one point, we found ourselves in a bay of what appeared to be wild rice. The brilliant burgundy of their stalks beat any tree I had seen, so far.
While we chopped vegetables for dinner that night, Devan disappeared to build the fire that would stoke the Finnish sauna, coaxing the first flames by blowing, gently, into an open door on the sauna’s side. A few hours later, after a veggie stir-fry, some wine and a few more stories, we changed into our swimsuits.
It had grown just cool enough outside to appreciate the dry heat inside.
I let the sweat build on my forehead for 10, 20 minutes before grabbing my headlamp and following the others down the hill to the dock. The lake had grown dark, but the two brothers jogged to the dock’s end and jumped. Karen jumped, too.
I took smaller steps. Paused. I chickened out, sitting down and then easing myself into the cool, black water. Goose bumps.
We did it again and again, the lake water drying from our skin only to be replaced with sweat. Nathan posed big questions. What’s your biggest fear? If you could have a cabin, where would it be? I told them about a cabin we had rented a few years back on Lake Superior. We slept with the windows open, listening to the waves hitting the rocky shore. But tonight, my answer was here. Near this sauna, on this lake.
Sauna, lake, sauna, lake.
On my last trip to the lake, I abandoned my towel and headlamp. Then I ran down the dock and jumped into the darkness.