I think it was the fish that introduced me to the spirits of Kawishiwi.
The Kawishiwi is a river, an ancient highway, in that part of the great northern wilderness we now call the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I was there for recreation, but others before me — the American Indians, the fur trappers, and the voyageurs — had used this river for centuries for more serious purposes.
It was 1974, and I was traveling alone. My plan was to go with others but they had all backed out. I had the food and the gear, and was young, strong and good with a canoe and comfortable with these waters. It was as if I had lived there in a previous life. Perhaps I had, as a black bear maybe.
I was tired. I’d traveled from Little Saganaga Lake that day, some 10 hours of paddling, and my shoulder blades were cutting through my shirt. I was on a part of the Kawishiwi that runs through low, boggy swamp country, and I had to paddle around many bends before I found a campsite.
Just below a short portage, around a brush-choked rapids, was a rocky island campsite. It was quite large as campsites go in this country and, as might be expected for this rocky oasis in a desert of water and bog, pretty well-worn. As I looked for a good place to pitch my tent, I wondered about all the others who must have stopped here. This was the only high-and-dry spot in a long, long way, and so it had surely been hard used for centuries. If only the rocks would talk. What stories could they tell of the travelers before me?
The evening was still, the sky as clear as the water. The setting was more idyllic than any wildlife artist could conceive, and just below these chuckling little rapids was the world’s most inviting fishing hole.
So, of course, after I made camp, I lazily paddled out a few yards and made a few obligatory casts with a red and white Daredevle. I was really too tired to fish, but I knew I’d feel guilty if I didn’t — the setting was that great.
I caught and released a couple hammer-handle small fry before tying into a real legend of a northern. We learned to respect one another before it lay grinning at me from the bottom of my canoe, too exhausted to fight more without a rest. It was too much warrior to kill just to eat. I let him go, went to shore and boiled up a one-pot supper.
As the sun went down, a full moon came up, and the white-noise of the mosquitoes put me right to sleep.
I awoke around 2 a.m. to the sound of voices. A large party was coming down the river. They were having fun, chattering and laughing, but they were just a little too far off to make out individual words or even the language spoken. I assumed the people, like me, had paddled many miles looking for a campsite. When I heard their canoes hit the portage I planned to get up and invite them to share my island.
As I lay listening and trying to decipher a word or phrase I realized they seemed no closer. Perhaps they were coming upstream, not down. I had a clear moonlit view downstream, so I sat up, opened my tent and looked. The voices stopped! No sound at all until the silence was slowly filled again with the chuckles of the rapids and the other, usual, night sounds.
Ghosts! Immediately I knew these had been ghosts. Not evil spirits, but friendly, fellow travelers with me on the Kawishiwi. However brief, what a privilege to be allowed their acquaintance. I was pleased and grateful. For some reason I thought about that big fish and wondered about his role in this introduction.
Since then I have done some reading and research about this river. Today we use it for fun. To the voyageurs and fur trappers it was a highway, but to the Indians it was sacred ground. Some called it “the place in between” … Kawishiwi.