One with the earth I've just returned from Minnesota, and today I am proud to report that I can check off one of my lifelong dreams: spending four days lurching uphill amid clouds of savage mosquitoes along boulder-strewn paths with an 18-foot canoe balanced on my head.
Next on my lifelong wish list: three weeks in a really small room with Douglas Bruce listening to him talk about himself, I mean, talk about tax referendums and unconstitutional mill levies.
Anyway, the trip to Minnesota brought us, for four days and three nights, deep into the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a name chosen because it reflects the pristine nature of the million-acre paradise of lakes, ponds and rivers, and also because Louisiana had already taken the name "Bug-Infested Swampland."
It was tough work.
Here's what author Robert Beymer has to say in the introduction of his book about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a book with the catchy title of Boundary Waters Canoe Area:
"So my wife, Cheryl, and I spent the entire summer of 1998 exploring the water routes," Beymer writes, "paddling 421 miles on 190 lakes and 20 rivers. We also hiked 191 miles on 250 portages and 4 hiking trails. Yes, it was tough work, but somebody's got to do it!"
I did not take Bob's wife, Cheryl, on this trip. Instead I took my own wife, Susie, who is quite the outdoorswoman in her own right. A week before we left on this wilderness adventure, just to give you an example of the Daniel Boone-like survival skills she possesses, Susie hiked to the far end of our deck overlooking the tangled forest of pines and cottonwoods behind our home and ordered a pizza using her cell phone.
The southern edge of the Boundary Waters surrounds the northern Minnesota town of Ely, a Native American word meaning "242 T-shirt shops." We arrived in Ely with our friends, Gil and Mary, after we'd spent a day in Duluth, a mining and shipping town on Lake Superior and a lovely place to visit if you want to watch a tugboat rust.
Mary's own outdoor skills clearly rival those of Susie. On our second day at our remote wilderness camp, for example, Mary announced that the whole thing would be nicer if she had several coat hangers to organize the clothing inside their tent. Susie agreed, and wondered if Patagonia makes steam irons.
Mary had spent months planning the details of this trip, right down to precisely what kind of freeze-dried food we'd be mixing with off-color pond water each night at dinnertime. We had freeze-dried beef stroganoff and freeze-dried beef burgundy, a particularly lovely delicacy with the same general taste and consistency of a can of Play-Doh. (I ate half of mine and used the rest to mold a startling likeness of President Theodore Roosevelt.)
Under the canoe
Our adventure began Tuesday morning when Jake, a 20-year-old college student and summer employee of North Country Canoe Outfitters, loaded our gear and canoes, and us, into and onto a van and headed for the trailhead to Gabbro Lake, the first in a series of lakes we'd visit.
Forty minutes later we unloaded the van and I somehow managed to get a 50-pound pack containing our most essential items (a case of Miller Genuine Draft in plastic bottles; no glass containers are allowed into the wilderness area) onto my back. Then, using the technique Jake had showed us the day before, I jerked the canoe off the ground, over my head and onto the ground on the other side of me as a group of young Boy Scouts snickered.
Eventually, however, I got the canoe settled onto my head and shoulder region, supported by my arms extended over my head. I was now carrying about 100 extra pounds, giving me a true understanding of how a turn-of-the-century wilderness adventurer must have felt and, more importantly, what poor Ted Kennedy must feel like when the senatorial aides roll him out of bed each morning.
Gil got a similar pack onto his back and our second canoe onto his head, and, with Susie and Mary carrying fairly heavy packs themselves, we set out on our long quest to find solitude on this frenzied planet. My quest ended after seven steps, when the bow of my canoe, or "hat," crashed into a birch tree, sending me reeling backward and off the trail as everyone pointed at me and laughed. I would exact a bit of revenge for my camping partners' mocking behavior by volunteering to be the "camp cook" for the entire expedition.
Thank God for Jake
Somehow, we carried all the gear over the three-quarter of a mile portage. For the sake of accuracy, however, it should be noted that we were assisted slightly by the young and fit Jake, who at one point took the canoe off my head, the unbelievably heavy pack off my back, put them onto his own body and ran the remaining half-mile to the first lake. I used that time to contemplate the beauty of nature. Although to untrained observers, it might have looked like I was slumped against a log, lapsing in and out of consciousness.
Soon we were in our canoes, paddling toward solitude. After another, shorter portage (combining the French words por ("men") and tage ("carrying canoes on their heads until they can hear their testicles pop") and about a 10-mile paddle, we found a campsite and settled in for four days of unforgettable scenery, peace and a sense of oneness with the earth.
The doctors say I should be able to get my arms down from over my head in about a month.