by Phil Rowe
It was mid-September. Temperatures nearing the century mark surprised us as Walt and I drove north through Duluth, Minnesota. We were headed for canoe country, the Border Lakes region along the US-Canadian boundary. After reading Justice William O. Douglas's articles describing his canoe trips there, we were anxious to experience the Quetico Wilderness for ourselves. His descriptions of the lakes, the fishing and the fascinating wildlife ran through our minds as we approached our jumping-off point at the little town of Ely.
Confirmed reservations with a commercial outfitter assured us of the rental canoe and a complete camping package, including provisions for several days in the wilderness. All we had to bring was our clothing and fishing tackle. Everything else was included. We opted not to use a guide, preferring to explore on our own. We did purchase two lake maps.
I'd been around canoes since I was a kid, but my companion was about to experience the joys of paddling for the first time. We headed for the dock while the outfitter's staff loaded our gear aboard a small railway cart to roll it down to the water's edge. I'd never seen such an apparatus for hauling gear, but it made infinite sense. Carrying that baggage one or two pieces at a time from the storage building down to our waiting canoe would have been a chore. Walt quickly noticed the big red arrow logo on the side of the canoe's bow. He seemed pleased that it indicated the direction we would paddle, so I suggested that he take the bow seat and I'd paddle from the rear. Between us were four large wicker backpacks with food and equipment, plus a folded wall tent, our individual clothing bags and fishing tackle. Soon we shoved off and headed east down Basswood Lake. It was perfect weather, with a slight tailwind to help speed us along.
We made good progress as we headed for the first of two short portages between lakes. Each crossing involved repeated hikes carrying our gear two or three items at a time. Then we shouldered the heavy aluminum canoe to complete the transfer. On the third lake we headed for a designated campsite on a tiny tree-covered island. Walt quickly got the knack of paddling and took the lead in switching strokes from one side to the other. He was obviously enjoying himself, but then in such a magnificent place it would be difficult not to. Occasionally we paused to rest and just take in the scenery. Ah, this was living.
Another canoe approached us from across the lake, a park ranger aboard. He hailed us and soon we stopped, gunnel to gunnel, in the middle of the lake. The ranger alerted us to sightings of black bear, even on our tiny little island destination. He advised us to hoist our food cache high onto branches of trees to keep it out of the bear's reach. And then he assured us that we'd probably not be bothered, especially if we made a little noise from time to time. We thanked the ranger and continued on our way.
Shortly after mid-day we reached the island. It was obviously a popular camping site, for there were poles tied to two trees to make a frame for tents, an overturned derelict rowboat served as a picnic table and sections of large logs were placed in a ring for chairs. A stone fire pit, blackened by many earlier campfires, was ready to use. Someone had even left us a small pile of broken driftwood. It was a welcome sight. After cooking a light meal over the fire, we set up camp. The wall tent fit nicely over the pole frame. Pine needles served as a delightful floor. Our two folding cots left just a small aisleway. It was not a very big tent. It would keep the rain off, though none was forecast.
Camping so late in the season meant that flies and mosquitoes would not be a problem. Though the area had not received its first Fall frost, the nights were cool. Temperatures dropped into the low forties. Lake waters were still quite warm and that would assure us of early morning mists or low fog.
Walt suggested that he ought to take the canoe out by himself, just to see what it was like and to test his new skills. That proved to be an interesting experience. I stayed at the campsite and began to rig my fishing pole for some bank fishing. Then I heard the splash, some shouted expletives and the noise of thrashing in the boat. You guessed it. Walt capsized the canoe. I dashed across the island to the side from whence the expletives were shouted. There sat Walt in his upright but water-filled canoe. He paddled toward the island from a few hundred yards away, drenched to the skin. I shouted to ask if he was all right and got only a grouchy mumble response. He seemed to be okay, just soaked. That was my clue to rekindle the campfire. Walt would need drying out.
He later explained that the boat flipped over very suddenly as he reached for something forward of his seat. Before he knew it he was upright again, only to find the boat full of water and his spare paddle floating away. The thrashing noise was his attempt to retrieve the drifting paddle. The whole thing was a sudden surprise, even more so by the fact that none of the fishing gear in the boat was lost. The expletives were his commentary on the entire episode and a criticism of his lack of canoeing skills. An hour or so by the fire, a few cups of hot coffee and a change of clothing confirmed that the only damage was to Walt's pride. It was a valuable lesson for a novice paddler, one that we have all likely experienced at one time or another.
Three nights of camping on that delightful little island proved to be a wonderful tonic to relieve the tensions and anxieties of our military jobs. Soon we had to return to civilization and resume our duties as B-58 crew members at our Indiana air base. The Quetico wilderness is absolutely delightful. Walt and I are convinced that Fall is the best time to be there.
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