Where do we learn to love Wild Places? How does that urge to explore and investigate come upon us? I have found a spiritual place in the Ruahine ranges, in a way it seems a place that has always called to me, even if I was never aware of its gentle whisper in my ear. Yet I wonder if I had not met Nigel and John and gone for those first ventures into the mountains would I have found them on my own?
0n my last trip to America I began to sort through possessions left behind, things I thought I would soon return to but never did. Not much in the way of material wealth, but rich in old books, photos, and notebooks now long ago written. To come across them almost after 15 years was almost as if reading of another lifetime, or looking at myself as someone else. And maybe I was. I packed a lot of it up and had it sent here, only to put it away again, too busy with my new life as a parent, and husband, and Kiwi to sort through these relics of my past. This past weekend I did find time and it was a very cool experience. Some of the first photos I came across were of my trips to the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the northern most third of the Superior National Forest, an area of lakes and streams 1.3 million acres in size running 150 miles in length adjacent to Quetico Provincial Park of Canada of almost equal size. A huge area to roam in any ones book. All travel is by canoe, except in a few restricted areas on the outer edges of the park which allow motorized transport. 0ne paddles from lake to lake, carrying everything needed in the canoe, then portaging all to the next lake over and through rough forest trails where off you go again. Trips are by permit only, so as to reduce human contact, and there are no huts or structures, only designated camp sights on the lakes with built in grates for fire - thus reducing impact on the forest and also controlling somewhat the over use of wood as fuel. Rubbish is carried out, and human waste buried. I first went there in 1985, and returned there 4 times more before moving to New Zealand in 1993. Before I encountered the Ruahines it had made the greatest natural impact on my life, a place I felt as close to what I feel now in the Ruahine ranges. Please allow me to share this with you. The photos are rather rudimentary and aged but you get the idea.
The Boundary Waters are a result of the great glaciers which covered most of North America thousands of years ago. Through its relentless gouging and scraping were left behind the bones of the earth, granite hardened by the ages, huge house size boulders, stunning rock formations, crags and cliffs and canyons, and thousands of lakes and streams interspersed with islands and surrounded by forest. 0n any given day you might see the majestic Bald Eagle, huge moose, deer, and even curious black bears in search of a meal, all adding to the sense of wildness. At night you will hear wolves howl. After all, this is their home, we are only visitors. And there are the loons, the state bird of Minnesota, beautiful in their colour and especially their mournful song. Before I met the Whio my spiritual bird kin. Many people come here simply to camp and fish, the lakes laden with fresh water treats such as walleye, northern, bass, and lake trout. While I liked to fish, back then my main focus was to travel and see as much as I could, often getting up into extremely remote and rarely visited country in the Quetico region. Most of the day spent paddling and portaging until a cool camp spot revealed itself, mostly picked for a breeze blowing over it which would keep the relentless mosquitoes at bay. I could never get enough of the tough travel through such amazing country, even the portaging through the beautiful pine and birch forests I loved, indeed a fine respite from paddling. Along with the canoe are taken two packs, both rubberized and pretty much water tight. 0ne pack, a Duluth pack, is enormous, perhaps 150 litres, and it was one persons job to carry it across the portages, while the other takes on the smaller pack, perhaps 60-70 litres, and the canoe, with fishing rods and paddles lashed inside, and off we go. If on your own you simply had to do multiple portages if not a light traveler. Carrying the canoe is not as hard as it may seem. With a yoke, or padded shoulder rest in its middle it balances quite nicely. The harder part comes in the more remote terrain where the portage trails are less used, more overgrown, even obliterated. Fun times!
Above are my friend Quinn and I on my last trip to the Boundary Waters in 1992. We are along the Kiwishiwi river and trying to induce walleye out of a little water fall. I remember this day well, as not long after a pair of bald eagles landed nearby and flew around us for a few hours as we worked our way up river to another lake. I was never sure if they were interested in us or hoping we were fishing and might leave an easy meal behind, but which ever it was a memorable day.
Quinn and I were on an 8 day trip covering over 70 miles, 27 lakes and countless streams and back waters. Quinn is perhaps my oldest friend and had never done anything like this in his life, yet he proved a worthy companion beyond the normal scope of our friendship, putting up with the bugs, and mud and rain, and able to enjoy the place in all conditions. Never have I been prouder to call him, and still call him, my friend.
Journal entry : 16 June 1992 - Boulder lake
What a day! I'm so full of bug bites, scratches, scrapes, bruises, you name it. I am so tired. Yet in a sense I feel so invigorated, so happy. I should sleep but I know I cannot, nor do I want this moment to pass.
loons are calling on Boulder lake, the wind whistles through the pines, the fire crackles, it is Peace. We humped it hard today, harder than I ever have in this place before. And it rained and rained! We wanted to get here to Boulder, but we took a wrong portage at legend lake and went way north of here through some indescribable portaging. Actually it was beautiful deep forest, up near the cliffs leading to Kekabic. Though with all that rain, bugs, and trying to figure out where in the hell we were, we had to focus. The terrain was rocky, muddy and thick - not conducive to huge packs and a canoe. We ended up having to portage and extra 900 rods, three plus miles. Not to mention canoeing around all the lakes trying to find the portage spots. "It's All in the Game" - Van Morrison.
We finally ended up in some nameless little back water, a swamp really, but could not find the portage. 5 times we went up and down this perhaps 300 hundred yard long bog in our canoe, finally leaving our gear on one end so as to paddle easier and search. The mosquitoes were just tearing us up! Finally I spotted a small opening, got out of the canoe and investigated and that was it! We went back and got our gear and one final portage brought us to Boulder lake at 7:30 p.m., another 11 hour day on the move. No fishing today. But I loved every second. A true test of patience and toughness today.
It was such a relief to get onto big Boulder lake where the breeze was strong enough to blow away the mosquitoes. The rain stopped and we pitched our tent on the point of an island camp with the breeze blowing over us. I am getting the fire ready as Quinn casts for some fish dinner. Fresh fish would be nice. I have learned so much on this trip, with lots more to learn. But today I always felt in control, always calm. I can only deal with these things as they come in this place. 0ne at a time. I wish life were that simple back in the world.
The photo above was at Boulder lake. The big blue bag is the smaller Duluth pack, the black stripes at the top harder rubber which fold down then clamped to the sides make it relatively water tight. The bigger one is just a huge sack with straps to carry it. I am sort of amazed looking at these photos at how inadequate our gear really was. 0utside of my goretex jacket, which I still have, and our other rain gear, all our clothes would have been cotton. Not much good when wet. Then again this method of travel allows for bigger loads, though I reckon now I could travel with less than half the gear we would have taken back then. And we traveled pretty fast in any case.
At night, when the evening meal is done, the last cup of coffee drunk, and bed not far off, you must hang your food high off the ground and away from camp. Above are my friends Karl on the left and Jeff on the right. Above their heads is our food bag and cooking gear, ect. This is to prevent black bears from ruining a trip very quickly as their sense of smell and climbing ability is second to none. You must find two trees of similar height, far enough apart to prevent a bear from getting at it from either tree. Black bears can get up to 400 pounds, but even one of 150 or so you would not want to wrestle with. Banging on pots and pans usually scares them away and in all my trips we only had one such encounter, though I have seen many bears in the Boundary waters. This is a trip from 1989. Karl and I were in one canoe, and Jeff, the finest canoeist I know, was solo. Canoeing with a partner is a matter of trust and timing. The front man must be muscle only and allow the back person to steer and direct. Which in a place like this can be difficult when first getting underway, as there are huge boulders that lurk up out of the black tannin stained water, and an inexperienced front man can start pulling hard to avoid it rather than communicating the danger to the back man and allowing him to easily avoid the rocks with a simple twist of the paddle. Jeff in his own canoe was flawless and fast, still is from all I hear.
Above is Jeff on Mahlberg lake with a nice stringer of Northern Pike. Probably 4-5 pounds each, they can get up to 30 plus pounds, and even at the lighter weight are very tough fighters. Also excellent eating, these yeilded enough fillets for three hungry fishermen. Just above I am pictured with a good eating size walleye landed on the Kiwishiwi river.
Journal entry 19 June 1993, Bashatong lake : So here we are for our last night on Bashatong lake, a beautiful little lake off the beaten trail near Mahlberg and about 5 miles from our entry point. We spent the afternoon and early evening paddling around the lake and exploring. Some high granite cliffs opposite our camp proved irresitible and we went over to climb them. That was enjoyable, to see what time slowly does to these handsome giant monuments. I have come to the conclusion the rocks are the most noble part of this wonderful place. So elegant and each seeming to have its own character. At one point today we portaged through a sheer tunnel of granite which stretched up through the tree tops, smooth and cold as ice. It is the oldest hardest rock on earth.
This lake has been hit by huge storm, and I suspect a tornado, very recently. The shore and shallow woods on the eastern shore are simply littered with downed trees, most snapped off at the trunks like twigs. What force must have rolled through here! John Muir would love it. Firewood will not be any issue at all for our final camp fire.
A quiet afternoon for Quinn and I. We did not talk much, and felt no need to do so. I sense Quinn is also trying to soak up the last remnants of peace and solitude on offer in places like this. So the evening comes, our last meal, our last fire, our last cup of cocoa, our last meandering camp fire conversation. Thank you water, thank you rocks, thank you trees, for your timeless pristine presence. Until I return again.
Note from 1 April, 2008 : I have not been fortunate enough to return to this wonderful place since the above trip, though have certainly been blessed in finding a place here in the mountains I love in much the same, and in many different ways. I still hope to return one day to the Boundary Waters. In a way, writing this and posting these photos has allowed me to return there now.
"Evening on Bashatong"
I stand on the shore
of the moon lit lake
its surface today rough
now smooth as glass
the Wind today our foe
now quiet with only the gentlest
of loving whispers
The heavens above reflected
on the mirror of the still waters
In the distance the sun still sets
Colors of purple and orange
hard against coal black clouds
loons call in the stillness
their song enters my very soul
the fire crackles and hisses
with wood still wet from rain
I stand very still
with no reason to move
a moment of True Harmony
19 June 1993, Bashatong lake BWCAW.