Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Beginnings : The Boundary Waters

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.


Bob McKerrow said...


Had a quick look at your blog and I found it fascinating. The Ruahines and Boundary Water. I lived sometime in Ely Minnesota, training fo an expedition to the North Pole in 1986. We dog sledded across the border into Canada and back again many times.

And I first heard of the Swatooth ridge in the Ruahines when I was climbing with a bunch of Wellingtonians who new the Ruahines well. Round the base camp table at night, they used to tell me yarns about the Ruahines.

Norm Hardies book is "On my own two feet." A superb book.

Must fly. I am trying to get home early tonight.

Keep up the good work on your blog.

Warm greetings


Bob McKerrow said...

Sorry about the spelling mistakes in my comments yesterday. In a hurry.

I heard about Saw Tooth ridge with my climbing mates in Peru as a young 19 year old, I had to go overseas to learn about the Ruahines.
Have a good day.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
No worries and welcome. That is interesting reading of your hearing stories of the Ruahines as a young man climbing in Peru! Please feel free to share any stories or memories of the Ruahines here. I know in comparison to other areas you have climbed they are fairly insignificant, but I find them beautiful and spiritually filling, I struggle to put those thoughts into words really.
I will add your blog to my roll as I am sure some of the people who have been in the ranges with me will find much interesting material to peruse, as I have.
I will try to search the Norm Hardie book today. Are your own books still on offer here? Have a great Bob.
Ka kite ano,

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
I meant - Have a great day!
My young son has made a sticky mess of this keyboard!

Bob McKerrow said...

Like Thoreau and his Wakden Pond, I know how a mountain range can capture your heart, soul and time.

I have a similar affair with the Pir Panjal and Dhaula Dar, the lesser ranges of the Himalayas where I spent 3 weeks in Feb and March this year. In fact I have fallen in love with more mountains than women, and more summits than brands of red wine. And I love women and wine.

I spent a few years under the shadow of the Tararua's at Arapaepae, an outdoor centre I ran in the late 80s.

My books are available from Take Note in Hokitika. Email Bruce Watson: hokitika@xtra.co.nz

The books are on Ebenezer Teichelmann and " Mountains of your Mind - Afghanistan."

Take care and walk gently.

Ruahines said...

Cheers Bob! Thanks for the info. I really like that, "fallen in love with more mountains than women, and more summits than brands of red wine".
I am no climber, though the Ruahines present certain challenges of their own, but I have always been fascinated about climbing and the allure it holds for some. I never understood it really, a boy from Wisconsin, until I moved here to Aotearoa and encountered mountains for the first time by actually getting amongst them. They have not let go.
If you ever get to New Zealand again, you are welcome here. I will serve you a nice Kiwi red, hope you don't mind if I have a single malt! Kia ora Bob.
Ka kite ano,

Bob McKerrow said...

A Single malt
Or Kiwi Red
C'mon Robb
The hills are there.

Anne-Marie said...

Kia ora Robb. What a wonderful place - your photos show the wild beauty of Boundary Waters very well. I can't imagine camping in a place where you have to worry about bears!! I would love to hear wolves howl, though.

Rumour has it you and I might bump in to each other next Friday evening :-)

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Nothing like a wee dram in the tin cup up in the hills!

Tena koe Anne-Marie,
The instances of someone actually being attacked by a bear in the Boundary Waters is very very rare, these are Black bears not more aggressive and larger grizzly bears. They would ruin a trip quickly though as they would be very fast and methodical about devouring everything remotely edible should they get their paws on your food supply. 4 or 5 days from a road end that is not a pleasant situation. Generally a bear would only get aggressive if it was a female and you got between her and her cub. Most often they smell you long before you see them and simply move off. I love bears and always enjoyed seeing them in their natural environment. Wolves I have never seen but have heard at night in my tent. It is a tingling type experience knowing you are truly in remote country, and this very primitive sort of response to that sound emerges. A strange connection.
I hope those rumours prove correct!
ka kite ano,

Gustav said...


Another huge addition to your blog and one that resonates deeply within me.

The Boundary Waters, Alaska, and Wisconsin are the "Beginnings" for me in terms of falling in love with wildness.

I noted that you have added Bob McKerrow as a new blog link and checked it out this morning.

Its a fine addition and what I also found interesting was that he had a tribute to his Dad on it (I assume its his Dad James McKerrow).

In a way there is no one more qualified to provide a tribute to their Dad than a son. I was thinking one day you might do the same for your Dad. I may do the same and get the old photos out and get them breathing again.

I loved the old pics that use to hang on the walls in your basement such as the autographed Bart Starr photo and the one of you as a very young boy sitting next to your Dad while he coached his team at a game.

Thanks for your "Beginnings" - it is inspiring.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Gustav my Brother,
You and I have never traveled together in the Boundary Waters and I would love to share a canoe with you there. We have, however slept by a dwindling camp fire on the Wisconsin river having forgotten our sleeping bags, and an even colder night along the Maropea. We have climbed Mount Tamal starting in fine weather and ended up fighting a storm for our lives! You know these places.
That Bart Starr photo hangs on my wall here in New Zealand, as do some of the others I have now unearthed from boxes shipped back from America.
I choke up now just thinking of my father, a tribute to him would not be wart free. Yet I miss him.
off to Top Maropea, another special place we have shared, for my 25th visit, in the morning. Will spend my 25th evening in the Doorway to the Ruahine on my own, but many spirits will be swirling about I am sure. Kia ora my brother.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robb,

I well recall that blue Duluth pack from our first crossing of the Ruahines years ago when you lugged it over Maharahara - admittedly, a relatively easy 9 hour trip through the leatherwood corridor, and not much compared to what we subsequently did further north, but still a magic adventure and one I will never forget. When Liz drove us from Palmerston North to the start of the trail, the mountains were completely shrouded in impenetrable cloud and I think we both felt a little uneasy and some trepidation about what lay hidden above us as we had never been there before. It began snowing when we paused at that derelict hut right on the bushline (what was that place called? I forget) and it didn't stop all day. I remember looking out the window (which had no glass) and seeing gently falling snowflakes framed in it. We were total greenhorns then eh? I wore jeans and you had cotton socks and leaking boots. A recipe for disaster in more challenging circumstances ,but mercifully the Ruahine Gods recognized youthful stupidity and smiled on us. I think we both learnt lessons that day mate! Give cotton the big swerve in the mountains and good footwear is a gift not to be refused. I still have the photo you took of me at the summit. Maybe you have the one I took of you too. Good luck with the Top Maropea expedition when the weather allows. I saw on a weather report here in Korea that the lower North Island of NZ was going to gets hammered by heavy rain so your call to postpone the tramp was the right one. Happy trials when it eventuates brother. You are never far from my mind.

Be cool.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Brother!
A moment of Connection as today I was viewing Maharahara while driving and recalling those early trips. Yes, you recall that trepidation well as those cloud and mist covered tops awaited. I honestly do not remember the name of that ruined hut and suspect it is now long gone, but I do remember us inside it, the snow falling,pulling on the first of my fresh dry cotton tee shirts,adding another sopping wet useless one to my thankfully smallish load, the long farm walk behind us, and then up and up pretty much all the way to Maharahara. I have those photos and will post them. Some magical moments we had. Indeed, being on top of Maharahara and I was putting on heavy cotton warm up pants in the snow, which were soon wet and cold. You had on that Russian hat and a wool jersey that weighed about 15 kilos, but it was warm! Yet we made it, and it only increased our appetites for more. We did that walk twice. Kia ora for that Nige!

Anonymous said...

One of many moments of Connection eh brother? I have to say that Russian hat was perfect for those conditions and I was warm the whole trip (even with wet bloody jeans!) Ditto my Meindl boots, as I remember my feet were warm and bone dry for the duration. Actually, I think we were both wearing the same tartan Swandri shirts that day (I certainly was as I have a photo of it). You will recall we jokingly contemplated making them a prerequisite of club membership, even though the club, per se, didn't exist at that time. For us, that may have been the second excursion together in the Ruahines, but in many ways it was the first experience we had of the fickle nature of the mountains. As I said earlier, mercifully they let our naivety pass unpunished. Have a great week mate.


vegetablej said...

Hmm. I love your post about finding your old journals and revisiting your younger self through the trips you made to the forest in America. It got me thinking, because in a few weeks I too will be going through old papers and deciding what to save, and maybe thinking about the past. This kind of musing must certainly be part of coming to terms with the place that we call home.

How lovely that your friends gather around here to share your memories and offer greetings. Today you are rich in friendship and family, and your sensitive appreciation of the wild.

I was struck by two things you said in this post. One was about the trust and timing needed for partnering in a canoe. Made me realize why in a few cases we ended up going around in circles.:)

The other was your comment about feeling more calm and in control when you were living in the moment in the woods, and how you wished it could be the same "back in the real world". Yet as recently as our grandparents' generation, it was their real world. Sitting here in a big city, in a big house, with roaring cars just outside the window, I wonder how we got "here" so fast, and lament the passing of a life more calm and real and graced by pines and birches.

Ruahines said...

Tena Koe VJ,
Lovely of you to stop by! I know you are in the midst of huge changes and experiences but it is always good to read from you.
Until you pointed it out I didn't realize the analogy of sharing a canoe to perhaps our own partnerships in the real world. Very true, if we try to steer instead of paddle at times, and give that trust to someone, and vice versa, we go in circles, or worse in rough waters may sink! But when the trust and timing are right it can be a thing of beauty, both the canoe and the partnerships. I think sometimes I am far better at steering a canoe than a partnership. Kia ora for your thoughts VJ. Have a great day.
Ka kite ano,

Bob McKerrow said...


'Mountains and River paid you no fee.'

I mentioned Denis Glover. He knew the mountains well. Here are a few lines:

Mountains muzzle mountains
White-bearded rock-fronted
In perpetual drizzle.

Rivers swell and twist
Like a torturer’s fist

And from Arawhata Bill:

It got you at last, Bill,
The razor-edge that cut you down
Not in the gullies, nor on the pass
But in a bed in town.
RIP where no gold lies
But in your own questing soul
Rich in faith and a wild surmise.
You should have been told
Only in you was the gold:
Mountain and river paid you no fee,
Mountain melting to the river,
River to the sea.

Have a good weekend.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm with Bob on that one Robb. When I was at high school Glover's poetry and Slatter's 'Gun in my Hand' were obligatory reading. Because of this, I felt obliged to dislike them both. Subsequently, i have come to realize Glover was very talented and Slatter's writing reminds me, for reasons I can't put my finger on, of one of my favorite books, Camus' L'Etranger. The folly of youth eh?


Ruahines said...

Tena Koe Bob,
Thanks for that, and I am sure you invoked some strong memories for my friend Nigel, now living in Korea. Are both those from Denis Glover, or is Arawhata Bill a seperate poet? I will be adding some new poetry books to my collection, I assume they are still in print, or will haunt some second hand book shops. I have so enjoyed your blog and this last post on the photography of E.Teichelmann has inspired me to order your book this week. Thanks for the email address. Do you forsee any return visits to Aotearoa in the future? Have a great day.
Ka kite ano,

Your recommendation means a lot to me as you know. I keep returning to that second hand book store in Shannon as the guy assures me he will get in some Camus. I will also check out the poetry section for Glover. Kia ora brother!

PATERIKA HENGREAVES, Poet Laureate said...

Kia ora Robb

I like very much reading your poem, "Evening on Bashatong" and indeed you are a nature lover. I look forward to reading more of your poetry. So please indulge me. Thanks in advance.

Ka kite ano

Ruahines said...

Tena Koe Paterika,
Kia ora for that, you make me blush! I wrote that a long time ago and I remember the moment clearly.
I just returned from the mountains and wrote a few things while in a hut with the rain pouring down on the tin roof. I will be doing a new post soon. Some other stuff I have written, which I guess would loosely be called free verse from my study thus far of your poetry site, is scattered throughout my earlier posts. Would love your feed back on that as poetry is something I am finding a real passion towards. Cheers Paterika and have a great day.
Noho ora mai ra,

Elizabeth said...

I sure hope you make it back this way someday to visit the Boundry Waters again.

Where you live also..is such a beautiful place.

I think they filmed the movie Lord of The Rings there too.

I'm so glad you found a plce to call home,and at least you have a 2nd home too..(The Boundry Waters).

I love your blog,and love that you express something even words can not describe,but it comes out in your writting none the less.

Thanks for the beautiful pictures!!!

Elizabeth in Minnesota

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Elizabeth,
Haere Mai (Welcome) and thank you for taking the time to visit some of these older writings. It makes me happy to know they still have relevance.
Minnesota was my home for a long time and will always have a special place in my heart. As does my new home here in Aotearoa. Kia kaha Elizabeth.