If you’re here looking for current ice conditions on Gunflint Trail lakes, we finally have good news to share. As of this morning – May 8, 2018 – Round Lake is ice-free. With a soft steady rain currently falling, the remaining little icebergs should dissolve quickly.
The lake was mostly open yesterday, but wind pushed the remaining ice into the eastern shore of Round Lake, effectively icing us in. However, last night, we took one of the new motorboats for its inaugural spin. After “ice-breaking” through about 200 yards of rotten “candled” ice, we made it to the open part of the lake, where we joined a pair of loons and a beaver.
In the name of ice out reconnaissance, we hiked over the Missing Link portage, which was alternately mucky or covered in slippery hard snow pack. We found Missing Link wide open, but the low water levels on both Round and Missing Link Lakes and the brook running between those two lakes likely indicate that Tuscarora Lake has not opened up yet. However if you have a Missing Link BWCAW permit for fishing opener weekend, you will definitely be able to do some paddling, but right now what you’ll find on Tuscarora Lake is a “choose your own adventure” sort of situation for the new couple days.
In case you need further confirmation that it’s been a very long winter, keep in mind that Round Lake iced over on November 8, 2017, which sets today’s ice out date just one day short of six full months of ice coverage on Round Lake.
Last month, Andy and I had a chance to visit the birthplace of the Boundary Waters. It’s the birthplace of a lot of other things too.
If you’re imagining something like the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park with its official sign when you think of the birthplace of the Boundary Waters, think again. Chances are, even if you’ve never visited this birthplace in person, you’ve seen it countless times in the media. It might seem a little strange that the Boundary Waters – America’s most popular wilderness area – traces its beginnings to a completely manmade structure of stone, columns, and steps in a very urban setting.
Nevertheless, the place that birthed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.
Sure, the lakes and rocks of northeastern Minnesota have existed for millennia, but the fact that today we go on canoe or hiking trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the direct result of U.S. legislators’ work in the 20th century. Without the federal legislative action taken in the 1960s and 70s, today when you checked in for a cabin at Tuscarora, you might be checking in for a cabin actually located on Tuscarora Lake and we’d work with you to motor and portage your party and your gear over the two portages between our parking lodge on Round Lake and your cabin on Tuscarora Lake. When you parked here for your winter camping trip, you might be planning to snowmobile all the way into Gillis Lake.
Of course, the cabins that Tuscarora Lodge used to own on Tuscarora Lake are long gone, but at the end of the day, the only thing preventing you from using motors within the designated wilderness area is a federal law. (And we should all strive to be law-abiding citizens at every level of government.) At the risk of sounding too esoteric, the Boundary Waters is just an idea. A very good idea, but an abstract concept nonetheless.
So while the trees, waters, and rocks on either side of the Boundary Waters border might look basically identical when you’re in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we know it today is the result of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act that President Carter signed into law in 1978. In order to achieve the protections that U.S. citizens wanted for the Minnesota/Canada boundary lake country, the BWCAW act officially defined 1.1 million acres contained within the Superior National Forest as “Boundary Waters.” The 1978 act came after decades of state and federal legislative action that slowly worked to define the Boundary Waters as one of the United States’ most special and beloved natural areas.
Northeastern Minnesota was certainly a contentious place in the late 1970s when the Boundary Waters were being debated at the federal level. But it’s nice to think that the resulting wilderness area came about from concerned citizens and area business owners working together with their legislators and compromising. Today we’re still afforded the opportunity to voice any concerns we might have about the Boundary Waters with our elected officials. (If you’re curious to learn more about the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, you can check out this podcast from WTIP which specifically discusses how Gunflint Trail residents were involved with the bill’s passage.)
We were only in Washington D.C. for three nights and we weren’t organized enough to make arrangements to watch Congress or the Senate in session. But we did tour the Capitol building and I donned my brightest plaid shirt for the occasion – a subtle nod to the 1970s Gunflint Trail business owners who wore buffalo plaid shirts whenever they visited to the Capitol to lobby about the BWCAW bill.
We were on a purely sightseeing visit to Washington D.C., but despite this, I was surprised at how effective the city was – with its grand buildings and innumerable monuments – at creating “that America feeling” and making me really think (maybe overthink?!) about the impact certain acts of U.S. legislation have had on my own personal life.
We never got much beyond the National Mall during our visit (our lodging was just two blocks from the White House), but we managed to squeeze a lot of monuments, museums, and miles into our short visit.
Observing a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery
Watching the helicopters fly back and forth over the Tidal Basin as we toured monuments
Taking a break from wordy Smithsonian exhibits in the flower-filled lobby of the National Gallery
Enjoying a plethora of dining options
Although we were a little early for cherry blossoms, the green grass covering the National Mall, as well as the beautiful green oasis of the United States Botanic Garden, were truly sights for sore, winter-worn eyes. During our brief trip, it snowed another foot back home on the Gunflint . . . .
We certainly left a lot unseen in Washington D.C., but we hope to return sometime soon; plaid shirts optional.
Have you been to Washington D.C.? What was your favorite sight?
On our canoe trip packing checklist, we list a “good book” as a camping essential and judging by how depleted the Paddlers’ Library in the Dining Hall was in midsummer, many of you agree.
(Don’t worry, the shelves are looking a lot fuller these days, thanks to a delivery of books from the local Library Friends’ annual used book sale.)
As we watched all those books disappear this summer, we thought, “hey, you guys like reading . . . AND you like canoe trips, so maybe you’d enjoy some book recommendations about outdoor adventures.” With the lengthening nights, most of us are hanging up our lifejackets and picking up books, so hopefully these reading suggestions will help get you through the winter evenings until next summer’s paddling season.
Three Days in a Red Canoe on a River, by Vera B. Williams
While this book definitely isn’t about a Boundary Waters trip (on day three, the group paddles through a town), I don’t know of a children’s book that does a better job of introducing overnight canoe camping to young children. Williams – who also authored the award-winning, A Chair for My Mother, along with other children’s literature classics – captures the excitement of picking up a canoe, plotting out a route on the maps, and discovering the perfect campsite. However, she also doesn’t shy away from some of the challenges of canoe camping, such as paddling through inclement weather and the real consequences of standing up in a moving canoe. The book’s sweet illustrations will charm readers of all ages. This book might just be the ticket to ease an apprehensive young camper’s worries about or pique interest in an upcoming canoe trip.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
If you do have an apprehensive young camper, maybe don’t opt for Hatchet as read-aloud material before your next BWCAW trip. This “worst case scenario” young adult novel set deep in the Canadian bush follows Brian, a young teenager and sole survivor of a float plane crash. With little else than a hatchet, Brian proceeds to not only survive, but thrive in the deep wilderness, answering the question of many young visitors to the Boundary Waters and Quetico: what would it be like to live out here all by yourself? In the name of full disclosure, I will admit read this book when I was the target age for this book, somewhere between the ages of 8 – 12, and never reread it. At the time, I found the book fascinating, but realize now that Paulsen’s descriptions of a 13-year-old’s survival skills are probably pretty unrealistic. Paulsen’s subsequent sequels to Hatchet aren’t good, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief, Hatchet is an enjoyable wilderness read.
Canoeing with the Cree, by Eric Sevareid
The inspiration for many a canoe trip to Hudson Bay, Sevareid’s Canoeing with the Cree is perhaps the first great modern canoe trip memoir. In 1930, fresh out of high school, Sevareid and a friend embarked on a canoe trip from Minneapolis to York Factory, Ontario, Canada on Hudson Bay. Sevareid went on to be a notable war correspondent for CBS during World War II, and it’s easy to wonder if the grit he needed to be a successful war reporter stemmed from that four month, 2000+ mile canoe journey he took as a young man. Since its publication in 1935, Canoeing with the Cree has never gone out of print and in those 80+ years, at least two other books (and countless blog posts!) have been written about copy-cat canoe journeys.
Distant Fires, by Scott D. Anderson
Perhaps the best known Canoeing with the Cree copycat journey is that taken by Scott D. Anderson in 1987, which he tells in his memoir, Distant Fires. While not an exact copy of Sevareid’s route (as a Duluth native, Anderson opted to start his journey in his hometown, effectively cutting about 500 miles from the route), Distant Fires is noted for its humor as it recounts the adventures of two college aged men sometimes working with, sometime working against Mother Nature on their three-month adventure. Sadly, Anderson died in 1999 at just 33 years of age, making Distant Fires a solemn reminder of how important it is to seize canoe trip opportunities in youth.
A Contemplative Paddler’s Fireside Companion, by Timothy McDonnell
McDonnell’s A Contemplative Paddler’s Fireside Companion offers an alternative to epic canoe trip memoirs like those produced by Sevareid and Anderson. Rather than recounting a single canoe trip odyssey, A Contemplative Paddler’s Fireside Companion is a collection of essays drawn from McDonnell’s cumulative experiences of canoeing and kayaking in the wilds of Canada and the upper Midwest. Forget the “veni, vidi, vici” bravado that can come with some wilderness memoirs. In this thoughtful tome, McDonnell get at the spiritual “why” of wilderness experience. And if the last name looks familiar, yes, we do refer to Timothy McDonnell more commonly as “Uncle Tim” around these parts.
The Necessity of Empty Places, by Paul Gruchow
Andy recommends the work of Minnesota native Paul Gruchow, particular The Necessity of Empty Places in which Gruchow discusses the intrinsic value of the United States’ many wilderness landscapes. “If there is any cure this side of the grave,” Gruchow writes, “I am certain that it lies in the balm of nature.” If you’re looking for a more canoe trip focused read, Gruchow also authored Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Like it or not, it’s pretty hard to find a wilderness book with a female protagonist. While you’ve no doubt heard of Cheryl Strayed at some point in the last five years, if your only exposure to her is in passing pop culture references (I’m looking at you Gilmore Girls) or the Reese Witherspoon movie, I’d urge you to experience the actual book. Essentially a coming of age memoir, Strayed dabbles in many subjects in Wild including drug use, twenty-something career/life drift, and divorce at a young age, with the central theme being her coming to terms with the sudden loss of her mother to cancer at the very end of Strayed’s tumultuous childhood. For a book centered on a solo hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild is surprisingly focused on human interaction. Yet, it still captures the essence of a wilderness camping trip, from the tedium of camp food to the profound impact passing encounters with other individuals on the trail can have.
We’re curious: What are your favorite canoe trip/wilderness books?
For many canoe trip enthusiasts in the Boundary Waters and Quetico, portages are a necessary evil. Nothing slows down your paddling momentum faster than pulling into a canoe trip landing and having to completely unload your canoe. Even the shortest BWCA portage can be challenging and I fear for many campers, portages are something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
There’s really no “wrong” way to portage, although Andy and I would both encourage you to limit the amount of loose items in the bottom of the canoe to expedite the unloading process and lessen the risk of losing something. And obviously, you should practice canoe country courtesy at portages: keep your gear to the side of the portage landing, never completely block the portage path, and quickly vacate the portage landing so that other camping parties can land and start portaging themselves.
What Andy and I don’t agree on is how many times you should go over a portage. Andy and his buddy Andrew are firmly in the single portage camp. When we did the Granite River canoe route last spring, my friend Kati and I discovered that we greatly prefer to double portage.
The driving factor for Andy and Andrew to single portage is that it allows them to cover a great distance quite quickly and gets them deeper into the wilderness faster. It allows them to cover as more miles in one day than many people cover over their entire canoe trip and it gets them into remote areas of the Quetico that many people never see.
If you have the luxury of owning the lightweight gear needed to make single portaging possible, you can be over and out of portages in 1/3 of the time that it will take those who double portage. When you can clear a portage in 20 minutes as opposed to 1 hour, you suddenly have a lot more time to play with on any given day. Andy and Andrew like to use that extra time to fish. Single portaging can also get you into camp quicker, which gives you more time to get the campsite set up just the way you want and can also mean you have more time to make more complex (aka more tasty) camp meals such as calzones, shore lunch, or camp baking experiments.
Until our trip last spring, I always thought single portaging was the ultimate goal of canoe tripping – something to be striven for at any cost. But the truth is, I feel rushed and uncomfortable when I single portage and that in turn makes me feel like I’m missing out.
I don’t want to turn this into a gender divide, but physicality definitely plays into my preference to double portage. I’ve never been very successful at carrying a pack and a canoe simultaneously – it just doesn’t seem like my shoulder have enough real estate for both portage pads and Duluth pack straps. While Kati and I are both perfectly capable of carrying a 60 lb pack filled with all our camping gear, a heavy pack causes us to walk much slower and is more time consuming for us to load and unload at the portage landings. For us, carrying two 30 lb packs provides us with surer footing on the portage paths and eliminates that straining at the portage landings. While it might not actually be faster for us to double portage, we feel speedier because of the ease at which we can navigate each trip across the portage when we have a more comfortable amount of weight on our shoulders.
I like to think my preference for double portaging isn’t just a physical reaction, but reflective of my canoe trip philosophy. When you single portage, the goal is to get over the portage as quickly as possible so you can get on the water to get to the next portage to get over the portage as quickly as possible and so on, until it starts to feel like you’re wishing your canoe trip away. When you only see the portage path from beneath a burden, the things you notice are hazardous rocks, tree roots to avoid tripping over, and puddles of unknown depths.
But when you double portage, you get one lovely walk in the woods completely hands-free. This affords you time to notice tadpoles in those puddles, the wildflowers growing along the cedar tree roots, and dragonflies sunning themselves on the granite boulders. It’s a chance to simply be in the wilderness, to literally stop and smell the wild roses. For me, it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of a Boundary Waters trip.
What your preference? Are you team single portage or team double portage?
After an exceptionally beautiful start to April, the weather turned decidedly “April-ish” right around Easter. Serendipitously, we’d planned to travel for a week and a half at the end of April and we drove to the Duluth International Airport in 34 degree weather and a light rain.
Our very loose travel plan involved flying into Las Vegas, spending the night, picking up a rental car and getting the hee-haw out of Sin City. We’d planned to head towards one of the many (many!) National Parks within a day’s drive of Vegas. In the end, we headed west and within three hours, we were buying an “America the Beautiful” pass at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley National Park.
There’s always a bit of culture shock when we roll into a National Park. Like every kid from northeastern Minnesota, Andy and I have spent a lot of time on public land – mainly land managed by the Forest Service as National Forest. We’re pretty down with the idea that there are so many places in America that are too special to belong to just a handful of people and should instead be made available to the masses. But we’re used to the U.S. Forest Service approach to land management of “hey, here’s some sweet woods you might want to check out at your own risk” vs. the National Park Service’s more hand-holding approach of pointing out every panoramic view worth taking a photo at and their focus on accessibility. On this trip, we saw so many amazing sights thanks to the National Park Service’s preservation work, but we also realized a lot of things that we’re thankful for in the Boundary Waters.
In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you travel at your own risk. This can sound scary, but what’s more off-putting: having to travel a little more carefully, or having a park ranger stationed every so often along your route watching you with binoculars in case of emergency?
In the Death Valley Sand Dunes, we walked in 94 degree heat under the watchful eye of a paramedic park ranger who scanned the horizon of the dunes with binoculars, watching for potential heat exhaustion victims.
For better or worse, the BWCA doesn’t emphasize accessibility. Because the National Park system does, it can sometimes feel that an element of discovery is missing in national parks – like you’re seeing the park on someone else’s terms. When we climbed into the southeastern Sierrra Nevadas in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the large parking lots at the General Sherman Tree and Grant Grove unwittingly made it seem like some trees were worth looking at and others, not so much, even though we were surrounded by spectacular views and towering sequoias and it was all worth taking in.
Our time in the National Parks last month also made us really appreciate the quota system that regulates visitor usage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Say what you will about the Forest Service’s management plan for the BWCAW and the somewhat manufactured sense of wilderness it creates, but limiting the amount of people who can be in a certain area at a certain time often does translate into an elevated experience. In Zion National Park, we waited in a long line at the eastern entrance only find “no room at the inn” when we reached the visitor center parking lot.
Zion’s been plagued with overcrowding for years now, and in an effort to combat the overcrowding, Zion implemented a mandatory shuttle bus for those wishing to visit the canyon in the peak season. However, this solution resulted in a parking nightmare at the base of the canyon, where people leave their vehicles for hours on end at the visitor center. As the day wears on, the parked cars start sprawling into the adjacent town of Springdale. Because UT Hwy 9 travels through Zion, everyone who takes Hwy 9 must pay park admission, even if they don’t plan to stop, a policy that likely inspires people to stop who initially might have been planning to just pass through. We enjoyed the beautiful sights along Hwy 9, but we never found a parking space and left feeling like Zion was a national park begging for some sort of daily admission cap.
But that’s not to say that every national park should pursue a daily admission cap. At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, we were among thousands of visitors, but never had trouble parking and because of the park’s great infrastructure, were able to see every part of the South Rim that interested us, thanks to a combination of walking, shuttle bus, and car travel.
During our trip, we were reminded of the value of diverging off of any “travel top 10” list. While we visited a lot of very well-known national parks, our most enjoyable national park experience was in a national park I’d never heard of until a week before our trip when a random photo of a Facebook friend at Pinnacles National Park popped up on my feed. Both America’s newest and smallest national park, Pinnacles was a national monument for decades before President Obama designated it a national park in 2013. Although our visit landed smack-dab in Pinnacles’ peak season, we enjoyed a great hike through the park’s volcanic rock formations, spying condors soaring overhead and horny toad lizards hiding in the shade along the chaparral lined trail. Best of all, we felt like the park was ours to discover at our own pace.
Our trip wasn’t all national parks. We even managed to find a National Forest Wilderness area when we hiked into Woods Canyon south of Sedona, AZ.
Perhaps some of the most rewarding time on the trip was spent on land managed by the State of California in the San Simeon area of the Pacific Coast and Hwy 1. A highlight was observing the elephant seal rookery of 6000+ seals.
I’ve always loved touring big houses and William Randolph Hearst’s Hearst Castle atop the coastal hills of San Simeon did not disappoint.
On the way from San Simeon to the Flagstaff, AZ area, we overnighted in Lake Havasu.
We enjoyed Lake Havasu’s main attractions – 100+ degree heat and a great view of London Bridge.
By the time we reached Vegas for our return flight to MSP, we’d seen six national parks, visited 4 states, and traveled approximately 2000 miles. We made it back to Minnesota just in time to catch one final snowstorm of winter 2016-17 and prepare for the busy summer paddling season ahead.