Monday, June 22, 2015

Ten Days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Nina Moose, Lac La Croix and Ramshead




Everyone must believe in something.
I believe I'll go canoeing.

- Henry David Thoreau





We had planned to go this fall, but a sudden change in schedules meant we had two full weeks off simultaneously.  It took us less than a week to dehydrate everything, order a second 115 liter dry bag backpack and throw it all in the car. And drive. And drive some more.  We slept at rest stops and Wal-Mart store parking lots along the way. And then drove some more. We took our Volvo across New York and Pennsylvannia and then headed north through the historical Upper Peninsula of Michigan (where we dined on the same meals as loggers of the 1800s - whitefish paté and pastys) and over to the Land of 10,000 Lakes: Minnesota.  We arrived at the BWCAW with no plan, no maps and no real idea of what we were doing except for all our canoe camping experience in the Adirondacks of New York. So after a unbelievably quick trip to register our canoe in Minnesota, we headed over to Piragis Outfitters (for no other reason except that we met some random canoeists at a restaurant in the U.P. and they recommended it) and simply said: "where do we go?"and basically took whatever launch permit that was still available on a Friday afternoon: Site 16 onto the Moose River. Quickly, we bought the necessary maps and a few necessities: a Nemo inflatable camping pillow for Aaron and a tyvek cover for our canoe before heading out for our final hour of driving before finally launching.


  Our first impressions of the BWCAW was the size ... of everything.  Including the number of cars in the parking lot!  SO many cars made us extremely nervous - would there be a campsite available and worse, would there be people everywhere??  While things on the water initially appeared to be similar to what we had experienced in the Adirondacks, our first beaver sighting immediately changed that opinion.  They were huge!  Within 30 minutes on the water, we had seen almost 15 beavers, all larger than the anything we had seen before on the east coast.  We made quick work of several 20-25 rod portages around some mild rapids and found ourselves looking at Nina Moose Lake - and an absolutely gorgeous rocky campsite directly across from us on a small peninsula.


Nothing makes us feel more at home, especially after spending 25 hours driving and sleeping in a car, setting up our MSR original Hubba Hubba tent and building a fire on the shore of a quiet water lake.  The other campsites around the lake were quickly filled by other canoeists, yet the peaceful nature of the wilderness was not disrupted.

Our newly established plan was to chill out all day Saturday, taking a Zero Day, to get our bodies and minds ready for the adventure.  Aaron fished, I did yoga and we managed to just enjoy the idea of being in an area of the world which we had dreamed about for years.  An area where people from all walks of life throw everything they need into a canoe and head off into the wilderness for days at a time.  And it would have been relaxing, if the sky hadn't opened up on our second night with rain that turned our beautiful campsite into a flood plain.  Gear test of out tent - it withstood sitting overnight in over 6 inches of water and even though I kinda freaked out a bit neither our gear nor us got wet at all!  Beautifully, the rain stopped right before we had to pack everything up because we were not here to sit all week at a campsite, but explore everything the Boundary Waters could show us during our ten day adventure.

a room at the Turtle Club Med
Our third day in the wilderness marked a stark contrast to the peace and quiet we had expected as we passed almost 30 canoes - all headed back to the launch site to drive back to their homes throughout the midwest.  And we finally saw our first girl!  She and her dad had been paddling across Lake Agnes during the storm the night before and had flipped their boat and all their gear was soaked!  They looked so miserable and had given up on the rest of their trip.  We, however, were going in the opposite direction.  Awake at 5am to get the flat water, we paddled and portaged past Lake Agnes and into the Boulder River where we opted to forego a short portage and attempt the rapids.  We were richly rewarded for after the quick water we paddled up to the Turtle Club Med, an area of rocks where we counted over 50 Painted Turtles all enjoying the rocks.  Groups of 5-8 turtles were gathered on each boulder for some quality turtle time.

Our journey brought us to an island campsite just past Boulder Bay and away from the popular Tiger Bay.  But I could have lived at this rocky elevated campsite for the rest of my life and been completely happy.  There was plenty of space to dry out all our gear in the hot June sun and we spent the afternoon settling into our campsite: filtering water, fishing, yoga-ing and enjoying the freedom that comes with having no people in our view.  We could see was Warrior Hill, rumored to be a historical cardiovascular testing site (a spartan challenge if you will) for the native warriors of the neighboring country of Canada.  Lac La Croix is a ginormous lake that runs the border of the United States and Canada which could have been a stressful, wind disaster of a paddle.  Instead, it ended up being sheer glass and some of the easiest paddling we've ever experienced.  Our joke became that paddling the west is like skiing the west: where it is always sunny and easy.  However, the one radio station we could pick up on our crank radio contributed the calm waters to the smoke from Canadian forest fires started via lightening from Saturday night's storm.  In fact, when we paddled all along the Canadian border of Lac La Croix the next day, checking out the ancient Indian paintings, the haze from the smoke was so strong it seemed like we were gliding through an eery fog.    

Paddling through the Smoke toward Canada
It was also the first night we discovered our new backcountry staple: Coconut Dream (a combination of quinoa, coconut flakes, curry, bouillon and dehydrated canned chicken & pineapple). I think we ended up eating this meal just about every other day.  All of our food, in fact, allowed for creativity and variation, as we packed "Pantry Style" with big bags of staples like quinoa, couscous, oatmeal and instant mashed potatoes.  These were able to be mixed with dehydrated meats and veggies depending on how we were feeling.  I had also repurposed a holiday sprinkle container into a spice jar (sorry, Mom), enabling us to make curry, chili, Tony's or throw in a ton of garlic to suit our moods.  It made eating much more interesting over 10 days, feeling like we had more variety on the water than we usually do during ski season in our own home!

Our fourth day, the 5 am wake up call was finally rewarded with perfect glass as we continued to head north following the Canadian border.  After the almost 50 canoes we had seen thus far, we were surprised to find not a single paddler on our travels on Lac La Croix.  Between the smoky haze and the solitude, it felt like our own Goonies adventure - would there be a pirate ship sitting in the water when we rounded the bend?  Our perhaps some buried treasure near where the Indian paintings sites were located?  We paddled the Canadian side of the lake just to make sure.

Sunrise on Lac La Croix 
Once our long morning of paddling was finished, we set up camp on an island in the Twenty-Four Island Bay looking northwest across Lac La Croix at the Nequaguom Lake Indian Reserve in Canada.  It was neat to see the markers simply stating "Canada" all along the border as we paddled.    Once camp was set up, I took advantage of the breeze and snuck in a much needed nap in the flyless tent overlooking the water.  Could life truly get any better?

the Daily Task of Filtering Water
  Of course not.  The final day on Lac La Croix started with pain in Aaron's right shoulder, my lower right rib and a dead camera battery because we had spent the night filming a huge momma painted turtle digging her nest in the mud near the shore of our campsite.  But this would be our last day of 10+ mile paddling for a while.  We had reached the furthest away from the car we would travel (approximately twenty-five miles) and would now cross back into the smaller lakes of the Boundary Waters to return home, starting with a short portage into Takucmich Lake with the intention of making camp at the only campsite on the small Trillium Lake.  After a look at the site, we bailed on that plan and ended up paddling an extra couple of miles back to a much nicer site on Tukucmich.

From here on in, we would be carrying the canoe and our gear a minimum of 150 rods a day, with varying quality of trail from shin deep mud to shoulder high grasses.  But all these portages required massive amounts of bug spray and patience as we unloaded and reloaded our 115 liter dry bag backpacks from the canoe each and every time.  One of us would carry the canoe with life jackets attached around the seats and fishing poles tied in while the other grabbed the paddles and loose water bottles.  Eventually, the portaging became like clockwork; we were even able to quickly transfer the canoe between ourselves on the longer portages without missing a beat.  We were becoming proficient "Loopers." Instead of setting up a base camp and making day trips with an empty canoe, we gathered up all our gear every morning and paddled with a full boat from site to site.  It was a lot of work, but made for a much better adventure!

Ticks, No-see-ums & Mosquitoes.  Just as challenging, if not more so than the portages, the smaller lakes of the BWCAW had overnight become a bug heaven.  Discussions for the purchase of a Nemo BugOut Shelter took center stage as evening fell - and would continue for the rest of the trip.  I could barely stand the bugs long enough to cook our food before diving back into the tent to eat it.  It was a test of patience, endurance...and acceptance as we still had five more nights of mosquitos to contend with.  Grateful for my summers in southern New York, our nightly tick checks felt like a little piece of home as we picked at least one wood tick from an armpit or hip daily.  The leech between my toes one day seemed like nothing after watching a wood tick climb up the screen of the tent one evening.

Sunset on Bear Track Lake

With every intention of being up with the sun to avoid paddling in the heat of the day, our bodies finally demanded some much needed rest on Takucmich Lake.  I think the only reason we even got out of the tent that morning was because it was too hot to just lay around.  The previous night was supposed to thunderstorm to relieve the humidity, but we ended up with only a three minute hail storm that melted into the waters.  Eventually, we were once again on the trail, through the insanely muddy portages into Gun, Eugene and then past Little Bear Track Lake to our final destination for the 5th site of the trip: Bear Track Lake.  These were the portages from hell.  There were sections of mud so deep that you worried your shoe would get sucked in forever.  At one point, I slipped in the mud while carrying the canoe, dropping to one knee before I realized what had happened.  Amazingly, the canoe never touched the ground and I was able to recover ... slowly.  Although originally chosen because the lake shared its name with a trail at Killington, Bear Track Lake's long rocky waterfront ended up feeling more like Acadia National Park than Vermont.  Plus it had the added bonus of being completely ours.  

The sun had come out in full force and felt like it was
Fallen Logs make great Portage Breaks
purposefully trying to kill us, an unfamiliar feeling to a couple who has actually never canoe camped in the summer.  We are winter people and it was wicked hot!  I thought that the heat would chase all the fish to the bottom of the lakes, but Aaron had no difficulty with either his fly or traditional rods.  We traveled across Thumb Lake and into Finger Lake (get it?), which immediately struck me as a sister lake to my own dear Kanauwake in New York.  While it was much larger, the feeling of the islands and shores just somehow made me feel at home.  Aaron was able to get in some great fishing while we floated around the middle of Finger while I desperately pounded water to keep up with the boiling hot sun.  Our next portage to Finger Creek was my favorite of all time, as we carried our gear alongside the rapids.  I felt like a whitewater kayaker on a grand expedition but could imagine the Native Americans and trappers traveling this way centuries ago.  I wonder how they dealt with the mosquitos.

Finger Creek itself made me feel like an Indian princess.  It was the first time we had ever come across a river intersection in all our canoe travels and something about choosing which windy pass to travel connected me with the past.  A time when canoeing was the best way to travel sounds just so wonderful to me.  Coming into Ge-be-on-e-quet Lake, we rounded the shore to our left only to find yet another beautiful rocky beach campsite.  Life in the BWCAW was getting to be monotonous.  However, this time, we were able to take warm showers after leaving our Pocket Shower in the sun for a few hours.  Oh, to be clean is so taken for granted in the modern world!

From Ge-be-on-e-quet, we set off through the glassy waters of Green and Rocky Lake and onto Oyster Lake, bumping into a young military trained duo on one of the rockier portages.  For some reason, we were hauling ass and feeling good (and the campsite wasn't nearly as awesome as the ones we'd had the previous nights) so Oyster became merely a lunch and swim spot rather than our stop for the night.  Our one radio station was finally playing more music because someone finally guessed the $5000 secret sound: cutting a pizza with a pizza cutter.  For days now, we had been listening to people calling in from all over the country with the most outrageous suggestions.  I'll admit, the contest did pass the time while we were hiding from the bugs in our tent in the evenings!  As we turned the corner after lunch, we realized that we were finally getting back into the more civilized area of the wilderness: a boy scout troop was all over one section of the lake.  This reaffirmed our desire to leave this lake and keep on moving down the river toward an even more populated Lake Agnes.  On the way, we realized it was Friday night and the crowds were definitely upon us as we met an extremely friendly group of two brothers taking their sons on a loop they had done 25 years earlier.  It was weird seeing and talking with people again, but at least we would have a few days to get back into the swing of civilization - especially when you meet skiers who had family living in Vermont!  

After a cautious trip through the bog of the winding Oyster River and past the much anticipated floating dead moose carcass, we made it to the home of the weekend warriors: Lake Agnes.  There were several groups of bachelors as well as multi- generational families camped out on the shorelines.  Had we really paddled all this way to be here?  We found a nestled campsite on what we would lovingly name Dirtbag Cove.  If we stayed up high on the site, we couldn't see the other groups.  However, the wind had been pushing all the pollen in our direction and it was slowly rotting (with the smell to prove it!).  Between the moose and the pollen, I would definitely call this the smelliest day of the trip!  The next morning, we had our first visit from a park ranger!  I couldn't even remember where we had packed our BWCAW permit 8 days ago (Aaron had it in his life jacket).  We had debated taking a Zero Day at Agnes before heading home, but the ranger said the familiar magic words: "No body goes to Ramshead."  Welcome because that's where we had wanted to head and familiar because no one ever wants to ski Ramshead at Killington!  It was perfect!!

We had one more night to reclaim the peacefulness that had defined the majority of our trip to the Boundary Waters, so we followed the ranger's advice and headed back toward the intersection of the Moose and Oyster Rivers, making our way to the 160 rod portage to Ramshead River.  Although we did run into one group of Minnesotans on the portage (literally.  It is difficult to see if anything is coming at you when both people have a canoe on their shoulders!), Ramshead turned out to be just like our Ramshead at home: quiet and peaceful.  We set up camp on what we named Breezeway Island, because of the openings on either side which created just the most wonderful breeze after the past few days of stagnant air.  It felt like home.  With the much appreciated cool air, we were were able to do some laundry and sit outside the tent all evening long listening to the familiar call of the loons amidst the cacophony of native birds.  It was a perfect way to spend our last night in the Boundary Waters.  Especially when we had a 594 rod portage day ahead of us - the reason why most people don't bother venturing over to the beautiful Ramshead Lake.

In the end, we ended up paddling sixty-five miles during our ten day, nine night adventure.  We experienced twenty-eight different bodies of water with over 2000 rods of portages in between.  A random trip that we never thought would happen ended up becoming one of the best non-ski adventures we have had to date.  Making the choice to hop in the car with a week's notice made all the different in the world.  It was such an awesome that we decided to stop in Chicago, Illinois to grab a Cubs game on our way home.  Unfortunately, it was torrential down pouring rain.   Tornado sirens went off in the city for the first time that anyone could remember, and our trip to the famous Wrigley consisted of walking around the concourse trying in vain to figure out a way to sneak up to the field to at least see the ivy covered brick wall.  Instead, we ended up pounding on the counter of the Salt and Pepper Diner in Wrigleyville, cheering on the Chicago Blackhawks as they won the Stanley Cup at home for the first time since 1938.  We went from the wilderness of the Boundary Waters to partying in the streets of Wrigleyville with more than a few thousand of our closest friends, at least four law enforcement helicopters overhead and police barricades in all directions. Top it all off by meeting Roberto Clemente's Puerto Rican neighbor over hand cut filet mignon at a small independent restaurant called Diso's Bistro just outside of Cleveland, Ohio and you have one of the most epic trips I could never have imagined.


May You Find the Spirit of the Mountains Within You,
Merisa & Aaron


Over 3600 Miles Driven
28 Bodies of Water

65 Miles of Paddling and 2000+ Rod Portaged