Many people could write of the great survival skills, the wondrous beauty, or the life lessons learned in the Boundary Waters. Unfortunately, not me. For those lessons, check out the book by my buddy, Jim Landwehr, “Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir.” While my Boundary Waters story involves the aforementioned Landwehr, it was definitely NOT the sort of lesson you might think! Or was it?
For the uninitiated, The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA or BWCAW) is part of the Superior National Forest and is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. It consists of over one million acres, located along the United States and Canadian border along northeastern Minnesota. The Boundary Waters are mostly undeveloped and most locations are accessible only by non-motorized boats or by foot. It contains more than 2,000 backcountry campsites, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, and many miles of hiking trails. It is not uncommon for voyagers to encounter very few humans, if any, during even a short trip through the BWCA.
This trip was planned as an immediate post-high-school-graduation adventure. It involved me, Pat, Jim, and another friend dubbed “Doug” in Jim’s book. I had a sleeping bag and some fishing gear, but nothing else that you might consider proper outfitting for a week-long trip in the wilderness. Doug had arranged for the canoes and all the other gear with a local outfitter at the edge of the BWCA. All we needed to do was get our limited personal stuff from St. Paul, Minnesota, up the Gunflint Trail to the outfitter.
Doug and Jim had decent tents that they packed. Jim was proud of his newer model that had rain shields and special bug screens. I had no idea how important those particular items were until they became nearly necessary for survival (or at least basic comfort!).
We left almost immediately after graduation. That meant early June, 1979. For my friends outside of Minnesota, June is still on the very early edge of Spring. You never know whether the temperatures would be in the 30s or the 80s. It also means prime time for black flies, mayflies, and no-see-ems. I think we checked the weather, but that did not mean we specifically prepared for it. Springtime is also known for heavy rain. We learned about all of these things the hard way.
If you think this adventure was haphazardly planned, you would be correct. Yes, we had a rough idea of what we were doing and where we were going, but we connected the dots using our 17-18 year old brains (that means they did not necessarily connect!). For instance, our route to the BWCA was not well thought out and took MUCH longer than anticipated. Next, the hamburger that Doug had meticulously packed in a cooler went bad even before we arrived in the BWCA. Finally, our small troop had little understanding of canoeing skills, and even less of navigating through the woods. None of these things were necessarily fatal, but they all contributed to the ultimate failure of the trip.
The first bright idea was just getting from St. Paul to Grand Marais, Minnesota, which was the starting point of the Gunflint Trail into the BWCA. None of us had a car that we trusted to make it all the way to Grand Marais, so it was either the train or bus. We opted for the train to Duluth because that sounded classier than Greyhound. Even so, we still had to hop the bus in Duluth for a two and one-half hour ride to Grand Marais. We didn’t plan on the bus station being on the other side of the city, so our hoofing it started sooner than we thought. It was great to finally get to Grand Marais after that long trek. We excitedly took photos beneath the large sign welcoming us to the Gunflint Trail. I just wish my camera wasn’t lost on the trip!
The Gunflint Trail used to be a footpath from inland lakes to Lake Superior. It is now County Road 12, a fifty-seven mile paved road from Grand Marais to the BWCA. Our plan to get that fifty-seven miles from Grand Marais? Hitchhike. No lie. Yup, teenaged brain. We figured it would be easy! As you might expect for four guys with gear – easy, right? What we got was a wonderful, sunny, and HOT day that early June. Oh, and we found those mosquitoes and no-see-ems! I think we hiked nearly half-way up the trail before getting several rides in the back of pickup trucks. We ended up splitting up, so it was Jim and I arriving at the Gunflint Lodge long after Pat and Doug.
I remember debating whether to stay at the lodge overnight or trying to catch up to our planned schedule. Much to my regret, we took the cheap route. It wasn’t as if we had a whole lot of cash to spare! So, we loaded our gear into the canoes and took off. I think we only had one map. Doug had that since he was the one who planned our route and obtained the gear, so he rightly declared himself the trip navigator.
It was a beautiful evening. The water was calm and serene. It was so clear that you could see clear down to the bottom of the lakes. I’d been in the woods plenty, but never had seen such pristine forests and lakes. It was quite enchanting. Before long, though, the day’s long arduous hike, sunburn earned along the trail, and grumbling stomachs made us find a campsite for the night. It was then that we found that Doug’s hamburger meat had gone bad. Doug insisted that it was still good – “white hamburger doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad,” he said. Too exhausted to even argue, we simply pitched our tents and decided to wait for our eggs and sausage breakfast, which we knew was likely still edible.
The next day started wonderfully. It had all the signs of a great day. We were up early, feasted on breakfast, and broke camp. We had a leisurely morning of paddling, fishing, and swimming. We learned that the bugs were not nearly as bad when we were away from the shore, so the day started in a truly spectacular manner. That all came to a crashing end when we encountered our first portage. Doug had identified a “shortcut” that would help us make up the time lost in transit. It meant an over land portage of nearly a mile. That is a mile with canoes, paddles, and our gear. I, for one, was not physically ready for this part of the adventure.
Jim is almost a foot taller than me, so carrying a canoe on our heads together must have looked ridiculous. The only way for it to work was if he were in the front. Even then, it wasn’t easy. The word “trail” was not a good description of our route. Maybe overgrown path, but certainly nothing like a groomed trail. We constantly tripped on the numerous tree roots and other undergrowth. All the while we were unmercifully attacked by flying critters. This was no fun at all, but we were still pretty giddy about being all alone. We hadn’t seen another soul since we’d left the lodge the night before.
I’m sure my mind has played tricks on me to get me to forget the great times on that trip, but from that portage, almost all I remember is that things went from bad to worse. I do remember being pretty excited about having to traverse a rapids on this route. It was a small rapids, but fun. Pretty soon, though, there was an even bigger rapids. We stopped and debated whether to “shoot” the rapids or carry the canoes around it. Well, the adjacent landscape wasn’t too conducive to portaging and we were perhaps overconfident after the last fun rapids. We decided to go one at a time. Pat and Doug took the first shot at the rapids. As a precaution, they put their most important gear in our canoe.
It was quite the wild ride – and hilarious to watch from the sidelines! A better description might be “small waterfall,” but it was shown on the map as a minor rapids. Pat and Doug’s canoe flipped several times, dumped them out onto rocks, and nearly floated away. Good thing for Jim and I that we chose the sit this one out! Because of the terrain, we decided the best alternative was to let the canoe stay in the water, while Jim and I held onto a rope tied to the stern. Great idea until the rushing water got rough. No, it didn’t become too hard to hold, but because we were pulling against the swift current, something had to give. The canoe flipped and started to submarine. EVERYTHING was soaked. Even worse, the “important” gear from Pat and Doug’s canoe never got properly tied down, so it all kept floating down the river. I remember making a heroic effort running along the shore and diving into the water to rescue Pat’s sleeping bag, but just about everything else was lost.
By this time, we were ready to call it a day. We found a nearby campsite and strung everything up to dry. We figured we’d be better off waiting till morning to continue this gallant journey through the wilderness. Besides, I think we were all just physically exhausted. We lit a fire and Pat cooked up some pancakes for dinner with our remaining egg or two. Since we hadn’t had any luck fishing, we were already nearing the end of our limited food supply, but at least we were sated for the evening.
Morning broke with the sound of rain on the tent. All of the clothing and gear that we’d carefully hung was soaking wet yet again. Springtime in Minnesota brought a bit of chill to the morning air. We crawled out of our cold, wet sleeping bags to find an overcast sky, rain, and no way to even whip up some hot coffee or cocoa over a fire. Though Jim had regaled us in high school about being able to start a fire in a cave with an ice cube, we couldn’t even keep a match lit. Even Doug’s supposed “waterproof matches” failed. For me, this whole trip was looking pretty bleak.
We researched Doug’s route, packed up the gear, and started out again from the bank of the giant lake we had settled at. Within about an hour of paddling through the rain, the clouds above started looking even more ominous. Jim and I looked with horror at the small whitecaps that were starting to form on the lake ahead of us. We looked back at a comparatively smooth lake behind us. Within moments we both had similar foreboding thoughts and almost simultaneously determined that the best course of action was to pack this trip in.
Pat and Doug insisted that we carry on. Jim and I were just as insistent that we turn back. In addition to the impending storm, a key factor was our lack of food for the remainder of the journey. One solution was to again split up. Doug and Pat might be able to subsist on what we had left if Jim and I went back. Together, we reasoned, we’d never be able to finish. We left our best gear with Pat and Doug, while Jim and I regrettably turned back. I know that my morale was at an all time low and I felt that Jim was in a similar boat (pun intended!).
Though we turned back, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. Jim and I retraced our route, albeit with some recently-aquired wisdom and exceptionally vigorous paddling spurred by the approaching storm. So much for the easy going trek from the day prior. We were, though, able to make it back in less than half the time. Yes, we got rained on, but we were already soaked to the bone. I was never so happy to get back to “civilization” as I was when we reached the lodge.
The way back from the BWCA remains somewhat of a blur, but I’m pretty sure that someone took pity on us and gave us a ride all the way back to Grand Marais. My recollection was that we simply hopped a bus all the way back to the Twin Cities rather than deal with the train from Duluth. I could be wrong, but I was so wiped out, I just can’t remember many details.
For what it is worth, Doug and Pat finished the trip. They waited out the storm and had relatively smooth sailing the rest of the way. I recall that they continued to mock us as “sissies” for quite some time. I retorted that Doug couldn’t talk as the self appointed leader of this failed expedition, but truly, without him we probably never would have even done it. It was Jim, though, who had the last laugh. Yes, he might have been a bit of a sissy (me, too!), but Jim made multiple return trips to BWCA, became quite an accomplished wilderness voyager, and even wrote an excellent book about his experiences.
So, the real lessons of this trip – were surprisingly tremendous! I learned, belatedly, to never give up. We were really no better off than we would have been if we had survived the wilderness and finished the journey. Anyone who knows me knows that it wouldn’t hurt me to go a couple of days with little or no food. I also learned the value of preparation. To this day, I never go on a trip without personally doing the research, making a list of supplies, and planning for what could go wrong. After our foray into the BWCA, even during extended field time with the Army, I knew conditions could always be worse – and that I could make it through. Finally, I learned that young mens’ dreams and aspirations can be realized if they stick together – and that the friendships forged during the hard times can last a lifetime. I still cherish my relationships with those old dudes!
As a final thought, even though we are getting old and gray (or no hair), our impending move back to Minnesota has definitely inspired the idea of reliving that ill fated journey with Pat and Jim. Heck, maybe we can even take some sons or daughters along and regale them what the BWCA was really like in them olden days!