Archive for September, 2015

The Way of the Canoe

Friday, September 25th, 2015

 

Canoe country

Canoe country

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten.”

Sigurd F. Olson

From The Singing Wilderness,
“The way of a canoe”

 

 

A crescent moon hanging over the lake in the pre-dawn. Loons yodeling in the distance. Fish for supper. Geese etching a V above the sunset. A nap on sun-warmed pine needles. Wading knee-deep to ease the canoe back into the lake to conclude a rocky portage. A handful of gorp after battling headwinds.

BWCAW Sunrise

BWCAW Sunrise

For 50 years, these feelings and images have drawn me back to northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. More than a million acres of rivers, lakes, Canadian Shield bedrock, spruce and pine forests, and wildness captured my soul on our first encounter at a college field station in the 1960s. We’ve returned numerous times – the latest in early September.

My daughter, Emily, didn’t have to twist my arm very hard when she hinted that it might be nice to have one more paddler with the group she was leading on a short canoe adventure as part of her job (this is WORK?) as naturalist/educator at the Cable, Wisc., Natural History Museum. “Let’s go!” I declared.

Portage

Portage

Besides Emily, I shared lakes and portages with a retired Chicago prosecutor, a couple of retired teachers, a financial software expert, and a 72-year-young woman whose skill, strength, endurance, and good cheer were an inspiration for all.

Fish for supper!

Fish for supper!

We canoe regularly on the Turkey and other Iowa rivers – but the Boundary Waters are canoeing at its finest. The Anishinaabe who first plied these waters, and the voyageurs who carried furs and trade goods across the North Country, found the canoe an ideal craft to travel the maze of lakes and streams. Sure, you must carry canoes and gear from lake to lake – across portages that can be steep, muddy, and long – but the waterways ultimately form a Northwest Passage across the continent.

Eagle country

Eagle country

We obviously didn’t traverse the continent – only a handful of lakes off the Gunflint Trail northwest of Grand Marais: Poplar, Lizz, Caribou, Horseshoe, Gaskin, WInchell, Jump, and Allen. Each lake has its own character, but several classic traits keep reminding you that’s you’re in Canoe Country. Scattered white pines escaped logging to stand watch over spruce, balsam, cedar, aspen, and paper birch woodlands. Granite bedrock defines the landscape, with outcrops that lure campers and fishermen. Bunchberries, blueberries, twinflowers, baneberries, and a host of other flowering plants carpet the forest floor.

Forest floor

Forest floor

Most lakes sparkle clean and bright (although it’s still advisable to filter water you drink to avoid nasty parasites.) Yes, things have changed from the half-century ago when we routinely dipped a cup in the lake and took a cool drink without worry. And we now paddle 40-pound Kevlar boats, instead of aluminum canoes weighing twice as much. (But the traditional birch bark canoes probably weighed several hundred pounds!)

What hasn’t changed is the satisfaction of traveling under your own muscle power. You can almost imagine a party of voyageurs singing gaily while they paddle ahead of you – or grumbling profanely as they trot over the portages in a race to shed their two 90-pound packs and get back into the birch bark canoes.

 

Muddy portage

Muddy portage

With recognition and gradual protection over almost a century, leading up to wilderness designation in 1964, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has lured generations of adventurers. Attracting 250,000 million visitors annually, it’s the country’s most heavily used wilderness.

Wilderness? With that many people? Ironic, to be sure. But one reason the Canoe Country endures – despite almost a century of threats ranging from hydro dams to highways to float planes, resort complexes, logging, mining, snowmobiles, and utility towers – is that generations of PEOPLE have come to love its natural wonders. Let’s hope that passion helps it endure for generations to come.

 

BWCAW Solitude

BWCAW Solitude

 

 

 

 

 

Isle Royale

Friday, September 4th, 2015
McDonald Lake on Isle Royale

McDonald Lake on Isle Royale in Lake Superior – Canada in background

Fifteen miles off the Canadian shore of Lake Superior looms Isle Royale – a beautiful, 133,000-acre, one-billion-year-old hunk of rock that’s defined by contradictions.

 

A National Park since 1940, it’s on the “bucket list” for countless travelers – but still remains one of the least visited sites in the 390-park system.

 

View from Washington Creek campground

View from Washington Creek campground

Ninety-nine per-cent wilderness, much of Isle Royale’s ecosystem has been shaped by activities of humans. Indians began mining copper here at least 4,500 years ago. The natives probably imported snowshoe hares, and perhaps other animals and plants.

Snowshoe hare

Snowshoe hare

 

Nineteenth-century miners blasted into the rock searching for copper, after setting fire to the forests to clear away vegetation that slowed their efforts.

Loggers cut some of the prime trees – even with the realization that getting the timber to market across the turbulent lake could be next to impossible.

Loon family

Loon family

 

Commercial fishing thrived in the late 1700s, when whitefish and lake trout were harvested to feed fur traders and voyageurs. The industry continued well into the 1900s – and sport fishermen still ply both Lake Superior and inland streams and lakes.

 

In the early 1900s, several resorts and private clubs were developed as playgrounds and retreats for the rich from the mainland.

Bunchberry

Bunchberry

 

Caribou and lynx once inhabited the island, but disappeared about a century ago. Later, moose somehow found their way across the ice – or swam the lake – to populate the island. Without predators to control them, the moose populations cycled from boom to bust, sometimes devastating the vegetation they fed on.

 

In the 1940s, wolves came to the island and began feeding on moose, paving the way for classic predator/prey wildlife research. But with disease and inbreeding now bringing wolf populations back down to two or three animals, the balance is once again threatened.

 

Sunrise at McCargoe Cover

Sunrise at McCargoe Cover

Despite its isolation, the island is home to more than 600 species of fungi and 30-plus species of orchids, along with a rich variety of other northwoods plants.

 

Jewelweed

Jewelweed

We pondered this history and natural history on a recent week-long visit to the biggest island on the largest fresh-water lake in the world. Well, not a FULL week, because our trip was delayed a day by the whims of Kitchi-Gummi, as the Chippewa called Superior.

 

“We’re not going today,” announced the ferry boat captain when we arrived at the Grand Portage, Minn., dock for a 2½-hour ride to the island. Too windy, too rough. And if the boat captain doesn’t think it’s safe, you don’t argue!

 

5 a.m. ferry from Grand Portage

5 a.m. ferry from Grand Portage

The waters calmed by the next morning, however, so we boarded the Voyageur II at 5 a.m., and watched with anticipation as the dark shadow on the far eastern horizon gradually took shape as Isle Royale.

 

Isle Royale Lighthouse, Menagerie Island

Isle Royale Lighthouse, Menagerie Island

Once at the park, the contrasts continued. Margaret and I were able to take ferry shuttles to three different campgrounds, while our daughter and her boyfriend hiked and backpacked about 50 of Isle Royale’s 165 miles of trails. Something for both slow-paced “seniors” and more energetic explorers. Either way, a fun adventure!

 

 

Boardwalks traverse Isle Royale's creeks and wetlands

Boardwalks traverse Isle Royale’s creeks and wetlands

Here is a sampling of more delights from our trip.

 

Full moon at Rock Harbor

Full moon at Rock Harbor

 

Camera bug

Camera bug

 

Red squirrel - camp robber

Red squirrel – camp robber

 

Towering pine

Towering pine

Thimbleberry

Thimbleberry

Herring gull

Herring gull

Cormorant rock

Cormorant rock