from eighteen years in the
Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Dale Netherton

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This collage of events took place over the period of eighteen years. it describes the highs and the lows, the drudgery and serenity, the extremes of weather, the camaraderie, the bizarre and the fun that only the boundary waters can provide.  For those just starting and those near the end of their sojourns , may the waves lap gently and the campsite be unoccupied.

It all began back in the early seventies when I bought a canoe kit and spent some midnight oil between working in a factory and running a restaurant part time.  It was a kit that required a good bit of messy fiberglass glue but it didn't end up looking too bad and best of all it didn't leak.  I took my two youngest sons into an easily accessible area of Clearwater Lake not being familiar with the more remote accesses.  We had a pup tent, some dried rice, some bouillon, pancake mix and high hopes of eating fresh caught fish.  The time of year was June and the mosquitoes had a reunion which we were cordially invited to every minute.  On our way up it grew late before we could find our turnoff so we decided to sleep under the canoe as it was raining pretty hard.  This was not a good idea and constituted a very bad start.  After a night of absolute misery the day dawned clear and we embarked down the trail to a lovely beach where we launched the canoe.  We found a nice campsite about half way down the lake, pitched our tent and prepared to catch fish. We caught nothing.  We drifted the lake and fought the wind back to camp, nearly capsized, had rice and bouillon, and retired.  The next day was swimming day and after we turned blue (only a few minutes), it was back to fishing and another supper of rice and bouillon.  The next morning we had pancakes ( without butter or syrup ).  Big hit.  Rice and bouillon for supper.  One more day of this delicious cuisine and I had two boys contemplating cannibalism.  We headed for town and I saw the back of my son's white T shirt had turned black. Mosquitoes. To replenish our red blood cells we stopped at a cafe in Grand Marais.  I watched two savages attack anything that could be swallowed.  I knew our next trip would be better.

It was now the eighties and a friend at work gave me a book by Pat McManus entitled "The Grasshopper Trap" and from that came the first Grasshopper expedition to the BWCA.  It was planned to a fare thee well with a food list that required a 70# food pack, a chef's array of utensils, saws, axes, bed rolls, air mattresses, waterproof matches, towels, biodegradable soap, a K-Bar, bushels of gorp and an admonition to pack light.  We crossed Vermillion towed by a friend's blue smoke special and reached the first portage into Trout Lake with enthusiasm, the smell of two cycle oil in our lungs and a huge cargo to carry over the 16 rod portage.  Our destination was Pine lake which has a portage that seems all uphill with a final 1/4 mile of peat bog that cools your feet and produces the healthiest black flies and mosquitoes on the planet.  I can still taste that first handful of gorp as we rested in the launch area into Pine Lake.  We returned to Pine lake many times in our eighteen years and each time brought back that same flavor as we prepared to enter Pine Lake, camp in the island site and dwell on the memories that never faded.  One time we arrived to a week of rain and the only fire we could conger up was on a tiny Coleman camp stove.  We struggled all week with wet bedding, undercooked food and the never ending drip from our makeshift tarp roof.  Finally Friday came and as we planned our departure the rain stopped, the sky began to clear and the most fabulous rainbow came up.  Another memory.

Pine lake had some of the finest walleye fishing we ever experienced.  We always had fish to eat (no more rice and bouillon) and an occasional turtle.  Plus we had the voluminous food pack that produced such gems as hoe cake, beef Romanoff, spaghetti, chili, cheese soup, scalloped potatoes and the treats of hot cocoa, coffee, tea, granola bars, candy bars and of course gorp.  One trip produced a northern so big that we measured it to figure the weight and it tallied out at 32 pounds.  That is a lot of fish to land from a canoe.  We taped the release and watched as it recovered and swam away awaiting the shock of some future angler.  We swam in Pine Lake in May (most of our trips were in May about a week after the ice went out).  And when it was time to leave sometimes we would float down Pine Creek to avoid the drudgery of the portage to Trout.  There is a warm shallow bay where Pine Creek empties into Trout lake and one especially warm sunny day we waded and wallowed for half a day in this bath water.  Most of Trout Lake is deep and cold and motors are allowed so we seldom stayed but one night on our way out.  There was a time we traversed down Trout on our way to the portage to Vermillion that the weather turned nasty.  We were heading south into a wicked cold Northwesterly wind and the whitecaps were growing with each stroke of the paddle.  Norwegian Point was our destination and it was barely visible as we embarked. It was head down and dig with the paddles as we bounced and swayed in the waves that slapped our gunwales and faces.  We were wet, cold and sure that the throws of death were imminent.  Somehow we arrived at the point and pulled into the relative calm of the protected shore sure that we should have waited for calmer seas.

Not all of our trips were just base camp trips.  We also planned and executed several circular voyages that tested us in several ways.  We got lost, we fought winds and waves, we damn near froze one morning on Moose Lake and ran rapids, climbed Devil's Cascade, trekked to Johnson Falls BWCAJohnson Falls, relived the steps of a ranger's recordings , visited pictographs and sat out many an evening by a smoldering camp fire sipping on hot cocoa, swapping memories and lies and pitying the poor souls that would never know what was to be experienced in this serene rugged land.  We heard strange noises in the night, watched moose swim in front of our vessel, observed eagles and fed sea gulls.  We paddled up rapids, explored creeks, built fires when the wood was wet, slept in our boots and laid in the sun on a rock as the wisp of a cloud provided a challenge to our imagination.  There was poetry written, songs sung and music played on the harmonica.  And there were various guests that came and went over the years.  We had a group of youngsters, relatives, coworkers, people from all walks of life that joined us and even one memorable guy that we met via the internet that joined from Chicago.  We met him as we were going to camp before crossing Vermillion.  As we examined the campsite he got out of his car, left the engine running and slammed the door.  The keys were inside and he had no extras. We were nowhere near any civilization with a locksmith and the mosquitoes were swarming like they knew how vulnerable we were.  With no wings on the windows of the car and a door lock that was located on the door panel things did not look good.  It was getting darker by the minute (doesn't it always) and our struggle seemed endless.   But by some miraculous gyration we were able to get a piece of wire fashioned from a coat hanger to move the lock and open the door.  Our new friend was dubbed "Lockout" and no doubt carries extra keys to bed with him at night.

Back to Pine lake.  On one memorial day (and it as HOT).  My nephew and I traveled over the hated portage to Trout lake to meet my son and his wife who were to arrive around noon.  They had never been to the portage but I was confident my directions had been adequate and at the least we would have done our part to meet them.  The warm weather had hatched those huge black flies that look like mutants, the ugly little black flies were everywhere gouging into your ears and eyes and the mosquitoes managed to elbow in between the other critters attacks.  We were sweating as the sun reflected from the lake onto our faces and the steady hum of the insects was maddening.  Off in the distance almost at noon I thought I saw a canoe .  Given the conditions I could not discount an illusion. I looked again and could not see it.  Yep had to be an illusion.  A few minutes later from around a point I saw my illusion had reached reality.  They were arriving as planned. As the canoe slid onto the log my son opened a cooler in the center of the canoe and lo and behold there in a sea of ice, rested 12 of the most delightful looking frosted cans of Keystone Lite ever seen.  We gleefully scampered over the portage and paddled to our island camp where my long time companion Paul was informed we had confiscated the forbidden cans that just happened to be ice cold.  We toasted the arrival of this unexpected refreshment and queried whether the Swedish Skydivers would soon be dropping into our midst.  I can still taste that brew.

We paddled St. Johns', Crane, Moose, Mountain, Pine, Vermillion, Trout, Clearwater, North Fowl, Caribou and Little Caribou, along the Royal River BWCAThe Royal River, Basswood, Agnes, Crooked and many others whose names escape me.  The unforgettable Basswood Falls, and the island campsite on Pine lake will never fade and I can only envy those young enough to embark on an annual tradition that I wish I had begun much earlier than I did.  I used to carry a 3/8 lazy ike. that had all the paint chewed off ,to the boundary waters and this was the only lure I ever needed to put walleyes in the pan.  After my last trip to the boundary waters that lure disappeared as if knowing it would never touch the waters it commanded again. I miss that lure, the glide on the still waters, the call of the loon, the misery experienced when we had to portage a canoe that had harbored a nest of mice, the joy of the end of the trip celebrated at Swen and Ollie's Pizza shop and the time we decided a cheap motel would be preferable to another night's camping (it wasn't).  I even think I might have enjoyed that night we pulled up to a camp site and heard the blare of bagpipes just up the shore and paddled on.  I've lost my glasses on the Canadian Border in the coldest drop off in existence, experienced black flies so bad the natives complained and had the best creme soda I ever drank after a long paddle back to our jumping off spot.  These memories are like an all day every day matinee playing in my mind triggered by pictures, videos and words that remind me of what I experienced and stored for something to recall and enjoy just as I did when the wind was soft, the water smooth and the rhythm of the paddle automatic as breath.  For all the ills of the world this experience trumps the tragedies and gives one the realization that this quality recreation is irreplaceable, unique and unforgettable.

Dale Netherton

copyright 2006 Dale Netherton  http://www.canoestories.com/fiction/18years.htm

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