By Doug Hansen
"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul." — John Muir
"We have two seasons here in Ely, Minnesota: winter and the Fourth of July," exclaimed Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting and trainer for wannabe canoeists.
Undeterred, my wife and I were determined to embark on a three-day canoe adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW for short), one of the great, unspoiled nature areas in North America.
We had never canoed before, but we felt ready to channel our inner John Muir in the far north, at the same time pondering the myriad ways beginners like us might get lost, inundated by rain, or chewed to death by hungry bears, flies or mosquitoes.
Our fascination with this region arose from tantalizing descriptions we had heard from my cousin's husband, Jeff Barden, in Minneapolis: "The Boundary Waters and Quetico are magical places," he said. "More than anywhere else, canoeing there makes me feel grateful for such incredible beauty, solitude and bonding with my buddies and my family."
At our required training session, Zabokrtsky explained that this wilderness region combines two places, the BWCA and Canada's Quetico Provincial Park, together protecting 2.5 million acres with more than 1,800 lakes straddling 150 miles of the U.S.—Canada border. This pristine, watery wonderland also protects the largest remaining uncut forest in the eastern United States. He concluded by pointing out that between mid-May and late September more than 250,000 canoeing, camping and fishing enthusiasts explore the region, making it the most visited wilderness in the country.
The five-page list of supplies and regulations had been meticulously handled by the Ely Outfitting crew, so on the morning of our departure we felt well-prepared for our adventure. The weather gods smiled on us as we loaded our giant waterproof gear bag into the canoe and pushed away from shore, tenuously paddling toward Lake One, a good place for beginners. A handful of other canoes effortlessly passed us on their way to the Great Unknown.
After an hour of paddling, our zigzags lessened as we glided into the open expanse of Lake One. Alas, we soon discovered that map-reading while canoeing is a lot harder than it seemed back at the shop. Everything marked so clearly on the map remained hidden among the miles of wooded shorelines, and it seemed impossible that islands and inlets could merge so completely in the distance. The idea of crossing Lake One, portaging our canoe to Lake Two and choosing a remote campsite quickly changed to a simpler plan: Let's find a nice campsite nearby, set up our tent and supplies, and commune with nature in a more leisurely manner.
Even though the BWCA provides nearly 2,000 established campsites with fire rings and cleared sleeping areas, they can be hard to spot from a canoe. Fortunately, a helpful couple pointed us toward a nearby island where we found just what we were looking for — our own little private paradise, elevated just enough above the water to provide an expansive view of the lake and its scattered islands and undulating, tree-laden shoreline. Best of all, the breeze kept the mosquitoes away. After we unloaded our supplies and set up our tent, we sat contentedly on the trunk of a fallen tree, feeling as one with nature as possible at that moment.
My wife prepared dinner on a small propane stove, and we contentedly dined next to our crackling fire. Afterward we set out to explore our compact island; then, pleasantly tired, we crawled into our sleeping bags inside our cozy and reassuring tent. We dozed off to the sounds of waves gently lapping on the boulders below and the haunting call of a loon.
The next morning greeted us with a flawless sky, and the silvery surface of the lake reflected every detail of the landscape across from us. Following a leisurely breakfast, we decided to explore more of "our" lake and find the portage area we had planned to use. We relished canoeing in the morning stillness, but despite our best map-reading efforts, we ended up paddling to the wrong end of the lake.
Upon our return to camp, the sky darkened with fast-moving gray clouds accompanied by a breeze that steadily increased in force until it whipped the lake into a frenzy of waves. My cherished evening fire became a sodden dream as we scurried into our tent to avoid the lashing rain and wind. Fortunately the next morning greeted us once again with nature's sublime beauty, and we reconnected with the magic of this place as we paddled back to our original entry point.
Before returning to Minneapolis, we spent a few hours exploring Ely, a true north-woods gem situated just 16 miles from the Canada border. Only 3,500 folks call Ely home, but the small town has big-time attractions, including the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center, with lots of educational displays and Ted, the largest, friendliest black bear you'll ever see. The nearby Dorothy Molter Museum aptly conveyed Molter's north-woods toughness via a T-shirt that said: "When I find a man who can chop more wood, portage heavier loads and catch more fish — I'll marry him. "
WHEN YOU GO
Ely Outfitting Co. & Boundary Waters Guide Service: 218-343-7951 or wwwelyoutfittingcompany.com
Ely Chamber of Commerce: 218-365-6123 or ely.org
Doug Hansen is a freelance writer and photographer whose photos and articles are at www.hansentravel.org. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.