Unlike Disney World, not everybody who simply shows up gets into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Harry S. is famous for “Give em Hell!”
But, Independence, are you aware that he also gave us one of the most heavenly places on earth as well?
As a result, it has also become one of the most coveted outdoor recreational tickets in the world as well. And unlike Disney World, not everybody who simply shows up gets into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Even though there are millions of acres of wilderness lakes and forests, Harry wanted it to always remain pristine, so only a limited number of permits are issued annually.
Fox 4 photojournalist Jim Monteleone and I were lucky enough to get them for the final, and “bearable” weeks of the season. So, in large measure because of President Harry S. Truman’s 1947 legislative initiative, Monte and I were able to canoe, camp, fish and portage just as the French Voyageurs did more than two centuries earlier.
The BWCA, on the border of northeastern Minnesota and Ontario, is bliss for an outdoorsman whose bent is raw nature. God made this place, Harry preserved it so even our evolving modern world could never intrude and change it even ever so slightly. No Wi-Fi, motorboats, Gordon Gekko. Money may never sleep in Oliver Stone’s latest “Wall Street” movie, but it will do you absolutely no good out here. Not even the latest Apple widget can penetrate this world.
So it was with an odd mix of merriment and angst that we waved goodbye to our new friends from Independence, Irene and Jerry Schmitt, halfway through our first day in the BWCA. We had, serendipitously, met them an hour or so earlier at a rocky portage. I think the four of us felt a certain comfort it seeing other people out there, especially so since we all came from the Kansas City area.
But none of us had come out here to talk about the Royals, Chiefs or local politics. Besides, our canoe routes into the miles of the watery wild had been predetermined.
They headed north into Carp Lake, deeper inside Canada while we chose to skirt the border into Knife Lake and eventually to a place called Thunder Point.
“Be well,” someone said.
“Stay safe,” someone responded.
They disappeared into the headwind, as we did faded into the waves.
There are an abundance of campsites, but few that are particularly apparent more than 50 yards from shore. And many of the portage trailheads are just as obscure. A good, waterproof map is essential.
One has the impression, though, that a fish can be caught at any one moment. That, of course, is the folly of any fisherman. If one is eternally optimistic elsewhere where there is water, then he is arrogantly so here.
But as any good outdoorsman knows, we simply succeed at the whim of nature’s bounty. You do not go here with the expectation of comfort, and certainly not with the notion that anything will be easy. You go here to expect nature at it’s finest and that means beautiful, but unvarnished.
You do not conquer, but absorb it in whatever form it comes at you. We got wind that was amplified because it blew up whitecaps and sometimes at night when it seemed to bend trees double. We balled up in our sleeping bags inside our tents when the temp dropped into the lower 30s. We slapped on layers when it never got above 50 when we headed out fishing.
Our hands puffed up from the paddling and the camp chores. Every act requires exertion here, so you quickly learn the economics of energy. The upside is you eat hearty, and still loose pounds.
But nature is also generous. Bald eagles, mink, otter, beaver, bear and, especially the kindly calls of the loon are ubiquitous. If it is clear, there is no Facebook entry that can ever inspire more than a pastel sky at sunset or the magical sighting of the northern lights when you venture out of your tent at midnight to do your duty.
And even though I should have remembered from my times as a kid in these waters, you cannot handle a muscle fish like the toothy northern pike the same way as a largemouth or rainbow back here in Missouri. You do not – just as you don’t leave food out at night – stick your thumb and forefinger into the mouth of a pike.
After setting up camp on a rocky slab in a cove not far on the map from a place called Robbins Island, I headed out by canoe and then foot the next morning for an isolated lake, appropriately named Portage Lake. It had a reputation for especially large northern pike and smallmouth bass.
My first impression was that it was a place where a lot of mink or ermine and wolves called home. I came face-to-face with the weasel kind and saw real evidence of the Canis lupus variety early on. There was no trace that people had been here anytime.
Without a canoe it was laborious making my way very far around the lake. I did and was rewarded by a little “northern exposure.” I was especially gratified by the fact I was using a rod and reel (the Wonder Rod and Ambassador 5600) and lures (Daredevil, Johnson Silver Minnow and homemade deer-tail jigs) that I had used so successfully 50 years ago as a kid in the same geographic area.
The first pike I brought in, in the 5- to 6-pound range, fought more than I remembered. And left my left hand and fingers more bloody than if I had been in a knife fight. But you know what? I was so proud of that fish’s fighting spirit and snapped a photo of my catch alongside the wounds he had inflicted before I released him and before wiping the blood all over my jeans and jacket.
I was considerably more careful in the coming days.
Later, I brought Monte to the lake. We portaged the lake this time with the canoe and headed for a rocky island. It wasn’t long before he too was experiencing just how much these fish don’t like to be caught.
Thank God – and Harry – that we humans do.
Next week more about the treasures, challenges and surprises of the BWCA.