The awe-inspiring reality that is the BWCA

There was no reason to believe that the rest of the world existed. There was no manner in which to judge if we were the only ones left alive on the planet. There was nothing, nothing except everything: The big lake and the overarching sky and the boundless woods, the wind and the crystal air and endless time.

To the south, the sound of stream running over rock. West, the setting sun. North, an expanse of lake and on the horizon, Canada. Nowhere did we see another person. No human sound rose into the evening air. No smoke from campfire smudged the sky. No contrails or planes in flight. Sound of geese; sound of wave on shore. Nothing else. We were alone.

We had paddled that day from Lower Basswood Falls, north on Crooked Lake, all the time nudging up against the underbelly of the Canadian border. We crossed Wednesday Bay, Thursday Bay and turned south on Friday Bay.

“At sundown I start a campfire just because it seems the right thing to do. The cedar burns hot and fast and the color of the coals is the color of the sunset.”

We stopped mid afternoon, tired. A decision: Push on or pull up for the night. We leaned over the map to see what lay ahead. Three portages and one was a beast, nearly a mile long. We talked it over, Sally and I, then we turned the canoe toward shore. We’d stay the night.

We made camp on a west-facing spit of land with the breeze in our faces. That would help keep the bugs at bay. I cut firewood and found a bonanza; dry cedar! Perfect. Sally set up the tent, unloaded cookware. I split wood and stacked it.

We did not see another soul that afternoon and evening. We were alone in the vastness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

We had put in the previous morning under a rising sun on the last day of May. We were a day late; circumstances, as they say, beyond our control. We had no clear idea of a route, just two possibles: We’d paddle north for a day and then turn west in a longer loop or to the east for a shorter one. It would all depend on how we felt after the first day.

We started late, 11 a.m., and pushed hard for 11 miles and 7 portages. I’d packed the wrong portage yoke for the canoe and my shoulders ached from the unbalanced load. The portage trails were rocky on the high places, mucky in the low.

We got to Lower Basswood Falls at 5:30 p.m. and set up camp downstream from the maelstrom of the falls. I gathered wood, damp and soft; it was all that I could find. We cooked steak over a weak fire, ate dinner as the shadows grew longer. A loon swam close to shore near the canoe. We could see white survey stakes that marked the border between the United States and Canada. In the dark of night a loon called.

The next day dawned clear and mild. We made coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon. Loaded the canoe and pushed off. A mile north of the campsite we came to the Native American pictographs painted on the steep rock cliff that rises from the waters, 100 feet high.

The pictographs are the color of rusted iron. Nobody knows their exact age; hundreds of years for certain. We drifted close, looking up, for the pictographs are higher than one would expect (which begs the question: How did they paint them, given that they are far higher than the water line?). It was calm and quiet and we looked in wonder at the images; moose, pelican. To view the pictographs is to feel a connection with times long past, with peoples who lived and paddled and endured the winters in this wild land. We paddled back, drifted past the pictographs one more time. Then we paddled on, to the north.

By afternoon the wind had come up and we pushed hard into it, across the upper ends of Wednesday Bay and then Thursday Bay. We stopped for lunch, checked the maps and then paddled into the rising wind and on to Friday Bay. There were whitecaps on the lake, scattered but very strong and we worked hard into the wind to the far shore then turned south and made camp. It was mid afternoon and we were done for the day.

And there in that camp we were alone. It was if nobody else existed. There was only the wide and wild expanse of the Boundary Waters.

I find the dry cedar and stack it. I wander off with camera in hand seeing what I can see. We set up camp chairs and sit in the afternoon sun. We fish with no success. I tell Sally, “If we don’t catch dinner by 6:00 it’s mac and cheese.” We do not get a bite.

We cook over a small camp stove, the cedar lies unused. We eat dinner as evening falls and the wind drops. It is very quiet and very peaceful and we would not trade places with anyone.

At sundown I start a campfire just because it seems the right thing to do. The cedar burns hot and fast and the color of the coals is the color of the sunset. Then the sun drops below the tree line and darkness falls and all that is left is a smudge of pale light in the western sky and the glow of embers in the fire. Then the faint light in the west is gone as if a curtain has dropped. There is the sweet scent of cedar smoke. Sally goes to the tent for the night. I pour Scotch into a metal cup and sit in the dark. I sit for a long time in the night next to the waning embers as they fade to dull copper color then to black. I think to myself, “The real world seems so far away.”

Then think, “Or is this the real world?”

I do not find the answer.