Driving north out of Two Harbors on a long, sweeping downhill curve I take a causal glance at the speedometer; it is holding steady at 115 mph, give or take, which seems odd. I have a long-standing indifference that borders on irreverence for motor vehicles to the extent that the ones I own are rarely capable of excess speeds. At 115 I’d be fearful of hardware falling off; wheels, trim pieces or, on this trip, a 17-foot Kevlar canoe headed for the Boundary Waters.
I pull the truck to the side of the road and turn the engine off. The speedometer needle stays locked at 115, at a dead stop.
What to do? Seventy five miles more to Grand Marais and times a’wastin’. Sally says, “I think I can download a speedometer app.” She fiddles with the phone. I start the truck and ease onto the blacktop and point it north. The speedometer quivers like a dog’s leg during a dream, flickers to life, seems to catch itself, then bottoms out at 140 mph.
We limp into Grand Marais, cell phone on the dash, the speedometer app showing speed. I find a motel, turn off the truck and we settle in for the evening.
In the light of the new day the speedometer inexplicably returns to normal. We dine at “South of the Border” which for some reason I associate with Mexico (the old song refrain, “South of the border/down Mexico way” spinning in my head). Sally says, “How about Canada?” that border only 40 miles to the north. Oh, right.
I have fresh Lake Superior herring (“They were wigglin’ yesterday at this time” the waitress assures me) with eggs. We leave town and drive an hour on the Gunflint Trail and pull into a parking lot.
There are only four cars in the lot, and as we load the canoe, a solo canoeist paddles to the landing heading home. He’s from the Twin Cities area, been out five nights. I ask how the bugs are. “Bad enough, “ he replies. He’s wearing a full head net; I probably did not need to ask that question.
We clamber into the canoe and push off, Sally paddling in the bow, me in the stern. It is a mild, late spring morning. We paddle south, portage once, paddle, portage again. We will portage the canoe six more times that day, and we will see only two other canoes.
Sally has been nursing a bad back for over a month; she moves cautiously, picks her path carefully on the portages. We did not know until that morning if she could paddle and portage at all, did not know if she could even make the trip. We find a rhythm that all paddlers look for, the steady metronomic rise and fall of paddles to water. Her back loosens up. The canoe under load moves smoothly. We make good time.
We reach Long Island Lake mid-afternoon and make camp on a high rock outcrop that faces west, into the breeze. We have had swarms of gnats most of the day, non-biting but annoying; the wind will keep them at bay. We set the tent, gather firewood, cook steak and asparagus. We sit in our folding chairs and look over the lake. We do not see another person.
Sally sips a tumbler of sake; I do the same with Scotch. Sun sets, loon calls; then darkness falls, and silence. We sleep in peace.
We paddle north to start the second day and then cut west toward Snipe Lake. The portage path is nasty, steep, rocky and unforgiving. I carry my pack to the end, return for the canoe, puzzled I’d not seen Sally. I find her moving slow on the path. She drops her pack. She had lifted it off balance at the portage landing and her back has given out.
And that, as they say, is that.
We sit on the ground on the rough portage trail and have a heart-to-heart talk. Go on, rest up, see how things look in the morning? Or cut our losses and head out? We talk it over. Then I pick up the pack and we go forward to Snipe Lake.
Snipe Lake is a charming lake, small and lovely with massive rock faces and walls hinting at ancient drama and fury as the earth formed and rock heaved in tumult upward to the sky. It is early afternoon and the lake is empty of people. We take the northernmost campsite on high, stony ground.
We lounge the afternoon, fish an hour later in the day, catch a handful of small but spirited northern pike. We cook dinner and watch the sun go down to a red horizon. In the dark of the night, my inflatable sleeping pad fails and leaks and I lie in discomfort on hard ground of rock and root.
At sunrise, the lake is mirror-calm; blue sky and mixed clouds reflect on the water. A pair of loons swims close; inspects us. The wooded shoreline shows the seasonal tint of spring green under early morning sun.
We have breakfast and talk over coffee. Sally’s back is not better, not even close; my back aches after the bad night’s sleep. It is a short discussion; the answer obvious. We load the canoe, paddle east and find the portage.
It is a fine morning. Small mayflies take wing; painted turtles bask in the sun; three goldeneyes fly over, wings whistling in the spring air. We paddle slowly; there is no hurry. We are back at the truck by noon.
We’d waited a year for this trip, planned on five, maybe six nights; got two. In hindsight, maybe Sally didn’t have a chance; the Boundary Waters are an unforgiving place for therapy on a weakened back. But this as well: better to try than to stay safe at home; better two nights in the company of loons and wildness than none at all.