Solo paddling in the Boundary Waters

A thin plume of campfire smoke rose on the far shore, arrow-straight, gray-white against blue sky of morning. Campers; late breakfast. I paddled southeast and found the portage trail. I unloaded the canoe, shouldered the pack and turned away from the now distant smoke and walked into an area remote and wild.

Frost Lake was behind me; the Frost River ahead. I had a canoe and camp gear. Nothing else. I was alone.

I had started out a day earlier and paddled south, crossing half a dozen lakes, portaging over narrow rugged trails, setting up camp in the evening on Frost Lake. It rained in the late afternoon but the weather broke by evening. The skies cleared; the temperature dropped. I had frost on my gear at daybreak. I drank coffee, watched the smoke rise across the lake then loaded the canoe and paddled to the Frost River.

I was in the heart of the Boundary Waters, the unspoiled wilderness that sprawls across the north country of Minnesota. I was in country I’d never seen before, paddling waters I’d never set a paddle to, making my way in a long loop through lakes and rivers and woods. I had no idea what to expect. It was rough country, wild and untamed, land of hardy spruce, boggy lowlands, sheer rock outcrops and water, everywhere water; lakes and rivers, swamp and flooded lowland.

Spring had come late to the northland. I found remnant patches of snow and on one portage trail struggled over 100 yards in rotting snow, boot-high in places, slippery and unforgiving. The trees were just beginning to green up; the land was stark, the colors muted.

Late snowmelt and spring rains left water levels high. The lakes were full, the portages sloppy with muck and puddled water. Short sections of river connected many of the lakes and the portages skirted the edges. The rivers between lakes were charged with runoff and rushed like wild broncos unfettered and free and running for the horizon that only they can see. The sounds of the rapids rose into the air and the current surged, heady with foam and fury. I could paddle the length of a lake and then pause and listen; the roar of moving water would tell were the portage would be.

The Frost River flowed on a meandering course broken only in short sections by the fast-moving water. Beaver thrived in the river but the floods of spring had washed away most of their dams. They were busy, the beavers, and new dams broke the flow, six or eight or ten of them along the daylong stretch I paddled. Each was small enough that I could hold the canoe straight, dig the paddle deep and paddle over them. Later in the season they will be fully built and far less accommodating for paddlers.

This is wild land, wilderness in as true a sense as we can find today. This is land where unbroken forests reach the horizon, where lakes and rivers dominate the landscape, all under the high, boundless sky. This land is special, it is unique, it is rare. Which is why, of course, we go there. To paddle the lakes of the Boundary Waters is to take more than a canoe trip, it is to take a journey to lands the likes of which we know only from history books and wild dreams in nights of restless sleep. If George Mallory climbed Everest, “Because it’s there” there is some of that in the paddlers of the Boundary Waters as well.

I paddled the Frost River, crossed lakes of all sizes, portaged time and time again, nearly three dozen over four days. Each portage became routine: land the canoe, unload the packs, shoulder the big pack and carry it to the end, then return and repeat, this time with the canoe. The portages were rock-studded and slick with mud, climbing steep hill and crossing rocky outcrops. They were tiresome. They were difficult.

Once I heard the low howl of wolves. I saw sign of wolf and moose; an occasional warbler and jay, mergansers and goldeneyes. But never another person. I was truly alone.

I camped the second night on Mora Lake, paddled the third day from Mora through Little Saganaga, through smaller lakes to camp on Gillis Lake. I made camp on a high pitch of rock facing east. I unloaded gear, set the tent, cooked over a small stove; fire blazed orange, pot steamed and water boiled. It would freeze that night, temperatures dropping near 30, perhaps high 20s. I would not sleep well. The next morning there would be frost on the canoe and the gear; the puddled portage trail would be covered in skim ice. When I walked through it it cracked like crystal.

But I did not know what the morning would bring as sundown came to Gillis Lake. I knew only that I was alone in the wildness of the Boundary Waters. One cannot feel full of himself when sitting on the shore of a wilderness lake after not having seen a living soul all day and without even the remote sound of humankind. It was me, a speck of humanity, loons my only company under the shadow of sundown and in the sweet scent of cedar.

The near-full moon rose over the mirror-calm lake. The wind had gone down with the sun; the lake calm; the silence profound and real. A pine stood tall, a spire in the sky; the moon seemed caught in its branches. Loon called, the sound rose like a spirit then fell away; the night silent once again. First stars showed bright in the growing darkness of the sky.

I sat motionless as night fell. There was nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing except to take in the vastness of it all. I went to bed early and slept well, woken only by the crazy call of the loons.