Friday, November 30, 2012

BWCA/Q 1978-1983

Back in 1978 my sister and her husband (then boyfriend) graciously allowed me to go along with them on a wilderness canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  I had heard about the BWCA from friends in high school who had gone there for Outward Bound and YoungLife trips.  It really sounded great to me.  I had done day trips to the woods, but never really camped for several days in a row.  I had always wanted to leave the city and all its technology behind and camp out for an extended time.  And so, on August 11, 1978. We all left Chicago after work and drove most of the night to get to Ely.  The crew included Margo, my sis, Mark, her burly man, Mark’s sister, Florence, Dave H., a high school buddy, Meghan B., a family friend.

We arrived at about 4 a.m and just threw our bags on the ground next to the cars and hit the hay. 

In the morning, we had breakfast and went to Greystone Outfitters (n/k/a Voyageur North Outfitters.)  We had rented those ultra-light 65 lb aluminum canoes!  We got several canvas and leather Duluth packs, packed all our stuff and went to the put in at Fall Lake at 9:30 a.m.  We really did not know what we were doing, but we got to Pipestone Falls at noon.  We ate lunch in Pipestone Bay.  Form there we paddled up into Jackfish Bay and then out into Basswood Lake proper.  At around 7 p.m. or so we made camp.  We did not really know where we were.  I found a US penny at the campsite so we decided we were still in the US.  We actually ended up about 2 miles into Canada.  We knew something was wrong because there was no biffy and no fire grate, but we were rookies.  We stayed there for 2 nights.  We ate like kings.  I recall my sister had made stuffed green peppers and put them in Seal-A-Meal(SAM).  There was a lot of other fresh food, all of which had been SAMed and Autoclaved.  (Mark worked in a science lab and had access to a real autoclave.)
My map of my very first trip to BWCA.  I traced the route in blue marker.
And here it is blownup.

On Monday we headed back south and turned west into the Basswood River.  We went past Basswood Falls and took a campsite maybe 1.5-2 miles down the river.  On Tuesday, I believe we day-tripped the Horseshoe Portage and saw Wheelbarrow Falls and Lower Basswood Falls. There was a little pool in front of our campsite and on Wednesday I got up about 5 a.m. and got into a canoe.  I just pushed out into the water.  Everything was calm and still.  There was about 3 feet of dew just above the water.  When I lay down in the canoe I could see nothing.  When I sat up, I could see all around. 

So there I was, floating quietly in the little pool just below the Basswood Falls, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had just wasted the last 5 years of my life.  The words of Pink Floyd suddenly went through my head…
And you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

I literally gasped in shock.  That was the first real epiphany I had ever experienced.  It was one of those moments in life that is clearly etched and fixed in my memory.  That is what the wilderness means to me even now 30 some odd years later.
I turned 21 that day.  After breakfast, we broke camp and paddled up river back toward Basswood Lake.  I convinced Meghan that we could paddle up the small falls and would not have to portage.  DUMP!  We spent the rest of that day wet.  Unfortunately, it got windy and cool and so, the day was sort of miserable as we crossed Basswood toward U.S. Point.  We had no business being out in that kind of wind on a lake as big as Basswood.  But what the heck, we were young and life is long…and we were pretty scared out in those big waves!  We got to the point in late afternoon, looked around the south side of the point, got blasted with a headwind and turned back.  We took a campsite 1.5 miles southwest of the point.  After dinner, Margo and Mark broke out some cake they had hidden, put some candles on, and sang me Happy Birthday.  I spent my 21st birthday in the most beautiful place I had ever seen. 

On Thursday, we paddled along shore (no more open water crossing for us!) back toward Pipestone.  We found a campsite about 2 miles north of Pipestone Falls and settled in.  We had to be back in on Friday and we knew we didn’t have far to go.  On Friday we got up early and paddled out to Fall Lake and our take out point.

The last night in Ely, we camped at local camp ground.  There were these guys a couple sites over who looked like they might respond to an offer.  They did.  So I traded the last nickel of pot I ever owned to them for several large walleye fillets.  And from that time I got my act together, moved ahead with my life and never looked back.

The northern forest had captured me.  It was so clean and pure.  We drank water right from the lake!  I had never in my 20 years ever considered that I would ever do such a thing.  I knew that I would be back soon.
I loved the '78 trip so much, that Mark set up another trip the next year. In 1979, I went with Mark, his brother Harry, and Bill Zehring, a grad student who worked with Mark in the lab. We went in late September. Well, winter started a few days before we got there and we got blasted with cold wind, rain, and ice.

This trip is the Voyage of the Magic Schistosome and the USS Enterprise, piloted by James T. Kirok! 
Our clothes got wet and Bill's sleeping bag got soaked one day. We built a five foot high pile of dry pine boughs and deadfall out on a sandy beach. We lit it and had ourselves a roaring 15 foot high blaze. We held out our clothes which dried in 15-20 minutes from about 10 feet away. We also held up Bill's sleeping bag and fluffed it and shook it, and in about 45 minutes or so, the bag was dry and toasty warm. On that trip we also "smoked the earth." I recall having lunch one day on U.S. Point. The wind was howling and ice crystals were being blown off the lake. It was that day that I learned you cannot heat your water and drink the tea from the same metal cup! By the end of that trip, our paddling technique had improved greatly and we were feeling reasonably confident in the boats.     
In 1979 Harry had just completed his parasitology course.  Ascaris lumbricoides!  Schistosomiasis haematobium!” was the bellowing call we heard from the Magic Shistosome as we paddled into the teeth of a howling, icy wind!  Alas, the evil worms were not to be found!!


In August 1980, I took my brother, Tim, my cousin, Pete, my girlfriend, her sister and the sister's boyfriend.  We went in mid-August.  The weather was perfect and the blueberries were full, round, ripe and juicy!  With a larger and more diverse group, we had a really great time.  We explored areas I had not been to on the first two trips.  It was on this trip that I was "crowned" the Camp King, with a birch bark star for my 10 mile orange Elmer Fudd hat and a driftwood scepter. 

In 1981, It was Pete and I again.  Pete's good friend Scott was along on this trip.  I cannot remember the fourth guy?!?  I think it was a friend of Scott's.  Anyway, Scott was a real fisherman.  He even went on the Bass Pro tour for a while.  This was the Fugowee Island trip.  We took one portage very early in the trip where we had to drag the loaded canoes across about 100 yards of waist deep, boot sucking mud.  Of course, the sun was beating down and it was in the 80's as we sweated and slogged through.  After that we were basically unsure of our exact location.  We found an excellent island and pitched our camp there.  “Well,” we asked ourselves, “Where the hell do you think we are?”  Scott didn’t miss a beat.  He replied, “We’re on Fugowee Island!”  Fugowee Island had a wonderful campsite, a sandy beach on the southern tip, a diving rock on the northwest corner, and a deep fishing hole along the west shore.  We caught so many fish that we built a holding pen, and put the extras in to eat for breakfast.  When we got up the next day, there were several bald eagles happily eating the easy pickings we had left for them.  But even so, there was enough for us to eat for breakfast.  Of course, the island was packed with blueberries and we had a huge pile of blueberry pancakes.  On this trip, we styed up late one night laying out on the flat rocks along the shore of the island.  We saw the most spectacular show of the northern lights.  It was truly awesome.  I have never experienced anything like that since.
1982 - I went to Steamboat Springs, CO.  That trip is related on its own page.
In 1983, Pete, my other cousins, Mark and Mike, and one of Mike's friends made up the crew.  Mike and I found a USFS picnic table in the woods and floated it across the lake to our campsite while the other guys were out fishing all day.  When everyone else came back to camp, Mike and I were waiting, lounging on the table, under a mossy net, drinking cocktails and smoking stogies.  You should have seen the looks on the other guys’ faces.  What a riot.  Again, the weather was very nice and blueberries were plentiful.


All the old photos of those trips are long lost in various moves, floods and other mishaps.  But I still have my memories of the great days gone by.  I may have some of these detail wrong, but we sure did have a lot of fun.

Then, law school, jobs, a new family, mortgages, businesses, and all the clutter of a busy life kept me from returning to the great north woods.  As my oldest son turned 16, I suddenly realized that he would be going off to college very soon.  I called my brother, who has a son the same age, and said, "We've got to go back to the boundary waters and take the boys.  And we have to do it now."  That was 2008.  From that point on I have kept very good track of what we have done and with whom we did it.  Those tales I set forth in great detail on the follwing pages.

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