We set off on a Tuesday, but I left a few days early to camp Up North. For those not from the Midwest, Up North is a general term for the part of Minnesota that is North of the Cities, and sometimes Wisconsin. I set off in the evening with the intent of making it 2-3 hours North.
I started to get tired quickly, and didn’t make it more than an hour before trying to find a place to stay. I found a free campsite in Rum River State Forest and set up my tent quickly as I was attacked by giant black flies. I took it down within a few minutes as I debated going to the hospital. I had woken up with hives that morning and they were beginning to get worse.
I camped out in my car and woke up to my eyes and face swollen. I remained calm and waited until the swelling went down and drove to get some Benadryl. The park was lovely, and with the wildflowers in bloom, it made for a nice drive.
The next day I drove up near Ely, MN and found another place to camp for free in the Superior National Forest off of Ely-Buyck Road. As soon as I parked my car, I heard what sounded like rain hitting my car from every angle. Horse flies. I set up my screens in my car and got some good journaling and reading in while I waited until evening.
I woke up in the morning and headed towards Boundary Waters Outfitters. I met my brother and we loaded up the Subies to head to the end of Highway 169. Numbered Lakes. We packed the canoe with everything we would need for 5 days and 4 nights in the wilderness.
If you have never been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, let me fill you in. For one, you are missing out. Two, it is a 1 million acre area in the Superior National Forest near the top of Minnesota and the Canadian Border. It is undeveloped, pure, natural beauty. I had lived in Minnesota for most of my life and never made the trip up there. I knew plenty of people who went all the time, and everyone raved about it.
So, here we were, headed out into the wild with a map, compass and a strong fear of tipping the canoe and losing all of our stuff. The forecast was ok at best. It was supposed to rain, but only for part of two days, and then it was supposed to be pretty nice the rest of the week. We paddled our way to our first campsite and were amazed at the beauty of the whole place.
My brother went for a swim, but I couldn’t brave the cold water. We watched a few turtles bury their eggs near the shoreline and sat in awe watching the sunset and talked about how great of a day we had.
We woke up and paddled to our next site, portaging a few times and stopping for snacks along the way. Our next site was so nice we decided we would stay there for two nights. The sun was shining and it was getting hot, so we went for a swim, this time I ended up jumping in and had my breath taken away, literally.
The sky started to look gloomy so we headed inside our tents to wait out the storm. It rained for a bit then my brother yelled from his tent, “look outside.” The most beautiful rainbow was forming over the lake. The rain let up and we watched in silence as a second rainbow started to form over the top of it. Awesome.
The sun started to peak through the trees on the other side of the peninsula and we started to gather wood for a fire. A glorious fire was had and we cooked our home prepared meals over the amber embers. I brought 3 spices with me. I knew it would weigh me down, but they were crucial to enjoying our meals.
The next day was relaxing. We took the day slowly, hanging out in the hammock and chasing the shade from one side of the campsite to the other. We took the canoe out for a short trip, getting blocked by freshly fallen trees. Once we made it back to camp, we put on our suits and spent the rest of the day trying not to be eaten alive by flies, while trying not to melt or burn in the sun. We had a bit of rain in the evening, but it was welcomed as it cooled down the air temperature and made everything smell extra fresh.
We woke in the morning and quickly made breakfast, knowing that another storm was on the way. Cell service was spotty, but we were able to get online long enough to check the weather, which was always wrong, and looking at the sky usually served us better.
Watching the clouds rolling in convinced us that staying off the water was best for the time being. We tied out extra guylines and hunkered down for the storm, whipping out the emergency blankets and extra layers as the temperature rapidly dropped.
My brother’s fancy watch showed us a plummeting line where the barometer was once level, indicating a thunderstorm was near. We heard a few rumbles of thunder in the background and yelled from our tents “here it comes!!!”
I pulled out a book and listened as rain poured down on us, drenching the sides of my tent, leaking through the seams and creating a sizable puddle in the lowest corner of my tent. I hear “how’s it going in there?” from pretty close and open my window to see my brother, sitting outside my tent with his hood up, head down, rain dripping down onto his legs wrapped in a bright orange emergency blanket. The chair he sat in slowly sank into the mud as he pointed out that my tent was in a huge puddle. A peak under my sleeping mat proved that my sleeping mat doubled as a Personal Flotation Device in case of emergency.
The rain let up and we climbed out of hiding to a chilly and dark day. It was noon, but appeared to be either early morning or late evening. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and the clouds still looked grey. We waited, and were glad we did, because the winds picked up. My brother quickly dismantled his tent as it wasn’t standing up to the high winds as they whipped through our campsite, the trees barely protecting us as we tied down anything that could fly away.
We took these gusts of wind as an opportunity to air out some of our wet gear, but the rain was sporadic, and we were unsure of how long it would last. We needed to make it out on the water and make it a couple miles or we weren’t going to make it back the following day. Tired from the mornings weather events, we both took naps and prepared for a long haul ahead.
When the wind finally died down and the white caps subsided, we agreed that we needed to move. We were mostly protected for the first few miles, but had some open water to cross to get back to Lake Three and Lake Two, and we were not going to be going the same way as the wind.
We made it quickly through the portages and began the long haul across the lakes. Becoming fatigued, I started counting my strokes, closing my eyes and trying to stay consistent with my paddling. Maybe it was lack of nutrition, possibly dehydration, or the 9 miles that we ended up paddling that afternoon, but I began to become disoriented again. I would forget to paddle and sit there wondering which way we were going, alarmed back into my conciousness by a surprise rock in the middle of the lake. I was slacking as a canoe partner, and my brother stepped it up. He quickly got us to an open campsite and forced us to drink some water, sit in the shade, and cool off in the lake.
We had the perfect campsite to end the perfect trip. The sun set right across the lake, and we floated out into the middle and let our sore muscles soak in the crystal clear and calm waters that earlier that day were whipping into small water tornadoes on the shore line. We reveled in the beauty of the end of the day while reminiscing on the rollercoaster of a day.
After maneuvering around the snakes and mosquitoes in the morning, we quickly packed up without breakfast and headed out, eager to get to a restaurant that had fresh, hot food, and bloody marys.
We made it back to the car, stomachs grumbling, and had a long discussion of what we were going to have for breakfast on the short car ride back to the Outfitters. The Outfitters recommended a local restaurant and we drove straight there, becoming hangrier by the moment, as marked by the short tempers and sharp sarcasm.
The meal was everything I ever wanted. I spared no expense in ordering everything I wanted a piece of, and then devouring every last bite of it. I even got the most Minnesotan bloody mary with a Gluten Free beer back ever to celebrate the end of our first canoe trip.
I doubt it will be our last.