Monday, January 17, 2011

Monday Mystery Tour, January 2011

Winter sunrise in Wisconsin

I often changed jobs on a whim, and sometimes for a specific purpose or reason. There was a stretch of time in the 1980’s when I was doing this and found myself in the unique situation of being between between employment  opportunities and having a little time off without the guilt of being a lazy bum.
A good friend of mine and his wife owned a lodge on the edge Minnesota’s beautiful Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They had a thriving canoe outfitting service and every once in a while, they had need for a guide.
It was one of these times that he called me and low and behold, there I was, between jobs and able to travel North on the Gunflint Trail, out of Grand Marais, MN,  to Seagull Outfitters. I was to guide a trip for a couple from Milwaukee. They were husband and wife, and they were doctors. They knew nothing of the Northwoods but wanted to have a canoe trip experience. I was to be their guide.
They knew how to paddle a canoe, but not negotiate large expanses of water like we would encounter on the fifty mile loop route they chose. They had fishing gear and a good camera. The outfitter provides the canoe, life preservers, equipment, food, cookware, shelter and sleeping bags, the participants provide their own personal clothing, toilet articles and other items suggested for a comfortable trip as stated in the brochure.
The 18 foot aluminum canoe can hold the backpacks for a five day journey through canoe country easily enough. I had my own 15 foot solo canoe, a nice easily handled craft called The Autumn Mist, made by a company called Sawyer.
The sleek 15' Sawyer Autumn Mist. Mine was green

The couple had their canoe and I had mine. I carried all  my own gear and they carried theirs. The Boundary Waters, or BWCA as it is commonly known, is about a million acres, and immediately North, across the Canadian border, lies Quetico Provincial Park, which is another 1.2 million acres. Together, these two wilderness area parks, commonly called the Quetico Superior Wilderness, comprises some of the most beautiful scenery in the world with thousands of lakes, towering pines, rock formations and the possibility of moose, bear and eagle sightings at every turn.
Entry is by permit only, limiting the number of people in the park at any period of time. Entry points are scattered and it is impossible to access every one of the thousands of lakes that lie within the region. You must canoe to the interior and portage your canoe and gear across rough trails from lake to lake. People usually make a route and connect their trip from lake to lake, via these portages, in some sort of loop, entering at a place and returning there from another direction.
The doctor couple made a reservation with the outfitter and my friend supplied the maps and laid out a route. I was familiar with the area and the route and would lead them to sights they wanted to see, like the petroglyphs, and to obscure portage trails that can sometimes be hidden in plain sight amidst the woods, rocks and water.
I would also help with tips on cooking outdoors with freeze dried foodstuffs, gathering firewood, fishing, carrying their camping gear across rods and rods of portage trails and keeping safe and dry in the event of rain or a storm.
We were to be out about six days in total. We would have one long leisurely day in the middle of the trip at a portage I knew of on Lake Saganagons, (sag’-uh-nah-gons), which was in the Canadian section or the Quetico Provincial Park.
The trip was a basic guide for me as I was familiar with this type of tourist. Paddle for so many hours, portage canoe and gear across from lake to lake, stop for lunch, paddle some more, portage some more, find a camp, set up camp, make a fire and eat dinner, sleep comfortably in our tents or under the stars, maybe see the Northern Lights. Then wake up, have breakfast and do it again the next day and each day thereafter until we finished the route and returned back to the starting point.
We’d get picked up at a predetermined time by the outfitter, which was, in this case, my friend Roger, and be returned to the lodge where the participants would shower and pack their car and drive away, hopefully leaving me with a large tip for exemplary service above and beyond the call of duty.
My usual ruse was to make sure that somewhere in the conversation they understood I was just a paid employee and did not own and run a guide service on my own. The theory being that a working stiff didn’t make much and that a large tip would certainly be in order.
We were just getting started and we had to cross a large expanse of water called Cache Bay. This was the gateway into Canadian waters and the famed Silver Falls Portage. The wind was fresh, and out of the North. We were headed right into the face of it, which is good. The side wind is the treacherous one. A side wind could easily swamp the canoe, especially with novice paddlers like the doctors.
Stock photo of Silver falls from Google search images

I explained the possible perils of crossing a large expanse of water in the windy conditions and repeatedly told them what to do in the event they should tip over and swamp the canoe. Precautions were made by lashing packs and gear to the thwarts. I assured them the canoe would stay buoyant, albeit just below the waters surface, if it tipped over.
The waves were very high, and I had to keep paddling to stay in a straight line with the smaller and lighter canoe I was in. If I slowed down or stopped, the wind would turn me around in an instant. The canoe I paddled only weighed a little over 50 pounds and had no keel. Their canoe, heavily laden and deeper in the water was more stable.
I tried to keep an eye on them, but at times, besides paying attention to my own craft, I lost sight of them often as their canoe would dip below the level of the lake in the swells. At one point, I actually maneuvered my canoe to turn back to find them as I hadn’t seen their canoe for many minutes, only to see them bob up above the swells again.
The crossing took twice as long as planned and the distance traveled that day was less than anticipated. We stopped early and found a sheltered area to set up camp. As the couple paddled up along the rocks, the man of the species stepped out and his foot landed on some slippery green algae moss that was hiding just below the surface. 
He slipped and went into the water, the canoe flipped, with the shifting of the weight, and by the time I safely got out of my canoe  to help them, most all the packs were saturated. The slope of the rock carried him deeper and deeper as gravity pulled him into the lake up to his armpits.
We recovered and started unpacking things to see what needed to be done to dry essential items that needed to keep dry, like the expensive 35 mm camera they carried. That’s when it started to rain.
I built a fire. Novice campers are always astonished at the skill of building a roaring blaze in the rain. I did not disappoint them and had them dry and warming up in no time. The camera was a totally different matter. The film was taken out and the body exposed. By this time, the lens was frosty with condensation and nooks and crannies of the device were wet. I shook the camera box many times to expel the water, each time seeing drops fall from it.
The rest of the trip went as planned. The couple got to see the petroglyphs, but I don’t know if the pictures taken with that camera ever made it to the processor. We caught a couple of fish, walleye, enough for a satisfying campfire meal and they swam and relaxed between paddling lakes and portaging trails.
Another Google Images stock photo. These types of rock wall petroglyphs are common to the BWCA and Quetico Wilderness areas.

I’ve guided other trips. I recall this one because I remember getting a big tip. I think I was revered as some kind of mountain man or wilderness guru when I had the fire blazing in no time flat. They didn’t know I used Coleman fuel.


Jeannie said...

Ha! Ya gotta do what you gotta do! I absolutely love canoeing. I suppose because my father would only have non-motorized boats at the cottage - and canoeing is such a peaceful activity (except when you are pushing against a strong current). I don't have the opportunity to canoe much now.

english inukshuk said...

I've spent some time canoeing in the Canadian lakes in Northern Ontario. . . loved it! wish I'd gotten to see some of those petroglyphs!!

I bet you were an excellent guide, and having had a soaking like that who would complain about what you used to start a fire with!!!!

I think that's enough exclamation marks for now


Marilyn & Jeff said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post; you have shown me a completely different world to any I have ever experienced.
...and I love it that you got a great tip - maybe they thought you had rubbed sticks together while they were busy sorting themselves out!

Mel said...


Oh, gotta love the ending to the fire wizard story!

I enjoy a lazy canoe trip down the river--we've got a good bit of the river to float/paddle.
NOT quite sure I'd wanna tackle something bigger--but I might be up for it with a good guide who knows enough to carry Coleman fuel. LOL

mig said...

This was such a great tale - I was reminded of adventure books I read as a child and looked up your trip on Google maps to see if any of the stories I read were around there.
What astonishing country it looks like - so many hundreds (thousands?) of lakes. I found Lake Saganagons but I could't find the Silver Falls. Half of the lake must have been photographed in Winter - it's white instead of black.
Thank you for that armchair adventure. Wish I could do it in real life!

(I'm so glad you did get a good tip :)

susan said...

That was a great story. I've been reading you for a while now and had no idea about your ability as a wilderness guide.. but I should have guessed. I loved the ending :-)

Christopher said...

Clearly you thoroughly deserved that tip, but I think you should have made it rain especially to put your cooking fires out securely once you'd finished with them. That would have impressed them.

(What's Coleman fuel? Dried moose dung?)

Stephanie said...

wow...I felt like I was there! This is a part of our world I have always wanted to go. You sound like the perfect guide.

We did a VERY short canoe trip down the Missouri this fall and I ALMOST caused us to flip because of a photo op


rochambeau said...

Wow Joe! You are such a dare devil! I thought you were going to loose those Dr's. Camera or lost images? Well, not such a big deal compared to life.

I went canoeing a few times as a teenager. Our canoe got totaled but we lived!!

It's cool how you have had LOTS of jobs. Me too! I'm glad for the way life turned out. Aren't you?

Hi to your wife also. Her name is Barbara, right?
Peace to you too!