By Betsy Andrews
August 04, 2019
George Peters/Getty Images

The grouse was feeling territorial.

He puffed atop a moss-covered log, flexing the dappled ruff around his neck as he issued an irritated honk. My pal Lisa stood before him, enraptured.

I stumbled out of my sleeping bag and into the frosty morning. Outnumbered, the grouse retreated. Lisa fired up a camp stove and heated pancakes from a mix. As the mist lifted off the lake and adolescent loons cried in the distance, we sat down to eat, interlopers in nature.

Lisa and I were three days into a four-day canoe trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in Minnesota's spongy upper reaches. There, America's most pristine watershed flows into Canada.

Lisa had rhapsodized about the place for years, but I'd always been leery of the notorious mosquitoes and blackflies. Though she lives in New York City now, like me, Lisa is a native Minnesotan. Having lettered in crew at the University of Minnesota, she has traversed this lake-dappled landscape often, paddling from shore to shore, carrying her canoe overland to the next body of water, then paddling again. Finally, I'd agreed to go in early October, the end of the season, when the insects aren't as bad and the first bite of winter is already in the air. We were equipped for our journey by David and Nancy Seaton of Hungry Jack Outfitters, who also mapped our route: 25 miles through the watery woods west of Lake Superior, from the beaver lodges of Ham Lake to the pleasure docks of Poplar Lake.

Before setting out in the Seatons' Kevlar canoe, Lisa and I had driven north from Minneapolis to Duluth, where we'd had a lunch of smoked lake trout at Northern Waters Smokehaus, in the city's industrial waterfront turned shopping district. We continued along the coast of Lake Superior on a highway lined with evergreens until we reached the harbor village of Grand Marais. A vacation spot for sailors, hikers, and art buffs, it is the eastern jumping-off point for paddles into the northern Boundary Waters. There, we wandered through North House Folk School, watching weekenders build Adirondack chairs, weave willow-branch baskets, and bake, sauce, pickle, and mull many varieties of apple. We perused the rugged wares (hunting knives, GKS deer-leather snowmobile mitts) at Joynes Ben Franklin Department Store and the artisanal goods (hand-carved teak serving spoons, hand-poured candles that smell of the forest floor) at the boutique Upstate MN.

Related: Why Ice Fishing for Your Dinner Is a Quintessential Minnesota Winter Experience

That evening, we drove the Gunflint Trail to our lakefront cabin at Bearskin Lodge, where we dashed through the chilly dark to sit in our own private outdoor Jacuzzi beneath a starry sky. For dinner, we went to the nearby Poplar Haus, a five-cabin lodge with a chef-driven restaurant in a converted dive bar. Like Upstate MN, it's the work of thirtysomethings who fled the more populated southern part of the state for the good life.

"People want to live here," David Seaton told me. "They want to retire here."

In fact, the passion people feel for this bucolic corner of America has led to a battle over its future. Just weeks before our trip, the Trump administration canceled a proposed 20-year moratorium on copper and nickel mining in the forests near the Boundary Waters. Because water pollution would be inevitable and an industrial spill would devastate the ecosystem, Hungry Jack is one of 10 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Right now, though, Seaton had us paddlers to advise: "If there's a moose in your path thrashing his antlers, stay away. Hoist your food pack off the ground or a bear will steal it. Use the collapsible camp seat so you don't get wet-butt syndrome.

"The weather report is not bad until Wednesday," he added. "Then things get ugly."

So we planned to reach our final destination, Poplar Lake, where Seaton would be waiting to pick us up, before things got ugly. Still, even the best-laid plans of ambitious New Yorkers can fall prey to the charms of the Boundary Waters. The lapping rhythm of the paddles and the eerily human songs of the timber wolves slowed our internal clocks. As we crossed each lake, we took in the beauty of the soggy landscape, with its charismatic fungi and rotting stumps, lingering on the reflection of the spruces on the water, the leaves of the paper birches turning gold, the crows flapping overhead. We submitted gladly to the work of each portage, which required two trips to get everything across. The clothing bags got heavier as our socks and sweaters inevitably got wet, but the food bags got lighter.

From left: Upstate MN, a store in Grand Marais that sells Minnesota-inspired goods; the restaurant at Poplar Haus, a lodge on Poplar Lake.
From left: Courtesy of Upstate MN; Ryan A Stadler/Courtesy of Poplar Haus

Though we still had plenty of distance to cover, our breakfast that next-to-last morning was as long and lazy as a New York City brunch. When we finally broke camp, it was midafternoon. Soon, we faced our most grueling portage yet: an uphill hike between Muskeg Lake and Kiskadinna Lake that spanned about half a mile—185 rods in Boundary Waters speak, a rod being an archaic English measurement equaling 16½ feet, roughly the length of a canoe. Lisa hauled the boat, balancing it on her shoulders. I heaved our bags onto my back and chest and lumbered after her like a pack mule, trying to avoid the bear, wolf, and moose scat.

By now we'd eaten all our good stuff — Cryovac'd steaks, eggs with leftover smoked fish— so for dinner that night we had freeze-dried beef stroganoff. We purified lake water with a UV sterilizer, boiled it, and massaged it into the bag.

"Boy," Lisa muttered grouchily, "this sure is some camp gruel." I cleaned my plate and ripped open the bag labeled cheesy mash potatoes.

We woke the next morning with 12 miles still to cover before sundown. Originally, we'd planned to be done by afternoon, in time for dinner at the Crooked Spoon Café, the best restaurant in Grand Marais, and a night at the Mayhew Inn, a boutique hotel that resembles a stack of shipping containers. We stroked across Omega Lake, Henson Lake, Gaskin Lake, Horseshoe Lake, past huffing beavers and gliding swans, gobbling fistfuls of M&M's as we went. A drizzle started. The fog rolled in. We kept paddling through the soup. The rain came down harder, then in sheets. Dusk was descending when it began to thunder.

"What do we do if it rains?" I'd asked Seaton before we started.

"You paddle in the rain." He hadn't said anything about lightning. Lisa's orange rain poncho billowed ridiculously from the bow. Finally, there was just Poplar Lake left to cross.

Seaton had drawn a dotted line on the map to our end point, a restaurant with a big dock called Trail Center Lodge, where he would be waiting to pick us up. "You might get turned around on Poplar," he'd said. "It has lots of lights and buildings, and humans are inextricably drawn to lights and buildings."

Now we were heading through the dark-blue night toward one of the lights. We could make out a big dock bobbing on the water. The wind picked up. By the time we hauled out the boat, Poplar Lake was covered in whitecaps.

And, sure enough, we were turned around. The door that we knocked on wasn't the Trail Center's. It was the home of John and Robyn Hanson, a merciful local couple who served us hot tea and called Seaton to retrieve us.

When he arrived, Seaton was blasé about our mishap. "It happens," he shrugged. "In 27 years of sending people into the Boundary Waters, I've never had anyone not come back out."

I sipped my tea, relieved not to have been the first.

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