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The Best Skunking I Ever Had


Guest Don R
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From 1996 to 2005 I've been on about a dozen canoe trips to either the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park or the Superior National Forest. All of these trips were in the months of June, July or early August. We had plenty of cold evenings where upon we had to warm and dry our boots by the fire. In these months getting wet when entering or exiting the canoe really wasn't an issue.

 

My friend Tim and I decided in 2006 that we would head up to the Boundary Waters the last week of September. The late September weather and water temperatures were a real test for a couple of guys used to 'wet footing' it in canoe country. The fishing was good but the catching was not so good.

 

We started taking a cam-corder on these trips around 1999. With plenty of photos and video each trip provided fond memories to last our lifetimes. For this trip I decided to bring a journal to log my thoughts and experiences. My journal was made up of a couple dozen 3" X 5" index cards because I'm too darn cheap to buy a real journal and when portaging every ounce counts!

 

The cards were misplaced shortly after the trip until I recently found them. I'll do my best to decipher my own writing and 'translate' the cryptic writings into something hopefully worthwhile to read. I'll accompany the words with several photos along the way.

 

The trip begins tomorrow.

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In the late nineties I went on a canoe trip with eight other guys. A few of us were reading books about hiking the Appalachian trail at the time. Because we read that amost all trail hikers take on trail names, we decided to give each other canoe trip names. Each name had some sort of relevance with each man. And any chance to give a guy a woman's name was jumped on immediately!

 

A few of the trip names had obvious meanings while others were a bit of a stretch. Chopper liked to chop wood. Grace wasn't the least bit graceful. Ruby-Juke seemed to like stretching before any paddle or portage and he sang a lot. Here the name took a bit of time to develope. Ruby came from him stretching like a rubberband and Juke from his juke-box like singing.

 

Through the years as new canoe trippers joined us they were soon given canoe trip names as well. Flo brought a small fluorescent light to use in his tent. Shelly brought a small blow-up pillow (suggested by his loving wife) that was in the shape of a shell. Thundercheeks...well, I have to leave something to your imaginations. Joe earned his name the hard way. Back in 2000 we did a fly-in/paddle out trip. Joe was carrying his gear and wacked his head really hard on a plane wing that was hanging over the dock. To this day he is called Wingnutt.

 

It's only fair that I share my canoe trip name. I'm Barb. I was hoping for a name like Hook or even Rusty but they picked Barb. I caught a good size smallmouth bass on a top water lure. It broke free from my grip and one of the hooks impaled itself into my leg. Luckily the flopping fish opened the hole in my leg just wide enough to use the fishing line method to remove the hook.

 

And that brings us to my good friend Tim. Tim was given the name Swannee. As my canoe partner he had perfect balance. But on land he would often trip over his own shadow. I guess Swannee was a derivative of being graceful as a swan. Swannee and I have been on many canoe trips covering hundreds if not thousands of miles and we have yet to tip the canoe.

 

But we didn't need to tip the canoe to get swamped. Wet weather had been following us around for several trips prior to our last trip in 2006. I'm not complaining as I feel blessed just to go on these canoe trips. And to be quite honest some of the 'wet' weather turned out to be just a few sprinkles in a day. But a streak of 'wet' weather remains just as a small fish avoids a skunking.

 

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The Drive Up

 

Swannee I usually visit one of the Lake Superior scenic outlooks on the way up to canoe country. It adds a bit of time to the drive but we both feel it's well worth it. The awesome power of the waves and cold lake water as far as the eye could see were inspirational. A light mist fell as we arrived.

 

 

 

Here Swannee catches a bird in mid-flight.

 

 

 

After checking in at our hotel we phoned Andy and Paula Hill. We first met Andy and Paula back in '96 when Andy owned and operated Hill's Wilderness Trips in Ely, MN. Paula was working for Andy at the time and a couple years later they were wed. The last time we got together with the Hills they made us dinner so we thought it was fitting to buy them dinner this time around.

 

The four of us decided to eat at the Chocolate Moose in Ely. We grabbed a fairly large table to spread our maps on. Andy routed us and we were confident with his suggestions. During the course of dinner Paula offered to shuttle us and our gear to the Lake One entry point. This way we wouldn't need to circle back to our entry point and could cover more water exiting the bush at Snowbank Lake.

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Day 1

 

Our first day started off fairly leisurely. Swannee and I had decided to leave schedules and time commitments back home. There are no clocks in the woods. Only the rising and setting of the sun. That is if the sun decides to make an appearance now and again.

 

Paula met us at the Snowbank Lake parking lot and then we loaded up her vehicle with all of our gear. I don't recall the drive taking that long. Looking back we didn't travel very far as the crow flies. We covered a good distance on the water and through the many portages we would take on. The photo below shows most of our gear loaded up and ready to paddle into our entry point, Lake One. Lake One is really the name of the lake. I didn't name it so don't blame me!

 

 

 

Once in the canoe I folded the map and layed it at my feet. I was to navigate on this trip as I had done on most every other trip Swannee and I had taken. Navigating through canoe country can be a challenge at times. It felt great each time we made it through another difficult lake where every island looks like the mainland from a distance.

 

Swannee and I decided to follow Andy and Paula's advice on this first day. They suggested taking a shortcut rather than adding paddling and portaging time to our first day. We liked the idea of skipping a couple of portages and headed right towards the area they suggested. As we paddled into a bay we startled a deer.

 

 

 

I can't blame Andy and Paula for what happened that day. They told us it would be a scenic shortcut and it indeed was very beautiful. They also mentioned that when they last took this way it was in the spring. No doubt the water levels were a bit higher.

 

The scribblings on my index card read 'beautiful but terrible "non" portage suggested by Andy (backed up by Paula). Water levels appear to be down at least two feet from when they paddled it. Found an old skillet and a brown leather shoe on a dangerous sharp bend. Others had paddled this water when it was much higher.'

 

Our first glimpse of the shortcut creek should have clued us into what we were going to be dealing with that day.

 

 

 

There were sections of this creek that were actually floatable. But they were few and far between.

 

 

 

At one point we had thought about turning back. We glanced back at what we had already been through and decided to press on. Most of the shortcut creek was too shallow to paddle and filled with ankle twisting rocks. My legs were chilled but the spirit of adventure was just enough to motivate me to keep moving.

 

 

 

By this time the camcorder had already started acting up. Swannee and I took many photos as it appeared that the fall colors were really starting to put on a show. It rained a little to continue our streak of 'wet' weather. Swannee took a break from the arduous shortcut that really turned out to be a painful portage. The photo on the right is our shortcut creek finally dumping into the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

Another entry in my 'journal' for this day reads "Eagle, deer, mink, duck, geese, chipmunk, squirrels, vulture and bluejay all have made their presence known to us on our first day. We set camp on the east edge of Lake Four. A good cold weather wind protected site. Marked site on map. Hung food pack 3' off ground in hopes of good bear attack footage. Moose bones at camp site. Cool!"

 

It sure sounds like Swannee and I were willing to part with our food to get some good photos of a bear. Perhaps we had other food stashed elsewhere. Or perhaps we thought there would be no problem catching fish as we had done so very well on past canoe trips. Looking back what we did was both dangerous and rediculous. No bears payed us a visit that night or on this trip. And to be perfectly honest, I'm very glad for that!

 

 

 

A fitting end to our first day.

 

 

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I really find the picture journal stories of boundary water trips very entertaining. Reading the stories is a nice way to cure a little cabin fever. If you guys want to read more stories like these there are 2 great websites just loaded with stories of outdoor adventures in BWCA and Quetico. Try www.bwca.com or www.quietjourney.com . Someday I hope to go there too. Through all the reading I've done, I already have a vision for the route of my adventure.

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Day 2

 

I tried to take a bit of video this morning but the camcorder was really giving me trouble. I was very glad that we had two working cameras and my 'journal' in which I penned for this day; 'Sunday, east end of Lake Four to Insula. Three small portages and one 105 rod up and down. Bull and cow moose! Eagle, martin, mergansers, cormorant. Tim caught a walleye. Our second campsite on island west of Williamson island. A few sprinkles.'

 

 

Not many insects seen, heard or felt on this trip.

 

....

Water levels were very low making the portages just a bit longer.

 

 

....

And I thought cormorants were only black.

 

..

 

 

Beyond cool

 

 

Don't mess with Mr. Moose

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Day 3

 

'Rained overnight about 1/4". Windy this morning. Camcorder passed away last night. Hopefully both partial tapes can be saved. Oatmeal for breakfast-tradition.'

 

The entry in my journal about tradition brought back memories of trips gone by. One of our very first traditions was for each man to bring a large chocolate bar. The bars were about 4"x8" and weighed about one pound. One camper each night would bring out his bar to share with the rest of the group. The key here was to get rid of your own bar as early on in the trip as possible. Every ounce counts.

 

Another tradition we had was to bring one useless thing. My fellow campers and I would usually bring something small or at least light weight to satisfy this rather funny tradition. The first four items that come to mind from past trips are a large blow-up frog, a pirate kite, a neck tie and a tiolet seat with platform. The frog floated behind Wingnutt's canoe for several hours. No doubt he gave some strangers a good laugh! The kite was actually flown by Swannee with his spinning reel and half of an Ugly Stick. The neck tie was worn by Ruby-Juke as a religious sign on a Sunday morning. Chopper gave the toilet seat to Thunder Cheeks for his birhtday when we were in Quetico. In Quetico there are no latrines so it was one heck of a gift!

 

..

In past trips I would usually take a good hour or more of video. Now that the camcorder had crapped out on me I began to write more and became much more aware of my surroundings. Perhaps this also had to do with my inability to find fish!

 

'Animal count by morning of day three; 3 eagle, 1 bull moose, 1 cow moose, 2 deer, squirrels, chipmunks, jays, gulls, mergansers, goose, cormorant, woodpecker, mink, vulture and raven. Also heard both loon and wolf. Star filled skies both Sat. and Sun. night.'

 

'10:10 AM Monday. Winds are strong! Insula base camp. Canadian Jay likes tortillas! Don still hasn't caught a fish! Sun peaked out for 10 minutes. It's so cold I can see my breathe.'

....

'7:55 PM Very windy all day until sunset. Cow moose spotted today..twice! First time across narrow of Insula. Second time it came to a peninsula--awesome! Tried fishing but it was tough with all the wind.'

....

'Light rain during the day. Rainbow. Fish almost pulled rod in off shore but it wasn't caught. I heard something just after sunset--silence. So quiet I could hear a ringing in my ears! Another star filled night.'

....

'Hiked around the island that our campsite is on after dark. A bit scary but I made it! Swannee thought I was a moose. We will break camp tomorrow.'

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Day 4

 

'Up at 8 AM. Slept almost ten hours! Windy with light rain. The rain has dampened our spirits! We've decided to stay on lake Insula one more day. We most likely will head back tomorrow the same way we came here with one exception. This time we'll use the two marked portages rather than knocking ourselves out on a low creek bed.'

 

 

'It's 10:30 and we're on our second pot of coffee. Don still hasn't caught a fish. Swannee caught one walleye. But no pic means no fish. Ha. We've decided to do a little exploring. We'll head up Cache, Fast and maybe Jut lake. Looks to be possible moose habitat. Wind is picking up but now coming from the south.'

 

 

'11:00 We've changed our minds. No day tripping today. The change of wind direction tells us to go north, so north we will go. Breaking camp now. Strong winds SSW, mostly cloudy and cool. We heard a large tree come down on the mainland. Cool. Rain every day so far.'

 

 

'Burning some wood and scraps while breaking camp I burnt the palm of my left hand. Painful but with Tylenol, Neosporin and a cold wet bandana pain is lessening. Lesson learned, bring leather gloves and use them! Also bring high top Thinsulate boots and keep feet dry!'

---------

Swannee's passion. Here he calls a moose.

 

'High winds and big waves to about 2.5' thru Insula to 180 rod portage. Up good sized hill, fairly flat on top and very steep down to beautiful lake Kiana. Wind at our backs all day today. Set up camp on mainland near Fraser lake access.'

---

 

'We haven't seen any other campers since Sunday morning. 8:30 PM Light snow begins to fall.'

 

 

Each night we were warmed by a fire. My sleeping bag wasn't keeping me warm enough so I filled my Nalgene bottle with hot water and slept with it inside my bag.

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Day 5

 

'Woke Wed. morning @ 8:30. By far the coldest morning on the trip. Overcast with light winds increasing as I write this. Woke up at 2:30 AM to walk the dog and noticed a star filled sky. Swannee is up now. We're drinking coffee, eating oatmeal and warming up by the fire. Thank God there's no fire ban on this trip!'

..

 

'While warming my feet by the fire I hear the cry of a loon. Few we have heard and even fewer we've seen. Light rain begins to fall. It has rained or snowed each day. Went on a short hike to next camp site. The sun makes a rare appearance. Notes for next trip; bring nasal spray, less batteries, more granola bars and less gorp.'

..

 

'We've decided to break camp and head for our 4th campsite. Heard the beat of a raven's wings as it flew over our temporary home. Thomas lake is very beautiful. The fall colors have been getting better by the day. Catching no fish is really opening my eyes to appreciate my surroundings.'

...

 

'More strong winds today as we traveled from Thomas to Alworth lake. We made camp at an Andy Hill suggested island site. It hailed twice today! Really cold as I write this at 7:30 PM. Nice sunset. Awesome portage into IMA lake. Five portages today, none too tough.'

...

 

'A rodent ate through my food sack. I guess they like trail mix too. Saw two loons and a frog today. Ran into two guys in a canoe east of Ima heading downstream near Hatchet lake. Their first day in and the fifth day of our trip. The guys tell us the weather should improve. I sure hope they're right! We made nature's fireworks tonight. Put big stick into the fire. Get red hot and throw it through the dark sky into the lake. Awesome! I shall now warm myself by the fire.'

.

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Day 6

 

'Woke up early enough to see a beautiful sunrise. A fly just buzzed by. It's the second one I've seen all trip. No skeeters, ticks, gnats, army worms, biting flies, etc! The woods are still. The occasional call of a loon or squawk of a monkey bird is all I hear. I believe we shall hike Disappointment Mountain today.'

.

 

'Swannee and I have two speeds today, slow and slower. We've made a commitment to not rush this trip and thus far we've remained true to it. There are old growth pines on our campsite island. The sun is trying to show itself but the clouds seem to always win the battle. A northern cardinal sings its song behind me as I sit on the throne to write this.'

..

 

'Thursday early afternoon we paddled through small hail to find the trail up to Disappointment Mountain. The trail and view from the mountain were surely not a disappointment. Freezing drizzle begins to fall as I pen this entry. Last night's sky was star filled and the moon began to make its appearance.'

..

 

'Swannee is at the top of the mountain making phone calls. I hiked down the trail to give him some privacy. I really miss hiking and if I ever come back here in the fall I'll make it a hiking trip rather than canoeing. A small woodpecker flies overhead in search of a choice birch tree. The colors surrounding me are breathtaking!'

 

 

'As we sit and eat or lunch we notice another canoe heading our way. We chat with the solo canoeist for a while about moose, fishing, hunting, hiking and such. After a brief visit he gets out of his canoe and heads up the trail. Swannee and I check out the other camp site on this lake. It's unoccupied and looks like it's rarely used.'

.

 

'We paddled into a small bay. I caught two crayfish and a clam. Fished for a while but again nothing caught. We found a decent campsite. Ate mac and cheese. Swannee made Stove Top stuffing. We followed that with some peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches.'

 

 

'After dinner we ran low on firewood. I use the facilities and head back with a ten foot piece of dead pine. I make five saw cuts and Swannee splits the wood with his trusty axe. The sun is setting around 7:00PM. It's way too early to fall asleep. Hardly any wind today and almost calm this evening.'

.

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Day 7

 

'It's Friday morning. Woke up to the sound of trees cracking. No doubt a moose on a nearby shore. The sunrise was beautiful but the hazy clouds took over leaving the sun to look like the moon. Yesterday's hike was on the Kekakabic trail. Most folks call it the Kek. The winds have changed again and now are from the southeast. If they stay that way it will help us along on our journey today. We will break camp soon and head toward Snowbank Lake. We may end our canoe trip today or stay one more day. The winds will play a big role in that decision.'

..

 

'If I ever make a story out of these scribblings I'll name it The Best Skunking I Ever Had...September 2006 Boundary Waters Adventure. This trip really opened my eyes to the sites and sounds around me. The weather hasn't been a lot of fun but it could always be worse.'

 

 

'A quick 10 rod portage into Ima Lake and then another 5 rods into Jordan. We paddled to the north end of Jordan and hauled our gear across a 55 rod portage to Cattyman. I finally caught a few fish on Jordan but they were hammer handle pike. It still felt good to have something on the end of my line. Swannee caught a pike too. We took a side trail off the 25 rod Cattyman to Gloson portage to view a nice waterfall.'

.

 

'We spoke with a couple guys in a canoe. They were headed towards Ashigan and Ensign lakes. Swannee and I had paddled that route in the past. After a 35 rod portage into Swing Lake we stopped for lunch. A frog and an eagle joined us for lunch. It's 1:40 PM and it looks like we'll head out of the bush a day early. A near steady rain today has convinced us that it's time to leave.'

..

 

'We portaged a total of 12 times today and paddled across the impressive width of Snowbank Lake. Snowbank is about 3 miles north to south and 5 miles east to west. Saw another eagle while crossing her. The colors are just about peaked and each portage was more colorful than the last. The 80 rod portage we did today was very steep and rocky. Squirrels chattered along the path.'

..

 

'The weather was raw to put it mildly. We made it to the landing where my car was parked at 7:00 PM. It rained hard the whole time we loaded up the gear. As soon as the canoe was strapped down and we were in the car the rain stopped. It was funny but we weren't laughing. The word in town is that it will be in the 60's and 70's all next week with not much rain. I'm sure it didn't get any higher than 55 degrees since we started our trip.'

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Day 8

 

'The lack of catching fish renewed my love for hiking. Something I plan on doing more of upon my return to civilization. Ely, Minnesota is a buzz with canoeists and tourists enjoying the marvelous fall colors. Very lucky to find a place to stay last night. We ate pizza at Sir G's to kill some time. We were homeless for 5 hours. Way too much time to return the canoe and shop without money. Andy and Paula invited Swannee and me to a barn dance. We foolishly asked if we should bring beer.'

.

 

'Spoke with a guy at Voyager North Outfitters that just got back from a 165 mile border trip between the Boundary Waters and Quetico. He saw no moose. We saw three moose. We were happy. It's dry today. No surprise to Swannee and me because we're out of the woods. Andy and Paula told us what barn dancing was really all about. Swannee told me a few times on the way to the barn that he wasn't going to dance. It was a beautiful star filled night as we arrived at our destination. We climbed up the vertical ladder and after a quick introduction we were all dancing. I have to admit it was a ton of fun. Even Swannee seemed to be having a good time.'

..

 

'I told Andy about Swannee being rather apprehensive about dancing. Andy mentioned to Swannee that he had heard that he wasn't going to dance no matter what. He then asked him "So how's that workin' out for ya Tim?" with an accent that can only come from many years of living in the north woods. Andy and Paula introduced us to a lady named Heidi. Heidi and her husband own islands and a lot of land on Snowbank Lake. Heidi's husband is in Iraq on a second tour of duty. I won a candle as a door prize and gave it to her. I found out later that my grandfather used to know folks that owned an island and a camp on Snowbank. Small world.'

.

 

'The barn dance was in Aurora, Minnesota. And wouldn't ya know it we saw the aurora borealis for the first time on the way back to Ely after the dance. We also saw a whole bunch of deer and were very glad that we were sober. We made a quick stop at the Ely Steak House to sing some karaoke. Back to the Budget Host in Ely for five hours sleep before the long trip home.'

.

 

Day 9

 

'We stop for breakfast at Journey's End. A quick stop to photo Robinson lake.'

 

 

 

The End

 

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