Canoe 2005


(This 746th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 17, 2005.)


Each summer for thirty years Bob Bugenstein, Earl Colborn, Wally Neal and I spent a week canoeing through the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. Our adventures are even recorded in a slim book written by Colborn entitled A History of the White Shirts.


But then age and a variety of infirmities caught up with us and our last canoe trip together was in 1998.


This year Dr. Bugenstein and I sought to recreate our annual adventure. Our absent partners were replaced by Bob's daughter, Anne, and my son, another Gerry.


It was a clear case of the passing of the guard.


We four met in Minneapolis and set out on June 29th for our Independence Day weekend trip. As retirees, Bob and I had to work around our younger partners' work schedules.


We spent that night in a cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior and the next morning drove to Sawbill where we outfitted. There we packed food, equipment and two canoes onto a van and were driven thirty miles to our departure point on Lake Kawishiwi.


Although they are what is commonly described as middle aged, neither Anne nor Gerry had gone on such a trip before so we oldsters organized the canoes and got us started paddling up the lake.


Canoe paddling is not difficult. The main task is to dip your paddle into the water and pull. The bow paddler sets the pace with the stern partner maintaining that pace and also steering. Failing to follow this simple scheme not only slows progress but is unattractive. Sadly, on this trip the old men never did communicate this seemingly simple task, but the strength of the youngsters carried us forward.


On our first day we passed through three lakes and down a mile or so of streams. Our only portage was 20 rods. (A rod is 16.5 feet; 320 equal a mile.) With high water we were able to paddle through a short rapids and avoid a second carry.


Bob and I had planned this first easy day to serve as "breaking in" for all of us. It only took us two hours to reach our first campsite on Kawasaschong Lake.


All this had been accomplished in a drizzle of rain and the earlier forecasts were not encouraging. I worried that we would face a week of foul weather. Most fortunately, this would not be the case. Although we had more rain including several thunderstorms and strong winds that raised whitecaps, after that first day most were sunny and clear, the bad weather largely restricted to nighttime.


The second day made it clear to the oldsters that on the campsite and the trail our children were fast learners. Increasingly they joined in and finally took charge of the chores, Bob and I happily sliding into helping modes. For example, on each portage we had to carry six loads, two canoes and four packs. That meant that two of us had to double, that is, go back and retrieve a second load. By the end of the trip the old men were doing very little doubling.

(Anne and Gerry paddle together on the third day.)


Our next three days were more demanding. On the first, two long portages took us through Townline to Polly Lake. From there we followed the so-called lady-chain lakes -- Polly, Hazel, Phoebe, Grace, Ella and Beth (with Knight thrown in as a kind of chaperone). Much of that was tough going but our final days were easy paddles and carries through Alton Lake back to our car on Sawbill Lake.


Although we weren't able to show the newcomers any moose, wolves or bears, we did have the usual aggressive and entertaining camp chipmunks and red squirrels, a huge beaver and several even tamer than usual loons. One pair came within ten feet of our canoe and their weird cries sang us to sleep.


Wilderness canoe camping is a challenging undertaking. There is hard work involved, especially carrying 50-pound loads up rock-strewn trails. However, a successful canoe trip provides a sense of satisfaction that is seldom matched.


On this delightful outing, I believe that Bob and I passed the torch to another generation.


And we may even make it ourselves again next year.-- Gerry Rising



Canoe 2005 Diary


Canoe 2005 Diary


Wednesday, June 29


Bob, two Gerrys and Wally have lunch at an Italian restaurant. Anne shows up a half hour early at 2:30 p.m. (Delayed start due to Anne having to work that day.) We finish packing and load up, leaving for the bush at 2:45. Anne leads us through what the Bugensteins describe as "one of the most congested" traffic areas in the United States, which turns out to discredit them as we are not delayed at all. Anne is a great and very fast driver, Gerry Jr. steering from the back seat.


Supper at Black Woods Bar and Grill in Two Harbors. Temperature along Lake Superior a sudden drop from the Minneapolis 80 to about 50 -- but felt like 35. Heavy fog, drizzle of rain and strong south wind add to our discomfort whenever we leave the car.


Night at Sugar Beach in a tiny cabin (designed according to the owners for three maximum) with double beds. A brief trek 50 yards to the lakeshore our only exercise. Evening telling family stories and a brief review of Indian time telling -- but only Fox (for obvious reasons) used on trip. To bed with much rain, lightning and snoring.


Day 1: Thursday, June 30


Team members up beginning at 5:30 a.m. Temperature 55. Not raining but deeply overcast and foggy. Breakfast at restaurant at foot of road to Sawbill (have to wait 15 minutes for them to open at 7:00) then on to the outfitters.


Greetings at Sawbill by Frank and Mary Alice Hansen, who have been pre-warned by EFC -- by email (and letter?) -- of our arrival. Much help with outfitting by two well-prepared young women. Watch the brand new (Mary Alice watched with us) Forest Service DVD on rules and procedures.


A third young woman (UMinn art/art history major) drives us to our departure point at foot of Lake Kiwishiwi. She leaves with the van and we suddenly find ourselves on our own.


Off we go into the bush at 11:00 a.m.


The wind is against us -- what else is new? -- for most of Kiwishiwi but variable through the channel into Square Lake. First (and only) portage 20 rods between Square and our target for the day, Kawasashong Lake. Difficulty getting into canoes at the end of this portage portends our later experience with rocks. Gerry Jr. wades, pulling his dad in canoe. The Bugensteins wisely launch the other canoe farther downstream. (On this trip canoes suffer worse indignities than ever before on BWCA outings. It is a wonder we are not charged extra for damage.)


Despite occasional soft rain the rest of our passage is very pleasant. In fact a second portage turns out to be an easy paddle-through. The Risings lead but miss entrance and have to follow the other canoe.


Kawasashong is unexpectedly busy and we end up with the only remaining campsite on the lake, a definite D-. Wind increases as we land but rain stops. We have spent less than two hours underway, an easy "breaking in" day.


We set up our single tent designated "for six men." Six midgets perhaps! Our reasonably comfortable sleeping arrangements are: Anne across back of tent with two Gerrys and Bob perpendicular to her. This allows her to give Gerry Sr., who sleeps in the middle, an occasional soft knee to the head and to give her dad assistance finding stuff among his gear. Unfortunately Gerry Jr.'s sleeping bag is designed for one of those midgets and has a malfunctioning zipper. All three others offer to trade but offers are made with such evident reservations (near tears)

that he cannot accept. His snoring through the remainder of the trip suggests that his problems are not quite as bad as suggested.


Dinner: hamburgers, mashed potatoes and mocha mousse pie. (Sadly, two of these desserts the closest we come to moose on the trip. We also miss bears -- just as well given the height to which we hoist our food bag -- and, as usual, wolves. We will, however, later meet an aggressive chipmunk, two beaver and several red squirrels.) Unfortunately, because of disintegrating memory and single stove, this dinner is served serially, thus making potatoes cold (like vichyssoise) by the time the excellent hamburgers a la Bob are done. Gerry Sr. is definitely not at fault: he has spent the entire cooking time standing around with hands in pockets -- his usual mealtime pose.


More showers through evening. Will we spend five days sopping wet?


Political discussion commences with Bob (left) and Gerry Jr. (right) the main protagonists, Anne entirely and Gerry Sr. mostly onlookers. This will last until Gerry Jr. is dropped at the airport a week later.


To bed at 8:30 p.m., about average for the trip.


Birds: raven, blue jay.


Day 2: Friday, July 1


Sleep until 7:00 a.m., the night broken only by occasional ventures out by men -- always allowing in flights of mosquitoes. (This will be standard nighttime behavior.) Much rain during night as well.


Still threatening weather when we arise but during breakfast -- French toast (freedom toast to Gerry Jr.) -- it begins to break up and by the time we are underway at 9 a.m. the transition to beautiful blue skies has already begun.


Because everyone pitches in and despite wet gear, we break camp at 9:00 bound for Polly Lake, Bob and Gerry Jr. in one canoe, Anne and old Gerry in the other. Quarter mile paddle to end of Kawasashong Lake, then 189 rod portage to Townline. Another quarter mile paddle down this lake and 91 rod portage into Polly. Although these are not easy carries, they are managed well. We establish our routine: six loads -- two canoes and four packs -- meaning two of us have to double back on each portage. We begin by alternating but by the end of the trip the youngsters are doing almost all of the doubling. Four notes: (1) Bob no longer carries two packs at once. (2) Gerry Jr. carries the heaviest pack regularly, the equipment pack topped by the tent. (3) The amazing Anne carries packs or canoe with no problem. (4) Gerry Sr. still needs a bridge to carry the canoe.


On Polly we find the island campsite recommended by Wally, but Bob and Gerry Sr. check another site. Bob considers the ambience of the second better so we take that one. Despite this we are on site before noon. Tent up, dinner (lasagna) eaten and cleaned up by 2 p.m. Gerry Jr. swims before dinner. Afternoon rest and reading, then Bob and (finally and unexpectedly!) Gerry Sr. swim. Several trips pass though the narrow pass next to our campsite as do two beaver. One beaver climbs out of the water on the opposite shore: it is as large as a small bear. A stone thrown near the other makes it dive but not whack its tail.


Supper: grilled cheese and salami sandwiches. Marshmallows over campfire in the evening.


Birds: bald eagle, grackle, mourning warbler (pair at latrine), raven, merlin pair, common merganser, loon (others not me), winter wren, red-eyed vireo, robin.


Day 3: Saturday, July 2


Up at 6:00 a.m. with long day ahead. Weather overcast and threatening, in fact while still on Polly light rain falls. But happily the day turns bright and windy. By afternoon temperature about 75, sky with less than 10% clouds.


Big day on the trail beginning at 8:00 a.m. Six portages (96, 16, 92, 25, 59 and 140 rods), three terrible paddles through rocks, much wind. At one point Anne slips on rocks and falls in. She proceeds to pull her canoe (with Gerry in it) and the other through the mess. Gerry Jr. matches her by taking a spill in high waves at campsite landing on Phoebe Lake. Along the way we have paddled through Hazel (with salute to Duke's mother) and Knight Lakes.


Reach campsite at 2 p.m. after six hours of hard work. No breaks taken; we simply forget in our eagerness to reach our destination, a beautiful high campsite, a definite B+. After we set up tent and before dinner Gerry Jr. and Anne swim briefly in surf.


Dinner: chicken with dumplings, our best meal. Cherry-apple cobbler looks much like bear dump and very sweet but reasonably good in small portions.


Birds: redstart, yellow-rumped warbler, common mergansers, winter wren, blue jay, red-eyed vireo.


Day 4: Sunday, July 3


Brief shower at 5 a.m. Gerry Sr. wakes to it and announces, "Ah s---!" which awakens others. Up at 6:30 to pause in rain long enough to complete breakfast: pancakes by Anne. We originally planned to spend a day of rest on Phoebe but decide (original 1-3 vote soon changes to 3-1) to move on in order not to have another long day like yesterday. We hope to get to Grace or possibly Ella or more remotely Beth.


We set out at 8:30 a.m. and exit Phoebe Lake as wind is rising and whitecaps again beginning to occur. Grace River is a mess of rocks and Gerry Jr. (for the remainder of the trip Mongo after the character in Blazing Saddles, but Gerry Sr., who has never seen Blazing Saddles, recalls Mongo as a planet visited by Buck Rogers) jumps out to haul canoes through. We continue to hit individual rocks from here on, however. Rain varies but trails are full of water and going is tough. After 85, 5 and 15 rod portages we reach Grace Lake at 10 a.m. and decide to go on. The next portage is by far the most punishing of the trip, 147 rods uphill through rocks to Ella Lake.


Embarrassing incident on this portage for Gerry Sr. (henceforward just Gerry): He takes canoe only halfway across and doubles back. Anne passes him carrying her canoe and, returning from the end of the portage still passes him again before he can get back to Grace to carry a pack. This is only one evidence of how the youngsters take over responsibilities on the trail and campsite.


Note: The one exception to this is Mongo avoiding packing the Rising pack. His father recognizes this behavior as genetic; he formerly maneuvered Duke into doing that same packing for many years.


Despite near exhaustion at Ella Lake, we decide to give ourselves an (almost) day of rest the next day by going on, 90 rods (but downhill) to Beth. Although this may have been a mistake, we make it okay -- it is indeed largely downhill -- and head out onto the lake.


This is again a popular lake and we worry about finding a campsite. Our first goal is taken and a canoe appears to be headed for the second (if we miss it, we'll have to retreat to the west end of the lake). We still head for that second campsite and happily find that our supposed competitors are just fishing. We arrive at 12:30 p.m., after another four tough hours of trekking.


Tent up, Mongo takes over dinner preparation: spaghetti with salami and green beans eaten by some in pita bread sandwiches. Very good. Cheesecake dessert delayed for supper.


The afternoon again provides a good rest. Sunny but brief shower as well. Everybody dozes but Gerry who wanders into the woods looking for birds.


Supper: sandwiches prepared by Anne and that cheesecake.


A note about hanging pack. On the first night out Mongo takes over from his father. A (new to us) pulley arrangement allows us to hang pack between two trees, but we never raise it to the recommended 14 feet. Our usual is 9-10 feet and fortunately no bear visits or if one does, his giggling prevents him from reaching the pack.


Birds: sapsucker, magnolia warbler, Northern waterthrush, turkey vulture, hermit and Swainson's thrushes, robin, loons, merlin, ravens.


Day 5: Monday, July 4


Up at 6:30 a.m. We had planned to sleep an extra hour but a nature call by Gerry led to early rising.


Spanish omelet prepared by Mongo for breakfast -- note the kids taking over here as well. Bright morning sun helps to finish drying clothing and especially boots from yesterday.


Off at a remarkable 8:15 a.m. as unstated cooperation leads to less and less time getting ready. We paddle length of Beth Lake and cross the 140 rod slightly downhill portage into Alton. Easy going compared to past days. We then paddle up Alton to very nice campsite with sand beach opposite the portage into Sawbill, a perfect location for our quick out tomorrow. We're on our campsite at 10:15 a.m. to a day of relaxation and preparation to leave the bush tomorrow.


After dinner (forgotten meal) while Mongo and Anne rest Gerry and Bob prepare a big campfire using large amounts of gasoline. Finally they get big birch logs and root burning for evening marshmallows, eaten almost exclusively by Gerry.


Birds: sapsucker, song sparrow, red-eyed vireo, loon, magnolia warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, common merganser.


Day 6: Tuesday, July 5


Up at 5:45 a.m. It had rained hard during the night but the sky is just overcast in the morning. No breakfast. Pack and off by 6:30 a.m., quite remarkable.


As usual, Gerry leads away from the portage that Bob has located (he finally uses his GPS to lead us back to it). We cross the portage, paddle down Sawbill Lake and reach the outfitters at 7:45 a.m.


Birds: sapsucker, Northern waterthrush, winter wren.


Shower, check in, talk to Bill (absent when we checked in) and head for civilization at 8:45 a.m.


We again have breakfast at restaurant at foot of road near Tofte and head back to Minneapolis. Usual discussion of murder in Duluth and we miss the turn-off to Wisconsin (purposely but we remark on it in deference to Wally). We are able not only to make Mongo's afternoon plane but have lunch at the Mall of America.


Wally joins Bob and Gerry for dinner at an Olive Garden restaurant.


Gerry stays over with Bob and leaves the following afternoon.