My Final Canoe Trip


(This 906th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 3, 2008.)



I spent a happy evening with Bob Bugenstein and his daughter Anne

at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis just a week before Bob died on July 16, 2008


(This column was nearly completed when I learned that my friend, Bob Bugenstein, died just days after we returned

from our 25th annual venture into the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I dedicate the column to him.)



Cherokee Lake in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area


Sadly, it is time to quit. Those four days finally made it clear that I can no longer carry my fair share on canoe trips. Given that decision (strongly supported by my wife), it seems appropriate to compare this last trip with my very first, 65 years ago.


That earlier trip was in Algonquin Park north of Toronto, but those lakes, forests, wildlife, portages and campsites are so much like Minnesota that I defy anyone to differentiate them. Both parks represent pre-Columbian North America.


Each trip was designed for four days of travel, but the earlier one was more challenging, especially to a neophyte assistant trip leader still in high school. The Algonquin trip involved 33 miles paddling, 7.5 miles portaging; Minnesota, 16 miles paddling, 3 miles portaging.


In Minnesota we had e-mailed our food preferences and everything was ready when we arrived. Most food was freeze-dried, thus very light. The outfitter also provided our tent, sleeping bags, mattresses, stove and other camp equipment, four packs and the two 50-pound Kevlar canoes for the four of us. We loaded everything, including our personal gear into those four packs. Thus portages included six loads for four people: the two youngsters, Anne Bugenstein and Larry Fries, doing almost all of the doubling back for second loads. (Such doubling thus means multiplying each portage distance by three.)



On July 5th we watched a moose rise out of Kelly Lake in northern Minnesota


We did our own outfitting for the Algonquin trip. There were nine of us, three leaders and six Camp Pathfinder campers, in three 100-pound canvas canoes. The middle paddler, Bill Swift in my canoe, would kneel on packs. We planned our meals and obtained bags of flour and sugar and cans of stews, fruit and vegetables from the camp outfitter. No stove: we would cook over open fires. All this food was packed into a wooden box called a wanigan that was then wrapped in the canvas tarp under which we leaders would sleep.


In those days there were no down sleeping bags. Each trip member had a heavy Hudson's Bay blanket that he folded and pinned around the edges to make a bed roll. The food cans were distributed, aligned and rolled up in this blanket, the resulting cylinder stuffed into a duffle bag. All this gave us nine duffle bags; three big packs for tents, food and equipment; and the three canoes to portage.


Today pack weight is shared by your shoulders and waist. On that earlier trip most of the weight carried was on your head. The duffle bags and packs were wrapped with a six-foot leather strap called a tumpline. Campers carried one, two or even three duffle bags across their shoulders with broadened areas of the tumplines against their foreheads. We counselors carried the canoes and doubled back for the packs and remaining duffle bags.


The canoes we also carried on our heads, the paddles strapped against the thwarts only to give balance. Although we used padding, I still recall running my finger along my skull going over the ridges left from the cross struts of the canoe. Today the lighter canoes are carried on your shoulders with your head completely free.


On the modern trip we carried only one lightweight tent for the four of us. In the old days we carried two heavier canvas tents for campers. We three counselors slept under that canvas tarp based against a tipped canoe and held up by paddles and tumplines. "Mattresses" were hemlock bows and mosquitoes were a problem.


Today, except for what you eat, everything packed in is packed out. In those old days each campsite had its nearby can dump. At night we would hear animals rooting around in them: were they bears, wolves, the Wendigo? Later those dumps were filled in and for a time we sank cans in the center of deep lakes. Today, thankfully, canned goods are no longer allowed in either park.


Thank goodness the trips got easier as I got older, but every one of them represents a happy memory.-- Gerry Rising