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Boundary Waters

November 9, 2009

The last time I was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was about 25 years ago. It was also the first time. I have fond and vivid memories from that trip.

Four of us checked in at Ely, Minnesota, and the man gave us directions to an empty beach where our two canoes waited by the water.

We saw nobody else for eight days. It was late September. It should have been cool and rainy, but we had seven flawless days of sun, warm enough to risk bathing in the stunningly cold water (which was clean enough to drink).

We camped on islands in the belief we’d be safe from the very active bears. One island was just a stone’s throw from the mainland, and in the middle of the night, we stood outside our tents listening to a horrific, crashing battle in the blackness just that stone’s throw away. Of course, I slept fine that night.

We played (sort of) with loons and watched shooting stars, satellites, and the northern lights. It was a pace of life that could easily seep into your bones.

We were only one day in the BCWA. We portaged into Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, but it’s all one land. Those clever Canadians had set Customs at the only accessible portage around.

A whimsical little man with epaulets and a French accent greeted us, invited us into his office, and proceeded to grant us permission to enter … after we paid duty on the value of the food we were carrying in.

What the—? Our Minnesotan host smacked his head. Most of our cash was in the car. We scrounged in a dozen pockets and came up with the modest sum required. Barely.

It was a cheap ticket to an exquisite, pristine world of lakes, streams, cliffs and waterfalls.

The flawless weather ended on the last day in a blowing thunderstorm. We portaged to a little beach at one end of a large, long lake that looked like an ocean that day. The wind blew directly down the length of it. Waves were breaking on the beach.

We were about halfway across when we first saw lightning. The swells were large and we had to angle across them and try not to be swamped or driven ashore.

I still remember the odd, visceral feeling I had at suddenly seeing the lake bed beneath us … and then it was gone … then it was back again. There were at least two wave motions going on in the wind.

There were the waves that were threatening to roll us at any moment, and then there was a much larger rising and falling upon which those little swells bumped along.

Our end of the lake was rising and falling many feet in a slow oscillation, and I was almost willing to believe—in that flashing, blowing, spraying, booming storm—that the Earth had come frightenly alive.

This is fun to remember. But there’s much more to be said about canoeing in the Boundary Waters. On Sunday at 3:00 p.m., Sally Mather, one of Salida’s native Minnesotans, will present a slide show and discussion about it.

Sally did not canoe there until after she’d moved to Colorado, but then she and her husband, Greg, were drawn back more than a dozen times to the waters and solitude.

Sally’s slide show will cover everything from trip planning and logistics to the environment and wildlife of this immense wilderness of interconnected lakes.

Sunday. Three. Be there.

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