At the very moment of the autumnal equinox, I was enjoying a fine cup of coffee along the shores of Rose Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with my friend John. We were on the cusp of an epic day.
A month prior to this, I saw this entry point into the BWCA had an opening. Being easily accessible and offering some of the finest scenery in the territory, I practically begged the family to avail themselves of the opportunity. We’d be leaving on a Monday, however, and everybody gets nervous around here as school gets started. No dice. On a lark, I called my friend John to see if he’d join me. We hang out about once a year, so this was a Hail Mary pass. IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK!
I quickly reserved our spot for $38. This simple act was electrifying. I hadn’t been back to the Boundary Waters in years, so I had this trip to look forward to for weeks. I tend to find reservations, permits, and regulations kind of annoying, but this experience turned that curmudgeonliness on its head. Putting the money down locked the trip in, and was perhaps the best investment I’ve made in years. My mental health immediately soared. So much so, in fact, that I’m still feeling amazing after the trip, even after our Prius had the catalytic converter stolen off it in the middle of the night yesterday. The repair will cost somewhere north of $2k (hopefully covered by insurance less five Benjamins), but this minor disaster is sort of rolling off me like water.
Being immersed in such majesty got me outside my own myopic view of the world, sharpened my faith, and was some of the most fun I’ve had in years. This is the sort of thing I need to be doing at least once a quarter (every season of the year is magical in its own way). I can’t always convince the whole family to come along. Maybe that’s ok. I need to go anyway. What a realization! Ridiculously simple. We’ve crossed a rubicon, I think. Maybe not The Rubicon, but my kids are well into their teen years. Also, my wife isn’t terribly interested in deep wilderness experiences. Perhaps it’s ok for us all to pursue different passions. I’m incapable of molding them all into my own image. Man, that would be a crazy-maker anyway! Perhaps my rekindled excitement and photographs will rub off organically. I’d love for my kids to develop their own passions, immerse themselves in them, and bring them back to the family in a similar manner by sharing stories, snapshots, and smiles.
Rose Lake lies right on the border with Canada, where all my best adventures seem to happen. The boundary line is drawn straight down the middle of the lake. Why the middle and not the land itself in this particular case? Well, because a treaty in the middle of the 19th century settled a longstanding dispute concerning the boundary by using the historic route of the voyageurs from the fur trade. Their heavily laden birch bark canoes plied through the middle of the lake here. Further up the route, the boundary follows their portages (carrying places) between the lakes.
I desperately wanted to paddle this route up to the famous Height of Land portage separating South and North Lakes, but a strong west wind caused us to alter our plans. I previously made this trip as a college student, having paid $85 to take my first trip to the BWCA through UMD’s Outdoor Program. That was also a fantastic investment, and seems to have influenced my life in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. It felt like a sort of reunion to return to Rose Lake 26 years later, perhaps to the day.
Anyhow, the Height of Land Portage, though a mere 80 yards in length and not particularly difficult, looms large historically. Water north of that spot flows to Hudson Bay, while the water south flows to Lake Superior via the Pigeon River, right past the cabin I’ve written about at length in my book and several times here (winter visit) and here (summer) on the blog (plus many more under “adventure.” It was a line of demarcation for voyageurs, separating the fur trading region of the Northwest (the pays d’en haut – upper country) from the Great Lakes region, which was more of a super highway back to Montreal. Per Wikipedia:
Each newcomer would be sprinkled with a cedar bough dipped in water, and be made to swear that he would not allow another novice to pass that way without undergoing similar rites and that he would never kiss another voyageur’s wife without her consent. Concluding the ceremony with a gunfire salute and drinks of “high wine” (a type of rum), the new Homme du nord or Nor’wester and his company would resume their journey.
I went through a similar baptism (minus the gunfire salute and rum), and it seems to have stuck.
Due to that strong westerly wind, we hiked the border route trail instead.
I can hardly think of anything better than stretching the legs on a moderate hike smack dab in the middle of a canoe trip. It feels great to get out and stretch the legs.
You should probably plan on a four-day trip to properly enjoy this area. Two days for travel, and two full days for exploring. We were one day short of that. Had to get back for the harvest. No regrets at all. It’s actually kind of nice to leave a place while still longing for more. Sure beats being driven out by bugs or bad weather. Neither was a problem, by the way. Conditions were ideal. Blue bird days, all. Temps topped out around 70 midday, and dipped into the 30s by early morning. The bottom has dropped out considerably since then. I think they’ve had snow flurries in the interim. We got lucky.
We saw no canoes on Rose Lake at all, but people were plentiful on the portage into the lake. Flotillas of day trippers park there canoes at the top of the trail leading in from Duncan Lake, and several hike in from the Gunflint Trail via the Caribou Rock Trail. I’d say this is a must-hike for every Minnesotan. I wouldn’t even consider staying at this popular spot on weekends or any time in the height of summer. The image of biker gangs lining up their motorcycles outside a bar comes to mind, while considering how jammed up the Stairstep portage must become with canoes on busy days. We arrived on a Monday, so numerous campsites were available, and once again, we only saw people within a relatively small area while hiking. Nobody made it out to the big cliffs pictured above, for example. Midweek, in fall, I’d recommend simply camping at the gorgeous campsite that’s nearest to the portage. Here’s a video I made for reference:
I wanted to be more isolated, so we paddled further out, but I do think the nearer site would have been better, now that I understand that the arduous Stairstep Portage keeps out the riff raff. The closer site, or the one further to the west, would have allowed us to make the paddle to the Height of Land more easily. Additionally, quick access to the hiking trail would provide a solid opportunity to look for moose at dusk. The boggy lake pictured below (slightly southwest of Rose) is a mere half mile stroll up the Border Route hiking trail. That’s some excellent moose habitat there.
Nearby Rat Lake, immediately to the west, via canoe, is serious moose country as well. We saw both a cow and a bull moose on that lake during my maiden voyage as an 18-year-old college freshman. My southern Wisconsin mind was blown as a massive bull moose, massively horny at that, plunged into the lake and swam mere feet past our canoe en route to a mate during the rut.
I’m not much of a backcountry cook, so I was fortunate that my wife dehydrated some jambalaya for us. Just add water and stir (in the pot above). The first night we carried in frozen steaks and set them right on the grill. Other than the steaks, all the food was packed into a bear canister, which was awesome, because I also happen to be horrible at hanging bear bags. Lock the small plastic barrel. Set it on the ground. Walk away. I can handle that.
We travelled like rich people. Rather than wrassling a heavy aluminum canoe across the portages, we rented a kevlar canoe that weighed about 45 pounds. It was amazing! Additionally, there was no fiddling around with the boat on top of his 1998 Toyota Corolla. We put in right from the dock of Hungry Jack Outfitters, which required paddling one extra lake, but it was well worth it. I suspect that the parking area for the regular starting point for this trip on Bearskin Lake is chock full on weekends. The cost of the boat came to $75 each, and was well worth it. I handled the oft-feared Stairstep Portage with relative ease. Here’s a video of me climbing it. Pardon the initial graininess. Johnny isn’t as fancy as me (one of our many differences), so he used an Iphone 6:
Total cost for this vacation weighed in at just $100 each. The best part of having paid most of the costs in advance, was that John was semi-obligated to include a short letter along with his check reimbursing me. (It’s super disappointing to open such envelopes, and find that they only contain a check. Don’t forget the letter!) What a great note it was. I reckon the entire trip, even if it had been completed in rain and mist, would have been worth it just to receive a nice note from an oft-neglected friend. If this post does nothing else, perhaps it’ll encourage you to dust off an old friendship or two. You need it, and so do they.
In his note he expressed appreciation that our conversations, when they touched upon more controversial matters that tend to divide the body politic had “More light, and less heat.” That’s a sentiment that’ll stick with me. John (the same fella featured in my book) has had a most unusual existence on this planet. He tells stories that are out of this world. In many ways his attitude and posture toward life are my opposite, which makes him fascinating. Why on earth are Americans so prone to clumping around other individuals who are their virtual mirror image? Why is their such a strong correlation between a gal’s politics (there are just two options, of course) and her views on at least 50 topics? Masks vs no masks, pro-life vs pro-choice, coronavirus policy, specific treatments of COVID infections, foreign policy, her attitude toward climate change, and dozens of other things, tend to be 100% predictable once you know her political leanings. Why even have a conversation? Lets just tweet out our fiats, and anyone who dares disagree with even a small portion of said decree is tossed onto the excrement list. It’s as if our nation is filled with 328 million individual dictators, all of them so confident that they are all-knowing and correct in every matter. History shows that even the greatest men and women have flaws. Social norms and views shift with the decade. You can’t learn what you think you already know. Humility is needed now more than ever, but that requires a greater understanding of our place in the world, and that leads us into the very meaning of life and creation itself, so the conversation must go on…