Sunday, January 29, 2017
Note: And now for something completely different. I've been digging through the "archives" (shoe boxes) recently and finding all sorts of forgotten stuff. Before moving to the mountains of Montana, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota was my thing. Yes, I do enjoy nature, almost as much as the guns I use to kill it. Anyway, here's an old story, my first published magazine article, about the time in hiked the Border Route Trail back in 1992; I went to Montana the following summer. My writing style back then was rather sappy and verbose, and I thought about posting this with some current smart-ass commentary, but decided to leave the whole thing as it was with the exception of tossing in some old photos of the expedition that I unearthed. Gun Nut Bawb will return soon.
On a bright, crisp October morning I found myself at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Little John Lake and the eastern terminus of the Border Route Hiking Trail. Hiking the trail was an adventure I had awaited for months. Almost everyone who knows of the Boundary Waters thinks of canoeing, and I’ve taken numerous canoe trips there myself, but every now and then I like to get off all by myself on a solo trip. For me, a backpack is much more easily managed by one person than a canoe.
From the secluded trailhead I watched the friend who had driven me there disappear in his truck. My own car waited at the far end of the Border Route Trail, some thirty two miles distant, and the only way to get to it was with my own two feet.
The beautiful silence of wilderness settled in around me as the dust cleared. I shouldered my rucksack and set out, gloriously alone. The day was perfect for a good hike, with the golden disk of the sun shining high overhead and the air cool and crisp with the unmistakable aura of autumn.
The trail itself started out rather inauspiciously, as great things often do, marked only by a faded wooden signpost along a rutted gravel road. The first section of trail was well-maintained through open woods and I had hardly worked up a good sweat by the time I reached the first scenic overlook above John Lake.
Pausing above the high, rocky bluff, I stood with my feet planted wide to savor the view and the clean, chill air. It was a glorious view of rich, sparkling blue water with golden aspen in the foreground stretching away to the greener hump-backed ridges in the distance. I was fresh and eager, wondering what the next bend in the trail held in store for me, and soon set off again.
Winding along the contours of the hills towards East Pike Lake, I walked in shadowed stillness on a crisp, colorful carpet of fallen leaves. More leaves followed the gusts of wind in the treetops, raining down around me in a glittering, rustling shower of color. I caught one from the air in front of me for luck.
Small gray juncos flitted through the undergrowth and downy woodpeckers bounced in flight from one tree trunk to the next. A pair of ravens cruised past the treetops, calling hoarsely. Tiny red squirrels chattered angrily at me as I passed, scolding from the safety of their high perches, and chipmunks scooted across the pine duff of the trail ahead of me. I saw my first ruffed grouse of the trip, the dun bird nestled on the soft pine needles in a warm halo of sunlight that filtered down from the branches above.
I strode along briskly, taking deep breaths of that wonderful autumn air and stretching my leg muscles. The clear, shining mornings of early autumn always bring to me a feeling of restlessness.
Where the trail intersected the East Pike to Pine Lake Portage, it turned sharply to turn up a steep grade. I forged up the hill to where the trail once more branched off on its own, pausing for a few swigs of water from my canteen and a pinch of Copenhagen.
I continued onward. Ruffed grouse were plentiful here, found basking on the sun-warmed, south-facing rock slopes overlooking Pine Lake. It is no wonder that one of old Native American names for the grouse is “Thunder Wing.” When one decided to take flight, it would come blasting out of cover and take off like a feathered F-4 Phantom on afterburner. More than once these birds gave me a start, and more than once I wished I had brought my shotgun.
Grouse for supper. Back in the day I used to decapitate them with my .44 Magnum. Now I use a Ruger .22 and am grateful if I can make a body shot.
Further down the trail, I stopped for a breather where it intersected the West Pike portage. I leaned my rucksack and walking stick against the trail marking sign as I paused to munch on chunks of cheddar cheese and slices of summer sausage washed down with lukewarm lake water from my canteen.
Leaning back against my ruck, I soaked in the sun, listening to the soft music of the wind in the boughs, letting it dry the sweat on my back. Reluctantly, I decided I had better press on to make it to the first campsite on Gogebic Lake by nightfall, as I had made a very late start that morning.
A sunny rock ridge gave me a bright vista of West Pike Lake stretched away to the west. Back in the timber, a deadfall balsam obscured the trail beyond the cliffs and I mistakenly took a game trail that soon petered out. I wasted some valuable daylight casting about in the woods until I picked up the trail again.
Back on the trail above West Pike, I kept an anxious eye on the setting sun beyond the treetops. I pressed on, imagining a cozy campfire with cowboy coffee at the campsite on Gogebic. Finally, I caught sight of the small lake below me and picked up the pace.
Crossing a small stream and marsh atop the jumbled gray sticks of an old beaver dam, I forged along the banks of Gogebic Lake and headed for the comfort of that nice campsite. It was growing dark fast, with the sun already down beyond the trees to the west, but I figured I would have just enough time to set up camp and gather some firewood. The weight of my pack was no longer so comfortable.
Across the narrow inlet on the edge of Gogebic, I stopped short. Had I heard voices? I slipped down to the lakeshore rocks. Voices and decidedly unnatural splashes of color came to me through the trees. The campsite, the only campsite, was most definitely occupied, tents pitched and a fire burning. I reversed my course and plodded back up the darkening trail.
As the dusk turned inky, I veered off the trail along the lake and found a relatively flat spot near a small spruce. It was almost big enough for my tent and provided me a comfy bed consisting of rocks and tree roots. It wasn’t the best campsite I’d ever found, but I had neither the time nor daylight to find anything better.
Camping off the designated campsites is allowed along the Border Route Trail, with some restrictions, for cases like mine. One must use a stove, not a fire, stay for only one night, and camp more than a hundred feet from the trail.
I slept late the next day, judging by the sun. I never take a timepiece with me into the wilderness. I much prefer to go by Boonie Standard Time.
My neighbors were already gone by the time I packed up and hiked through the campsite down the trail. I was pleased to be all alone again, but it was not for long. I soon saw two people in a canoe fishing Gogebic. I slunk away into the woods like a wild animal. On down the trail, I soon regained my sense of solitude with each passing step.
A wooden foot bridge spanned the brook that flowed out of Clearwater Lake, then the trail climbed back into the hills. I walked through stands of stately pines and thick-boled aspens, feeling fresh and enjoying myself.
Climbing up from Clearwater, I surprised a bedded-down moose. Perhaps I was the one who was surprised. At any rate, I was swinging briskly along when a huge, dark body emerged to my left, less than ten yards away, only to quickly disappear with a crashing of sticks and a few heavy footfalls.
Above Mountain Lake, I was treated to yet another spectacular panorama of water, sky, clouds, cliffs and timber.
Beyond that, the trail curved back above itself to afford me a fine view of the Clearwater Palisades to the south. The ridge above Clearwater was sheltered from the wind and faced south to soak up the warmth of the fall sunshine. The weather and the flora were a shining example of the perfect Indian Summer day.
Approaching the Watap Cliffs, the trail became brushy and indistinct. Blue blaze ribbons in the trees and cairns of stones helped mark its path, but I was bee-bopping along looking at birds, flowers, trees, and rocks and found myself far from any hint of the trail. I pulled out my compass and busted brush straight north to pick up the trail again at the edge of the cliffs.
The Watap Cliffs are one of my favorite places in the Boundary Waters. I decided to have lunch there, to rest and to scribble my thoughts and observations in a notepad.
What is it that draws mankind to the high places? To the mountains, cliffs and bluffs? To those tall, windswept places where the world stretches away far below?
As I sat perched comfortably on the dizzying edge of the cliffs, basking in the beauty and glory around me, I still could not answer my own inquiry. Some claim to climb the mountains of the world simply because they are there. Certainly I could understand this type of motive. Hadn’t I set out to tackle this 32-mile trail simply because it was there? Yet I knew this could not be all there was to it.
There is always the view, of course, and what a view I was being afforded. Far below me the lakes stretched away, Watap and Rose. The water, so distant yet somehow almost close enough to touch, gleamed with a pristine blue, darker and richer than the sky they were reflecting. I could see down into the watery depths near shore, the boulders like pebbles from my lofty vantage point.
Across the lake, the pines wore their dark green coats as the marched up the slopes. The blue-green corpses of the balsams, bare limbs coated with shaggy beard lichen, hugged the shorelines. Intermingles with and dominating the conifers were the aspen and birch, clad in their brilliant fall costumes. Bright golden yellow leaves were predominant, with hints of orange and rust cropping up here and there. Some of the aspen had not yet fully turned and they faded to a pleasing lime green. The forest painted the ridges far into the distance, stretching for many miles into Canada. Over my left shoulder, the Clearwater Palisades were visible, their stony faces shadowed purple, dark giants brooding over the waters of the lake.
Beyond the wondrous view, though, the world somehow took on a different perspective from that high vantage point. The wind whispered in the boughs behind me, yet it rushed and roared against the cliff beneath me. Way up there, the wind seemed even crisper and cleaner than ever, so that one could almost taste it. The colors of the lakes and woods seemed to have taken on much richer and more vibrant hues. I was afforded the unique sensation of gazing down upon the back of a broad-winged hawk as it sailed effortlessly beneath me. I felt a soaring, weightless sensation. I wanted to reach out and touch the vast landscape, to somehow embrace all the intangible of the place that so enchanted me.
Yet I could not grasp that lure, the unidentified notion that had brought me there. I could not put a name to what I was experiencing. Perhaps it is best that the emotion remain nameless.
Reluctantly, I packed up my lunch scraps and prepared to move on. I was at peace with myself, yet somehow restless at the same rime. I still could not identify my feelings, the siren’s song that had brought me there, but I knew it was as real as stone and wood. Once again, sooner or later, those intangibles would bring me back to the wild and lonely places. They would call, and I would obey. In the end, I knew it did matter why I do these things, simply that I do them.
Beyond the cliffs the trail, which had once been a nightmare of deadfalls and obstructions, was a simple pleasure to walk again. Hard-working volunteers from local hiking clubs had done an absolutely wonderful job clearing the trail the summer of 1992. I silently thanked them as I hiked along.
The trail merged with the Long Portage from Daniels to Rose Lake. I made my way through the tall pines past an empty beaver pond. The trail and portage followed an old lumber grade here, and the going was swift and easy. The rotting remnants of old railroad ties were visible underfoot in places.
I flushed a young bull moose with a rich black coat from the stream that followed the portage. The ungainly-looking beast slogged to shore where he took on an amazing grace and agility for such a large creature and ghosted into the woods like a cat.
Light was again failing me as I branched away from the Long Portage and back onto the Border Route proper. A last, lone loon called hauntingly across the dark, wind-swept waters of the lake. Nearly all the loons had departed south by then and I took the bird’s beautiful, eerie, melancholy music as a sign. I made camp at the first site.
I savored my supper and rolled hot coffee on my tongue as I squatted by the cheery yellow flickering of my campfire later on. The light had quickly departed from the increasingly overcast skies. The wind pushed the waters against the rocky shore with soft gurgling and slapping sounds. The cliffs across the lake were dark and brooding silhouettes against the gray night clouds. I listened to the wind in the pines, tasted its cleanness and caught the husky scent of woodsmoke from my fire until my eyelids grew heavy. I drowned the dying fire and turned in for the night.
I awoke to a drab, heavily overcast morning and had my same old oatmeal breakfast before packing up and moving on. The trail followed the windy shores of Rose Lake for a short distance before climbing the ridge amidst the thick boles of ancient red and white pines and the smaller but still massive cedars. The ground was buried deep in a soft, silent carpet of pine duff. The still air beneath the towering pines was milky and cool, an almost holy atmosphere reminding me of the dim silence of the great stone cathedrals of Europe. The scaly trunks of the forest giants were far too wide for me to get my arms halfway around. I was enthralled by the reverent atmosphere and became quiet myself as I made my way through the huge pines. Here, rather than in the family pew, I suddenly felt very close to God.
As I finally emerged to the ridge above, small songbirds flitted in the underbrush along the path. Nuthatches bobbed headfirst down tree trunks. A flight of ducks sailed past in a ragged, airborne V high above. I climbed steadily, the silence now broken by bird calls, the chatter of squirrels, and the muted mutter of far-off thunder.
I paused at Stairway Portage to watch the tumbling white plume of the waterfall dashing itself into misty spray on the rocks below. A lone herring gull raced along beneath scudding gray clouds above. I crossed the narrow wooden footbridge and continued on.
Past the portage, I clawed my way through and even under tangles of windfall balsams. I paused atop a cliff for lunch and basked in the glorious view off toward the Arrow River Bluffs.
With droplets of rain misting down through the bare canopy of some very young aspen woods, I made my way to Rat Bluff. I stood atop the stone monolith in the cold wind, the rain fogging my glasses. The rain began to soak through my shirt and I moved on again.
The trail became a nightmare. A windstorm had felled numerous trees across the trail, the trunks skewed atop one another forming nearly impenetrable masses. I was reduced to crawling in places. The sharp, brittle sticks of the balsams reached out to snag my clothes, my pack, my flesh.
I took a breather on the shores of Partridge Lake, a worthwhile detour. The campsite there nestled in the bosom of more towering pines and was peaceful and still. I watched a red squirrel scampering about, caching pine cones in holes under the roots. A blue-belted kingfisher twittered above the turquoise waters of the lake. Another grouse flushed.
Returning to the main trail, I heard a soft noise ahead and froze. I watched breathlessly as the sinuous form of a pine marten moved through the rainy woods towards me. The sleek little mammal flowed rather than walked, moving like smoke, twisting and gliding as it twined around tree trunks to sniff at squirrel holes and hollows. I watched in fascination until the marten finally disappeared down a fallen tree trunk in a few graceful hops.
The rain grew heavier as the day progressed. The so-called trail grew even more impenetrable. At times I felt I was doing more crawling than walking. I took a wrong turn to what I thought was Sock Lake, and for the next half hour I slogged through knee-deep mud, clawed through tangled windfalls and followed beaver runs looking for a campsite that did not exist. I banged my shins, scraped my arms and broke my trusty walking stick. My language became colorful enough to send every forest creature with a hundred meters fleeing for its life.
Finally admitting defeat, I clawed my way back up the hill and found a branch trail to a campsite on South Lake. I set up camp by flashlight beneath a sky black with dark, angry storm clouds. I shoulder have know better than to believe that Duluth weatherman’s extended forecast of sunshine and temps in the upper forties all week.
I slept late again, trying to give that darn weather-guesser the benefit of the doubt, but the weather got no better in the morning. Eventually, I saddled up and headed out in the now familiar drizzle, passing some nice little vistas between Sock and Topper Lakes. I crossed the beaver dam below Topper. A few struggling hawkweeds were still bravely in bloom. The trail cleared up nicely along Crab Lake, now able to qualify as an unmaintained dirt road if it wished to, and I enjoyed the easy pace.
Clumps of white common yarrow and some bulbous blue flowers still gave color along the trail. Boardwalks made of treated 2x8s spanned some sections of swamp. After all the tangled deadfalls of the past few days, I felt as if I were hiking I-35. The rain slackened a little as I saw the last grouse of the trip sail into the woods to my left.
After Crab Lake, I knew my journey was almost at an end. Finally I saw a powerline cut in the woods and trotted down the final hill to the Loon Lake parking area, western terminus of the Border Route Trail.
Triumphantly, I dropped my heavy pack beside my Mustang and had to grab the door handle to keep from suddenly floating away. I piled myself and my gear into the car and fired up the motor. He muted rumble of an internal combustion engine never sounded so good. The Ford Motor Company could do all the work for awhile.
Traffic congestion on the Gunflint Trail.
By the time I reached the Lake Superior town of Grand Marais an hour later, the sore muscles, scratches, blisters and cold rain were already a cloying memory. As I sat down to a steaming deep dish pizza and a cold beer in a frosty mug, I was already pondering new adventures and trails yet to hike.
The wilderness was already calling in the back of my mind. The long and rugged Kekekabic Trail had still not seen my passage, all forty odd miles of it from Snowbank Lake to the Gunflint Trail. Perhaps that will be the next lone trail I tackle, I thought to myself.
But first, waitress, another beer please.