AS FEATURED in THE TIMES OF LONDON!
Imagine hiking with a dining table on your head. That’s a little what carrying a canoe above you feels like on a lake-hopping expedition. The state of Minnesota’s motto is “land of 10,000 lakes”, and when you take a glance at a map of its northeastern wilderness area it looks as if it has been hit with paint guns spattering only two colours across thousands of square miles blue and green.
The last town up there before you hit Canada is a lovely, rustic old lumberjack and outdoorsman place called Ely. It has become a real draw for canoeists heading off into the untamed yonder with nothing but a canoe on their shoulders and a tent on their back.
The road literally stops in Ely. After that there is nothing but lakes and forests abundant with moose, bear, wolves, beavers, otters and eagles, stretching way up into Ontario. We had flown into Minneapolis, driven to the shores of Lake Superior and turned left until the roads became smaller and smaller, the woods ever thicker, and five hours later we reached Ely.
From here the unique, oddly-named Boundary Waters region stretches north, with no roads, buildings or motor boats allowed in the 3,000 square miles that straddle the US and Canadian borders and feature 2,000 lakes scraped out by ancient glaciers. The only way to navigate is by paddling a canoe and lugging it on narrow paths between the lakes known as portages. And the only signs of humankind are primitive rock paintings and a strictly controlled number of canoeists.
My fellow paddler, Lisa, and I walked up Ely’s main street, past bakeries and fishing shops (Babe’s Bait leeches by the pound!) to the canoe outfitters. They had everything we needed to rent for our four-day backwoods adventure, including a six-metre canoe and, equally as important, our guide, Aaron. It was reassuring that he is built like a barn door with hands that could crush a coconut, but with a twinkly smile behind his gargantuan ginger beard.
Our first day out had its little triumphs and tragedies. The big thrill was finding that I could carry the two-seater canoe by myself if I had a hand to hoist it up. Fortunately, they are made of Kevlar these days, not tree trunks.
My test was an infamous half-mile path connecting the first two lakes we crossed, bypassing treacherous rapids and twisting its way over steep, slippery rock that Aaron nicknamed the Ankle Buster. When I reached the end of that muddy and gasping, but ankles and canoe intact and Lisa arrived carrying not one but two of our four packs of gear in one go, Aaron declared us ready for what the locals simply call Canoe Country. We went back for the other packs and he followed with his single canoe.
It was raining stair rods, which made the first sheltered little lake poignantly beautiful with its spruce, pine, fir and birch trees all around. But the second, huge lake was windswept and choppy, and as Lisa and I paddled hard to make headway, the canoe felt unstable and it became clear that we hadn’t packed our gear very evenly between the seats. Sure enough, we rounded a point and were struck broadside by a strong gust and capsized, dumped right into the water with barely time to yelp. Thank goodness for our lifejackets and gear packs designed to float.
There ensued much frantic swimming to the rocky point, pushing the upturned canoe, relaunching it with Aaron’s help and demon-paddling through the tempest to the camping spot marked on our map, where we dragged ourselves ashore like sopping wet, shivering dogs.
Aaron was a hero, erecting tents in the squall with bionic speed and scouting enough dry wood and moss from thick undergrowth to get a fire and brew going. I then discovered that I hadn’t closed my waterproof pack liner properly and all my clothes for four days were soaked. That day was quite a learning curve. This may be some people’s last idea of a holiday.
But fortunes turn on a dime in the great outdoors. When the storm suddenly passed and the sun came out to warm our bones and start drying my stuff, we sat with cups of tea, watching the now-calm, blue lake and were simply ecstatic. Aaron stoked the fire, got some steaks on and we cracked open some beers (plastic bottles - a specialty in Ely as they don't allow cans or glass in the BWCAW). As darkness fell, the native loon diving birds wailed their eerie cry across the miles of still water.
Morning dawned bright and a bald eagle hovered near our camp. We paddled the canoes past wooded islands worthy of Swallows and Amazons, then hopped over to the next lake, where Aaron went fishing for supper. Lisa and I canoed up a sparkling creek called Horse River, bypassing more rapids by lugging the canoe until we reached a beaver dam.
Thrillingly, the resident pair of beavers were both swimming near their home, carrying branches in their bucked teeth. The moose and otters remained elusive, but turtles and kingfishers were frequent companions.
On the most epic day, we navigated four lakes and crossed the Canadian border next to a thundering waterfall with rainbows dancing in its sunlit spray, following Aaron’s instructions to paddle wide and fast to avoid being sucked over the falls. Our mission was to reach a set of rock paintings, or pictographs, and they were worth the nine-hour paddling trip when we found them on sheer granite cliffs visible only from the water.
Half a century old or more no one knows exactly these red-ochre shapes of people in canoes, hunters, birds and moose were enchantingly evocative of the wilderness spirit. We arrived at camp by moonlight, exhausted, the smoky mist curling silently over the water.
Those with time and stamina explore the backwoods like this for weeks, even in winter, skiing or snowshoeing across the frozen lakes while wolf-spotting. We had to return to the madding crowd all too soon, but at least let ourselves down gently with a few days in Ely.
This tiny town was built on the fur, iron and timber trades and now mixes old homesteader families, miners, adventurers, downshifters, artists and canoe fanatics in a funky blend. Most of them run across each other in the main-street restaurant that doubles as grub and gossip central, the Chocolate Moose.
Its wild rice-crusted fish steaks and home-made fresh fruit pies were exactly what two tired paddlers needed. Followed, naturally, by a trip to neat little Pebble Spa across the road, where they have even designed The Portage Massage for weary canoeists. I apologised for the scrapes, bruises and mosquito bites decorating my limbs, but the masseusse who turned out to be Aaron’s wife, Kelly said: “Oh, that’s nothing, we often end up picking wood ticks out of people’s backs.”
We enjoyed final doses of wildlife by staying in a cabin on a quiet lake where ospreys were feeding their young in the nest and a loon swam by with her babies on her back. A black bear even ambled across the road nearby.
We had explored seven wonderful lakes by the time we had to leave, but that’s another reason to go back. Not only have I yet to glimpse a moose, but there are 9,993 lakes left to explore.
Need to know
Where to stay
Our Outfitting Staff is on hand to answer any questions about the Boundary Waters (BWCA) that you may have. We can reserve your permit for you and help you plan your trip. Please feel free to call us toll free at 1-800-223-6565 at your convenience.