We weren’t thinking about the possibility of snow...
cold, moose or even campfire when we reached the end of the road and the wide sandy landing at entry point #39: Baker Lake. We were thinking about how quiet it was. When we’d pulled the keys out of the ignitions, the hubbub of the office and city, and the whirr of things spinning, wind blowing and engines combusting suddenly stopped.
We’d met up at Brighton Beach in Duluth at five that morning, and left in a cool wet drizzle in the deep blue of pre-dawn light. Atop the bowered Frost River van were a pair of bright red canoes, one kevlar-carbon-high-speed-three-seater, and one traditionally-built wood-canvas two-seater, both beautiful and both eager to get on the water. We turned left at Tofte and drove fifteen miles down the Sawbill Trail toward the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Signs dotted the side of the road, warning of smoke from prescribed burns, and we followed in the wake of a large light-green Forest Service Fire Pickup as we meandered our way up the gravel of the Sawbill. When we reached a black scar of scorched earth and forest, the truck lumbered off down a side road and we continued on. We turned right down an even-narrower road known as The Grade, past the gritty remains of snowbanks, and the thick green tufts of moss and tendrils of beard lichen hanging like Spanish Moss from the boughs of still trees.
In a non-descript part of the road, before it crossed over a stream, was the turnoff for Baker Lake, unmarked from where we came. We turned down it and felt as if we’d been swallowed up by the pines. After a long and graceful curve past an empty parking lot and recently-built cement privy, we found the wide sandy landing and the beckoning stillness of Baker Lake in early morning light. Ducks did fly-bys, an eagle soared, birds sang, and peepers peeped as a welcome to the wilderness. Lynn watched as fish rose on the still waters, defiantly tempting us two days before fishing opener. We loaded a small mountain of waxed-canvas-clad gear into the canoes and were off, underway, on a trip to resupply an expedition spending a year in the wilderness.
We weren’t exactly packing light. In addition to our two Campfire Tents and Whelen Lean-to, we had food and supplies for a whole other party. In one Old No. 7 pack, we’d managed to fit 90 pounds of gear destined for Dave and Amy Freeman. This accounted for roughly two weeks of their 365 day journey, and that didn’t include the blocks of cheese. Those were in another piece of waxed canvas kit, our Camp Cook’s Kitchen. All-told, we had ten packs… not what you’d bring on a personal trip, mind you. As a manufacturer of gear, we’d taken seriously the opportunity to test new designs and materials, while putting our old designs through their paces. We brought as much as we could to drag through the water, lash to trees and, apparently, freeze solid (but we didn’t know that yet). All we knew was that we were going in to see Dave and Amy, bring them their gear, treat them to some beer from Bent Paddle Brewing Co. and spend our days leading up to fishing opener with a pair of explorers who were coming to call this wild place home.
Feeling the pull of current, and the glide of the boat, we paddled up river.
We floated under the branches of lichen-covered trees, leaning far over the water, and ducked beneath the shining strands of spider webs.
We felt lucky, privileged to be paddling such nice canoes. Wood canvas felt right on a woodland waterway. It’s a special feeling, too, knowing the maker who built the boat with natural materials. It all works together to create a unique sense of symbiosis— cedar, canvas, woods, water, people… all working together. We’d had the chance to witness the boat being made from the ground up in our shop in Duluth, MN, and had faith in the builder. He knows boats, it’s what he does, and this one was a thing of beauty: A Stewart River Saganaga, made for heavy loads on big water. We had a heavy load, but weren’t on big water. We were paddling up a wide river system that turned to lakes here and there, then back to rivers. It was shallow and rocky, we all watched hard in the dark water, ready to avoid rocks.
The deep green and black of the inside of our Northwind 18 from Northstar Canoes, with its laminate wood thwarts, yoke and seat, offered a fantastic contrast in earthy tones to our heritage waxed canvas packs. The scene was perfect, new with old, traditional with modern. The sides of the boat glowed red with the rich hue of our custom gel coat.
Suddenly there was a crunch. The two paddlers were thrown forward off their seats as the canoe hit a dark rock hidden just beneath the water’s surface. The bow skittered off the obstacle, but momentum kept the boat sliding forward. Little flecks of the gel coat drifted off the rock. Our new boat had been initiated.
With water high, we were able to navigate past the next portage, paddling carefully up a V in the rapids and into our destination at Kelly Lake. A short paddle around points and bays took us into the body of the lake.
Nearly too soon we spied our destination. It had just occurred to us there was nothing we’d rather be doing, a group of companions from work, paddling in the Boundary Waters. We’re normally indoors, making, selling, and promoting canoe packs and canvas bags. On this day, we were outside, in a big woods, united in a mission of delivering supplies into the wilderness. We moved along, and communicated well, following maps, taking bearings. We were jovial, talking and joking. “They can probably hear us from here” one of us said. They, explorers Dave and Amy Freeman whose mission was to share the beauty and mystique of a year in the wilderness and whose food and supplies we were carrying. We’d checked their Spot dispatch and mapped their GPS coordinates. We knew which campsite they were on and turned into the bay along the eastern shore. There, in the crook of the lake and shielded by a peninsula to the north, was the subtle yellow shade of Kevlar, the dull grey of fabric.
Then two figures appeared.
We exchanged quiet greetings, not wanting to break the spell of the woods. “How was your paddle?” Amy asked as she worked the controls of a small camera pointed in our direction. Almost too short, we told her, each of us wishing we could be in the woods longer, feel the strain of the hard, rewarding work of travel.
We disembarked and joined them at their little camp, shaking hands and exchanging hugs as some of introduced ourselves, while others said hello to old friends.
They embodied a belonging in the woods. In the sunshine of their canoe country campsite, meeting this pair, these people living in nature for a prolonged period of time, was magical. Each month or so of their year in the wilderness, the Freemans get resupplied and a chance to spend time with the people who bring them supplies. It’d be a difficult, but rewarding life. Just think of the things to do, see and observe.
“Where’s Tank?” we asked, inquiring about their canine companion.
He laid asleep not far from the forest service fire grate, not caring to get up and greet the new canoers. “When we first get to a campsite,” Amy said, “he’ll explore and you’ll see him just running back and forth to look around, and then he settles in… like that.” She finished, gesturing to the sleeping dog.
We checked to see if they’d eaten breakfast (it wasn’t even late enough yet for brunch). They had.
“Do you want some Dreamcicles?” Alex asked.
Amy stopped in her tracks and turned “Dreamsicles?” she said wide-eyed, an incredulous smile on her face.
“I brought Dreamcicles,” Alex said.
“…We always have room for dreamsicles!” she said, laughing.
“I figure we should probably have them before they melt,” he said.
They’d already melted. But ice cream in the woods, however messy, is a treat not to be missed. “It’s my number one trail craving,” Alex said, “Followed closely by salad.” At this, he pulled a tupperware of fresh garden greens, tomatoes, and croutons, with a balsamic vinaigrette.
“We always like fresh vegetables,” they said, taking the container with deep thanks.
Dave and Amy were eager to get at the contents of the 90 pound pack. Not ravenous, but it was like Christmas in a way. It was mainly nourishing food, but there were goodies as well. Dave got his fishing gear, Amy got her trusty hat. We were pleased to be their couriers and help keep them happy, healthy, and content in the woods.
Dave and Amy have used social media well with a strong and growing presence. If you are not following them on Instagram, you’re missing out. It’s worth it to start an account just to see what is going on from day to day in the wilderness. Dave and Amy are documenting, exploring, guiding, hosting, and showing their love for what is at stake if the area adjacent the wilderness is developed for new types of mining. In some areas of the BWCA, they pick up cell signals, but in most, they use a small satellite communication device to keep connected with the folks helping run their expedition, and the world at large.
We shared coffee, food, and drinks, connected, and conversed in our little camp. We set up our canvas baker style Campfire Tents and Dave checked out the awning with his chair. It seemed to pass inspection. We brought out a care package from Epicurean in Duluth, and Dave cut salami and cheese on a new topographic cutting board, looking past slices of cheddar to examine the contours of western Brule Lake and the Temperance Lakes, a mere five miles to our north.
We went out for a paddle to measure aspects of the water quality and collect firewood for the night. On nearly every lake they visit, the Freemans use dedicated sensors and tools to test the different aspects of water quality, dutifully recording the results onto a slip of paper on a clipboard. We watched in fascination as they dipped disks, sensors and other tools into the dark, chilly water. Amy leaned forward to lower a tool into the water. She held it close to the surface, when ‘crack!’
“Well, there goes another clipboard,” she said, not moving the tool. When she’d finished taking the reading, she flipped the board to examine where her life jacket had split the back. After the wilderness year, their data will become part of a publicly available database, with access to scientists and students alike.
Packing up the instruments, we turned again to firewood. The area we were camped in was part of the devastation of the 1999 blowdown. It’s not always easy to spot, it’s patchy and has grown back in 17 years, but finding firewood is simple. Collecting firewood away from campsites and shore helps to reduce degradation around the site while a campfire does wonders for the cheer of an evening campsite. We brought back the fuel, lit a fire and added to the ambiance as nothing else would.
In bags, we hydrated our food from Cache Lake, cooking them over our fire. The sloppy joes with pan fried cornbread were a favorite. We stayed up late, talking, socializing, sampling some fresh-poured craft beer from Bent Paddle Brewing Co. and enjoying being together in the woods. Long after dark, we went to our respective tents, the Freemans to their lightweight nylon lean-to with mosquito netting, and the rest of us to our pair of canvas tents. It was a unique camp, an odd, but dependable collection of shelters.
It was seasonal, but chilly, and overnight, temps dropped below freezing.
The morning campfire felt good and we used it and the flame from the Freeman’s little wood-burning cook stove to cook more Cache Lake for breakfast and to boil water for Coffee.
Even though it was breezy and the grey skies were spitting snow, we organized for a day trip upstream to explore the territory. The water of Kelly Lake was cold as some of us wet-footed the canoes into the lake. Some, the smart ones, were in rubber boots, carefully avoiding a deluge should they wander to water too deep for the tops of their boots.
Up-river, we found Jack Lake and Weird Lake. Along the way, we paddled in our trio of boats, stopping to watch the quiet wanderings of some five moose through the gently falling snow. Their coats looked rough, an in-between amount of fur, not quite winter anymore, not fully summer. They each romped off into the trees, lingering just out of sight, but as we paddled past, we knew they were watching us.
On the way back, we parted with Dave and Amy for dinner. They’d moved their camp to a spot across the bay in preparation for their friends who would be visiting that evening.
Back at camp, we cooked a hearty dinner from Trailtopia, rejoicing in the fresh crunch of impeccably dehydrated broccoli and the surprisingly flavorful mix of curry. Our bellies full and our blood warmed by the food and the fire, we greeted Dave as he paddled through driving snow in a beautiful little solo kevlar canoe. We shared Bent Hop and Cold Press Black with him around the fire before he left to return to their camp and guests. We’d be paddling over to meet them before long.
After a short paddle, Dave turned back toward our camp, squinting against the snow squall. “Just be sure to only take one boat,” he said kneeling in the middle of the solo canoe “we’ve got a full camp.” We acknowledged, ourselves not wanting to exceed the rules for maximum number of canoes at a site. He paddled off, nearly disappearing into the snowy lake.
We departed near dusk for their camp on the other side of the bay of Kelly Lake. We were excited to see them, but our camp was set, and it was cold. A couple of us had to put those cold wet shoes back on. It’d be worth it. The four of us climbed into the nearly-new Northwind, with only one duffer sitting on the sloshy floor. The three seats proved comfortable and effective, and with the three paddlers, the canoe shot through the snow and across the bay in no time.
“Ahoy!” David exclaimed from his seat on the hull as we approached shore at the Freeman camp. Dave was getting water, Amy was washing dishes. We came ashore and met three new guests to the Freeman camp. Dave and Amy had their tipi set up with a wood stove going. The new guests had a couple of stout tents. The snow was falling harder now, but the wind had calmed so the flakes fell slowly down and were starting to carpet the tents and canoes. It was a welcome site.
We visited and warmed in the tipi for an hour or so, talked of woods, water, canoe, and camp — along with importance of wilderness, canoe country grace, and preserving and protecting natural resources above and below ground. It was quiet talk, with the return of the wind stirring the water and the tipi walls. We reminisced on the paddle, the woods, seeing the moose, and times gone by, trips both recent and long passed— good things to think about around a fire.
When it was time, we left the warmth of the tent, and took a group photo in the snow. We departed, paddling through the wilderness in the dark below a waxing moon, with snow, and a little wind… it was amazing. With the campsite marked with a reflective tape, we had no trouble pointing in its direction. It was a beautiful night to paddle across a cold lake.
After landing the canoe, the snow eased. We started our own fire with the dry wood we’d collected earlier and enjoyed the last of the Bent Paddle. The warmth and the glow was welcoming, calming, an ancient feeling infused into humanity for thousands of years. As we stood in the firelight, it started snowing again.
The next morning, we woke to a thick coat of ice and snow.
Tyler, sleeping under the protection of the Whelen Lean-to, a structure open on one side, had gotten up twice during the night to stoke a fire that radiated into his little den. He’d slept well though, as had the rest of us.
Alex had to leave camp early. He and David had been the two foolish enough to wear wet boots, and he got up to find both boots and socks frozen solid. He tied them to a tree near shore and thawed them in the water while we brewed coffee. In short order, his gear was packed into a Nessmuk and Grand Portage in the wood canvas canoe and he was paddling off into the snow to say goodbye to Dave and Amy before heading back.
As Alex bobbed in the water off the landing at the Freeman’s camp, he waved and said to Dave, “I think it’ll be over before you know it.”
“I think you’re right,” Dave said.
The rest of us cooked more Cache Lake for breakfast and began to break down camp. Once the two tents, the tarp, the eight packs and the three men had been loaded into the Northwind it was rather barge-like, overloaded and sitting low in the water. We pushed off from our little camp into Kelly Lake.
With it being fishing opener in Minnesota, and snowing, we did as any good Minnesotans would, baited our lines and tossed the lures into the water as we made our way out from the magic of canoe country to head south.
The Freeman’s trip, though, won’t be over for another few months, until they come out in September 2016, after a full year spent in the BWCAW. We were honored to be able to participate in a small part of their Wilderness Year. You can read more about their trip by visiting their www.FreemansExplore.com or www.WildernessClassroom.com
by David Hoole & Alex Messenger