It’s as if the passage of time has passed by Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Roger Wilsher discovers what the world used to be like by jumping in a canoe and being inspired.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness measures 1.1 million acres. The area is one of the most protected wildernesses in America. There are no roads. No towns. No airports. All you see is water and woods.
The lakes and forests here come directly from the Ice Age . It was 12,000 years ago when Paleo-Indians were navigating the lumps of melting ice left behind by the retreating glaciers and hunting woolly mammoths and caribou around here.
Mastodons – distant relatives of today’s elephants – saber-tooth tigers and beavers that weighed 500lbs were roaming the region. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Europeans first entered this wilderness west of Lake Superior. They were looking for a route to China and the huge beaver pelts that could be sold for a fortune. The only safe way to travel the waters then was in a canoe.
The reason this is called the Boundary Waters is the United States-Canada border that meanders anders along the region’s northern edge of the region.
Not much has changed in the past 300 years or so. The area has been well protected by legislation, including the 1964 Wilderness Act, which returned this vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to its pristine backcountry heritage.
Outboard engines are outlawed on almost all of the 1,000 lakes. The roads and people who lived here have disappeared. Aircraft are not allowed to fly less than 4,000ft high. In their place have been established about 2,200 campsites and 1,500 miles of canoe routes.
There are around 250,000 visitors annually but you would not know it because the place is so vast. The signs of human presence are few and far between. Look down when you fly high above it and what you will see is a green carpet, cut into occasionally by a few glaciers. When you are on the water it feels like you are in another time. Nature becomes the world and we humans are lucky guests.
The local Ojibwe (aka Chippewa) tribe still lives in the way it did when it arrived in the 1500s.
What to wear
When you plan to canoe in the waters the advice is to travel as light as possible. For clothes yo8u should bring a pair of pants, a shirt plus one insulating layer and a windbreaker.
When you stop for a camp dry shoes will be appreciated, but staying light is the key on a Boundary Waters trip. When you leave civilization behind, remember you will have to carry whatever you bring and with a canoe on your shoulders! Expect to do a lot of lugging with gear on your back and feet on the trail because you will often have to carry your boat between navigable waters. There are literally dozens of these portages as they are known between the lakes. The majority of portages are just a few hundred yards, but some can stretch for up to a mile.
On top of your few items of clothing you will need a canoe to explore the water, a tent, sleeping pad and bag for sleeping, and a portage pack for your food and kit. It’s also a good idea to ziplock your food and label it by meal and day so you don’t lose track. As you are likely to discover losing track out here is not an uncommon hurdle.
Before you start in earnest, it’s advisable to paddle a section of the International Boundary Route to get used to what is to come. To get to the start of your adventure it is sensible to take a water taxi for the first miles through the perimeter lakes, where motored craft are still permitted .
There’ll be plenty of opportunity to propel yourself. The canoe routes in total measure 1,500 miles. With two people paddling, it’s possible for a Kevlar canoe to average three miles an hour. Rest assured, the rhythmic motion becomes second nature after a short while.
Everything around you is water or stone or wood. The shorelines is covered in red pine. Granite splits the forest in to two parts. Indeed there are granite bluffs that stand a good 10-storeys high and rise from the depths. In addition, there are flat rocks the size of tennis courts cresting a few feet above the water.
The lakes that make up the Boundary Waters are mainly lined with granite. There are fault lines running through the Kahshahpiwi and Man Chain Lakes, creating perfectly straight greenstone and granite shorelines. Vera Lake is surrounded by jasper, an opaque reddish-brown semi-precious stone. Pink Batholith granite is all around Ensign Lake, and boulders blown off the side of a prehistoric volcano lie at the bottom of Kekekabic Lake.
In one granite cliff between Crane and Sand Point Lakes there is a series of dull red pictographs. These handprints and depictions of a large moose are many hundreds of years old. The Ojibwe artists created the images by combining hematite with sturgeon oil. This mixture chemically binds with rock and is reckoned to last for thousands of years.
When you go through Canadian Customs, you’ll discover it’s not just canoeists who frequent the Boundary Waters. There are fishermen here hopefully landing some of the best bass in the world. If you get the chance for a “shore lunch” it’s an experience. It typically begins with hunks of fresh cornbread smothered with butter and washed down with lemonade. Next expect a platter of breaded and fried walleye, or North American pikeperch, with tartar sauce and potatoes. Dessert can be something like turnovers with rhubarb and strawberry topped with whipped cream.
The border is marked by a silvery benchmark spike embossed with U.S. on one side and CANADA on the other that has been driven into a boulder on the rocky islet on the southern end of Lac La Croix. In the middle of the island there is a pile of rocks that was once a native-American lookout station. It is placed in the middle of the fur traders’ route, so an Indian scout could see any Europeans approaching and signal this to his tribe so they could prepare their valuable furs.
Heading south there are a dozen or so islands where there are campsites. Here, it’s possible to see the Milky Way’s arc, which is known to the Ojibwe as the Path of Souls, until it disappears into the canopy of shadows on the lake’s other side. The air has the scent of pine and campfire smoke.
Although this is known as the land of 10,000 lakes, it probably has nearer to 20,000, when lakes of less than 10 acres are counted in the total. The Minnesota shoreline measures 45,000 miles. Fully, 8% of Minnesota is water and the other 92% houses on average just 67 people per square mile.
Ely is the capital. Here you will find all manner of craft from sea kayaks and canoes, through skiffs and powerboats, to dories and dinghies leaning against the town’s buildings and in the driveways that line Highway 169.
There is one current threat to the pace and tranquility of the region. After more than 10 years of lobbying, a Chilean mining company, Antofagasta, wants to build a huge sulfide-ore copper mine adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The fears are that the wilderness’s currents could carry toxic pollution from this mine into the lake area .
The Forest Service along with tens of thousands of Boundary Waters’ supporters have made their concerns known, and the project’s future does look less likely every month. But the fact it has even been considered a possibility underlines doubts people who know this place have about the integrity, values and good sense of the 21st century’s so-called civilization.
When you are on the water thoughts like this seem so far away. However, when you pull up at the end the sounds that return, which can be as simple as a car door shutting, seem so unnatural.
After just a short time in a canoe on the Boundary Waters, everything that isn’t pure nature feels very strange. But, there always has to come a time when we’re beckoned back in to the modern world.