Seventeen years ago I appeared on the shores of Seagull Lake in northern Minnesota, on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I had never been that far north in Minnesota before and was showing up to start my first post-college job as a canoe guide and camp coordinator at Wilderness Canoe Base. For the next two summers, I was exposed to real wilderness for the first time, exemplified by a network of lakes connected by trails called “portages.” All was foreign to me, so foreign that it took me a while to get accustomed to it all. It was more of a culture shock for me than the first time I stepped “off the boat” at the naval base in Subic Bay.
But that wilderness, that mode of travel, became a part of me. For years after leaving the camp, I would return twice a year for a solo trip. Four or five days to escape into the wilderness, to clear the mental cobwebs, to renew myself in a land where I could travel for days without seeing another soul. Until this year, the last time I had portaged and canoed through the country was when I left Minnesota in 1999.
Now, I have been to Red Shirt Lake in the Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area a couple of times, but that is different. There, you can rent a canoe that waits for you at the end of the hike into the lake. Then, you paddle a short distance to a public use cabin and then return the canoe to the rental rack without leaving the lake. Just not the same. Last weekend I went on a bona fide canoe trip, traversing through several lakes in a day and slogging through the portages between them.
We put in at a canoe trailhead near mile 5 on the Nancy Lakes Parkway. Per my experience in the Boundary Waters, all my gear for the trip fit into one bag, a bag designed for canoe country travel; the Duluth Pack. The camera gear, two lenses, a body, and some filters, fit into a hand-carry Pelican case. My watercraft of choice is a green Old Town Penobscot 17-foot canoe, fitted with yoke pads for ease of carrying. One of the things I learned in my Boundary Waters days that has served me well is how to properly portage a canoe, including using a solo lift technique to get it up on my shoulders without any help. It may look crazy, but seventy pounds does not feel to heavy when properly balanced on your shoulders on a pair of yoke pads. Unfortunately for the other two canoes in my group, neither was the type of canoe designed for extensive travel: too bulky and heavy, and no yoke pads. Ideally, a well-designed canoe traveling group will have the right balance of gear and personnel to require only one trip through each portage. We surprisingly managed to make only two trips for each portage, with – yikes – dragging of the other canoes as the chosen method of getting them through the portages. My camp director at WCB would not approve.
Almost immediately when out in the water, I could nearly imagine myself back in northern Minnesota. A pair of Common loons paddled in the distance, we were surrounded by boreal forest, and the world looked flat. A closer examination over the next few lakes highlighted some differences. In northern Minnesota, there is a lot of exposed bedrock, the legacy of the retreat of ancient glaciers during the last ice age. In some areas, and I have sat on one of them, the exposed bedrock is 3.4 billion years old. Many shorelines along the lakes have large, outreaching slabs of gray slate rock, making for great landing (and sunning) platforms. The lake edges in Nancy Lakes, in contrast, are all brush and bog; no solid ground to land on save the portages. And most of those are supplemented with wooden boardwalks in order to traverse the bogs. Another difference between the BWCA and Alaska is the size of the spruce trees: Minnesota trees are much taller, Alaska spruce, except for around Girdwood and in the Southeast (the temperate rain forest areas) are rather puny. One of the most significant differences was where camping is allowed. In the BWCA, the Forest Service has set up designated camping areas with tent pads, a fire grill, and a government latrine (a seat on a hole, not an outhouse). But in Nancy Lakes, the only “camping” is in public use cabins. Finally, the float planes were a difference. In the BWCA, the use of private planes below 4,000 feet is prohibited (that burned the chaps of some remote lodge owners when the area was set aside by President Eisenhower), yet in Nancy Lakes, there was a constant drone of float planes going overhead for the four days we were out there.
But the spirit of canoe country travel that I found in Minnesota is alive and well in the Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area. Sure, Lynx Lake was full of private cabins and accessible by motor boats, but so is the stretch between Seagull Lake and Lake Saganaga in the BWCA. You still get the chance to go as far as you want to go, to travel wherever the lakes and portages can take you, to enjoy the wilder places in a much slower pace. While it may not be a designated wilderness area, the Nancy Lakes area had all the qualities that I seek in wilderness. And as a bonus, it had one thing that Minnesota’s Boundary Waters did not – mountains. In one view from our cabin on James Lake the first evening, I could see the Talkeetna Mountains, and in another view, Pioneer Peak and the Twin Peaks dominated the distant horizon. Subtle but important reminders that I am lucky to live in America’s wildest and largest state.