This book came to be after I joined a writing workshop several years ago. I began writing humorous stories about trips I’d taken to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness over the past 30 years. Over time, the number of stories grew and eventually the book developed into a three part memoir that crosses three generations, my father’s, mine and that of my children. It was published in 2014 and was my first book.
Boundary Waters Dreamin’
(An excerpt from Dirty Shirt: a boundary waters memoir, by eLectio Publishing)
Our trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of northern Minnesota, for the four of us high school friends was, truthfully, a considerable downgrade. The original plan was to drive out west to California after graduation. When you’re eighteen, you take your newly ordained adulthood as a chance to assert your independence. What better way to do that than to drive two thousand miles with your friends? Since none of us owned a car, nor had the money or means to get much further west than South Dakota, we “right-sized” our dreams into a five day canoe trip. The California Dreamin’ was good while it lasted.
The BWCA is a million-plus acres of relatively untouched wilderness extending from northern Minnesota to the Canadian border. It consists of more than a thousand lakes strung together by crystal clear rivers and man-made portages cut through the dense forest. No motorized vehicles are allowed into the area, so all travel must be done on foot or in canoes. The natural beauty, abundant wildlife and deafening quiet of the deep wilderness, make the area attractive to any outdoor purist.
Disregard the fact that, after five days in this natural beauty, I wanted nothing more than to leave it. Leave it and seek such niceties as running water, hot showers, and the female form. Being in the woods, while good for the soul, is hard on the body. There’s something about wilderness living that assures me the Industrial Revolution was a good thing.
There were four of us high school buddies altogether; Pete, Doug, myself and Pat, who I still consider a “best friend” today. We did most of our organizing at a planning meeting in the basement of Pat’s house. Doug brought a map and the route was planned, paddling distances charted, schedules set; all things that seemed like rational, logical thoughts at the time. However, we were oblivious to the fact that, in the BWCA, the schedule is always the first thing to go. As wilderness rookies, we had to give the appearance of actually having a plan by charting out where we would eat, sleep and fish. In reality, by the time we set up our tent on the first night, we were already behind schedule. We quickly realized that the only time that matters in the woods is, how long until dark? For the most part, when it gets dark, everything stops.
Because most of us were eighteen and were relying entirely on our own means for transportation, there was relatively little parental input into the planning process. My guess is they were just relieved that we shed the California trip for something more local and attainable. The travel plan we crafted using our collective teenage brain trust, was to start out by train from St. Paul to Duluth, Minnesota. From there, we would catch the Greyhound bus to Grand Marais a hundred miles northeast. We would then rely on hitchhiking sixty miles up the Gunflint Trail to the outfitters at our “starting point.” Sounds like a slam dunk, doesn’t it? Yes sir, no possible holes in that itinerary. Rock solid.
Much of what makes or breaks a camping trip is determined by the quality and selection of equipment. This was our first foray into the woods without parents or other family involved. We packed what we thought would work best, given our experience and substandard budget. None of us knew any better, nor had the means to do anything about it if we did. Besides, it was just a canoe trip, how hard could it be? We would quickly learn how unforgiving the water and woods were to ungainly equipment and poor planning.
During the planning meeting, the subject of tents was brought up.
“I’ve got a couple of two man tents. One is brand new and the other is pretty beat. I think the zipper may even be broken. It’s down in my basement somewhere. You’re welcome to use it, but there are no guarantees on it,” I said.
After a few shrugs, no one else offered anything better, so we decided to make it work. When you’re a pie-eyed high school grad, you can make anything work. Needless to say, I was happy I made the investment in the new Eureka a few weeks before. My brother Tom always said that you cannot underestimate the value of a good tent, and I certainly knew which tent of the two I was sleeping in.
The rest of the equipment we took with us all bordered on substandard, designed more for car-camping than canoeing and portaging. Of course there was the “essential” Coleman lantern. It sounded good on paper; providing light for playing cards, warding off black bear, sending SOS signals to aircraft overhead, and the like. Unfortunately, we neglected to factor in the possibility of broken-mantles. Mantles are small sacks or pouches made of cloth. They tie to the gas outlets on a lantern and when they burn they turn to ash, serving as the ignition point for the lantern. They work fine as long as the ashen mantles are not bumped or broken. If they are broken, what you have on your hands amounts to a low-grade civilian flamethrower. They can be fun if you’re sporting an asbestos flannel shirt and a welder’s helmet, but otherwise, pretty useless in the woods.
After discovering the broken mantles, there were many moments when heaving the useless device into the woods seemed like the most prudent thing to do; a kind of a deep woods Molotov cocktail for the city boys. Instead, the item became our boat anchor. Not in the literal sense, but rather it was the item which, when rendered inoperable, suddenly becomes dead weight that must be lugged around for the duration of the trip. Every trip has one.
Another poorly chosen article for a couple of us on the trip were large, cumbersome, cotton-filled sleeping bags. Why mess with goose down when you could lug what amounted to a seven pound cotton sponge on your back? They were bulky and heavy when dry; when wet, they quickly doubled in weight. Ounce for ounce, they were undoubtedly the most burdensome items on the trip.
Perhaps the most definitive of all bad equipment choices was the drab green, army-issued folding military shovel. Unlike the cotton “sleeping bag sponges” and the “lantern flambeau,” which had functional purposes behind being packed, this item’s utility escapes me even to this day. Lord, what were we thinking? It turns out foxholes aren’t really necessary on most campouts. Trenches, not so much, either. If a US/Canadian war were to break out, though, we were set.
Some good advice for any camping trip is if you can’t eat it, wear it, sleep in it, or start a fire with it, leave it home.
Once the equipment was defined, we focused on choosing our route. We used a popular map series that existed for the area at the time. Having spent my entire career in computer mapping, I can appreciate many of the good qualities of these maps. They were simple to read, had decent cartography, and, for the most part, credible content. They also had a light film coating to them giving them a crackly feel and making them water resistant. This worked to our advantage when water from the canoe paddles would drip on them during our paddling. I can also attest that they float for short periods of time if blown overboard, but that is another story.
For all of the good qualities these maps have, I also recognize their shortcomings; small issues such as missing or incorrect portages, scale problems and, of course, the question of how up-to-date they were. To the manufacturer’s credit, however, they do have one of the most all-encompassing disclaimers I’ve ever seen, which reads:
This map is not intended for navigational use and is not represented to be correct in every respect.
Wow. A map not intended for navigation. My question then becomes, what is it supposed to be used for? Birdcage lining? Fish wrap? Fire kindling? Now, kindling was an idea we gave some thought to.
It’s a bit like publishing a cookbook and then disclaiming it by saying “Hey, this book shouldn’t be used to cook anything.” Or perhaps like the weatherman saying there’s a forty percent chance of rain. What does that really mean? The map might better be served by taking a meteorological approach by saying “You have a forty percent chance of getting lost if you use this map.” At least give me some odds to work with.
We continued our planning despite the heavily disclaimed map. Using it, we plotted a circuitous route beginning at the outfitters on Seagull Lake who would drop us off at our entry point on Gunflint Lake. From there we would head north, then west, then back south, eventually finishing at the outfitters back on Seagull Lake. The map indicated several portages that circumvented fast or impassible water using a dashed line. We knew portaging was part of the whole experience, so it did not deter us from sticking with the plan. In fact, the possibility of a little excitement was alluring to all of us. The entire route would be an ambitious, yet achievable paddle, especially for four young men in good physical condition.
The final planning details centered around meals and the food we would bring. It was unanimous that trying to make a meal plan comprised of freeze dried food would be prohibitively expensive. I pointed out that as long as we brought dried food and no meat, we would probably be okay.
“Oh, we can bring meat. My brother has brought hamburger up before,” Doug chimed in.
“How does he keep it from spoiling?” I asked.
“You just freeze it real good and pack it in ice. No problem.”
I looked at him with questioning cynicism. My brother Tom, who had been to the area on a few occasions and who I deemed the expert, always said that food requiring ice would add more bulk and weight than lugging it around would be worth. Furthermore, if you choose to bring frozen food, you should use dry ice, as it lasts longer and does not melt. I am not sure if I mentioned the dry ice idea, but I am sure my skepticism about bringing meat shone through fairly implicitly. Doug seemed sure and confident, so we agreed he would pack it and we would have hamburgers for a couple of our dinners. With the last of the details planned, we said our goodbyes and left, anxious and excited for our coming adventure.
While the planning was done corporately, we were all in charge of packing our own clothes, sleeping bags and other equipment. I started by setting up and airing-out the two tents in the front yard. The new Eureka was set up in less than ten minutes and was a thing of strength and beauty. Its poles stretched the nylon cream colored rain-fly taut, and the zippered screening was solid defense against mosquitoes and other bugs. On the inside, I would go so far as to say it had that new tent smell, not unlike a new car.
The second tent took a bit more to set up. The poles and joints were not as nicely engineered as the Eureka and it quickly became clear it was a cheap knock-off model. Unlike the subtle cream color of the Eureka, its bastard brother was highway cone blaze-orange and visible from a mile away. The only subtle quality about it was the protection it would provide against the bugs, given its broken zipper. It was more of the Charlie Brown variety, difficult to assemble and almost as difficult to look at.
As the evening grew late, I moved on to packing my clothes. I stuffed a couple of shirts, pants, underwear and socks into the hand-me-down frame backpack I inherited when Tom upgraded. When I went to pack what was probably my most essential piece of clothing, my heavy duty flannel shirt, I realized it was dirty.
I mentioned to my brother Tom that my favorite camping shirt was in the laundry and it was too late to try and wash it.
Now, he had been watching most of the packing process with great amusement, sprinkled with moments of disbelief, and felt compelled to offer some sage words of wisdom.
“You know, Jim, it’s always good to start a trip with a dirty shirt.”
His tone was dripping with sarcasm. It became the haunting voice of reason in my head for the rest of the trip. The actual dirty shirt was the least of my issues. It was the basic precepts behind starting a trip of such magnitude with substandard equipment and planning that haunted us in so many situations. The thing was, I knew he was right. Tom was a seasoned camper who backpacked his way across the country a few years earlier. I was determined to do this trip my way, however. I wanted to prove I could do it as well as anyone, so chose to press on and make my indelible mark in the woods.
The scars are still healing.