Commentary: Despite new challenges, annual BWCA trip continues
Last summer I had both of my hips replaced within a six-week span (another whole story), which kept me from doing many of the things that make summer so enjoyable. One of the activities I missed the most was going on my Boundary Waters canoe trip with my women friends.
The group I go with is an offshoot of a Roseville Lutheran Church women’s trip, begun in 1988 as a way to help women feel strong and capable. Anne Kersey went with them in 1989, joined by neighbors Joan Duke and Ginner Ruddy in 1990 and 1991. In 1992 those three started their own group, along with Betty Swanson and Judy Flinn. Over the years 17 other women (including several of the women’s daughters and me) took part in one or more of the trips; I joined in 1998 and have gone on every trip since except for last year. For the last five years, our group has included Kersey, Ruddy, Duke, Kathy Wellington and me, all of St. Anthony Park, and Nancy Nelson, of Roseville.
There are many reasons we joined the canoe group. We all like to go with just women—it makes for a less strenuous, less competitive, more relaxing experience. Everyone pitches in and works together. Many of us went to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness when we were younger, and this annual trip makes us feel like we did then. And, really, the BWCA is the most beautiful place.
What’s remarkable about our trip is we do everything ourselves without an outfitter. We have the use of three canoes, four tents, all the packs we need, cooking equipment and all the personal gear needed for a wilderness camping trip. We plan all our routes and meals (with no dried food), get the permits, and portage and paddle when and where we like.
Even more remarkable is that we still go. Many of us are or have been strong athletes, enjoying swimming, hiking, biking and cross-country skiing, but this year, one woman was 73, two were 72, one 65, one 64 and the “baby” was 58. We’ve replaced or are contemplating replacing joints, and aches and pains don’t disappear as fast as they did when we were younger. Nevertheless, though we don’t do as much portaging as we used to (which is a good thing, considering we had three canoes and eight packs this year), we still paddle well—including this July on giant Saganaga Lake with a pretty good wind. And because we realize how fleeting life is, we enjoy the experience even more than when we took it for granted that we could do it.
Over the years, the canoe group has gone out of Ely, Sawbill Lake and, most often, off the Gunflint Trail, especially after the Kerseys built their home on Lake Superior near Grand Marais (a great place to stay before and after going out). We don’t have a favorite place to canoe to; if we did, we’d go there every year. But we like places with big campsites, big rocks, open views and access for interesting day trips. Alpine Lake was a real favorite until the fire that devastated the area, and we like going out in the Seagull Lake vicinity because we’ve gotten to know Debbie Mark, who runs Seagull Outfitters and is always willing to keep us informed about conditions in that area.
The best parts of doing an annual canoe trip? Of course, there’s getting away from the responsibilities and worries of everyday life, having no agenda to keep and reveling in the fact that we can still do it, but there is more.
We love the peacefulness, serenity and beauty of the north woods, listening to the loons and the wind sighing through the pines; swimming in the cold, clear lakes; and cooking meals over fires that we built ourselves. It’s fun to wake up each morning not knowing exactly what will happen during the rest of the day. It helps you realize how much of life we have no control over and how much we depend on each other. We have a real camaraderie and know that we will support each other, not just on the trips, but also through the joys and hard parts of the rest of our lives.
The worst parts of the trip are just what you would imagine: mosquitoes, black flies, rain and high winds. (And I personally am not a fan of the latrines, though they are better than no latrine.) Just looking at the good and the bad, the good certainly far outweighs the bad.
As in all long-term relationships, there are stories that keep getting passed on about what happened in earlier years. There’s the one about the bear that came into camp and would not be deterred from eating all the food (even though it was chased away a couple of times, the pack was hung in the tree, and pots and pans were banged while the campers sat in a canoe watching the bear eat.) There have been several trips when we came in early because of rainstorms. My second trip was just weeks after the 1999 blowdown, a derecho that destroyed 25 million trees in the BWCA alone and killed one person and injured 70 who were camping in the area. We were awed by the huge fallen trees that made portaging more than difficult and some campsites unusable, and we were amazed that more people were not killed.
More than once there have been fires raging as we camped in nearby areas. We have seen helicopters carrying water from lakes around us to try to douse a fire and have sometimes run into more than the usual number of people looking for campsites because their original plans had to change. One morning we awoke to smoke that looked like thick fog on the lake, and sometimes we have talked to firefighters who were informing campers where fire would be a problem.
The stories will keep coming because we plan to keep going as long as we are able. The trips may be less strenuous than they used to be, but we are still there. We are still there.
Michelle Christianson is a piano teacher, musician and longtime contributor to the Park Bugle.