Every year about this time we witness the ritual of parents rushing to buy camping supplies and preparing to send their sons and daughters off to sleep-away camps and nature trips. Such experiences are seminal, and ones we tend to remember clearly the rest of our lives. I remember my camping-like experience one special summer when I was a Chicago teen at the tender, wilderness-ignorant age of 14. I may not remember all of my 37 years since, but my canoe trip into the boundary waters and the pristine wilderness north of Minnesota known as the Quetico Provincial Park seems like it happened last year.
Beginning my first trip away from home required some rather daunting travel arrangements: Chicago to Minneapolis on a major airline, Minneapolis to Duluth on a minor, and somewhat dubious airline, then Duluth to Ely via bus. All of this navigated by a greenhorn 14-year-old kid from Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago. That aspect alone is still amazing to me. All 30+ kids in the 13 to 17-year-old group managed to arrive from all parts of the country without getting lost, and we spent the first night learning just how much our parents hated us, for surely they did this so we would perish in the wilderness. Some were veterans of such endeavors, but many like myself were new to this wilderness business.
The next morning they shuttled us by small seaplane, 3 kids at a time with packs and a canoe, 50 miles north into the park. The plan was for us to canoe and portage our way back to civilization while learning the lessons that a wilderness experience can offer, as well as things teenagers might learn far away from parental watching. Being the 60s, we did split into two groups by gender, with separate routes but a scheduled mid-trip overnight joint camp. A few complained and whined about this arrangement, but there were reasons beyond the obvious for the segregated groups, as we were to find out later.
We set out as soon as all canoeists arrived, and spent the first day learning what constant paddling does to one’s upper body, even the resilient bodies of youths. Had we been a group of 30-40-year-olds, the first night around the campfire would have been a Ben Gay fest, and the smell of birch and maple logs burning replaced by that product’s familiar odor. As it was, that first night we were absolutely exhausted and we ate every crumb and drop of food prepared, even though we had freeze-dried chicken-ala-king on white bread. Didn’t matter, it tasted like food of the gods after that first grueling day. We cleaned up, split up, and begin to set up our tents for our first night in the wilderness.
As we did so, our guide slung ropes over high branches and hoisted our food packs out of reach. “Out of reach of what?” I wondered. So I asked the guide why he did that. “Bears,” he said without stopping or breaking a sweat hoisting the large packs.”Gotta keep the food out of reach.” Bears? Here? Now? I walked back to tell my tent mates and no one said a word, but our looks said it all. Not sure any of us had thought about bears visiting us and trying to become camp mates. But the best was yet to come.
After hoisting the packs, the guide coated some empty bug spray cans with peanut butter, and placed these strange works of art on a few of the rough picnic benches in the clearing around which we set our tents. Again, my tent-mates pushed me forward to find out what the heck these are for, to which our guide replied, “Bears. They’re for bears. If a bear smells us or the food and comes snooping, he’ll find these, bite into one, and the mild explosion will chase him away. And oh, you guys have pitched your tent on one of the paths into this clearing, so you might want to move it somewhere else.” OH GOOD, I thought, let’s piss off the bear with a peanut butter bite-bomb and have him run away through our tent! Needless to say, no one slept a wink during that fortunately bear-less night, but every crack and snap we heard was followed quickly by a quiveringly whispered “what’s that!” from our tent and no doubt others.
The next morning we noticed, much to our relief, that the bear bombs went untouched, but our attention was quickly diverted by what would be a daily and dreaded routine: the morning wake-up swim. This wonderfully effective drill consisted of everyone stripping to their birthday suits then swimming 50 yards out to a canoe manned by our guide, then back to shore. It wasn’t the distance, nor the butt-baring that hurt…it was the frigid waters of Canadian spring-fed lakes. We were definitely awake by the time we returned to the shore. But since boys grow up in a competitive world, this chilling task also had a competitive edge: the last one back cleaned up the breakfast dishes. And yes, I did my share of dishes that trip.
Over the next several days we gradually worked into an efficient routine each day, our young bodies quickly adapting to the strenuous workout of paddling mixed with portaging across short land blocks. Most portages were short and flat, but occasionally long or hilly. Those were a struggle, and often took a team effort to shuttle packs and canoes in short stretches before reaching open water to continue our route. The most difficult of the trip was one rocky portage which we later learned was also on the Outward Bound course that tested young men’s stamina and strength in far more vigorous and military-like ways than our lightweight group.
What made portaging a testing task was having to carry one very large army-type pack on your back, another slung so that it hung on your front, and a canoe upside down with two paddles crisscrossed and jammed into the canoe braces to form balancing handles. The canoes all had pads for your shoulders at the strategic center balance point so you could rest the canoe on your shoulders as you trudged forward. Now…walk this way for a quarter-mile, sometimes stepping over small fallen trees or traversing shallow but rocky creeks, and you’ll quickly find out how to use every muscle in your body to maintain balance, provide the endurance and strength to hold the packs and canoe…all while you pray your Cutters or Off Deep Woods is doing a proper job of fending off the dreaded black flies, mosquitoes, or deer flies that follow you everywhere. The black flies seemed to be made of iron, for any attempt to kill them as they mined your skin just seemed to excite them. You’d slap ’em hard and they’d just get up and fly off. The only defense was a fresh coat of Cutter’s but even that had an erratic effect. And at other times, particularly one night when we camped sans tents on a rocky outcrop, the mosquitoes were so thick that even with netting wrapped around each of us they hovered in droves within a fraction of our ears and made for an interesting evening trying not to go insane from the constant buzzing.
During the course of the trip we saw countless birds of all types, fish, small mammals, and even a distant moose cow. We never, fortunately, encountered a bear although we saw frequent signs of their presence. But the waterfowl were a treat to watch as they worked up and down the lakes, landing in a graceful practiced motion and serenely floated in small flocks as the sun set.
One of the more memorable parts of the trip was the absence of any signs of humanity other than our group. Once we saw a small plane overhead, and another time paddled past an abandoned trapper’s cabin, but that was it other than the campsites we used and even those were thin on anything left or built by man. It was not hard to imagine what it would have been like plying these waters a hundred years before as a trapper or explorer. Of course back then Indians were active in the area and that would have added an extra level of caution. But for all our hardy little group knew we were the only humans alive.
When we met up with the girls group we spent a few days lazing about and doing a few combined activities such as canoe pumping races (an odd event where you stand on the end of a canoe and pump it up and down causing it to move forward, or so the theory!), backward paddle races, and rope swings to see who could swing the highest and farthest over the lake before dropping into the clear water. Evenings were filled with campfires, camp songs, and handfuls of bashful teenagers holding hands in a fruitless attempt at the boyfriend-girlfriend thing. Those two nights when the two groups were together were the only nights we heard wolve’s howling nearby. Another night of fitful sleep to go with most of the others!
Far too soon the trip came to a close as we paddled, now experienced canoeists, portagists, and wilderness survivalists, into the boundary waters and down to the lodge of our provisioner. I would like to think that the crystal clear waters up there are still as clean and clear as they were when I was there, but I suspect that anyone canoeing those waters now could not simply reach over and drink the lake water or use it to cook with as we did. Many times we could see 20 feet or more underwater as we paddled, and it felt like you were canoeing in an aquarium rather than on a lake. Sadly, even back then, when we crossed back into U.S. waters the lakes darkened and were unsafe to drink.
After a final banquet night complete with awards and roasts, we said our tearful good byes with hollow pledges of meeting again, and wound our separate ways back to our families. I remember distinctly calling my folks from the goods store at the lodge on the day of departure and them asking me if I enjoyed the trip. I replied something like, “Yes, I loved it…I could stay here forever.” But I did go home, and sadly, although desiring it for many years, never made it back to the crystal-clear waters of the Quetico and the experience of being in a place that felt untouched by man with a taste of what the world was like before modern homo sapiens polluted everything. I fervently hope that those qualities still exist in the Quetico after all these years, and if they don’t, at least they still do in my mind, filed away in a mental folder labeled “14” along with the hopes and dreams of those years.
In searching for what was on the ‘net about the Quetico, I came upon this link that has some wonderful images of the park. Choose “Quetico” in the first box, then peruse the images. Sadly, it appears from these that the water is no longer clean and safe to drink like I remember experiencing during my trip…but I suppose that was inevitable.