Trail Stories: Why I Love to Share the Wilderness

In my time in the Boundary Waters, I have come to love sharing the experience with people who are completely new to it all, yet there is so much potential for things to be frustrating when introducing people for the first time. Perhaps you won’t be able to travel as quickly as you normally would or maybe some of your gear will come out damaged. Maybe they won’t share your wilderness ethics right away or perhaps their complaints about standard canoe country activities may sour your own experience. Nevertheless, I have found that beyond all the possible drawbacks is an unbelievable opportunity to see the Boundary Waters in new and different ways through the eyes of a person taking it all in for the first time. It’s with that same level of understanding that I try to find empathy for all the new groups that have been so easy to complain about these past couple years. Because if I know one thing, it’s that all of us were brand new to this at one point, and it may have taken one experienced person stepping outside of their routine to bring us along and share this one-of-a-kind place with us. For me, I have had the privilege of guiding all sorts of different people into the BW these past years, and it never gets old. I think of that one gal who, on her second canoe trip, fell in love with bushwhacking of all things and was convinced that she wanted to guide one day. I think of the Georgia native who, as a friend of a friend along on a winter trip, grew to love winter camping despite evening temps in the -20s. And for this blog, I am going tell the story of bringing my sister on her first trip to canoe country since it’s an introduction I am incredibly proud of and a trip I’ll never forget.
For a little backstory, my sister and I are very different people. I have always been infatuated with the outdoors; she is not. I have spent time guiding and as an outdoor educator; she’s an interior designer. So I was taken aback and yet pretty excited when she asked when I would bring her on a Boundary Waters trip. At the time, I was living on the Gunflint Trail and we set a stretch of days that she would be coming up. Now the pressure was on to plan the best possible trip that would would show her how amazing this place really is. My first decision would be in finding an entry permit. Each BWCA entry point is special in some way, but, as for me, the greatest entry points in terms of raw beauty are found east of the Gunflint Trail. Those permits can be difficult to acquire, especially mid-season. I waited patiently and eventually came up with a permit for EP 60 – Duncan Lake. As we talked about packing and planning, she mentioned that one of her big goals was to see a moose in the wild. In the back of my guiding mind, I knew how tough it can be when someone’s main goal is to see a wild animal. There are of course ways to increase your odds, but animals are always hit-or-miss.
The day finally came and my sister drove up to spend the night before we headed off onto our adventure the next day. I took the opportunity to bring her to an iconic Gunflint overlook at Honeymoon Bluff for a world-class sunset. On our drive back to camp, a car stopped in the middle of the road. I began to smile since only two things usually stop traffic in the northwoods: down trees and wildlife (and I was optimistic it was the latter.) Just then, a Moose peaked out from behind the car in front of us and my sister’s main goal was fulfilled. So far, so good in convincing her that this place is special. The next day, we started off our trip from Bearskin Lake. The place is sentimental to me because it was from this same landing that our dad brought me on my first Boundary Waters trip with a group of fathers and sons from school. We crossed the lake and arrived at her first true portage and what a gem to start with. The portage into Duncan crosses up and over a gentle ridge through a grove of old-growth White Pine before culminating in an expansive view of Duncan Lake with its ampitheatre-esqu ridges all around. Duncan was calm this morning as we headed for the back bay above the famous stairway portage. We briefly checked out the falls before heading down the stairs to Rose Lake. Rose, for those who have never had the pleasure, is one of the Boundary Waters’ best. It has so many attributes of a perfect lake. We took the site nearest the portage. The site is nice enough in it of itself, but the location within earshot of the falls and with a view looking out towards the huge palisades on the Canadian shore set it apart.
For the afternoon, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew from experience that one of the greatest overlooks in the whole BW was a hike along the Border Route away. We stashed the canoe at the landing to Stairway, spent some more time at the falls, and then headed west along the Border Route Trail. We took in the view at the first overlook above the stairway portage. This spot is a magical sunrise spot if you ever get the chance. Then we pushed on past the pond, up past the next overlook, before arriving at the famous West Rose overlook. This rock face sits about 400 ft above the lake below and has a westward view that stretches to the end of Rose, past Rat Lake, past South lake, and even beyond the Height of Land portage and into North Lake. After spending time at the overlook, we headed back to our site on Rose. After dinner, I set about our various campsite chores for the night while my sister spent some time down by the water taking it all in. As I was working on my hammock, I heard her say “what is this animal swimming in the water?” I assumed we had gotten lucky with a beaver siting, but, when I turned around, it was in fact an Otter swimming up to our campsite. They are adorable little buggers and their visit provided yet another unforgettable evening in canoe country.
The next morning, we awoke to a sunrise cloaked in dense fog. The air was wet and heavy and the far shoreline was completely obscured. We managed to get on the water before it burnt off entirely. As we headed east through the fog, I couldn’t help but explain the history and the significance of the next challenge known as the Long Portage. It proved a bit of an obstacle this day, but thankfully it was far less flooded than it had been earlier in the year. With that single hurdle overcome, she got to check off one of canoe country’s most iconic portages.
Rove Lake is my personal favorite in all of the Boundary Waters for so many reasons. It’s also where we would try to check off one of her other goals for the trip. I played the part of the trolling motor as she fished her way down Rove. Fishing wasn’t great this day, but she did hook into a Smalley near the east end which she was quite excited about. The narrows between Rove and Watap are my favorite part of the route as the awe-inspiring wall of stone commands the view. I have had the pleasure of visiting this place many times in all of the seasons, and each of those memories came pouring back to me as my sister took in that beautiful scene for the first time. From Watap, we crossed the portage into Mountain alongside the “big monuments” marking the US/Canada border. Only a select few portages cross back and forth across the border (most are on one side or the other) and these get special oversized markers. Those along the Monument portage are far and away the most famous, but these are the same. Mountain Lake and its crystal clear waters meet us on the far side. I haven’t seen the western cove on Mountain since last year’s tornado, but the cliff closest has apparently changed in appearance quite a bit. We pass over the shipwreck next to the portage into Clearwater before climbing up and over to my favorite BW entry-point lake. We took a campsite midway down which faces the palisades. Watching the moonrise over the cliffs later that night was a magical ending to a magical trip. It was incredible how many things seemed to fall in line perfectly. As so many parts of the canoe tripping experience have become normalized to me, it was eye opening to see and hear my sister process it all for the first time. I was able to share my favorite place at its very best with her and make a memory that I will always keep. On her way home, a bear crossed in front of the car, checking off another of the northwood’s iconic creatures. And later she cast away any doubts about the success of the trip when I received the “I’ll let ya know when to start planning the next one” text. I know our next trip may never live up to this nearly perfect first one, but I also know that in every trip into the BW is the chance for unforgettable experiences and priceless memories. And as much as I love canoe country, the opportunity to share it again and again only multiplies my own
experience through the people that share it with me

Evening on Clearwater Lake

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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