Moosey climes, moosey times

Coming back to our ending point on Iron Lake.

We should have seen a moose yesterday. Everything about the day said so — the morning rain, the low clouds that hung around and occasionally spit throughout the afternoon, the lily pads and reeds and plethora of other aquatic plants that pervaded our route. Even the guidebook said we were basically assured a moose sighting, headed across the lakes we were headed across.

But there was no moose. What there was, though, was a beautiful paddle through long, stringy lakes under a cloudy sky that quelled the direct heat that had me sucking down water at such an incredible rate the day before. There was a sense of exploration as we portaged the canoes along moss-bordered trails, paddled through a narrow canyon with lichen-covered walls on either side, and struggled through a section that offered an obstacle course of rocks just below the surface.

Save a single loon, though, there was no wildlife to be seen.

Yesterday’s loop route.
Today’s route, an out-and-back.

Today was different. Like yesterday, it was cloudy, humid, cool. Like yesterday, we paddled the canoes through long, stringy lakes, lily pads abundant.

Unlike yesterday, we saw a moose. Two, in fact, our first and only moose sighting of the week. It was a momma and her calf, the momma moose swimming in the water just off a swampy shore on Iron Lake when we came upon her. She saw us, or heard us, lumbering out of the water and off into the woods with her calf before I’d had a chance to draw my camera.

Though brief, the moose sighting was something of a harbinger for the rest of the day. Who knows? Maybe the rest of the wildlife needed permission from the moosely royals before making an appearance to we humble canoeists.

After the moose, we saw a muskrat dip into the water, a stream of bubbles following its progress across the lake until it finally came up for a breath, right next to our canoe. I set down my paddle to raise my camera, inadvertently knocking it against the top of the boat as I did so. The muskrat flipped back into the water and was gone.

We continued on and entered river otter territory. There were three of them, hanging out along a fallen log jutting out from the bank, perhaps 50 yards in the distance. They didn’t move as we drew closer, clustering first on one side of the log, then on the other, heads almost eel-like as they rose from the water, elongated and slicked down with oily fur. They looked directly at us, so very much smaller than the nine of us in our four canoes, but defiant. They hissed, letting us know we were in otter country now.

We laughingly hissed back, paddled on, passing west of the otters and toward the loons. Or the loon, rather — singular. It floated on the water maybe 20 feet from our boat, dipping in and out in its quest for a tasty dinner before finally completely submerging itself, as loons are wont to do, not emerging for at least a couple minutes. We had passed the loon already when it reappeared. Or at least I assume it did, because we heard its call behind us, wild and haunting.

By the time we’d stopped for a floating lunch on Tucker Lake and portaged back into Iron, the clouds above us had begun to break, the sun muscling its way through to warm the air, our skin, the colors of leaf and sky, both reflected in the clear, glassy water.

The view from Honeymoon Bluff.

Today is my last day in the Boundary Waters, and that seems fitting. The wildlife, the variation in cloud and sunlight, and the capstone hike up to Honeymoon Bluff, where we ended our day at an overlook displaying three different lakes — Hungry Jack, Bearskin and Flour — as well as the tree-covered islands and peninsulas surrounding them. The sun was nodding lower, casting warm light whenever it emerged from the patchwork of clouds still braiding the sky.

A birds-eye view, almost. But to truly take in the wildness of the Boundary Waters — such a large portion of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes — a bird would have to fly higher than it had ever flown, up into the stratosphere, or even higher, up into space where the moon that had shone so brightly over the lake just hours earlier greedily absorbed its light from our life-giving sun.

There is still so much to explore.

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Blueberries, blue sky, blue water

The burn char on the dead trees peppering the blueberry spot was still visible from a fire 10 years previous.

We left the lodge this morning armed with tools of the trade and the inside intel we’d need to use them: drive north on the Gunflint Trail, look for the ____* and then take the first ____* onto a gravely Forest Service Road. There, we were promised, our hunt would be successful.

The only problem with the directions, was the directions. We couldn’t find the landmark on which our turn was to be gauged and eventually came to the end of the road, which proved to be sadly devoid of quarry.

It wasn’t a bad place to be adrift, really. The northern reach of the 57-mile Gunflint Trail goes through aftermath of the 2007 Ham Fire, which burned 75,000 acres of mature forest. A decade later, it’s all young aspen, spruce and shrubs, he shorter growth making for wide views full of sky.

And blueberries. Lots and lots of blueberries.

That’s what we found, anyway, when we finally found the spot we’d been told about. We parked the car down an overgrown Forest Service road, whipped out our plastic bags and containers, and got to work.

I love picking blueberries, or any fruit, really. Sometimes it’s hard to say why. Today, for instance, the sun was high and hot. The blueberry bushes were as low as I’ve ever seen them, and harvesting the tiny fruits was a painstaking labor of bending over and plucking the berries one by one. I quickly began to feel sun-dazed and dehydrated, frequently taking long drags on my water bottle.

Beautiful, beautiful wild blueberries.

But somehow, it was also a satisfying kind of pursuit. It was quiet out there, off the road and away from any formal recreation area. The wind breezed merrily through the young trees bordering the blueberry patch, and all manner of shrubs and plants — many with berries of their own — interspersed it all. And to top it off, the blueberry expedition proved quite fruitful (pardon the pun), with our five pickers harvesting enough berries to promise dessert later that night and breakfast in the morning.

Nevertheless, the residual heat and fatigue from our morning in the sun still followed me when we arrived back at the cabin. But that was fine, because I had just the idea to banish them: a jump in the lake.

In northern Minnesota, just shy of the Canadian border, I knew that a cold lake was all I could expect, even in August, and I was mostly just planning to jump in, jump out again, and call it a day. But surprisingly, the water welcomed me. It was cold, yes, but invigorating, the chill perfectly balanced against the heat I generated as I paddled around the water, waiting for a less cold-tolerant friend to join me.

Eventually she did, with a subsequent sweat in the sauna providing the optimal center to a lake-jumping sandwich. Soon I stood on the dock once more, water or sweat or a combination of the two dripping down my sides and watched our resident bald eagle swoop through the air to his island, just across the way.

Then, I jumped.

* Redacted to protect classified information

O, Canada!

One of the many beautiful views along the long portage to Daniels Lake.

Vacation isn’t typically a time when I’m big on setting alarms, but since today was the occasion of the Great Paddle Trip of 2018, I made an exception.

The plan? Get up at 7 a.m., leave by 8, and complete a giant loop that would take us through two lakes, up across the Canadian line on the north shore of Rose Lake, and back to our starting point on Bearskin Lake via a 1.5-mile portage and paddle down the length of Daniels.

Today’s route.

It was a perfect day to be outside. High of 70, barely a cloud in the sky, light breeze moving the air through our boats. Sunlight danced off the water and deepened the greens overflowing islands and coastlines. We stopped for lunch on a point on the north shore of Rose Lake — Canadian territory — wondering for how many thousands of years settlers and fur trappers and Native Americans had tied up their boats and found respite on this same point, taking in this same incredible view.

From there it was a short paddle across the lake to the long portage, roughly 1.5 miles of trail along which packs, paddles and canoes had to be carried toward the put-in to Daniels Lake.

I wasn’t carrying a canoe, so I enjoyed the walk immensely. It followed an old logging railroad grade, passing through flower-bordered swamps and stands of trees with green light filtering through the canopy. It was perfect moose habitat, but no moose could be found — only a deposit of remarkably fresh droppings.

Pushing off into Daniels Lake.

If I was feeling relaxed by the woodland walk, the sensation disappeared as soon as we put in to Daniels. The wind that had made for choppy water and quick sailing over Rose Lake was still present, and this time it was against us.

We struggled through that long lake. The wind whipped the water into a stiff batter, tiny whitecaps roiling the surface and causing the canoe to thunk up and down, splashing water in my face as it passed the larger of the waves. I dug my paddle hard and deep into the water, giving each stroke my all. But despite my efforts — and those of the two other people sharing my canoe — sometimes it seemed we were barely moving at all. My lips were dry, my muscles screaming. It seemed incredible that my arms still managed to continue the essential pattern: reach, pull, lift, repeat.

We were spent when we finally pulled into shore, wondering how we’d find the strength to complete the short portage and paddle that remained between us and the cars. It was a quiet ride home as we each silently debated our priorities upon arrival at the cabins — which first, shower, water, beer, food or plain old sacking out on the couch?

Reaching this long-awaited portage out of Daniels Lake was a wonderful moment.

Tomorrow will likely be a lower-key day, and I’m fine with that. But I’m grateful for today’s adventure, too. Despite the difficulty, there’s something immensely satisfying in the feeling of tiredness that comes after a full day of exertion outdoors. Especially with the ankle injury I’ve been battling this summer, opportunities to immerse myself in the outdoors and to push my physical limits have been rare over the past couple months. So I’m grateful for this day, this place and the people I got to spend it with.

And, also, for the amazing night of sleep I’m fully expecting to experience soon.

Light on the lake

Leaving the swamp, coming into some weather.

It’s amazing how much difference light can make. This morning’s paddle started under the same dreary sky that was my introduction to the Boundary Waters yesterday. I wore a sweater over my t-shirt, a knit cap pulled over my head. We paddled to the end of Poplar Lake and then into the long, long portage to Meeds Lake.

Somewhere over the course of that portage, though, the clouds began to thin. A mile is a long way to walk when you’re carrying a 50-pound canoe. Canoe carrying wasn’t my job, thankfully, because I’m pretty sure I would have failed miserably on such a long distance marked by jutting rocks and vertically undulating trail. But our hardy portagers were rewarded for their trouble as a few slim pieces of blue sky began to show over the water when we finally made it to the other side

Today’s route. Outgoing is in green and returning is in orange

Meeds Lake is one of the bigger lakes pockmarking this section of the Boundary Waters. A stiff wind steadily blew the clouds ever-further into the distance, revealing a shining sun that sparkled off the rippling waves created by the wind and illuminated the varied greens of aspens, birches, firs and spruces. Our lunch spot at the end of the lake was bordered with a smattering of raspberry bushes — mostly picked over, but still containing a few berries bursting with flavor. I laid down in the grass, closed my eyes and enjoyed the sunshine on my face and the chance to rest my arms.

We’d gotten across Meeds Lake and through a narrow strip of swampy territory — reeds, cattails and lily pads surrounded us, spurring us to keep our eyes peeled for the moose that still refused to show — when the clouds returned, this time with purpose. Their bellies were full of rain, and we pulled out raincoats and stowed cameras as the water began to spit, then drip, then hammer, through our crossing of Caribou Lake.

I marveled at how different the landscape looked from even just a few minutes ago. The formerly sparkling greens of the trees dulled to a forgettable shade of murky slate. The water ceased to shine, raindrops bouncing on its top before bursting to join the lake’s expanse.

Staring down Lizz Lake.

But just as suddenly as it had begun, the rain stopped. The clouds moved off and the sun returned as we put in to the portage between Lizz Lake and our home turf of Poplar. I saw again an uprooted tree at the portage that I’d noticed yesterday, thinking that if the lighting were different it would be a beautiful picture. This time around it was indeed a beautiful sight, the low-slanting sun reflecting off a float of lily pads in front of it and the white of the woody roots contrasting with the dark of incorporated soil.

My mood was as light as the sky as we pulled the canoes back into our beach, and my stomach as tight as a rubber band. I’m looking forward to stars and a sunset later tonight. But first, dinner.

Minnesota minus mooses

Our end point at Vista Lake.

This morning I woke up across the lake from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Literally, about 20 feet from the back door of the cabin is Poplar Lake, the north side of which is privately owned but the south side of which is part of the Superior National Forest, which quickly turns into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Right now, typing on my bed with the windows open, I can hear a loon calling on the water. A bald eagle recently swooped by to return to its kill.

But for a quick paddle around the lake after arriving last night, today was my first taste of what the rest of the week will be filled with: paddling across lakes separated by narrow strips of land, hauling canoes and packs through the portage and putting in again when a new lake comes in view.

While I spent all day on the water — we left at 10 a.m. and returned about 5 p.m. — I feel like I haven’t really met the Boundary Waters properly yet. That’s because, while there wasn’t any rain all day long, the sun refused to come out and the air maintained a hazy mist. With no sun reflecting off the water, pine needles and leaves surrounding me, the whole place retained a mysterious air.

Today’s trek. Our route is shown in green.

There’s also the fact that recent ankle injury is still restricting the amount of weight I’m able to carry, meaning that I didn’t do any actual canoe portaging today, just watched the others carry theirs and tried to be as helpful as I could with paddles and such. So while I’d love to write about the rigors of portaging and discuss my newfound expertise with the skill, there likely won’t be any of that this week.

Nevertheless, I’m excited for what this adventure will bring. Today we paddled through four lakes, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the seemingly countless lakes displayed on even my little map, which contains but a paltry subsection of the larger area.

You can get a sense of how numerous Minnesota’s lakes are — I hear something about how there’s 10,000 or so of them? — by reading their names. It quickly becomes apparent that the early explorers eventually ran out of new and innovative names for their discoveries. There are the gimme names, like Poplar, Swamp,and Long Lakes. Then there are the ones named after animals — Swan, Caribou, Mose, Little Trout and Ram (which, incidentally, is right next to Rum Lake) — and the ones named after people — Daniels, Winchell, Larson and Henson. There are names that point to possible mishaps in years past (Dislocation, Hungry Jack and Misplaced Lakes) and others that just seem terribly random (Flour, Tote and Wench Lakes).

My best buddy Cora killing the portage!

One thing that didn’t happen today was a moose sighting. I find this frankly incredible, seeing as everyone in our crew has perfected the art of the moose call, which basically involves calling out in a low, dumbly voice, “Moooooooooosssssseee.” It’s scientifically proven to work. Really.

Somehow, though, the moose didn’t buy it, though we paddled through plenty of lakes containing tasty moose food in the form of lily pads and grasses.

The sight that awaited us as we returned to the cabin made up for it, though. A pair of bald eagles was feeding on the shore of the island closest to our beach, and as they finished, one by one, they flew across the water to the opposite island, huge wings pumping just a stone’s through from where we stood. Moose aren’t the only incredible animals that call the Boundary Waters home.

An unexpected gift

The sun rises over Raleigh as the plane gains altitude.

When a day starts with a 4 a.m. wakeup call, it’s pretty safe to say that I’m not going in with any big expectations. The same held true today, when I dutifully obeyed my alarm, rolled out of bed and miraculously managed to catch my 6 a.m. flight out of Raleigh.

The amazing thing about nonstop flights, though, is that they get you where you’re going pretty quick. By 8 a.m., I was off the plane in Minneapolis, the staging grounds for what I hope will be an amazing adventure in the Boundary Waters between the U.S. and Canada with some people I haven’t seen for too long of a time. However, those people wouldn’t arrive in Minneapolis until after 9 p.m., meaning that I had a whole day to see what I could get into solo.

Turns out, that’s kind of my favorite thing.

I soon discovered that my hotel was quite close to two seemingly incompatible attractions: the Mall of America — the largest shopping mall in the U.S., it covers 96.4 acres — and the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

The aptly decorated Lego store looks out over Nickelodeon Universe.

The hotel offered a free shuttle to the mall’s main entrance, and while I’m not a big mall person, but I figured it was worth checking out, being a national landmark and all. Besides, lunchtime was coming soon.

I wound up spending three hours at the mall, browsing stores selling everything from board games to alpaca products and eating lunch at a giant food court that looked out over the 1.4 million-square-foot Nickelodeon Universe amusement park, which sits squarely at the center of the building.

Have I mentioned that the mall is massive?

Eventually I emerged to meet the shuttle, carrying bags of purchases — all necessary items, really! — and made my way back to the hotel. I was tired and could easily have flopped down on the bed for a considerable length of time before considering doing anything else.

But it was 3:30 p.m., and the internet said that the wildlife refuge’s visitor center closed at 4. I do love me a good visitor center, so I threw down my packages and turned right around to walk across the street. Yes, the visitor center was quite literally across a quiet street from the hotel.

I’m not much of a birder, but I’m pretty sure this place would be a paradise for those who are.

After browsing through the sparse exhibits — honestly, I’d hoped for some more info to help me ID these unfamiliar plants and birds — I embarked on the half-mile nature trail that loops the visitor center. It was quiet, in terms of human activity anyway (as long as you don’t count the occasional overhead planes from the nearby airport), but cicadas and various other chirpy things were quite loud.

The trail passed through some oak forest before descending down into a grassy wetland. A scattering of egrets stood in the distance, and as I watched an algae-covered pond from the observation deck, I saw something move, clearing a narrow strip of algae as it made its way to a fallen log. I watched as a small tree emerged from the water, taking up an unmoving post on the log.

That would have been plenty enough for me to leave happy, but then I saw the monarch butterfly.

Monarch butterflies make their way north from Mexico through multiple summer life cycles, then the fall cohort makes the flight to the Mexican overwintering spots in one massive effort.

I should stop to explain for a moment that me and monarch butterflies go way back. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood, every summer capturing the caterpillars and watching them eventually hatch into gorgeous butterflies. Their beauty, their strength and the complexity of their lifestyle all astound me, and their continued decline saddens me.

Anyway, I saw the monarch, and he was really being kind of a ham. He was perched on a bush just off the trail, pumping his wings and not seeming to care much about how close I got. It’s safe to say I took a lot of pictures.

Eventually I moved on, but just before I reached the end of the trail, it was rocked by an explosion of butterflies. They were everywhere, fluttering around as a response to my sudden intrusion before eventually settling into their various perches. I started to count, and I got to 12 before I realized that it was futile. Every time I though I had them all, another cluster rose from the trees. And they weren’t just in the trees. They were in the meadows, too, dozens of the bright orange things clustered on purple flowers shrouded in tall grass.

It’s hard for me to say exactly what I felt as I walked away. Gratitude, for sure, to God for the gift of seeing all those butterflies fluttering through forest and meadow. Disbelief, too, that this little piece of wildness can exist with international flights constantly flying overhead and the nation’s largest shopping mall just a mile away.

It’s a reminder, I guess, that the natural world — not the foundations and roads and grassy lawns we build to shroud it — is the world that is most real.

Side note: While blogging the trip I’m just posting unedited phone pics. Afterward I’ll go through my DSLR photos and share my favorites here.

One-way ticket to kid world

My car is usually something of a mess, a magnet for loose papers, empty food wrappers and an impressively random assortment of items packed for some excursion or another but never returned to their proper place. Such was the case the day of my first-ever outing as a big sister with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and so I judiciously set aside a few minutes before leaving to clear out the passenger seat — though mostly by tossing all the junk covering it into the back.

 

When I arrived at the house, my new best friend Emily, age 8, was ready and waiting on the porch. She gave me a bear hug, and to my surprise bypassed the passenger door of the car to attempt a climb into the now doubly messy back seat.

Of course, I realized. Eight-year-olds sit in the back. I felt foolish as I realized how long it had been since I’d hung out in kid world.

Fast-forward 18 months, and my kid world experience level has risen substantially. Emily and I have gone hiking and swimming, produced a variety of culinary creations, made friends at church, watched movies together and taken the playground by storm, among other adventures. As it turns out, kid world is pretty fun.

But it can also be a scary, uncertain place. Hanging out with Emily, who turned 10 in May, has reminded me about this aspect of childhood — being surrounded by all these realities I was too young to understand but old enough to be troubled by, feeling the earth shift beneath my feet as each passing day imparted some new proof of the oncoming onset of adulthood. Em and I spend plenty of time laughing and playing and being silly, but there are the serious moments, too: the ones where we talk out some struggle or another festering at home or school, face down a display of pre-teen attitude or wrestle with any of the innumerable mysteries of life.

I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters mostly from a logic-driven place. I’d been in Haywood County for three years at the time and felt increasingly uncomfortable with how little I’d managed to engage any kind of service or volunteerism. My erratic schedule as a newspaper reporter had a lot to do with that — it just wouldn’t be possible to commit to any regular schedule without ending up bailing half the time. I liked the sound of Big Brothers Big Sisters, because the schedule was so flexible. It could be whatever you and your little agreed on, varying from month to month or week to week, and with a minimum requirement of two hangouts a month for a couple hours apiece, it really wasn’t a huge time commitment.

Soon, though, my life as a big sister left the realm of extracurricular commitment to look a lot more like a simple relationship — just with some extra paperwork behind it.

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Emily and Arti take a snack break while taking a hike. Holly Kays photo

In the course of the last year and a half, Emily and I have gotten to know each other pretty well. We both love being outside, and she’s as interested in knowing the names of our various Southern Appalachian trees and flowers as I am. She loves rocks, and anytime we take a hike there better be an available pocket or bag to accommodate all the specimens she’s sure to find for her collection. Emily is always happy to be in the kitchen and wants to be a chef when she grows up. She’s the first to offer a hand if somebody needs help, and she’s got this great mixture of stubbornness and gentleness that give her the raw materials to mature into a good leader.

It’s been wonderful and rewarding to discover all of that, piece by piece.

In some ways, I’d say that’s the point of the program — to give kids the chance to have their talents discovered and nurtured by a trusted adult, other than their parents. Anyone who’s ever been a kid knows that there are certain seasons in life when Mom or Dad just “don’t get it” (seasons typically accompanied by lots of harrumphing and slamming of doors), and that any extra stability in a world that often seems so vigorously unstable can only be a good thing.

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Emily and I recently spent an afternoon doing each others’ makeup. I don’t think I’ll wear this style out anywhere, though.

But it’s a relationship as much as it is a program, and relationships go two ways. I’ve seen some good changes in myself through my time with Emily. I’ve learned to be more flexible, and a little less territorial with my time. I’ve learned to be more relaxed about the way things are done, more willing to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of creating memories. We’ve spilled sugar, severely depleted tubes of lipstick and hairspray, and on countless occasions made a mess of our clothes — but the value of those memories more than makes up for whatever was lost in the process.

In adult world, we place a lot of emphasis on being careful and clean and responsible, but kid world is different. Yeah, frugality and cleanliness and responsibility are all well and good. But at some point, you’ve got to remember your priorities — and fun is at the top of the list.

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The kid loves to be outside. As do I.

This piece was originally published in the Aug. 15 issue of The Smoky Mountain News. All rights reserved.