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.
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.
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.