A MIRROR INTO THE PAST
Cliff, age 39
Cliff, age 39
In October,1980 I took my family on a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. Autumn is a wonderful time to be up north: the air is crisp and the people and bugs are gone. It was raining when we arrived in Grand Marais, Minnesota, gateway to the Boundary Waters. We would begin our trip on Seagull Lake, at the end of the Gunflint Trail, 60 miles away. The Gunflint was mostly gravel then and wash-outs were common. The scattered lodges along the trail were closed for the season so we’d be on our own. My wife, Sharon, was worried that we’d get stuck in the mud but I was confident because our newly acquired Jeep Wagoneer had 4-wheel drive which was rare in those days.
Grand Marais was fogged-in solid and the rain had turned to chilling drizzle. No one wanted to canoe that day so we booked a room at the historic East Bay hotel on Lake Superior then walked to Sven and Ole’s pizza place for supper.
Morning came, and with it, steady drizzle. While I was gassing up at the Standard station, Sharon and our two girls, ages eight and nine, browsed in a nearby store. They returned with a bag of donuts and a Field & Stream magazine.
“What’s with the F&S mag?” I asked. “I thought you didn’t like hook-and-bullet stuff?”
“I don’t,” answered Sharon. “But look here; this is a centennial edition—all the articles are from the early 1900’s. If we’re stuck in a tent all week, I want something fun to read.”
“Yeah, great idea.”
The first hour of the drive went well, then came one lane construction and a sign that warned drivers to continue at their own risk. The big Jeep skittered in the mud but “Quadra-Track” conquered all. When we finally reached Seagull Lake, the rain had stopped but the gray sky remained. I was thrilled to see that there were just two cars in the parking lot—evidently, the crisp October weather and the rain had driven all the weenies home! We loaded our big (18’6”) Sawyer Charger canoe and set out to meet the day.
Everyone was tired so we agreed to camp early. I pitched the tent, a 4-person Eureka! Timberline on a sloping knoll. The tent was outfitted for a storm—with a plastic groundcloth inside, a spacious vestibule at each end and extra guylines to resist the wind. I built a bonfire in the Forest Service grate then rigged our kitchen fly to face the flames. Soon the fire was glowing red and reflecting heat deep into the tarp. I put on the kettle and called the gang. We huddled in the glowing warmth, sipped hot chocolate and shared the donuts Sharon brought. It was magical.
Before long, it began to rain again so we retired to our tent. The girls weren’t sleepy—and they’d fight if not entertained—so Sharon said she’d read them a story from the Field & Stream magazine. I lit the brass candle lantern and hung it from the tent ridge. Mysterious shadows flickered about. The mood was set.
Sharon found an article, written about 1910, that mirrored our day. It described a canoe trip in northern Minnesota, in an area which would one day become the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The adventure began when four friends from Minneapolis loaded two wood-canvas canoes atop a model T-Ford and drove to Ely, Minnesota. From there, they traveled a network of poorly mapped, one-lane dirt roads north to the interior lakes. There were ruts, rocks, mud and down trees to avoid. There were no telephones, gas stations or lodges along the way in those days. Night caught them deep in the forest with many miles to go and just some kerosene lamps to light the way. Ultimately, the men decided it was too dangerous to continue on in the dark so they slept in the car—or rather, tried to sleep. They were city boys and the sounds of the forest—wolves, coyotes, owls and rodents—kept them wide awake and worried that they would be devoured by a bear or cougar. They rejoiced when daylight came and the haunting sounds disappeared. “We are still alive, we are still alive” they chorused! Then, they cranked up the model T and pressed on to the distant lake that would mark the start of their canoe adventure.
As Sharon read on, I watched the eyes of our girls grow saucer-wide. Like the men in the story, we had also braved muddy forest roads and endured strange sounds and shadows. Was the story Sharon read a mirror into our distant past? Or just proof that the magic of a wilderness canoe trip is timeless.