Americana: A watery wilderness 01

Beth Stephenson on Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.

There are no roads, no motors and the only sound is the strange, mournful cry of a loon. In the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, the wild chain of lakes and bogs seems to stretch north forever.

We had only paid for half a day, a sip from a region where it’s hard to tell whether the dry land is an island archipelago or the water is a puzzle of lakes. With the combined American and Canadian region including more than 2,000 lakes and more than two million acres, its vastness opens the lungs and mind, while its unspoiled freshness begs to be explored.

Jake was our guide from Way to Go Outfitters. His dog, Riley, settled herself with her head on my lap as we rode in a van to our starting point. In the half-hour trip, we passed a multitude of bogs and lakes, streams and rivulets. It was July, but I debated bringing a light jacket, as the crisp morning air bordered on chilly.

Jake carried the Kevlar canoe on his head on the quarter-mile woodland hike to the drop area. Though this was to be his regular short day route, there was little trace of human passage.

The Kevlar canoe is wonderfully light to carry but somewhat fragile. We waded into the cold, clear water to come aboard.

The lakes were carved by glaciers in the last ice age. As the glaciers melted, they left basins in the bedrock, leaving little soil and lots of water.

The region drains northward, eventually reaching Hudson Bay.

Once on the lake, Jake turned us around a corner where a pair of speckled black and white loons took turns diving deep underwater. They stayed under impossibly long. Jake explained that loons are so built for water and sky that they can’t even walk on land. They nest on the shore, where they push themselves on their chests because their legs are set far back on their bodies for diving.

A bald eagle surveyed the lake from the top of a tamarak tree before catching an updraft to spiral into the heavens with almost no effort at all. Here and there, a fish made circular ripples as it grabbed a midmorning mosquito snack.

A portage of about 10 yards brought us to a new lake bordered by cliffs on one side. Jake navigated close by, allowing us to notice the Native American pictographs on our own. The images depict a man with a spear, a moose and another animal that looks something like a cat but probably isn’t. There are wolves, but no cats in the Boundary Waters area.

The serene pace of the trip encouraged us to take time to notice things. We nuzzled our way past a floating bog. Moss and detritus build up to form a layer of floating debris dense enough to even support small trees and shrubs. The carnivorous pitcher plant and fly-catching species added to the exotic feel of the place, as though history has only just begun in that wilderness. Jake pointed out the white pines, jack pines, cedars and other trees, teaching us to recognize them by their shapes.

We pulled off the lake around noon for a rest and snack. Riley took the break as her cue to explore the new scents, swim and nap. I nibbled the wild huckleberries, which look like small blueberries, but pack double the flavor punch. Antioxidant rich, they’re like nature offering a handful of chill pills.

Though I love to forage for berries and other wild edibles, I have never ventured into harvesting mushrooms. But the species along our four lake tour were delightful eye-candy.

On our way back, Riley suddenly leapt from the canoe and swam to shore. She ran through the woods like her wolfish ancestors, tracking us for half a mile or so until she found a convenient place to reclaim her perch in the stern of our civilized canoe.

We saw a few fishermen, just starting their journey into fishing paradise. They would stay several days, eating their catch, drinking from the lakes and reveling in the wild freedom of the unspoiled wilderness. I envied them. I hated to leave so soon.

A glorious part of America, God bless it!

Reach Beth Stephenson at

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