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Boundary Waters, Minnesota

Steve
Have you ever noticed how you never manage to see the great sights that are right in your own backyard? When we lived in Minnesota, we always meant to get to the Boundary Waters, and to Voyageurs National Park, and to the Guthrie Theater in St. Paul, but somehow it just never happened. When guests came to stay, they were always shocked that we’d missed out on these important parts of Minnesota, and we were always embarrassed about it. But what can I say—we were busy living life!

Now that we’re retired and are touring around in our RV, Sally and I have decided it’s high time we swing back to our home state and really DO Minnesota. And since we’ve just left northern Wisconsin, it only makes sense that we spend a few weeks in the Boundary Waters before we head north toward Alaska. For one thing, I can warm up my fishing and canoeing skills in advance of our great northern trip. Sally was a camp counselor when she was young, and she has pretty high standards for what counts as a good “J” stroke.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a pretty special area. It sits at the top of Minnesota, just about as far north as you can get in the contiguous U.S., on the northern shore of Lake Superior. It’s best described as a connecting chain of lakes that seems to go on forever. This are was carved out by glaciers long ago, and after they left, they created a wilderness that’s full of cliffs and crags, hills, sandy beaches, and literally thousands of lakes. The BWCAW, or Boundary Waters as folks around here call it, is a full million acres in size, set inside the Superior National Forest.

Part of what’s hard about going to a park of this size is deciding what to do. There are more than 1200 miles of canoe routes, if you can believe it. Sally and I knew we wanted to do some canoeing – our backs aren’t so keen on backpacking anymore, and this is a great way to really get away from it all without too much strain. We finally decided to put in at Brule Lake on the eastern side of the park, since it had easy road access and plenty of campgrounds. After we got our day use permit and packed up all our gear, we were off!

Sally
This part of Minnesota is just so stunning. I even think Steve is going to turn into a bird watcher at this rate – it’s getting so even he points out loons and wood ducks. We saw a peregrine falcon this morning, cruising over the lake, which was flat as glass. It was so breathtaking. As far as we could tell, we were the only ones on the lake today. Even over the weekend, we only saw one other couple and a lone fisherman. Steve asked him what he was fishing for – Steve’s always looking for tips! – and heard he was after smallmouth bass and northern pike. Steve is desperate to catch some lake trout before we go, but I keep telling him we’ll need to slow down for a day if that’s what he’s really after. All this canoeing just scares the fish away!

We spent a few lovely days exploring Brule Lake, then we headed back to the car to load up the gear again and drive to Ely, Minnesota, where there’s a nice entry to Birch Lake. This gave us a good chance to clean up in the RV and sleep in a bed for a night before we hauled out the canoe again. Birch Lake is hugely long, shaped like a fishhook, so there were plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. One day, Steve spent all his time fishing while I floated in the canoe and read. Every time I looked up, I couldn’t help thinking about how the Native American women in this area would harvest wild rice out of lakes like this, bending the grasses into the canoe and beating off the ripe seed heads. Except for the odd mosquito, it seems like a perfect place to live.

It’s going to be hard to leave Minnesota, just when it seems like we’ve gotten to know it all over again. But we can’t spend too many more days here – we have a big drive ahead of us if we want to make it to Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula by July. And now that Steve has his lake trout, he’s clearly itching to hit the road and head for the next adventure!
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