Travel Feed

Not Deprived

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On our final day in the Boundary Waters Robyn said that she had expected to feel deprived of something at some point in the trip--hungry, cold, lacking something essential, etc.  But, she said, it hadn't happened.  She didn't feel as if she lacked or was deprived of anything.

I honestly felt that we never needed something we didn't have, that the trip had gone incident free (despite the rain and thunder and her journey down the rapids), and that it had only added things to us rather than deprived us of anything.

And with that calmness and sense of satisfaction, we packed up our campsite Monday morning, but also made sure to take the time to sit and drink a couple of cups of coffee and take in the view one final time.

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Then we set out for the return journey, the eleven miles of canoeing we'd done a few days before.

And what a glorious day it was.  Clear blue skies, temps in the sixties and seventies, calm water, and no people.  It was the longest time before we ran into other people.  And only in the last hour or so of our rowing did we encounter a lot--that days allotment of new folks canoeing into the wilderness.  In other words, the day was heavenly.  

We didn't talk much, but took it all in.

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By the second portage the heat was approaching eighty and the sun was starting to beat down and I finally began to feel the energy draining, but we then only had a little ways to go.

We arrived back at the boat ramp at Fall Lake and began the process of loading the car.  After a quick and easy experience dropping everything at the outfitters, we headed to the liquor store for some beer to drink while we were taking turns showering at the motel. Long, luxuriant showers.  

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Then some downtown shopping, dinner, more beer, some TV, and comfortable beds.

Tuesday morning we grabbed coffee and breakfast at a great little shop that also was an art gallery ( I bought two pieces of pottery and a watercolor painting).  I loved the vibe and would clearly hang out there if I lived closer.

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Then we drove through the beautiful Superior National Forest to Duluth and the shores of Lake Superior (Robyn's first time to see Gitchee Gumee).  We also briefly stopped at Jay Cooke State Park, which I had seen in someone's Facebook posts earlier in the summer.  After that, we just drove the long and boring journey back home.

On the trip I read Conor Knighton's Leave Only Footprints, which ends with the line "I always want the moment of nature to last just a little bit longer."

Floating the Rapids

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We may have never traveled together before, but one reason we traveled excellently with each other is that we knew when to shut up.  We didn't have to fill every moment with talking and noise.  We had long moments of silence, particularly in our campsite.  One morning I was awake first and Robyn woke later but never said anything and sat quietly behind me for a long time.  We left each other alone when we saw the other one sitting on a rock, staring out into the landscape.  We understood about each other that when we were quiet meant everything was good, though we talked about how sometimes when we are quiet others think something is wrong with us, when those are often the moment we are at our best, just enjoying calmly taking everything in.  And that's especially true when there's water and trees and skies to just stare at.

I was also doing a lot of reading.  I'd brought along Leave Only Footprints, a memoir of one man's one year journey to every national park, which I had purchased in one of the gifts shops in Wyoming in July.  It was a great read in this setting, and I would often burst out with delighted giggles and laughs.  Robyn said she wished she had a recording of that.

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Sunday morning we awoke to heavy fog.  At its worst we couldn't see the end of our cove, so we took our time again and let it burn off.

Then we decided to head back to Basswood Falls and where we'd played the day before.  We saw our otter again along the way.

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But when we arrived, instead of staying at the Falls, we carried our  supplies along the mile portage to the river and spent the day there--relaxing on the rocks, reading, eating lunch, but also playing.  When we went swimming, Robyn decided to cross again into Canada.  From there we decided to walk/swim along the shore past the rapids (much gentler than the ones she had traversed accidentally the day before).  I had said I wanted to try floating down them wearing our life jackets.  

And so we did.  And it was so easy, with no rocks at all in the main channels.  Robyn said, "Let's do it again!"  So we did.

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That evening, back at our campsite, we began packing up so that the next morning we could more easily and quickly leave.  And we both walked around taking last pictures and enjoying the view.  We had enjoyed our time in this idyllic spot.

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Beaver, Otter, Eagle, Chipmunk, Ducks, and Loons

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Sitting and reading in the quiet and taking in the view was how I started my first full day in the Boundary Waters.  We brewed and drank our coffee and eventually cooked our breakfast.  We were in no rush.  It was grand.

Late in the morning we piled into the canoe with a few supplies and rowed to upper Basswood Falls, a narrow spot on the lake where Canada almost touches America. Along the way we encountered an otter swimming in the lake.  As we came near he poked up his head to look at us.  He furrowed his brow and then dived down under the water.  We'd see him the next day, and he would do the same thing.

That otter and a beaver we watched swim across our cove the night before, were the biggest wildlife we saw on the trip. 

I was surprised we didn't see more birds, having gotten used to the massive flocks of waterfowl that live and migrate along the Missouri River.  But we only saw isolated birds here and there.  I fell hard for loons, which everyone seems to.  Beautiful to look at and of course even more mesmerizing to  listen to.  They are fun to watch on the water, as they suddenly disappear under the surface with no sound and hardly a ripple, and just as surprisingly reappear sometime later.

From the falls we hiked  the one mile portage--but without portaging--and it was good to stretch the legs and back.  This brought us out on the river below the falls and some rapids.  We hung out there for a while and chatted with a guy who was portaging the full mile on an annual canoe trip with his son and friends.  

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Then we walked back to our canoe and the falls for lunch and to go swimming and play in the water there.  We wanted to swim to Canada, so Robyn found a spot above the brink of the falls and we swam over.  There was a small metal pillar on top of the rock that marked the border.  The moment we climbed ashore, however, a bald eagle flew down and landed on the first tree on the American side and watched us.  We wondered if this was some service the nation provided or we were being scolded?

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We decided instead of swimming back that way to cross on the rocks and walk along the shore a ways and then cross between the falls and the next set of rapids.  I went first that time and easily made it past the current and to a rock I could climb up.  I assured Robyn she'd be fine--she's stronger than I am and swims for exercise.  Yet from the moment she jumped in the water it was clear the current was pulling her on a sharper angle than it did me, and she ended up swept down the rapids.  Luckily, no scrapes or bangs and very luckily no hitting her head on any rocks.  I yelled out, "Was that fun or scary?" and she replied, "It would have been more fun if I hadn't been so scared."

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As we made our way back to our canoe we enjoyed finding a chipmunk snacking on the trail mix some other folks had left unsecured in theirs.

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Back at our campsite that evening there were two highlights.  First, we watched a mother duck and her ducklings travel through our cove.  We first spotted them at  distance and weren't sure what they were, but as they came more clearly into sight we could see the mother leading.  The ducklings were skittering along behind, often climbing up onto the rocks, clearly playing with each other.  She eventually got them to a rock and got them all on top and settled down.  Then she went and sat two rocks over.  We laughed at that.  Eventually, when we got up from our chairs to begin cooking dinner, she seemed alarmed at our movement, and before long, had the ducklings all lined up, following her dutifully this time, as she crossed the cove and rounded the point out of sight.

The other highlight was the clear skies which afforded marvelous star gazing that night as we stayed up late, lying on the rocks.  Unfortunately we did not see the aurora.  I have never seen it and was hopefully, especially since on Thursday morning as I was getting ready for our trip, I heard a report on NPR that we were to expect a geomagnetic storm that weekend.  In the car I informed Robyn and asked if she wanted the good or bad news about that first?  The bad news was that the storm could disable GPS, which we would be using to navigate.  The good news was the aurora.  We never saw the aurora, nor lost our GPS signal.

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11 Miles of Rowing

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We rounded the point in the island and could hear the falls ahead.  Then we could also see the portage sight as the groups ahead of us began to reach it.  Soon we did too.  And then our first portage, which wasn't too long or too hard.  Glad I went with someone younger who is used to lifting heavy things and was willing to carry the canoe (though I did keep offering).  

Then it was off on our second lake, Newton Lake, which we'd traverse the entire length of.  The weather was pleasant, with lots of cloud-cover.  This lake included some grassy sections we navigated through, watching out for underwater boulders.  Then it was the second portage, not quite as long, but rockier and more up and down.  Though it did include a nice place to see Pipestone Falls (really more of a cascade).  

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Finishing the portage, we lunched before setting off again.  Now we were on Basswood Lake and would be the rest of our trip till we returned on Monday.  Basswood has many long fingers and bays, and so Pipestone Bay was first up, filled with lots of small islands.  We passed lots of full campsites and groups of people clearly having a good time.

It was on the northern end of Pipestone Bay, after we'd gotten through all the islands that we stopped for a small break and saw that rain was sweeping in from the north.  We donned our ponchos and got back in the boat and began rowing through the rainfall.  It wasn't too bad and passed quickly enough.  

But as we rowed on we could see a small thunderstorm developing off to our right.  It looked for a longtime like we wouldn't encounter it, before it seemed to suddenly shift direction and come our way.  The lightning got a little closer, so we pulled off in the Lewis Narrows to let it pass.

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Back in the boat, it was still raining, but we canoed on.  We had now reached the area (and time and energy level doneness) that we were going to start searching for an empty campsite.  A couple we had hoped for were occupied.  We checked out one we didn't like, so had the disappointing experience of getting back in the boat, in the rain, and rowing on.  

Where we ended up was idyllic, with our own cove and no other campsite in view.  It would make a pleasant home the next few days and a great launchpoint for our adventures.

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The rain stopped long enough for us to pitch our camp and only returned after we had our tarp up to sit under.  We rigged it such that the rain drained off on its own, with an occasional lifted arm when necessary to push the water to the edge.  We read, rested, and watched the rain on the water, before turning in for the night after a successful day.  We figure we had rowed over eleven miles.

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And . . . We're Off

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I've heard about Ely, Minnesota for years, and it lived up to its reputation for small-town, quirky charm.  Tasty restaurants, good beer, chatty people.  And we really enjoyed our motel, which was straight out of Schitt's Creek.  We had a long chat with the owner (who's never watched the show).  She and her husband started running the business only a year and a half ago, moving there after deciding they wanted a different kind of life.  They said they created the retro quirky charm of the place on their own, independent of the TV show, though everyone points out the similarities to them.

We arrived last Thursday night in Ely and went first to Piragi's, our outfitters, for them to go over our paperwork, give us our permit, and then look over all the equipment.  This would save time in the morning, when we could just pull up and load all the packed stuff.  The guy who assisted us was super helpful and even threw in a few extra things he thought we might want, at no extra charge.

That night we wanted fresh fish, but learned that you can't eat fresh local fish in any of the restaurants, sadly, but they told us where to go for Canadian Walleye.  And we had yummy Walleye that night.

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Then up early the next morning, we had a full breakfast.  We didn't eat half the food the cafe served us.  The waitress said, "We like to serve a lot of food."

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With our full stomachs and coffee, we went back to Piragis, grabbed our portage packs, and they loaded the canoe on top of the car.  A last minute conversation looking at the map about best campsites and things to see and do along our route, and then we drove the ten miles out of town to Fall Lake and our in-take point, number 24, where only 14 permits are allowed every day.

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The boating inspector, with a heavy Minnesota accent, came over to check-out the canoe for any invasive species, but said, "Oh, a Piragi's boat.  They treat there's well.  No problem."  He also told Robyn that we basically had to round the point of the island in front of us and then we'd see the first portage.

We loaded the canoe and were off, with two parties (four canoes) up ahead of us, which was helpful in determining the route for much of that day.

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Preparing for the Boundary Waters

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Growing up in Oklahoma, I don't ever remember hearing about the Boundary Waters.  The first time I do remember hearing about it was in the late Aughts when my dear friends Rob Howard and Tom Saylor and some other guys were going to make a trip and invited me along.  I am decades younger than all of them.  I thought it sounded like a fun adventure, but couldn't make it work.  They assured me there would be other times, as they lived in or had lived in Minnesota, had gone before, and were sure they would again.

But when I brought it up in subsequent years knee surgeries and other aspects of life got in the way.  It never happened.

A branch of my ex's family lives in Minnesota, and they would talk about Boundary Waters trips.  And, of course, moving to Omaha from Oklahoma, being closer, more people around here had done it or do it regularly.

So, going to the Boundary Waters remained something I thought of, but didn't seriously plan. 

But with this sabbatical and my determination to use this window of time to finally get to a bunch of places I hadn't been, I was determined to make it work.  So last year I asked my friend Robyn Reynolds if she'd go with me, and she agreed.

Now, I only learned later that this made Robyn anxious.  Though we have been friends for a decade, we'd never traveled together.  Not even to Lincoln for the day.  And here I was asking her to go camping and canoeing in the wilderness.  And she apparently doesn't like camping.  But she thought it was worth trying (and is now glad she did, to skip ahead in my story).

I asked Michael's aunt Mary, who used to live in Ely, Minnesota for her recommendation of an outfitter.  She suggested Piragis, which has a great website I had already been looking at.  I called them and they were super helpful from the get-go, determining which outfitting package we'd need, which route we should get a permit for, etc.  (again, getting ahead of the story, our experience of them was great from beginning to end).

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So, over the last few months, Robyn was very direct about being sure we had everything we needed.  We'd gone outdoor shopping together, exchanged lists of items, and met up to go over menus.  Finally, we had our bags packed and headed out last Thursday, one day after school started here in Omaha, for our weekend excursion into the Wilderness.

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Leave Only Footprints

Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National ParkLeave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bought this book in one of the National Parks in Wyoming and took it along this last weekend to read while in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. An enjoyable read. My camping mate said she needed to record my sudden bursts of laughter or giggles while we'd be quietly reading. Not just an overview of the parks, but a memoir of healing from a broken heart (which was also a good thing for me to read at this season in my life). The ending sentence feels quite true, as I'm home in Omaha today, "I always want the moment of nature to last just a little bit longer."

View all my reviews


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When we left on our big Wyoming trip in early July it was funny that we drove about five hundred miles before even getting out of Nebraska.  The state is simply that long.  But then I noticed something else the next day--we drove over six hundred and fifty miles before we exited the Platte River watershed.  

Back in Lent our church's worship focused on the spiritual practices we all need during this season of climate change of one of them was being more aware of our watershed and paying attention to it.  The idea that we passed Casper, Wyoming before we got out of the watershed was startling to think about.

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But then we were standing on Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone National Park.  This bridge is near the beginning of the Yellowstone River shortly after it exits the lake and begins its beautiful, meandering flow northwards.  And my seven-year-old son asked the question, "Where is all this water going?"

And I realized the answer and said, "Well, eventually, after traveling a long distance, it will actually go past our house in Omaha because this river ends up in the Missouri River."  He seemed rather excited by this answer.  

And isn't it startling?  To be many hundreds of miles from home, three days of travel, in a landscape so unlike our own, standing over water that is part of the system from which we drink and cook and clean while back at home.

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Arrange for Change

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"Arrange for change" is one of the catchphrases in the National Park Service brochure on "Climate Change in National Parks."  Given that studying resilience in the midst of a changing climate is one of the research themes of my sabbatical, I saw that brochure and grabbed it.  It discusses the reality of climate change, how it is affecting the parks, and what the parks are trying to do to prevent and adapt.

Of course in middle June when the Yellowstone River flooded, I thought that my grand big summer trip might not happen.  More than a year of planning and then the effects of climate change.

Fortunately, most of the park reopened by the time we visited, but there were still the closures and the difficulties.

The most visible sign of climate change in the park is the widespread loss of forest from wildfires in recent decades.  Of course the NPS has radically altered its fire management from the philosophy of preventing all fires that dominated when I was a kid.  But you drive through vast swathes of old damage and new growth.  Of course some of this is expected, natural, and part of the life cycle of a forest, but you also know they are more frequent and intense than they once were.

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The biggest impacts on Yellowstone were not so visible.  They talk about how the changing climate is affecting which species of plants grow where.  The alpine ecosystems are shrinking and what had been lower altitude plants are creeping up.

Yellowstone is also in the midst of a decades long battle of fighting invasive trout that someone put into the lake or river, which led to a dramatic decline in the native cutthroat trout and the various bird and mammal species that depend upon them.  The park reports success in this endeavor, as cutthroat have rebounded 80 percent.

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While Yellowstone had been inundated with extra water this season, Grand Teton is having the opposite problem.  Jackson Lake is greatly reduced.  On the northern end there is a grassy plain where once the lake stood.  At Colter Bay the marina is sitting on dry ground.

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We were told that the lake is radically down this year because of droughts in Idaho last year.  Idaho can take a certain amount of water from the Snake River in order to irrigate potato crops.  They took everything they could last year, radically reducing the lake.  And snow melt and rain were not sufficient to replenish it.

While on our trip, the rest of the nation and most of Europe were baking in a heatwave.

Next week I head to Glacier National Park, where we all know that the glaciers are almost gone.  I'll have more to report, I'm sure, after that.