Keeping Minnesota Fishing Heritage Alive

Going all the way to the depths of the BWCA and back, paddling in on open water, pulling the canoe over black ice, and finally hauling your catch out through the snow: that’s November whitefish netting. It’s low-tech fishing for those with a desire to follow the ways of our ancestors.

The Boundary Waters is a lonely, desolate place in late November. Thankfully, I go with my friend John to his fishing grounds. This is not a fishing trip you could do alone. Netting fish is a lot of work. Especially through the ice. Teamwork is key to success, camaraderie is key to survival. You’ve got to cross frozen lakes on thin ice, and haul a combination of summer and winter camping equipment. The load is heavy, and then there’s the whole task of cutting 100 foot long trenches through 5 inches of ice. I’m lucky to be learning the right techniques from John.

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Setting off from civilization.

This year we had only one night in the wilderness, but the conditions were prime for a quick in and out trip. We had just had a week of brutal cold, and we were confident our favorite lake would be frozen. To get there, we needed to cross a much bigger, deeper lake, and I had called some resorts ahead of time for an update on conditions. “The lake is 99% ice free,” I was told the morning before we headed north. We knew we were bringing the canoe for sure.

I picked up John at 7:45 on Saturday morning, and we headed north to the Gunflint Trail. We had our self-issued permit filled out at the entry point by noon. Paddling across our entry lake was much less terrifying than it was walking across it on two inches of ice a year ago. We did hit an ice shelf in the back bay where our portage was, but were able to get a lot of speed paddling and ram our canoe up onto the ice. From there we climbed out and pulled the canoe the last few hundred feet to our 240-rod portage.

There were just a couple inches of snow in the woods, and we decided to portage the way you’d carry in summer, at least until John had the portage yoke break when he was half way across the portage.

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Not what we were expecting.

We pulled the canoe through the woods the rest of the way, and made it to our destination lake by 2:00 p.m. As we were hoping, we found walkable ice.

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Contemplating the ice.

It’s terrifying taking those first steps onto new ice. I drilled holes with my auger as we went further onto the lake as a test check, and was getting four inches each time. Black ice is what you want, and that’s exactly what we had. The deep cold of the week before was our savior. We put some crampons on, and kept going.

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Black.

We encountered one spot that felt unsafe, but detoured around it and kept going. I had my ice saw out the whole time, probing in front of me as I walked, testing the ice. Fortunately, we made it to our campsite, and we were able to unload a lot of our gear. It was time to go fishing!

We kept walking down the lake to the narrows at the far end, then started cutting with my ice saw. We had a good three hours of work ahead of us, since we wanted to put two nets down. That’s 200 feet of ice we had to cut for our two 100-foot long nets.

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Tools of the trade. Hand auger and ice saw.

It’s a slow, arduous process cutting ice, but we knew it would all be worth it. When the nets go in the water, you get a great sense of accomplishment. The work and effort it takes to follow the old traditions is the beauty of whitefish netting for me.

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Traditions.

Once we had our nets in the water, we were fishing. We would leave the nets in the water all night, and come back in the morning to see what, if anything, we got.

Finally, we could go back to camp and cook a hot meal on the woodstove. I won’t lie – this is my favorite part of winter camping. No better place to eat well than outside in winter.

I made the whole meal, including wild rice in my Afghani pressure cooker, and spicy southwestern bean soup, with  green jalapeno peppers, red and green bell peppers, and green chili peppers. The lime juice and cilantro I add at the last minute make this soup one of my favorites.

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Old-fashioned cooking, using a pressure cooker over a wood fire.

After a long day working our tails off, followed by a delicious hot meal, there was no question we would sleep well during our one night in the wilderness. I slept like an absolute rock.

The next morning, everything was covered in snow. We had gotten about an inch and a half of fresh snow over night, and it was still coming down when we got up at 7:00. I made oatmeal for breakfast on my woodstove, with walnuts and sugar. I even head milk and cream to put in it. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my coffee pot at home. No matter. Fish were waiting, and we were off to check our nets.

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Sunday morning in Minnesota, November 17, 2019.

It’s a twenty minute walk from our campsite to our fishing grounds. You feel butterflies in your stomach as you approach the nets. What’s down there? What monsters of the deep have you caught? Or were we going to be skunked?

I gave a net our first net a tug, and it pulled back, so that was a good sign! It seems like it takes forever to haul in the net (in reality, just a couple minutes), but these moments are full of painful anticipation!

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Another Boundary Waters beauty.

We got four fish in our nets altogether, and they were all brute size, loaded with eggs. The fish come in to spawn at night in November, and we know their spot. Pulling those behemoths out of the water is one of my favorite feelings in life.

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Another good year of fishing for whitefish.

The rest of our day was all about packing up our wet gear, getting off the ice, pulling the canoe uphill through the snowy woods, and paddling back to the car. It was another great year of fishing for whitefish, and I could already feel the taste of fish cakes and fish soup as we made the drive back to civilization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Ricing

I will never tire of writing about how special Minnesota is. There is something about this state that checks all the boxes for me. Anybody who thinks I will eventually run out of new adventures, new places to explore, or new ways to enrich my life in this state will have to think again. Take this Labor Day weekend as proof.

We left Duluth on Saturday afternoon and drove west up Route 2 to Grand Rapids, then set out north on state highway 38 (Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway). From there we drove some gravel roads out to Cottonwood Lake Campground in the Bowstring State Forest. This gem of a campground was a place I had never even heard of after five years of researching campgrounds and places to explore in northeast Minnesota… Just the DNR website description alone made me want to go there: “This is a pretty remote area.” Cottonwood turned out to be one of the best Minnesota campgrounds I’ve stayed in yet.

We were invited to this specific campground by my friend John. The purpose of his stay at Cottonwood was to have a base camp for his wild ricing operation. For much of these two weeks, John and his friends are harvesting wild rice on the Mississippi River. And if it was hard for me before to imagine what ricing in Minnesota is about, I can now say that I’ve done it myself. My kids as well. It was amazing.

Before we ever got to the wild rice fields though, we had Saturday night together at the campground. We were eight people for dinner that night, and I grilled chicken on the open fire and cooked wild rice (store bought) in my new pressure cooker, given to me by my friend Sean. This amazing cooking tool was made at the Rashkobaba foundry in Afghanistan. I cooked us two cups of wild rice in 16 minutes right in the campfire. The Rashkobaba is truly a fabulous camp cooking tool. I haven’t even brought my gas stove on my last two camping trips. No need to when I bring my Dutch woodstove and now Afghani pressure cooker.

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The Rashkobaba steaming away.

Dinner came out fabulous, and the experience of cooking with such a hand-made Afghani pot in the Minnesota wilds made it even better.

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Dinner is about to be served. No electricity or gas needed…

We got up early on Sunday morning, and drove to Cohasset, MN for ricing. First I stopped in Deer River to buy my first-ever wild ricing permit. There are some interesting regulations to ricing. The season is August 15 to September 30, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Watercraft used in harvesting wild rice may not exceed 18 feet in length or 36 inches in maximum width. Push poles used to propel watercraft for harvesting wild rice must be forked at the end. The forks must be less than 12 inches in length. Flails used to harvest wild rice must be made of round, smooth wood no longer than 30 inches and weigh no more than one pound. Flails must be hand held and operated.

Basically, the wild rice harvest in Minnesota is completely non-mechanized, transporting you back to a time when you earned your food with hard work and sweat.

When we got to the downtown Cohasset boat launch on the Mississippi, we were greeted by huge fields of rice growing in every direction. There was an absolutely incredible bounty of rice there for harvesting. Rice was growing everywhere, up and down the river bank, for miles.

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John explaining to the girls how to use the flails to harvest wild rice.

We set out, and were in rice in minutes. We all got to take turns flailing, and it’s an incredible feeling to see the rice falling into the boat, kernel after kernel. The more your flail, the more rice you get. I also got to try poling, which is incredibly demanding. You don’t use oars or paddles or a motor to move the boat. Instead, to get any forward momentum, you need to push off bottom with a 25-ft wooden pole. It’s extremely tiring. There is an incredible underwater mass of rice plants and weeds that inhibit poling and create drag on the boat.

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Our friends Justin and Caleb ricing nearby.

After working an hour and a half, we were definitely ready for a lunch break. We got tangible results from our labor, and it was an incredible feeling to go back to the launch with rice in our boat.

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Our two boats starting to fill up with rice.

With so much rice to be had everywhere around you, it’s just a matter of keeping up the intensity to get as much rice as you want. With dedication, you could get a whole boat full in a day. The Natives we saw everywhere around us were getting their boats full in the allotted 6 hours.

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Hard work, but incredibly rewarding.

I was proud of Vanessa and Adriana. They gave their all at ricing that morning, and they clearly know how it’s harvested now. They’ve done it.

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Vanessa with our bounty.

For children, this is the ultimate way to see where their food comes from. And it comes from fresh water in Minnesota.

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All smiles about the ricing.

For me, our haul of rice was not the key. The important part was experiencing this tradition ourselves, and taking part in it.

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In the afternoon the girls and I went out in my canoe to explore the Mississippi some more and try fishing. The whole time, the girls begged me to take them back into the rice to touch it, feel it, and play with it.

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Adriana kept on exploring the rice in the afternoon.

The rest of the weekend was spent fishing, cooking, playing in camp, and bicycling.

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Adriana just got her first bicycle rack, and has started transporting things on her bike.

This was another fine trip that concluded an absolutely sensational summer of outdoors living. I am constantly aware how lucky we are to live here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quetico Dream Comes True

I’ve been dreaming about going canoe camping in Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario since I was a teenager. It’s been a long time waiting to make this dream a reality, but I’ve been patient about it, and never given up hope. The dream, which was at times a flicker, came roaring back to life when we moved to Duluth five summers ago from Russia. And now, this summer, it finally happened.

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My original Quetico map, dated 1995. I mail-ordered it new when I was 16, and held on to it for the last 24 years. This summer I used it on site in Canada!

My friends Jim, Andrew, Otis and I set out on the morning of July 29th for Canada. We camped the night before in Grand Marais, to make the drive a shorter one. Andrew and I were in my car, Otis and Jim in the other. There were only two cars ahead of us at the border crossing, and we were in Canada within minutes. The drive to the north end of Quetico is beautiful, especially the area around the Kaministiquia River and Kakabeka Falls. We reached the Dawson Trail Ranger Station about 1:30 p.m., and had a lengthy process of finalizing our backcountry camping permit, getting our Ontario Outdoors Cards, and purchasing fishing licenses. The rangers were good to us, and we were also able to borrow a Fisher map of the area that we were headed to from some American campers. We parked, unloaded all our gear, and set off in our two canoes by 3:30.

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There was a strong northwest wind blowing our first day, with frequent outbursts of showers. The sky was dark, and we were heading out towards very big Pickerel Lake. I had also gotten just three hours of sleep the night before. Nevertheless, with the cards stacked against us, there were adventures to be had, and we pressed forward. We paddled from the French Lake entry point down the windy Pickerel River and out into Pickerel Lake, then felt the full brunt of the wind as we set our course due west. We passed the iconic campsite called “The Pines” (one of the most famous beaches in Ontario), and continued another half a mile or so up the north shore of the lake. When we got to the spot where the lake really opens up, we understood we’d be better off camping for the night. When in Quetico, you can camp anywhere you want, not only at designated campsites like in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The beach we found looked seldom used, and worked great for our first camp.

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Andrew and canoes at our Day 1 campsite. North end of Pickerel Lake.

Otis caught a nice northern pike right off shore on his first cast of the trip, and I made us a big dinner of linguine with clams, olives and fresh parsley. We all ate like kings. I slept very well too after a full day of travelling and paddling. It felt great to be finally spending my first night in Quetico after all these years of dreaming.

Day 2 dawned bright and sunny. The wind had died down considerably, and we were able to break down camp and head out on Pickerel by 11:00 a.m. Andrew took a swim before we left.

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Otis and I were canoe partners the whole trip. Jim and Andrew manned the second canoe.

We paddled a great distance on Pickerel throughout the sunny day, and caught walleye trolling as we went. We stopped at one incredible campsite for lunch, and eventually made it to Watasi Island, in the southwest corner of the lake, by evening. I took some time to go swimming with my snorkel mask on and check out the fish habitat underwater off our campsite. There are some very steep drop-offs from Watasi. It looked like good fish habitat to me!

Sure enough, Andrew and I crossed over to the mainland in the canoe to gather firewood before supper, and I dropped a line in with my favorite trolling lure on. Within minutes we hooked into a nice northern pike. We had left the net at camp to make space for firewood in the canoe, so we ended up just paddling back to camp with the big fish in tow. We got the lunker out at camp, and it made a great dinner for us together with the walleye and Jim’s tortillas and black beans. I also took Otis out topwater fishing for bass before our late dinner. We just couldn’t stop fishing. I guess it’s an obsession. Jim made an incredible chocolate cake in his cast-iron skillet after supper for Otis’ nineteenth birthday. What a dessert! Baked right in the fire. Incredible.

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Catching nice Canadian fish with my buddy Andrew.

I slept so deeply that night. What a satisfying feeling. We paddled a lot on Day 2, and fished and swam and set up camp. It was a lot for one day, and it felt fantastic to sleep in on Day 3.

The third day was to be our day trip with all four of us in my canoe. I knew I wanted to get us all paddling together in my Bell Northshore at some point.  We headed down Pine Portage Bay in the morning, and eventually found the Portage des Morts. In front of the portage we saw the sunken steamboat and steam engine parts from the days of Simon Dawson’s sawmill (about 1872). The portage was not so killer at all, being almost all downhill to Doré Lake. Here I was in my element – a remote wilderness lake, renown for good fishing, and most importantly – lake trout.

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Beautiful Doré Lake really captivated my imagination.

We fished Doré for a couple hours in the hot sun in the middle of the day. My plan was to fish deep for lakers, but unfortunately I broke off my Pink Lady trolling contraption on bottom within literally 30 seconds… There was no point sulking about it though, and we kept fishing, using 1 ounce sinkers. I never hooked any trout, but I did hook into some enormous smallmouth bass. These big bass were schooling up to corral baitfish to the surface. We could see the baitfish jumping out of the lake in big groups every so often. The fish were active! Two of the big bass I hooked spit the hook out during their enormous leaps out of the water, and a third bass just plain broke my line. It was infuriating to not get any fish in the boat, but it also gave a me a hunger to come back to Doré some day for a rematch!

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All four of us paddled in one canoe for our  trip to Doré Lake and Deux Rivières.

Following lunch on an incredible island campsite on Doré, we saw the sunken barge used by Simon Dawson, then did the 730 meter Deux Rivières portage. This is a tough one, being quite steep, but it’s all downhill heading south. We came out to Twin Lakes, and paddled down the Deux Rivières. No moose sightings on this trip, but the river was beautiful in the summer light.

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Deux Rivières beaver dam.

On the way home, we had to portage uphill both times, but with four guys and no camping gear along, we made it easily back to Pickerel Lake. Otis and I went out fishing again in the evening, and did fabulously using topwater lures, catching both smallmouth bass and northern pike to supplement Jim’s dinner of spaghetti and pesto. We had a huge meal after another 10-hour long day of paddling and fishing.

Day 4 was everyone’s favorite day of the trip. We woke up about 9:00 a.m. after another incredible night’s sleep. The sky was dark while we made breakfast (wild rice pancakes), and we could hear thunder rumbling off in the distance. We ate breakfast and took down camp by 11:00, and it was just then that the rain reached us. We covered all our gear to wait out the rain, and Otis and I took casts from shore. It was still early in the day, so there was no need to push off in our canoes in the downpour. I caught a nice northern right off the campsite on the drop-off I had explored underwater. My research worked! We already had dinner caught at 11:00 in the morning.

It rained steady for 45 minutes, then gradually tapered off. We set out in our canoes heading east for the first time on the trip around noon. About an hour into our paddle the sun started coming out and the wind picked up a little. At about this same time, trolling around a point off one of the mid-lake islands, I hooked into another nice walleye.

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Canoe country gold.

This fish I knew was coming home with me all the way to Duluth for a family fish fry. But the best was yet to come.

We put up the homemade sail that Jim had put together with two spruce branches and a bed sheet, and sailed our way down Pickerel with the west wind at our backs! Incredible feeling. We lashed the two canoes together and had the sail between us. We could talk, relax, troll and enjoy without even working. Canadian heaven! Then, to make the fairy tale even better, Otis hooked into a sweet lake trout!

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Otis fighting the big one!

Otis ended up with his first-ever laker in the boat after a steady fight. I netted it while Jim took photos. To catch this beautiful fish of the north while sailing down Pickerel Lake was just the pinnacle of our trip.

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Cruising down Pickerel Lake.

Jim and I both hooked into big trout as the day went on, and both lost our potential trophies. What incredible fishing in Quetico!

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Otis feeling good with his catch.

As the day went on, we could hear more thunder in the distance, and the sky was darkening behind us. We realized about 5:00 p.m. that the storm was approaching us quickly from behind. We rolled up the sail and started paddling hard for shore. We were quite a ways out, and knew it would take at least half an hour of paddling to make land. We could see lightning behind us as well. The race was on!

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Something big brewing behind us.

We pushed ourselves hard, which wasn’t easy after all the adventuring we’d been doing for four days straight. Paddling furiously, we made it to a beautiful sand beach right next to the one we had camped at on Day 1. We got out of our canoes just as the storm caught up to us. Ironically, we never got wet, as the heavy rain passed just to the south of us. The lighting was perfect for a group shot of us taken by a Canadian who was camping near where we landed.

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The Voyageurs!

After letting the storm pass, we pushed on for one more paddle to get all the way to “The Pines.” This incredible beach (about half a kilometer long) was completely empty. Who could even imagine such luck? We enjoyed a fabulous sunset over a now perfectly calm Pickerel Lake.

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Otis casting into a perfect sunset.

What a trip! We finished it off with some excellent swimming and frisbee our last morning in clear, clean Pickerel Lake. The water was the perfect temperature for lounging in the lake, and we took our time packing up and leaving this beautiful park. I hope to be back again many times with my family to Pickerel Lake!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best BWCA Trip Yet: Cherokee Lake Loop

I’ve been canoe camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness three times before this year. There was the family trip in May, 2016 to the Kawishiwi River Triangle. Then there was the May, 2017 family trip to Clearwater Lake and the Border Route Trail. And finally the May, 2018 family fishing trip to Wood Lake out of Ely. These trips fulfilled my dreams of taking the family camping in the BWCA. I have also done four winter camping trips in the Boundary Waters. Every one of these trips has left me hungry for more. Even hungrier than when I was just at the dreaming stage.

This summer I wanted to take my BWCA canoe tripping to the next level. But with Inna pregnant, it wasn’t going to be a family trip. I had previously been writing back and forth with my friend Kris Ekelund for half a year about a potential extreme trip together in Europe or Asia. Then I found out Inna was pregnant, and suddenly going to Mongolia or Mt. Elbrus didn’t look possible. I couldn’t leave my wife alone with the kids for long, and it doesn’t make sense to go halfway around the world for a few days… I proposed to Kris back in February that he come to Minnesota and we do an epic camping adventure in my own backyard – the BWCA. I was thrilled when he said yes to the Cherokee Lake Loop, a 32-mile route with 14 portages! This was always going to be a physically challenging, difficult route. Kris was game!

Kris arrived in Minneapolis from Stockholm on Friday, June 21 – the Summer Solstice. We drove back to Duluth together and had supper with the family, and then continued our way up to Two Harbors for the night to avoid the crush of Grandma’s Marathon traffic in Duluth on Saturday morning. We made it to our friends’ Cindy and Jeff’s cabin about 12:30 a.m. to spend the night, and were up the next morning at 6:30 to head north.

It’s an easy drive up Highway 61 from Two Harbors to Tofte, MN, and from there we took a left turn and headed up, up, up the Sawbill Trail from Lake Superior to some of the highest territory in Minnesota, gaining about 1,000 ft. in 10 miles. Our whole trip took place at an elevation of 1,700 to 1,900 ft., which is about as high as it gets in Minnesota. We were so high, in fact, that we crossed the Continental Divide twice: the point from which water either flows north to the Arctic Ocean, or south to Lake Superior and into the Atlantic Ocean.

We had the canoe packed and ready to go by 10:00 a.m., and set off on sunny and serene Sawbill Lake. What a feeling to be off on my biggest canoe camping expedition yet! It was awesome having Kris as my paddle partner, and we had no trouble cruising up Sawbill, taking a quick break at one campsite to tie on our fishing lures. We were getting back into old rhythms together, and it felt good.

We did some fishing in the northern half of Sawbill without catching anything, and eventually reached our first portage, which parallels rocky Ada Creek for 80 rods. A funny thing happened here – we met three young day-trippers at the end of the portage who had carried their canoe and paddles across the portage, then decided to go right back. They had essentially carried the portage for nothing. They didn’t have camping gear with them, but still… I suggested to them, “If you carried all the way here, you might as well go check out Ada Creek. You never know, there could be a moose around the first bend.” I couldn’t seem to get my logic across. Just go for a quick paddle if you’ve done all the work to get there! Kris and I set forwards, while the young threesome went back to Sawbill. We paddled for maybe five minutes, around the first bend, when Kris saw a small water snake on the water’s surface. It slithered under some rocks, but made us aware of the wildlife around us. We turned our heads back to the creek (quite wide in this spot), took a few strokes, and boom! There was a beautiful cow moose with two calves on the shore!

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About 4 hours into the trip, and we already had our first moose sighting, on Ada Creek.

The cow spent a good ten minutes feeding on underwater vegetation at the water’s edge while Kris and I watched from the canoe. What a sight! The moose was not phased by us in the least. Her two calves were much more cautious, and hung out behind some trees the whole time. They never came down to the water’s edge. Clearly they were obeying mommy’s orders to stay back!

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Lunch time for the moose.

Kris and I were both stunned and thrilled to see our first three moose. Little did we know it was going to happen all over again a couple hours later.

We continued on our way once the moose and its calves walked up the bank and out of sight. We quickly came to the end of Ada Creek, and portaged the 80 rods into Ada Lake. I’ll admit, I was still taken aback by the moose, and it was hot out, and I somehow took us down the wrong arm of Ada Lake.  No matter though – it was a beautiful, scenic backwater, and we got back on our way again in 5 minutes. We immediately came to the muddy 90 rod portage to Skoop Lake. This is the one people were telling us to dread. Frankly, it really wasn’t that bad.

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When spirits are high, even the tough portages bring a smile.

Skoop Lake took just minutes to cross, and then we were on to the fourth portage of our day, the long one (180 rods) over the Continental Divide and into Cherokee Creek. I’ll admit, I was happy to be done with the portaging when we finally got to Cherokee Creek.

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Plenty of chances to admire the scenery when you have to walk each portage three times (Skoop Lake to Cherokee Creek).

Did I mention we had to double portage each carry? We had three packs, the canoe, fishing poles, a fishing net, and other items, so there was no way we could carry it all across the portage in just one carry. That’s why we had to walk back and get the second load of stuff on every portage, all 14 of them. We walked over five miles in 4 days just portaging.

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Kris was very intent on beating the bugs on all the portages. His Swedish spray did the job.

Cherokee Creek is incredibly beautiful. There were bright yellow lilies everywhere in the shallow water. There are steep wooded hillsides on both sides of the creek.

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Beautiful and relaxing Cherokee Creek.

We also carried the canoe over a beaver dam.

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Just a little obstacle to make us earn it.

Then we came around another bend, and…

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Look who’s up ahead!

There was another moose! When it spotted us, the big cow calmly left the water and started working its way up the side of the creek. Still, we got to admire it for a few minutes before it decided life would be better on the other side of the creek, where it could scamper up the hill easier and get away from us. It plunged into the creek and swam across, right in front of us! We were so lucky to witness this swimming moose.

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Yup, that’s a moose in the water ahead.

Cherokee Lake is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the BWCA, and when we finally made it there after 8 hours of paddling and portaging, we weren’t in much of a mood to go hunting for campsites. Fortunately, the owner of Sawbill Outfitters had told me earlier that morning that there’s a great campsite on the west shore very close to where the creek flows out of the lake. When we approached the site, there was an enormous golden eagle sitting on the rock ledge, right by the fire grate. A good omen, if ever there was one.

Sure enough, this was a campsite where you feel like a king just sitting in your chair. There’s a commanding view over the lake from the beautiful rock ledge, and there was a nice breeze blowing from the east to keep any mosquitoes away. It felt awesome to cook a huge supper of grilled lamb and wild rice, and just soak in all the good fortune we had this day.

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Kings’ campsite.

The first night of sleep was fantastic, and then we were off and ready for the next adventures on day 2. We packed up our whole camp and loaded the canoe before setting out to explore Cherokee Lake. It’s quite a large body of water, but canoeable in half a day. We explored campsites, checked out beaches, fished in the very deep north end, and even caught a burbot (also known as eelpout) – a rare catch.

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Our first night’s campsite in yellow, the spot of the burbot catch in green. Portage to Sitka Lake at southern end of Cherokee.

About the time we caught the fish, the sky turned a little darker, and we decided to head for our first portage of the day – the “rollercoaster” from Cherokee to Sitka Lake, over the Continental Divide again. The winds picked up and it started raining steadily while we were still on the north end of the lake, so we pushed hard for 20 minutes to reach our portage. We were soaked by the time we reached shore, and there was no sign the rain was going to let up.

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Wet, but with our first catch of the trip.

The rest of the day was a slog through the rain on wet portages from Sitka to North Temperance Lake, and then another one to South Temperance Lake. We had been planning all along to camp on South Temperance, and we were fortunate to find an open site. The one we found was not the one we were originally looking for (some canoeists on Cherokee recommended the wide-open site they had left on South Temperance), but in the end it was just as well. The site we did find had plenty of places to rig up a tarp, and it continued to rain all evening, and well into the night.

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Rainy camp on South Temperance Lake.

Dinner our second night was an awesome clam sauce and pasta meal with olives, garlic, and fresh parsley. Cooking and eating under the tarp was cool in its own way. We knew by this point we were two tough guys. When you get through the wet, rainy days and you’re still having fun, you know you have what it takes to tackle wilderness tripping.

I slept our second night without a mattress pad, since mine had gotten soaked on the outside of my pack all day. The ground was hard. I learned my lesson.

Day 3 dawned misty and overcast, but not so rainy. Kris got up early and went fishing solo, but to our surprise the fish weren’t biting. We did fry up the previous day’s eelpout for breakfast, which was mighty tasty. We tried fishing some more together after we broke down camp, but not even a bite. The lack of fishing success was a little troublesome, but not really, because it felt so good just being together in nature. Who cares about fish when the world is yours? We pushed ahead, and explored the headwaters of the Temperance River (more beaver dams), then did a long portage (240 rods) to Weird Lake.

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Headwaters of the Temperance River with beaver dam.

The portage to Weird parallels the rocky river, although you only actually see the river in a few spots. From Weird we paddled into Jack Lake (both of these are just wider sections of the Temperance River), and then a light rain came back. We didn’t give up on the fishing, and while we were trying our luck on Jack, we got lucky in a different way – another moose was feeding in the water!

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Fishing with another moose.

The moose was alone, as far as we could tell, and very docile. It watched us fish and had its water vegetation dinner for about 10 minutes. Then it slowly walked into the woods.

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Up close.

One of the cool things about moose is that you get to study them for a while. They’re so calm. They bring a hushed effect on canoeists as well. You just feel at peace inside.

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Just taking its time.

Once the moose left, we caught two small northern pike, then did the last, short portage of the day into Kelly Lake. We were ready to set up camp by the time we got to the southern end of Kelly. There we had great luck finding a perfect campsite right as the sun started coming out for the first time in a day and half. It was 7:00 p.m. now, and we were dying to eat supper after paddling, portaging, and fishing all day. Despite the absolute barrage of mosquitoes, I was able to boil egg noodles on my camp stove and mix in a lot of butter and beef jerky for our dinner. Protein packed meal! Kris had plenty of Swedish chocolate and even cookies with him for our dessert. The bugs at this site just wouldn’t quit, and we were in bed by ten. As I lay in my sleeping bag (on my dry mattress this time), I got to hear wolves howling twice across Kelly Lake! It was my first wolf howl experience, and it was impressive! It sounded like five or six wolves, maybe 3 or 4 miles away.

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Our last night’s camp, Kelly Lake.

On our final, fourth day we felt like triumphant wilderness warriors. The rain was now gone, the bugs were gone too, and we had just three portages left to get back to Sawbill Lake.

We made the long carry to Burnt Lake, and prioritized that lake for our day’s fishing. And did that ever pay off! We found a hot spot and a hot lure, trolling a yellow and purple crankbait about 30 yard off two points on the north end of the lake. We caught three walleyes and a nice northern in less than an hour. Finally, we were catching ’em! We had plenty of fish for dinner back in Duluth that night.

We had to keep moving though, and when we made it to Smoke Lake, dark clouds were forming on the horizon. Kris caught one more pike as we trolled across Smoke. A stiff west wind picked up, and it was tough paddling across the lake. We had to paddle into shore to be able to land Kris’ fish. We had to really work for the final portion of our trip, but that’s what this trip was all about from the beginning!

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Riders on the storm.

We made the last carry into Sawbill, and made a mad dash in the canoe straight south down the lake with the wind perpendicular to us now. The wind was blowing the storm straight at us, and there were lightning bolts flashing in the distance. We were determined to make it back though, and we reached Sawbill landing just as the brunt of the storm passed south of us. As soon as we got the canoe out of the water, it started raining.

What can I say about this Cherokee Lake loop trip with Kris? It was one of the defining moments of my life. We were a great team, and we worked our butts off. We covered 32 miles in 4 days, walking 14 portage trails 3 times each. We brought a lot of gear, but I didn’t have many regrets. We were able to enjoy awesome food, great wildlife sightings, and fabulous fishing our last day together. This was the real thing, and the pride I felt inside was as electric as the lightning bolts we saw crashing down as we pulled into shore to wrap up our epic trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Kids’ Bicycle Camping Trip

I’m definitely on a roll making my dreams come true this summer. It’s a good thing all my dreams entail some combination of Minnesota, the outdoors, and my kids. This makes my dreams quite implementable with the right planning and determination. Maybe I just don’t dream big enough…

One of my big dreams for a long time has been to take my family bicycle camping. We’ve done plenty of car-camping trips, and canoe-camping trips. I felt the time was right for a bicycle camping adventure. And so, on June 12, we set out to make it happen.

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This is how we do it! The tent, the sleeping bags, the sleeping pads, the camp stove, the fuel bottle, the food, the extra clothes, the first aid kit, AND NO DAMN CAR!

The girls were game. They didn’t seem too apprehensive about me taking them with on one of daddy’s crazy adventures. They had just wrapped up school the week before, and it felt like the timing was right to get out and try something new.

Our destination was the Mesabi Trail, about an hour-long drive north of Duluth on the famed Iron Range. According to the trail website: “Located in northeastern Minnesota, the Mesabi Trail is a premier bicycle trail winding through some of the most scenic parts of the state. Currently over 135 miles of trail offers convenient accessibility at numerous entry points.” This was definitely enough to get my juices flowing…

2019 Mesabi Trail map

Mesabi Trail map

The Mesabi Trail is gold for exploring northern Minnesota with kids. It was the perfect introduction to bicycle camping for us as a family.

We parked for the night in Virginia MN, then got all the gear situated on our bikes and on our backs (I loaded most everything into my front and rear pannier bags, as well as on top of the rear rack, while the girls wore backpacks with their clothes, stuffed animals, and other essentials), and off we went!

It was the perfect day for biking. Bright sunshine, not too hot. We headed out about 5:00 p.m. and wanted to get to the campground (Sherwood Forest Campground in Gilbert) by 6:00 before the office closed. We didn’t have to push it, because I had already reserved the site by phone, and they had everything waiting for us, but it’s always fun to chat with the locals, especially at campgrounds. We stopped four or five times for photos, snacks, and other breaks, but ended up pulling into Gilbert right at 6:00! Just an hour to get from one town to the next. The office was still open, and sure enough we had a chat about fishing in Lake Ore-Be-Gone, a mine pit that has huge fish and crystal clear water. Next time I’m going to have to tow the canoe with behind my bike…

The campground was beyond my wildest expectations. Very few people there, huge campsites, a view of the lake. Just awesome in every way.

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Happy girls after a sweet ride. The campsite was heaven.

Supper was BLTs, and they tasted so good in the fresh air. We walked down to the lake and explored the beautiful sand beach there. Gotta come back for swimming! We could see a nice bass swimming around too. The water in Ore-Be-Gone is spring fed and beautiful.

Sleeping all three of us in my little mountaineering tent is still possible (for now). I love it squeezing in there in our sleeping bags. It was a cool night, and we slept well. With no rush to go anywhere the following day, we slept in a little the next morning too.

Following the oatmeal with bacon grease breakfast, it was back on the bikes. No heavy loads this time though. We left everything at camp and rode down to Eveleth and checked out the Veterans Park Campground on Ely Lake. Nice, but not as nice as the Sherwood Forest Campground. We even checked out the building where the Mesabi Trail team works out of.

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Mesabi Trail Headquarters

Then we went back to camp to pack up our tent, and sleeping bags, and everything else we brought on our bikes.

I can say the girls were definitely getting a little tired of biking by late morning, but thankfully some lunch back at the campground and rest helped get them going again. Judging by the photos we took when we said goodbye to the campground, they were in good spirits.

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Selfie portrait with Lake Ore-Be-Gone behind us.

The ride back to Virginia was familiar to us from the day before, but beautiful all the same. The trail even goes through one rock cut. Awesome ride.

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Rock cut on the old railroad grade.

Finally, we pulled into Virginia, about 21 hours after the start of the trip the day before. I estimate that we pedaled about 30 miles in all, with the girls also doing at least an additional 10 rounds through the campground on their bikes.

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Back in Virginia. We stopped again to enjoy the view from Minnesota’s tallest bridge. We’re three happy riders! 

This trip was truly a dream come true for me. We all aced it. Having a good trail off the road makes all the difference. I’m already looking forward to more family bicycle camping trips in the future.

 

 

Namekagon River Adventure

Canoe camping is a favorite adventure pursuit of mine. I love doing it with kids the most. Add a second family with kids, and the trip gets even better. Doing it on a fast-flowing river is the final piece of the puzzle. Luckily for us, our family friends the Valentines invited us to join them for an overnight adventure on the Namekagon River in northwest Wisconsin on my last day of school this year – June 7. It was the first-ever canoe camping trip for the girls and me on a river. And it was a great way to celebrate completing my first year of work in the public schools. I left the High School for the last time at noon on Friday, and we were out adventuring on the river that same afternoon.

There were several firsts on this trip. For one thing, we had two vehicles. We left my Toyota on Friday at our take-out spot (Fritz Landing), then drove back in my friend Tim’s truck to the County K Landing where his Toyota would spend the night. This left us 17.5 miles to travel by boat in between the two vehicles, which we planned to do in less than 24 hours. With all our gear and four kids in two boats, Tim and I had it made: there was bound to be adventure.

Another first was that our girls got to camp with Tim’s kids – Daley and Finley. It definitely made for a more entertaining trip for all the young ones! The time has come to invite other kiddos along on our family camping trips for maximum enjoyment. The kids went back and forth between the two boats, changing seats, and travel companions. There was more variety for them. They were totally psyched to be together and out exploring. They had great fun together at the campsite, and there was more action for them.

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The kids were bursting with enthusiasm as we set off down river.

Another first was getting to watch Tim ply his raft. It’s quite an amazing boat. Very few people row these kinds of river rafts in Minnesota. I believe they’re more common out west.

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Tim at the oars, Vanessa casting up front, and Finley trolling in back.

I had my usual canoe, and of course I love it precisely for family canoe camping trips. It can hold everything!

The wives stayed home for this one, and I’m guessing they were happy with that. In fact the trip turned out to be extremely hot (temperature was 93 F when we pulled up to the river at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and was 94 when we got off on Saturday). Our wives don’t do well at all in the heat. It worked out for the best.

The Namekagon is a very clean, shallow, pristine river. I had canoe camped it twice before with student groups from UWS. I had also been on it on two other occasions on field trips with my students from UWS. This trip was different though. This was family time.

The river is part of the National Park Service’s St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The Namekagon feeds into the St. Croix (the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota) after flowing one hundred miles through rural northern Wisconsin.  For this trip, the Namekagon was high and fast after all the rain we got in May. Tim was happy about the high water levels, since his raft does best in faster current. We had some slight rapids to run, which were fun, but nothing dangerous.

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Zero development on the banks of this nationally-protected treasure.

We had no trouble covering five miles of river on our first evening. It only took us an hour and a half to drift from County K Landing to our campsite at mile 26.2. With high water conditions, we barely had to paddle. It was more important to keep the boats from running into the frequent downed trees along the river banks. We had time to fish, and basically relax as we absorbed the river’s pace.

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The yellow line is our first day ‘s drift (mile 31.2 to 26.2). The orange line is day 2 (26.2 to 13.7).

It was challenging to unload from our boats at the campsite, since the river was running at a high pace. Our campsite had the usual ticks and poison ivy that we knew were going to be there, but we also got to listen to the sound of the river coming down the rapids upriver right from our tents. Daley made a fire, and the girls and I set up the tents and the screen house that was an absolute essential item for this trip. The mosquitoes were out in force. With all the kids, the screen house saved us a lot of misery and complaining.

Supper came out fabulous on the grill, including brats, hot dogs, steak, and burgers. I had some of each. We didn’t stay up too late, and I slept so well that night. It’s been a long first school year for me in the Superior public schools, and it felt so good to be done, and to be back on the water, and to sleep outdoors. We had a beautiful whip-poor-will lullaby us to sleep. The bird was no less than 10 feet from the campsite and called much of the evening.

Saturday was another hot, sunny day. I hadn’t realized how much fun the kids could have swimming together in early June, but it turned out to be a perfect day for it! They loved it! We found three different sand bars as we meandered downriver, and the kids dove into the water at each spot.

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Happy swimmers!

There was also great fun to be had hunting for freshwater clams. They were everywhere! We had two good nets for the kids to play with, and they really enjoyed finding the clams.

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Clam hunting – the perfect activity for kids.

The second sand bar we stopped at was the absolute perfect river beach. There was a ridge of soft, deep sand underwater, followed by a nice little drop off into the main current. We had lunch here, and it was a freshwater paradise.

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Clam-digging paradise.

The kids would have been happy to spend all day digging in the soft sand.

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Vanessa goes for the big ones.

There is no question that digging in the sand was the highlight of the trip for the kiddos. The freshwater clams were definitely a sign of clean water, and a source of endless happiness for the young ones.

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Kids in heaven.

The highlight of the day for me was coming around a few more bends in the river. We spotted an object floating in the water. My first thought was that it was a dead beaver. It was white, and the color threw me off. Then it started moving! We had the perfect drift, taking us within feet of this creature as it swam across the river. It took just a second longer to realized it was a porcupine!

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Man can they swim fast! I had no idea.

I could have reached out and touched it, we drifted so close, but definitely thought better of trying that! New respect and awe for porcupines! Incredible creatures.

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So fortunate to witness this porcupine up close. A once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

We reached our final destination about 3:30 in the afternoon. What a day in the sun! A great first family overnight river trip, and a great experience camping with friends. Hope to repeat it many times over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Admiring Ice

When a long winter in Duluth, Minnesota just doesn’t want to give up (we’re still getting snow in May), you take the extreme elements and go with them. Sure, all that snow and ice gets old, but there are advantages, too. One of my favorite events is the spring ice breakup on Lake Superior. It’s incredible. All of a sudden the world’s biggest lake is transformed into an endless sea of small (and not so small) icebergs. These chunks of ice can float any which way, depending on the wind direction. This year, just like last year, the winds were just right to keep the ice in the Duluth area. And even when the ice got blown out a couple times, the wind changed a few days layer, and blew it all back in. Some of these ice chunks traveled 200 miles across Lake Superior from Canada to end up right here in Duluth. As a result, we got awesome iceberg paddling for the second year in a row. Jump in the canoe and go check it out!

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Good times, Duluth style – netting icebergs from the canoe.

This spring I got out three times for ice explorations on the “Big Lake.” The first trip came on Sunday, April 14th, with my friend John. It was a good first test. Conditions were looking prime for ice paddling. The second trip came on Good Friday, April 19th, with Adriana and John again. We took advantage of some perfect weather to go net some ice while Vanessa was at ballet class. Lastly, I went the next morning with my friend Andrew. Each day the ice conditions were different. There was actually more ice later in the week than on my first trip. That’s the way the icebergs roll here.

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Try paddling through this! It looks hard, but picking your route through the endless ice obstacles is the whole fun of it.

Duluth is a good-looking city, in my opinion, but there’s no question that the best views are from the water. Get out in your boat of choice and enjoy it! One thing though – small, maneuverable boats work best for navigating through the ice. You don’t see any motor boats out there when the icebergs are in.

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Ice is a really fun material for kids to play with. Jab the icebergs with your paddles. Give ’em a push. Or just float alongside and study the crystals. Plus, I can say is it’s a lot easier to catch ice than to catch fish. “Fishing” for ice is the perfect game for kids.

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Easy catch!

Paddling through the shipping canal is always a good time, and you are guaranteed to get lots of tourists taking your picture. I’m guessing they’re saying something like “Look at what the crazy locals do for fun!”

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Heading out with Andrew, exiting the shipping canal.

Once you get out among the bergs, the options are endless. Go around them in any direction, or try smashing right through them. But don’t plan on keeping a specific route. Let the ice dictate which direction you go.

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A lot of the ice chunks look like round donuts. Not sure why.

The cool thing about the ice is every piece is different. Some chunks are crystal clear, some are dark and rough. Some are disintegrating before your eyes, some are hard as rock. You want to go test every one, to find each piece’s true properties. And then you see the weirdest things – spiders, other bugs, etc. All crawling in the ice!

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Plenty of big ones out there.

Best of all is the feeling of just lounging in the boat. No need to paddle hard – you can’t get anywhere. You’re blocked in. No point having a destination, or a goal. Just float around and see where the ice takes you.

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Andrew feeling relaxed.

It’s good to embrace the lake. Admire the ice. Feel spring coming on, but celebrate the beauty of ice and the winter that brings it at the same time. That’s what we do here. Happy to be part of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Camping At Its Peak (Part 2)

I love winter camping for the challenge. Each trip makes its own demands. Cold and snow are always part of the equation. Add a lack of time, and a burning desire to go as far as possible in 24 hours, and you get the trip my friend John and I did to Found Lake on February 16 and 17, 2019.

This trip was sandwiched in between my other duties for the weekend. Friday evening I had my regular shift at Chester Bowl until 9:00 p.m. Saturday morning we attended Adriana’s parent observation ballet class from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. On Sunday I knew I had to do homework for professional development as well as translating. That doesn’t leave much time for winter camping… But the desire to get back to the Boundary Waters overpowers any time constraints in many cases.

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Saturday morning started out with parent observation day at Adriana’s ballet class. She’s in the middle of the photo with her hands in the air.

John wrote to me at 9:30 on Saturday morning about what my plans were the weekend, and I invited him to come with me spur of the moment, and soon I had a partner for the trip to Ely and up the Fernberg Trail to Moose Lake. I had to do all my packing and grocery shopping in an hour,  which is never a good thing, but we still managed to leave Duluth by 12:30 in the afternoon.

The drive through the snow-filled tunnels that cut through the north woods in February was fabulous. We stopped at Snowshoe Country Lodge to meet the owner and log-cabin builder Brodigan. John and I enjoyed talking to him about wood-building craftsmanship. This guy is a Minnesota legend. But we still had to get deep into the Boundary Waters before sundown, so we hit the road, and got to Moose Lake at 4:00 p.m.  Then we began the long ski in. I was pulling my heavy pulk complete with woodstove and firewood, and John also had a saucer sled in tow. We skied up Moose, to Newfound Lake, and then across a short portage to Found.

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Our route in on day 1 (red line). Approximately a 4-mile long ski. We entered at Entry Point 25 on Moose Lake, which is the boundary of the BWCA.

When we got to camp, we met my friend Jeff and five of his friends. We were eight altogether! Hanging out with a bunch of like-minded fishermen and winter adventurers was a cool thing. This was also the third winter in a row that I’ve been winter camping with Jeff. It all started with him!

We were served fresh brook trout right off the bat upon arrival, and I made an awesome bean soup with lime and cilantro for dinner while John dug out a large area in the deep snow for our tent. No canvas wall tent on this trip, but my mountaineering tent was plenty adequate. There’s no heat source in my tent, and temps were right about zero at night, but we slept just fine.

Next morning a dogsled team came racing by our camp early in the morning. It was my first time seeing a dogsled team in the BWCA. I watched the team run across Found Lake, and also noticed they left the lake at a spot where no portage trail was indicated on our map. Hmmm…

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Dog-sledders making their way through the deep snow on Found Lake.

Little did I know that there are certain dogsled routes that aren’t marked on any maps because they’re not maintained by the US Forest Service for summer use. I’m guessing these routes go through a lot of marshy, boggy territory that can’t be easily portaged in summer. But once everything freezes up in winter, conditions for dog-sledding are ideal.

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Follow those sled dogs to Canada!

We went ice-fishing for brook trout on Found Lake after breakfast. Brook trout are my favorite species of fish, and I dream about catching them through the ice. At the same time, I also love to ski, and I realized after watching the sled dog team pass in the morning that they had made the perfect track for us to ski to Basswood Lake, a huge body of water on the border with Canada. After fishing for about an hour and a half without any fish, I suggested to John and a new friend, Dan, that we go for a ski. I didn’t regret it.

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Our ice-fishing operation seen from above.

Our ski expedition took us out Found through a beautiful young birch forest and into a series of beaver ponds on a stream. The boggy environment had lots of open nooks and crannies to ski through. We saw beaver tracks and beaver lodges. The stream we followed entered Manomin Lake, which we skied across, and continued down to Basswood. The scenery everywhere was breathtaking. This is true wilderness, and it was a pleasure to be out exploring a trail that’s not even marked on the map.

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Skiing across Manomin Lake with friends.

The route we took was like entering a different world. I was really learning a whole new part of the BWCA, and it felt great.

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Our afternoon route on Sunday from Found Lake to Basswood and back. About a 3-hr round-trip ski with a couple breaks. 

When we got back to Found, I spotted a pine marten checking out our camp. I wonder if he was as starving as we were? We were already running behind schedule, but I got my woodstove cranking, and cooked wild rice and chorizo sausage for an awesome lunch. There was no way we could ski out of the BWCA without a big meal first. We broke camp, and started the 4-mile ski back to our car.

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Another great weekend of winter camping comes to an end.

The final ski out was a lot harder, now that we were pulling our heavy loads again. Plus we were exhausted from having spent the whole weekend skiing in deep snow. We were totally gassed by the time we got back to the entry point. My whole body was sore from pulling the pulk. It was all worth it though. I added another fine Boundary Waters experience to my quiver! The BWCA can only be called paradise in winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Camping At Its Peak (Part 1)

Taking a winter camping trip is about constant physical exertion. No matter what you do, it’s work. Every step you take, every movement, takes effort. You have to haul. You have to drill. You have to climb. You have to dig. There’s nothing you can do without coming into contact with snow and ice. They carry you. But they demand your constant effort.

Snow and ice have two qualities that make you work – snow is heavy, ice is hard. Multiply this by 4 feet of snow and 21 inches of ice, and you have the peak winter camping conditions my friends and I faced in northern Minnesota on back-to-back winter camping trips the second and third weekends of February, 2019.

I took my first of the deep winter trips with my friend Ruurd. We left Duluth on a sunny Friday afternoon thanks to my day off at the school district. It felt good to get an early start on the weekend, which doesn’t happen very often for me, since I typically work Chester Bowl on Friday evenings.

What we found on our route north was nothing short of magical: huge snowbanks straddled the Cramer Rd. heading north from Finland, MN. Then, when we turned west onto the practically one-lane Wanless Rd, the whole roadbed became a snowy tunnel into the deep woods. We left Ruurd’s car behind and set out for Scarp Lake through the deep, viscous powder on skis and snowshoes. We were smart to plan a short entry route, because it was already 4:15 when we left the car, and we had heavy loads to pull and a large tent to set up before dark.

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Guess we won’t be using this picnic table.

There was certainly no competition for a campsite… In fact, we didn’t see a soul the whole weekend. Who else would want to be out there? There was no point trying to set up camp in the woods: the snow there was even deeper than on the windswept lake. Did I mention the wind was howling the first night? Thankfully, you can camp anywhere you want on the frozen lake, and that’s what we did.

We used Ruurd’s deluxe Snowtrekker tent as our palace. This canvas-walled tent holds heat, and we had two wood stoves along on the trip. I also brought a whole bag full of dry wood from home to get us through our first night. We had a good meal, and went to sleep about 11:00. Ruurd woke up three times in the night to stoke the fire. The heat from the stove disappears within an hour…

We woke up Saturday to temps of -32 C (-25 F). Good thing we had the Snowtrekker.

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This wall tent basically saved our lives.

Saturday was just the ultimate peak winter backcountry ski day. We headed out skiing right after breakfast, and our route along the narrow hogback ridge offered incredible vistas of the surrounding jewels. The “hogbacks” are glacially-formed, winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel. We skied all the way to Steer Lake in the morning. It doesn’t look far on the map, but breaking trail on skis through four feet of powder to get there is a totally different proposition. We made it.

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Our route in from Hogback Lake the first day is in blue. Our ski along the esker to Steer Lake the second day (which I did there and back twice) in orange.

I really enjoyed the challenge of skiing to Steer, and wanted to go back again so much with my ice-fishing gear that I did the whole trip all over again in the afternoon, alone.

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Our home on Scarp Lake.

First we came home for lunch, which was excellent. You just can’t stop eating when you’re winter camping. I drilled us two holes for an attempt at ice-fishing after lunch, but after 30 minutes of fruitless, frozen fishing, we gave up. That’s when I put my skis back on to go to Steer.

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Getting my soup going on the wood stove before heading out for more ice-fishing on Steer Lake.

The ice-fishing on Steer didn’t produce any fish either, but I was proud I did it. I am quite confident I am the only person who is going to ice fish Steer Lake this whole winter. It felt good to tap such a pristine resource.

When I finally got home in the dark at 6:30, I was beat. Time for six bowls of soup! Ruurd and I ate the whole big pot in one evening. The wood stove was the key to our pleasure and our success. It was heaven on earth to eat a good meal in a warm tent.

Sunday morning we tried a little bit more jigging, but it was just too cold to catch anything. No matter, we will be back again in summer in the pursuit of trout.

We packed up our gear and headed back to the Hogback Lake parking lot. The usual end-of-trip exhaustion was setting in when we got to the car. Thankfully, the car started, and I treated us to coffee and donuts on the way home. Another fabulous winter trip in the books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Fishing Trip of All Time?

How many people have ever been whitefish netting? According to a Minnesota DNR press release, only 700 people a year participate in this tradition in Minnesota. Dying traditions have always grabbed my attention, and fishing traditions all the more so. Most importantly for me, I have a friend, John, who was willing to be my guide and show me the very exotic (and freezing-cold) world of netting whitefish through the ice in person. And so it happened that the day after Thanksgiving I picked John up in Duluth at 7:30 a.m., and drove the two of us up Highway 61 and the Gunflint Trail in my old Camry on a quest for one of those eternal adventures that come when fish, and your life, are at stake. We stopped to pick up our netting licenses on the way.

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First whitefish license I’ve ever owned.

John has probably been in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness hundreds of times (he worked as a guide for Camp Widjiwagan for dozens of years), and I have been adding my own BWCA experiences regularly over the last three years, but never had I been there on a camping trip in November. And for John, this was his first trip ever netting whitefish through the ice. Before that, he had netted many times in open water, from a canoe. This year has been cold enough to make early ice.

We started planning the trip about eight days before leaving, and it soon became clear this expedition would be an insane test of our will-power, problem-solving skills, and adaptability (as winter camping trips always are). When I made some reconnaissance calls two days before departure to various lodges located near our entry point, they reported that our entry point lake had frozen over just the day before. And nobody had been out to the lake we were targeting since ice-in. Basically, everything was unpredictable. Except for one thing: we knew we wouldn’t find any other people. Sure enough, we didn’t see another soul all three days we were out camping.

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The scene at our entry point. Before we got the rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, heavy wind, and other November pleasantries.

One cool thing about this trip was that we had to combine all our winter camping equipment (wool and down clothing, shovels, augers, skis, and my new woodstove), with the most quintessential of summer gear – the canoe (but not my canoe – we knew we were going to abuse the boat something wicked, and John borrowed a canoe from a friend). We took the canoe as our lifeline. In case the 2 inches of ice holding us up on the first lake were to give gave way below us, we would quickly jump into the canoe. At least that was the plan…

As we left shore for our first lake crossing, the ice started cracking immediately. It was tantalizingly thin. There was also standing water in many spots on the ice. The fresh ice cover was extremely transparent, and you could see the cracks so near, it felt there was nothing holding us up. But there was no other way to get to our fishing grounds than by water. And there was no way to paddle the canoe on this ice shelf. So we went for it on foot, pulling and pushing the canoe.

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Life jacket on as a safety measure. The first time I’ve worn one in winter.

Miraculously, we crossed the first, big, lake, and we knew that everything would get easier from there (well, besides hauling the canoe and gear over a 236 rod portage full of snow, rocks, roots, downed trees, etc.). We double-portaged through the beautiful snow-covered woods to our second lake, where we found thicker ice. This was our final destination: a smaller lake, but with deep, cold water, nestled in the “mountains” (by Minnesota standards) within miles of Canada.

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Nobody said it was going to be easy, and we didn’t want it to be anyway.

We loaded the canoe with firewood (downed trees) that we gathered right on the side of the lake as we approached the site where we would make our base camp.

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Just keep adding to the pile.

The first thing I did upon arrival at camp was set up the tarp. And sure enough, within about 10 minutes of our arrival at our destination, it started to rain (temperature of about 34 degrees).

After getting just a little settled in at camp, we headed out to set our nets. The process was long, and wet, under a persistent rain. I drilled about 20 holes with my auger about 5 feet apart, and then John used his ice saw to cut a trench connecting all the holes. I helped him cut a parallel line all the way back down the line, thereby widening the trench to several inches. John  made some ice cairns to celebrate finishing the trench, and we found some rocks and put them in the bags tied to the net to keep it anchored in place when a big fish gets in it (ideally).

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The far left edge of our net trench, with cairns for anchoring the net.

Speaking of John’s nets, they are gill nets made by Christiansen Net Company out of Duluth, and here are the specifications:

  • 100′ Long x 3′ Deep
  • Top: 3/8″ Foamcore rope
  • Bottom: 30 lb Leadcore rope
  • Nets hung on 1/2 basis (200′ stretch netting to a 100′ net)
  • Tie intervals less than 12″
  • 1/8″ Solid braid nylon breastline on both ends

We each had a whitefish netting permit, and could have used two nets total, but the rain was coming down harder and harder, and we still hadn’t had supper, so we decided to head back to camp (a 25 minute walk though the pitch dark, on wet ice). But despite the tough conditions, we knew were already fishing, even while walking to our campsite. Never before had I experienced this kind of feeling on a fishing trip. Once the nets are set, all the work is done for you. Go home and relax!

When we got back, John fired up the new woodstove, and I made us hot soup for supper. It was warm enough out that I could even take off my boots and steamy socks, and just relax on the ground under the tarp with my bare feet by the fire.

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Winter camping will never be the same with this portable Dutch stove.

After sleeping VERY well on Friday night (listening to the pitter patter of the freezing rain on the tarp and tent fly put me right to sleep), I woke up at 9:30 a.m. to silence. This meant the rain had turned to snow. Sure enough, I emerged from my tent to a snowy white world. I made us coffee and oatmeal under the tarp, and then we set out to check our net.

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The rain turned to snow on Saturday morning.

We found a lot more standing water on the ice from all the rain overnight, but the ice pack still felt safe. I knew my feet were going to get soaked that day. I had my excellent waterproof backcountry ski boots with me on this trip, but nothing but rubber fishing boots could put up with sloshing through 3-inches of standing water all day long.

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John ready to go check our nets, with ice saw and auger and a pack full of survival gear.

The scene as we approached our net was kind of dismal, and I have to admit I didn’t have my hopes up too high. I didn’t have any premonitions about what we would find. Perhaps this was one of the best parts of the trip – I didn’t have a plan, or strategy, in my mind of how to catch the fish, and there would be no disappointment if we didn’t get any.

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Approaching our spot on Saturday morning.

I let John tend the net while I did some chores at our fishing grounds. Suddenly he called out in a soft, but direct voice – “we’ve got one.” I couldn’t believe it. I ran over and was astounded to see a fish in the net.

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John extracting our first whitefish.

I was even more shocked when I saw the size of the fish. It was huge! I thought whitefish were 12-14 inches in length. This one ran over 20, and was fat and hefty.

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North-country beauty.

John worked his way a little bit down the net, and we had another one. And then another one. Three fish on our first morning. I was dumbfounded. These fish were some of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen come out of water.

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Thrilled, dumbfounded, and in awe of these fish and this fishing trip.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the lake and another portage trail. We thought about cutting a second net trench again, but the snow just kept coming down, and the temp was falling, and we knew it would be a lot of work to get two nets out of the water on our final morning, so we decided again not to put the second one in. We were excited to catch more fish on our second night, and we still had our first net in, and that would have to suffice. Interestingly, we checked the net again before we went back to camp on Saturday afternoon, but we hadn’t got any new fish during the course of the day. The fish come in at night to spawn, and that’s when you get them.

The trip back to camp felt like a death march. I was exhausted from skiing through slush all day. One of my ski bindings malfunctioned at the end of the day, and my heavy load seemed impossible to carry any further in my soaking wet feet. I was literally drenched from the ankles down. I made it back to camp after dark, and thank God John had a pair of fabulous, dry, moosehide mukluks that I would wear the rest of the trip.

Saturday evening was another good time, cooking under the tarp, with snow falling down all around us. This time I fried sausages and pork chops, and they came out incredibly well on the woodstove. It was another great night for sleeping outside too, at about 25 degrees out at bedtime.

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Back at our net site, but this time everything is frozen solid.

The temperature continued to fall through the night, and when I woke up at 7:15 on Sunday morning, I was relieved to feel the colder air. Getting out of the BWCA depended on the slush freezing up on our lake, and for our second, larger lake crossing to have thicker ice on it.

Our dreams were answered – when we walked out onto our lake, all the slush had turned to ice overnight, and we had fast travels down the lake back to our net. It took us a while to chip away all the ice that had formed overnight in our trench, but when we did, we had another beautiful whitefish!

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Another huge whitefish.

It was a sensational feeling to tend our net and get another one. We had done it. We had overcome all the conditions: the thin ice, the snowy portage, the rain, the cold, and the wind. We had caught fish in a way I had never seen done before, in a way I couldn’t even have imagined. It was out of this world fishing.

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A scene like no other.

It took a long time to chop as much ice off the net as we could, then roll it up and get it back in its bag. The whole process of netting fish was incredibly hard work, and incredibly rewarding as well.

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Hope to do this again in the future.

We got the fish back to camp, took down the tent and other gear, and then rejoiced as our heavy load (200 lbs. at least) glided over the new ice like a feather.

We made extremely good time going back, making the trek from our base camp across the first lake to the portage in 20 minutes.

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Hauling the canoe and gear out on our last day wasn’t even work on the lakes. We put ski wax on the canoe hull and it glided like a feather.

Moving the canoe uphill on the snowy portage was a challenge, but fun as well on the fresh snow.

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Back in the woods.

Crossing the second, bigger lake was a cinch on Sunday compared to the first experience we had going in on thin ice on Friday.  Now the ice was thicker, more solid, and no longer transparent. We made it back to the entry point, and the car started right up, and away we went.

It was possibly the greatest fishing trip of my life.