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A place in the wild….. June 30, 2010

Posted by Barbara in Life, Northern Tier, Scouting.

For 10 wonderful days this summer, I was completely without car keys, cell phone, computer, or any tech at all (save my little digital camera). Political drama and the myriad concerns of daily life, gone.

We were canoeing the  Canadian wilderness in pristine and little-visited lakes where the water is still pure and so clear you can see 30-40 feet into the depths. I was with my son’s Boy Scout group – a small crew of 4 boys, 3 leaders and a great 20-year-old interpreter named Brady.  We traveled 107 miles including about 5 miles of portage (15 portages in all).  This is the journal I kept during the trek [with a few post-scripts].

Day One:

Canada is already beautiful.  Tall white and red pines, fir, spruce, juniper and aspen.  I didn’t expect to see aspen up here.  One of many pleasant surprises.   We stopped for lunch in Atikokan before heading to the camp.  I ordered a hamburger.  “Would you like gravy on that?”   Gravy?   On a hamburger?!  It was a brown gravy with a different flavor (they use whey, I was told).  Delicious!

We arrived at NT base camp a little before 1:00 pm, checked in and met our ‘interpreter’ or guide.  We are assigned to a college senior named Brady.  He has a very Irish mop of red hair, an easy smile and an air of confidence that boosts my own.  I won’t let the kids know my level of trepidation about doing this.  I can admit to more than one moment of what-in-the-world-was-I-thinking-when-I-said-I-would-do-this?!   There were SO many excuses I might have used to stay home.  On the other hand, I grew up with wilderness and camping and completely love any chance to trade the scurry and noise of our daily lives for the peace and beauty of the wild.  So what if I’m a mom?  Or the oldest in the crew?  I’ve been working out for the past year in an effort to get healthy, and while I haven’t lost all the weight I wish I had, I’ve reached the point that I think I can manage this.   And another adult on the crew will be a plus (I hope.)

Base camp is comfortable – if you compare it to the trail, rather than home.  Cabins, each with 8 bunk beds, will give us shelter for tonight and for a night on our return.  Showers are down the hill and the mess hall serves coffee – so life is good.  There are no crews here other than the two we brought with us, so leaders got private cabins.  I used all 8 bunk beds to spread out my gear and get organized.

Brady took us down to get gear checked out.  Our crew will have 2 large gear bags (gray whales – even though they are green), 2 food boxes (filled with the pre-selected meals and a few extra goodies Brady tucked in for treats), a cooking gear box and 3 canoes – one longer Alumacraft, one shorter aluminum Grumman and a lighter-weight Kevlar We-No-Nah.   We’ll go through our gear this evening and do our best to leave behind all non-essentials.  [In retrospect, we might have done a better job of this and lightened our loads on the portages – but we are so attached to ‘having our own’ instead of relying on sharing with a crew. We also should have checked the details on the gear bags.  One of our gray whales had a broken latch which made it almost impossible to fit properly.]   We are issued tents – 2-mans for leaders and a 4-man for the boys.  Brady and the gear-master at base camp show us how to set them up (a bit different from those we’ve used before.) I carried my own new REI Half-dome tent.  It was great and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good 2-man trail tent.

Then, up to the map room to plan the trek.  The boys will decide how difficult they want it to be – although, to be honest, they have no idea right  now what that really means.  Using small stones to mark the camps along the route, Brady coaches them with what insights he has from his experience during the past year taking other crews through.  In true 14-year-old-boy form, they choose a trek to cover at least 100 miles (they want the patch) – but it looks like a good time.  Some of the bigger lakes, some smaller.  Rivers to run.  Portages generally on the shorter side – I only see 3 or 4 of a K or more.  [I’ll learn to appreciate what that means later on].   Brady says there are good campsites along our way and probably some good fishing to be had.  What more can you ask?  Our 14-year-old crew leader signed off on the plan and we headed for dinner and a look through the trading post.  After dinner, the boys took our newly purchased lake maps up to the map room to mark our route, campsites, portages and alternates.    We’ll have a set in each canoe in water-proof cases, and use them constantly for the next 9 days.

Day Two:

Our gear is packed into the gray whales  for all seven of our crew members. They are packed to the brim.   Brady will carry his own in his backpack.  Oh, my goodness, they’re heavy!  Are you SURE we need all this?  I expect the gearbags will weigh in at about 80-85 lbs each.   Bulky and unwieldy in form.   We go through the food boxes with Brady to check and be sure we have everything we need for 10 days.  He brings some extra oatmeals for me to swap out on days the granola will include almonds.   Food boxes are weighing in (my guess) at about 80 lbs each right now.  Of course, they’ll be a bit lighter as we eat our way through them.

Breakfast at 7:00 am and then load into the vans for transport to the drop locations.   We’ll be taken about 55 miles north to the Turtle River drop point.

We finally got on the water at about 10:00AM.  The drop-off was a road-side pullover beside a bridge.  Brady showed us how to stow the gear and tie it down in the canoes and we were off.  I had the pleasure of sharing a canoe with him for the first couple of days.  He was full of great info about the things we saw and pointed out the birds and trees as we went along.  I love that kind of thing and could have done it pretty much all day, but our first portage was upon us before we knew it.

Wow.  How do you describe a portage to someone who has never done one?  The packs were heavy – pretty much weighing as much as our smaller scouts.   They (the packs) were not fitted well to the person, so they pretty much hung from our shoulders rather than carrying on our hips as they should have.  Later on, we changed this and tried to do a better job of making the adjustments as needed, but early on it was just an unrecognized contributer to the challenge.   The trails (usually there were visible  trails) were an assortment of steep inclines,  steep declines, rocky, grassy, thick trees and underbrush on both sides,  wet, muddy, deep mud (moose muck),  or marsh with rubble, boulders and downfall trees to get over, under or around.  Only occasionally was a portage relatively level, wide and easy to walk.  All in all, a far cry from anything we could have practiced.  With a balanced, well-fitted pack, it would have been challenging.  With the huge packs we had to move, it took huge effort and concentration.

On the first portage, most of us either turtled (fell over backward onto the pack and couldn’t get up) or sat abruptly from lack of balance or footing.   Turtling was always good for a laugh and good-natured ribbing.   A couple of us (me, included) had such difficulty the first time that the stronger members actually came back and took our packs the last bit of the way for us.

I watched some of our smaller scouts do such a good job with their loads that I started to analyze what they did differently to what I did.  The low center of gravity seemed to be particularly helpful, so I went to a hunch-back stance and found I could balance the load much more effectively that way.  After that, it became more doable, if not more bearable – and by the second and third days we were all able to complete even the difficult portages with just a minimum of help to get back on our feet after a turtle or a rest stop and with the great encouragement of others.

We learned to work together to get the gear out of the canoes and loaded up for carriers, over the portages and back into the canoes for the next leg pretty effectively.  I’ve never been more impressed with boys than I was during those first days.  They met the challenges and popped back up smiling every time.  Sure made it hard to wimp out – so I didn’t.  I just kept on trying to keep up with them.

We did 14 miles and 3 portages that first day – making our camp on Smirch Lake about 7:00 that evening.  Tired, but it was a good well-earned tired.   We’d seen 6 or 7 bald eagles, grouse, red-head merganser and our first loons , been rained on and learned to tack into a light wind.  Needless to say, we were ready to stop for the night.   Brady fixed us a good dinner, complete with dessert.  The boys cleaned the pans and learned how to set up bear canoes (food boxes under two tipped canoes with the third canoe on top.)  We slept well, and next morning, everyone was ready to try it again.

Days three and four

Days five and six

Days seven and eight

Days nine and ten

In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia. ~Charles Lindbergh



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