By Land and By Lake: Hiking and Kayaking the North Woods

Burntside Lake, MN: September, 2016

By Lake (Then):

I much prefer kayaking to canoeing.  The latter requires far less teamwork and you can get by as long as you have at least a foggy idea of what you are doing.  Canoeing on the other hand, will test even the most ironclad of relationships.  No matter the circumstance, going astray in a canoe is always your fault, at least according to the other person. 

On my first trip to Ely, as a college sophomore, I was forced to share a canoe with both Derek and his younger brother Jake.  Having three heads try to control one object is difficult enough, and made nearly impossible when one is a teenager and another is his older brother who is easy to antagonize.  I got the middle seat, lucky me.  We weren’t out ten minutes before we predictably ran into a rock. 

“Turn right to go around the island dumbass” was Derek’s elegant way of instructing Jake which way to veer as it came into view.  We gave him control duties as Derek and I swapped turns acting as the engine.

 “I’m trying!” Jake screamed along with a few other words.  The bickering escalated quickly and Jake, in an act of defiance that only teenagers are capable of, decided the best course of action was to fold his arms and just let us slam into the rocky barrier about ten feet offshore. 

“Give Nick the paddle if you’re not going to steer” Derek shouted, and I, trying to diffuse the situation and avoid a watery collapse attempted politely to grab the paddle from Jake.

 “Screw off!” and then a calmer “Sorry Nick I meant Derek needs to screw off.”

That about did it for Derek.  His face changed to one he reserves for when the Cavs lose or a Republican wins and he reached past me trying to grab the other paddle from his brother. 

“No!” Jake yelled back and added a giant splash of water for effect.  The rock was quickly arriving and we hadn’t really lost any momentum but we were now heading towards it broadside instead of head on.  I tried to get them to focus energy on the task at hand but it was futile. 

“No, no. Like this!”  shouted an old man who was canoeing with his wife, gliding by quickly about twenty feet away.  He then slowly overemphasized proper form with an open mouthed grin on his face like a preschool teacher explaining how to count using your fingers.  “You don’t wanna hit that rock!” 

Thanks but we know what we’re doing” Derek called back “He’s just being impossible.”  The guy looked slightly bewildered but paddled on.

Jake still refused to steer, and then slid the paddle along the surface of the water even more deliberately this time, trying to douse his brother.  The water of course didn’t make it to the front of the canoe and caused a lakeful to cascade down onto me, neither warm nor expected.  With that, I finally wrestled the other paddle from Jake and turned around with just enough time for the portside to smack into what, now that we were closer, turned out to be more boulder than rock.  Miraculously we didn’t flip but instead bobbed side to side in the waves caused by the fracas.  I pushed us off of the rock with one paddle and we headed back to the dock.  It was enough canoeing for the day.

And now:

At last, after three days of stormy weather in Northern Minnesota, the weather broke and while still overcast and chilly, allowed for some outdoor activity. We used kayaks this time, and there were just enough at the camp for us each (Lauren, Derek, Carly, and myself) to have our own.  The cloud cover still hadn’t lifted, though it was forecasted to by the end of the day.  It would not, however, and it would wait several more before doing so, but we were just thrilled for dry air and set off late in the morning. 

The western portion of Burntside abuts the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a labyrinth of lakes and streams surrounded by dense northwoods.  At a few more than a million acres, the BWCAW is the largest uninterrupted forest east of the Rocky Mountains.  At this size, it is not uncommon for experienced paddlers to embark on week long expeditions through the wilderness without seeing oanyone else.  We had happened upon two guys at camp, friendly middle aged guys in plaid carrying pails of fish, who had just finished a long paddle a week before. 

                We would only be going out for the day, circling much of the lake and weaving through its hundred or so islands.  Some were tiny, the size of helicopter pads except lumpier, looking from a distance like small groups of pines growing straight out of the water.  Others would take several minutes to paddle around.  A few had exquisite homes with large wooden decks and diving boards, likely owned by the type who take no issue dropping several million to use a house from Memorial Day until the first of fall.  These were the exception, however, and most places in the lake you could look around 360 degrees and see nothing manmade except your kayak and nothing noisemaking save for a loon. 

                Once in the BWCAW itself, you won’t have to worry about seeing any structure, because there aren’t any, and haven’t been for roughly thirty years.  Until then, one woman found the silence of the area particularly alluring, so much so that she decided to live there for 56 years despite numerous ordinances changes designed to prevent people from doing just that.  Dorothy Molter, a registered nurse, began visiting Knife Lake in her twenties and eventually decided to stay.  She passed the time brewing and selling root beer to canoers who would stop over and say hello before paddling by. 

                Eventually Molter became a local legend.  Thousands would visit “the Root Beer Lady” each summer, yet despite this she earned another moniker – “The Lonliest Woman in America” by a 1950s article.  Her cabin was fifteen miles of water travel from the nearest road and she had no telephone line or electricity.  The famous root beer was only cooled by ice she hand cut from the lake before it thawed each spring.  Dorothy was beloved by the people of Ely, even those that hadn’t met her, and they frequently backed her when a smattering of laws were passed during her half century in the wilderness aiming to clear the area of any permanent residence.  She passed away in 1986 at age 79 as the last resident of the Boundary Waters, and her cabin was moved into Ely by snowmobile shortly thereafter.  The re-erected building is now a museum, and a local root beer brand still bears her name.

                Well into our circumnavigation of Burntside Lake, the four of us decided to make landfall on an empty island and rest for a bit.  A small sandy bank on one side allowed us to easily drag the kayaks up out of the water, proving to be the only point of access that wouldn’t create unnecessary difficulty.  The rest of the island was completely covered in rocks, sharp and otherwise.  Some cropped out into the lake providing excellent climbing, creating a sort of natural breakwater.  We stayed near the shore because inland was far denser, nearly impossible to walk through without a machete, so after a meal we paddled off.  There are 125 islands within Burntside alone, and thousands more spread throughout the Boundary Waters.  Many are privately owned, but some are not, and island hopping allowed us to feel totally lost. It was an exhausting day but as I pulled my lava-orange kayak up the stony beach toward the cabin I was no longer worried about when the sun would peek out, and instead was just happy we had boats of our own.

By Land:

The Bass Lake Trail is the preeminent hiking loop in the area around Ely.  The trail is 6.3 miles alternating between vistas high above the lake and sandy soil directly alongside it, an undulating oval through the woods passing a couple of waterfalls.  At just over 6 miles you could finish the trail fairly quickly – it is technical at points, with a few steep climbs, but nothing too absurd – but the rocky outcroppings and close up waterfalls give opportunities to wander and the tranquility encourages an unhurried trek.  We didn’t pass a single hiker outside of the four of us the entire time on the trail.  It was autumn and only weeks before the snowshoes get strapped on but I’ve hiked Bass Lake in July as well and had a similarly solitary experience.  The woods around the lake are so noiseless that we could hear people paddling and chatting through the lake several hundred feet below and much further than that away.  They were gliding through the glassy water at a distance that made it difficult to discern if they were in canoes or kayaks, but their voices and splashes were clear as the shallows of the lake.

                One end of Bass Lake is a waterfall tumbling over black rocks that would have looked like a Polynesian cliffside if the skinny white bark birches were coconut palms. The water landed in a small catch basin before continuing its journey downward, giving the small pond an appearance of a natural infinity pool with an edge over which one would rather not plummet.  We spent some time getting close to the falls, climbing up some of its more friendly looking cascades before moving on to the overlook where we saw the canoers/kayakers.

                On the side of the lake opposite the waterfall the trail gets flat and gravely for a stretch.  A side route calls out a restroom and Derek took the sign up on its offer.  He walked back down a couple minutes later laughing.  Thinking this a strange reaction given what he was doing, I questioned.  Turns out the “restroom” is literally a porcelain toilet sitting in the middle of the woods, up on a small mound like the throne it deserves to be.

As we rounded the final curves of the trail we happened across troves of unusual mushrooms growing alongside the pathway. There were blankets of small white ones over log and limb and several large fluorescent orange ones that were more than a foot tall and looked like a toxic version of the Mario Kart power up. These were not here during my summer circuit of the lake and likely wouldn’t last the month with the northwoods’ early winter beginning to warm up its frigid clutches this past week. The waterfall would freeze and the lake would ice over and be covered in snow, then snowmobilers, indistinguishable from the mirror-still like we just walked around. I would have to hike this trail, or any trail, countless times to experience all it offers. That would all have to wait, as there was one more thing we wanted to do before the lake solidified, and we were running out of time to do so.

Read about our wild last night in Minnesota here

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