Birth of a Nature Girl

 I remember sitting in a city planning class at the University of MN Duluth discussing a local piece of land.  The professor was having us debate whether that particular area (which was near the freeway exit ramps going into WI) should be developed or left natural.  Without a second thought I yelled, “Develop it!”  It looked like a big, overgrown swamp.  Not the image you’d want tourists to have as their first impression of your city or state.  Besides, how could a city not benefit from having more retail or business?  But as the discussion went on, I was the proverbial cheese.  I stood alone.

Years passed and a somewhat similar controversy arose regarding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the BWCAW.  If you’ve never heard of the BWCAW, it is a million plus acres of nature located along roughly 150 miles of wilderness separating MN and Canada.  This series of lakes and small waterways is accessible only by the 1200 miles of canoe routes—many involving portaging; transporting your canoe, food, fishing gear, tents, etc. by foot across small island paths.  Anyway, there was a group of people who wanted to make it easier to get in and out of these lakes and they wanted to be able to use small motors—a no-no up there.  I thought, “Who cares?  Are you kidding?  It’s the 90’s for Pete’s sake, bring on the speed and easy in and out!”  They’re already going camping; can’t you at least give these people a break on getting there?  Sheesh.  It didn’t matter; the law wasn’t changed to allow motors in all of the lakes, just some outlying ones.

I went along with this black-or-white view of life until 2006 when I began dating my husband.  I knew he was an avid outdoorsman, but I convinced myself that this was not going to be an issue.  When he began planning the annual fishing trip into the Boundary Waters, affectionately known in his family as “The B-Dub”, all eyes of relatives were on me.  I knew that if I wanted to survive in this family I had to go there.  I had heard all the stories of past friends, girlfriends, wives, etc. that didn’t cut the mustard.  Tales of those who traveled too heavy and brought things like razors and butane curling irons.  I was informed that there would be a list of required items and that it was expected that I stick to the list.  It was just going to be the two of us and it was going to be a physically demanding trip.

When the big day arrived I actually had butterflies!  We loaded up the Blazer and I could not imagine how all of that was going to fit in the canoe we had strapped on top.  We made our way from Duluth to Ely, MN.  A quick stop at Canoe Country Outfitters to get our permit and portage wheels, then Holiday for gas and ice, and Skube’s for leaches.  As we wound along the road to the Fall Lake entry my knees felt like Jell-o.  Not a nice, firm Jell-o that was ready to go, but a nowhere-near-set Jell-o that dripped off the spoon barely passed liquid.   One last visit to the outhouse after parking the truck and we were ready to go.  Mike sat in the back and I clumsily pushed us off…away from civilization.

As we approached the first portage I was unsure what to expect.  We pulled the canoe up onto shore and removed a couple heavy bags.  Mike lifted the front of the still-heavy boat straight up and I quickly slid the portage wheels under.  We tied it down, put the large bags back in, attached the heavy duty metal bar to the front and began walking.  I thought my legs were going to collapse under me!  The 90 rod goat path wound up and down and around corners; each bump sending the loaded boat rocking and reeling until almost pinning us to overgrown trees.  Once we were back in the water I immediately began dreading the second portage.

When we reached the shore of the next portage I could feel my heart sink.  A HILL?!  Not just any hill, a steep killer that we affectionately coined Heart Attack Hill.  We repeated the process with the canoe and began walking the boat.  I could hear the waterfall on our left, which was what necessitated the portage.  At the top of the hill I had to stop.  I was a 25 year smoker, for Pete’s sake, what the hell was I thinking?!  I thought my heart was going to pound right out of my chest.  As I looked down toward the water I could not imagine how we were going to get the canoe down without dumping it and losing everything.  “Slow and steady” Mike kept repeating as he watched me struggle.  I clenched the edge of that boat so tight I thought my acrylic nail would go right through the aluminum!  Somehow I made it to the bottom of the hill and we got the boat backed into the water.  I stood up, drenched with sweat, and lit a Capri with my shaky hand.  Nature.  Seriously.  What was I doing here?  My idea of roughing it was a hotel with no room service.  Nature.

We had one more stop to make along our route.  This time the boat stayed in the water.  Mike had to take the motor and gas can up into the woods and lock them to a tree with a heavy chain.  He quickly returned and we were off.  Out of the motor zone and ready to paddle to the end of our roughly thirteen mile journey.  As we came around the corner and Basswood Lake sprawled out before me, it took my breath away.  Never before had I seen anything like this!  The absolute silence was indescribable.  The only noise was the paddle digging into the water and birdsongs.  Why had I never been here before?  The small ripples of water glistened like diamonds in the sun around us.  In the distance the lake was as smooth as glass and reflected the small islands.  This place is unbelievable.

We paddled up to one of the Sister Islands near the Canadian border.  A whole island to ourselves, how cool was that?  My first duty-find the latrine!  I use this term loosely since it’s more like a five gallon bucket over a hole.  But hey, it beats hangin’ over a log!  We set up the tent, kitchen area, and hammock.  As the sun set across the lake I decided I never wanted to leave.  I said we could use walleye as our new currency.  Paddle into town occasionally for cigarettes and bait and we’d be set.  How could you ever beat this place?

We spent our days fishing and swimming.  One day we headed across the lake to swim in a waterfall.  That was pretty cool.  Another day we paddled over to a nearby site and hiked to the tip of a hill.  The view was spectacular, you could see for miles in every direction.  We fished at night a couple of times with lighted bobbers.  That was very cool!  It was kind of an eerie feeling to be sitting in thirty plus feet of water in a little canoe with just moonlight surrounding you.  But you get used to it and it’s very exciting when the bobber goes down!  The food was great—steak, fish, spaghetti, etc.—lots of snacks and maybe even a cocktail or two.  We no doubt burned off every calorie.

On the journey out of the B-Dub I was sad; sad to leave my new favorite place.  How could it be that I, once known corporately as “The Hatchetwoman”, would turn into a nature girl?  My hair was naturally highlighted and in two braids.  My skin was naturally tanned and soft under many layers of sunscreen.  John Denver played non-stop in my head, Rocky Mountain High.  I hadn’t worn make up or shaved in a week, and I didn’t even care.  I looked down at my nails and thought how foolish they made me feel.  Nature girls don’t have fake nails.  I picked them off one by one as we motored along.  The portages weren’t bad since we were so much lighter and we were quickly back to reality, back among people.

We stopped at the outfitters to return the portage wheels.  I will admit the actual toilet and sink were appreciated!  As I wandered around the store I looked at all the gadgets and gear people use.  A girl stood nervously looking at toiletry items; a rookie, no doubt.  I felt so strong having survived my vacation in the wilderness.  It was like an initiation to a secret club.  We drove down Ely’s main street to the Steak House.  Sitting there with the smell of campfire still on us, that might have been the best burger and coldest beer I’ve ever had.  Or maybe I had just worked up an appetite.  Nature will do that to you.


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