QUETICO IS A PLACE, YES, BUT IT IS ALSO STATE OF MIND
BY MARK A. NEIKIRK
There came a moment just after midnight when first they barked, then howled, then barked again, howled again. They moaned, mournful and devilish.
The wolves seemed, as wolves do when they do this, to be everywhere. East. West. North. South. Quadraphonic. One or a few were just across the narrowing of Trant Lake between the point where we were camped and the granite bluff 40 yards opposite.
The bluff’s top, or more precisely, the tops of the pines atop the bluff, had been the curtain above which the waxing gibbous moon had risen a few hours earlier. It had since moved west into the open, infinite sky. Maybe the wolves on the bluff thought they had chased it away and now meant to warn against returning. If a moon can be terrified by sounds in the night that seem to drench blood over long, sharp teeth, then these howls would keep this moon at bay.
Waking up to wolves while sleeping in a wilderness is a good time to remember that wolves are not known to attack humans. Judge for yourself whether “not known to do so” is sufficient comfort as the sounds grow more blood-curdling.
The first barking was sharp and delivered in spurts, almost in the rhythm of a cocking rooster. Awakened, Dan Hassert got the long-handled ax and sat it down by his tent. Eric Krosnes peed around his perimeter, marking his territory like the nerdy researcher in the 1983 quasi-factual movie, “Never Cry Wolf.” Mike Scheper got his iPhone and set it to record. Wade Morris and Mike Hammons woke up and listened, as did I, and then dozed back off, gracious to be in a place where wolves still do this. Trant Lake. Quetico Provincial Park. Thursday, September 8, 2022.
It was a perfect early autumn night. Cool. Not cold. No wind. Water like a made bed. Stars in their formations of warriors, women, and beasts. Our campfire had long since gone to ash with pinpoint coals glowing orange under logs burned into cobs of black char.
I could tell you a dozen more stories about the trip. Two dozen. Three. We were in Quetico for ten days, nine nights – time enough to accumulate stories. They would in aggregate give you a sense of what it is like to be in a vast provincial park where pristine lakes are knitted together by portages of various lengths and character. A few are short, wide and flat. They are the boulevards of these north woods. Others are long, rocky, steep, muddy to the point of being a bog or buggy or both. If you are going to somewhere worth a week of your time, there are more of these. Getting into Quetico is, in word, arduous but, perversely, that is part of the charm – even part of the fun. As a gymnastics teacher once told some kids during a practice I attended, “If it were easy, they’d call it football.”
As for those stories. I’ll tell a few, as if we were having coffee and you asked me, “How was the trip? Catch any fish? See any wildlife?” We did. Just understand: This trip was not about a particular highlight but about something less singular.
Dan Hassert, who has been with me on many of these trips and who was returning after a six-year absence, said it well after we returned. The more trips we take, the less ia trip is about this or that part. The more it is about the whole. The being there. The solitude. The silence. The absence of things that accelerate modern life and the presence of things like a stand of birch trees turning from green on your way in, then to yellow on your way out as fall announced itself. Or the scat of some wild animal (we saw moose, wolf, and something fresh that we could not identify) versus people with plastic bags picking up their dogs’ leavings from the sidewalk.
For the first day or two, I had not shed the daily life I left behind. I would have gladly checked my emails every 15 minutes, and when we arrived at our destination the first evening at a site that in the past had internet access, I in fact checked my phone. No service. The next morning, even before coffee, I climbed the site’s highest point, desperate for a bar or two. Still no service. Quetico had a message for me, sent not in a text but in the wind and water and wonder of the place: Unplug.
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As for the promised stories about things we saw and experienced, here are a few.
On a small, interior lake, a bald eagle lifted from one of the tall trees on the lee shore and glided low over the treetops, then disappeared toward another lake. We would see several bald eagles during the week. They live here. What’s extraordinary is not the seeing of a bald eagle but the knowing that seeing one is not extraordinary. We saw more bald eagles than we saw people. That is the glory of the Lord. A grace.
On Agnes Lake, a loon drew closer to our canoe as if asking to be photographed. Why was soon obvious. A baby loon was ahead and the parent was drawing us away. We have seen this often enough over the years to predict the answer whenever an adult loon permits proximity. Normally, they fly or dive long before you are in camera range. It fools me every time, and I paddle closer, then think, “Oh. Right. A youngin'. Got it. Props, mom.”
Elsewhere, a lone otter raised its tiny head through the water, looking, as otters do, like part of the water. Same color. Equally wet. It is as if the surface of the water had morphed into a small face the way superheroes and villains morph in today’s sci-fi movies. When it re-submerged, the lake simply folded back on itself into an inverted swirl and then flattened out as if never disturbed. Somewhere beneath the lake’s surface, life teamed unseen. Otters. Beavers. Snapping turtles. Bass. Pike. Walleye. Lake trout. Maybe a sturgeon. Minnows. Crawdads. Who knows what else. Nessie, maybe.
The otter was so small compared to the vast lake around us that we were lucky to see it. The woods bordering the lakes are vast, too, and have their own hidden populations. Mostly, you see animals when they want to be seen – when they are curious about you, as the otter was. Their seeing you is not a certainty that you will see them. I suspect we were observed by any number of bears, moose, wolves, and a whole variety of rodents from squirrels to the pine marten, a cat-sized member of the weasel family and one of the more interesting mammals in the north woods.
At the end of one portage, a small covey of grouse strutted back into the brush in military formation, their heads thrusting forward as each raised ond leg to walk and then the other. They seemed in no hurry to get away, as if they’d never heard a shotgun. We see grouse in this manner almost every year and, each time we fantasize about roasting a breast for dinner – which, of course, we never do, being neither licensed nor equipped to hunt birds.
Toward the end of another portage, the rush of water over a small falls could be heard in the woods, a few yards off the trail. Dan Hassert and Wade Morris took a moment to go see it. I tagged behind them – reminded by their initiative that the woods should not be hurried past, as if trying to beat a stoplight.
On Trant, Eric Krosnes caught 50 largemouth bass in an hour, fishing from a rock on the edge of camp in the evening with a Whopper Plopper, which churns a path through the water like a miniature outboard prop. He cast it 52 times. If this were baseball, his batting average would be .961. Welcome to the Hall of Fame.
On one cast, two fish hit the lure at the same time. One got hooked, the other did not, although a Whopper Plopper, rigged as it is with two treble hooks, could have handled both. Quetico’s lakes are so clear that even with the sun fading you could see them strike. The two were competing for what they thought was food but the loser in this case won – though the caught fish did, too, as we already had eaten dinner and all 50 fish would be returned to the lake immediately, better educated about the risk of attacking a plastic thing with an inviting tail.
Our last night in, I sorted through the remaining food and found ingredients to make grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches for an afternoon snack. You would be surprised how well grilled cheese goes with bourbon.
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This is a description of Quetico, or “the Quetico,” as it is often called, written in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1937 by the late Alvin R. Cahn, a sometimes professor who wrote frequently in that journal and in others on regional animal populations:
“The Quetico occupies an area of approximately 50 miles by 50 miles.... It is an area of rare natural beauty. Cut, scarred, and etched by the great glaciers that once covered the northern half of North America, it consists of endless huge rock ridges extending for the most part in a north east-southwest direction. The valleys between the ridges contain probably over 2000 lakes of all sizes, very many of them connected by rivers into great chains. These waterways constitute the finest canoe country we have, and afford, besides their great natural beauty, some of the best fishing one could desire. The region lies in the heart of the great coniferous forest, where white and Norway pines are the dominant trees and form the climax, and areas of jack pine, poplar, and birch are developmental stages. There are great regions of swamp, where crooked streams wend their way through the soft ground, to the tune of humming mosquitoes. It is a region abounding in birds and mammals.”
Doc Cahn was a Chicago-born zoologist who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, Cornell, the University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M, and, finally, the University of Illinois, where he earned his doctorate and taught until his quiet, swift dismissal, presumably related to his association with clandestine wrestling matches. Apparently, the professor had an eye for sporting talent, but the FBI was bothered by his organizing of matches. Cahn eventually took his scientific talents to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Navy, where whatever tarnish was on his reputation faded into oblivion.
During his abbreviated teaching career, one of his students was Sigurd Olson, who would become Quetico’s most beloved chroniclers, and the author of “The Singing Wilderness,” first published in 1957 and still in demand by anyone who has paddled Quetico and its companion park on the U.S. side of the border, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Olson, one reviewer said, writes with "a poet’s lyric voice and a guide’s authority."
It would be intriguing to know if the two, Cahn and Olson, paddled Quetico together. Both men were born in Chicago, both had stops in Wisconsin during the course of their lives and both loved Quetico. Olson is reported to have made his first trip to Quetico/Boundary Waters area in 1921, and Cahn reported in his 1937 article that his first Quetico trip was in the summer of 1919, “travelling mostly by compass and guesswork.” He went back every year, staying for weeks at a time. Given their shared passion, and their acquaintance with each other, perhaps they tripped in one another’s company at some point, maybe often.
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When you tell someone you have just been to Quetico and then explain what happens there, what it takes to get there, what it requires to be there (sleeping in a tent, for example, or bathing in a cold lake and digging a small hole for your bowels' callings) you are as likely as not to get this reaction, as I did the other day: “You call that a vacation? I’d rather just go to Bermuda.”
I would like to go to Bermuda, too, but given a choice I’d pick Quetico. There is nothing I don’t like about it. To sit by a lakeshore on a still evening as the sun sets over water you have paddled and that is now a sheet of glass as the sky turns purple and blue and orange and red and fades to black is to know real luxury. The aforementioned Sigurd Olson is worth quoting on this point: “Joys come from simple and natural things; mist over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water. Even rain and wind and stormy clouds bring joy.”
But no kidding, it takes work to get here. For all of Quetico’s attractions, coming is a commitment of time and effort. Money, not so much. Gas, food, permits, a fishing license – those add up to less than $1,000 per person for ten days. This does not count the urge to buy something new like, say, a Hennessey Hammock for a couple of hundred dollars or a new rain suit for twice that. Gearing up is fun, so everyone does a bit of it. But we also take a one-gallon pot blackened by sitting atop campfires to boil water or soup or rice. I bought it used in, I’m guessing, the early 1990s in Ely for $1. Twice it ended up with small holes in the bottom but it fixed itself. That is, once the fire was good and hot, the metal self-sealed. Never have I spent a better dollar.
Of six of us on this trip, five – Eric Krosnes, Mike Hammons, Mike Scheper, and me – have been many times before. Our new person this year was Wade Morris, Dan’s nephew-in-law and an experienced outdoorsman new to canoe camping. On the first day after the first series of portages, which were especially difficult and made more so because food packs are heaviest on the first day, Wade started a sentence with, “When we come back next year....” I don’t recall what he said after that but our ears perked up. Already, Wade was on board for 2023. Quetico does that to you.
Planning for the next trip begins immediately upon a return from the previous year. Where will we go next year? What should we bring that we didn’t bring this year? What should we not bring so as to reduce our back weight?
We are thinking Conmee next year, a lake known for its big walleye and further west than we’ve been before. As for reducing weight, we might replace the iron skillet with something more modern and lighter – or we might not because that old, black skillet is a Quetico staple and indestructible on fire grate over an open flame. Maybe we’ll breakdown and bring one tackle box per canoe. Then again, tackle is personal. Right now, what we will or not I bring next year is pure speculation but fun speculation. It carriea us through winter and populates our Christmas wish lists.
The serious planning begins in late spring as the roster of people actually going clarifies. Even into March, there often are ten people or more who want to “go this year.” By May, those who were well lintentioned but not serious fall away.. Each of the committed then applies to Canada for a Remote Area Border Crossing (RABC) permit, which costs $35 and requires a copy of one’s passport, driver’s license and, this, year, a proof of vaccination card.
Because remote entry has been closed since 2020, there was no certainty that we could go to Quetico this year unless we added 450 miles of driving to our trip, which we hoped to avoid. We already faced a 900-mile drive to Ely, Minn., where we could charter a johnboat to motor us to the United States/Canadian border and enter at a wilderness checkpoint. That is, if we each had an RABC. Otherwise, we would have to continue driving to International Falls, pass through customs there, then proceed east past the little town of Atikokan, Ontario, to the Quetico Park headquarters at French Lake, where we could check in, unpack and start paddling. You need an extra day for all of that added travel.
In late June, I was on my way into Yosemite to hike when I called LaTourell’s Moose Lake Outfitters, a family business that has taken care of our Quetico needs for 47 years, missing only those years when we did try the north side and two years with family matters kept me at home.
Bob LaTourell said the remote border crossing at Prairie Portage – our entry point – was still closed and the Canadian government was not yet issuing RABC’s. However, the Ontario parks people were starting to stock the rangers’ facilities at Prairie Portage, a clue that things were about to change. So, when I returned from a week of backpacking in Yosemite, I let our crew know this, and we started our applications. The form was there, even though the page said Canadian customs was not yet accepting them. We sent them in anyway.
Weeks passed without any word and then Eric got the first call: "You used the wrong form, Mr. Krosnes, There’s a new form. Fill it out and email it to us. We’ll process your application promptly. Under no circumstances should you call us to check on the status of your permit. That won’t speed us up. We get to each application when we get to it." Or words to that effect.
Eventually, the rest of us got that call and sent in the right form, too, and nervously waited. After Eric, both Mikes and Wade got theirs, and then I got mine. On Monday, Aug. 29, Dan still did not have his. We were scheduled to leave three days later on Thursday, Sept. 1, and enter the park the next morning. Bracing for a stern lecture, Dan called Canadian Customs. But Canadians are known to be friendly people, and the customs agent on the other end of the phone upheld her nation’s reputation very well. She remembered seeing his applications and ours, and wasn’t sure why his had not been processed but she would get right on it and he should have it no later than Wednesday. Within a couple of hours, Dan had his RABC – and we were all set.
We all gathered at Mike Hammons’ house the day before that phone call, a Sunday afternoon, to sort and pack gear. We would end up with seven large packs for food, clothing, shelter, and things like an ax, saw, fire grate, plates, bowls, silverware, a water purifier, a shovel for digging a hole for No. 2, and a portable toilet.
That last one may seem unnecessity and, in fact, it is. But once you’ve used one in the woods, you want one henceforth. It is a plastic seat that looks just like the real thing at home but is attached to scissoring aluminum legs. No more squatting against a rock or a tree. Dig a small hole, set up the seat, do what needs to be done. No peeing or pooping on the pants pulled down to your ankles and no falling backward when the tree you are leaning against turns out to be dead. The contraption costs just $20 and weighs three pounds, a small price to pay in money and weight for such comfort and assurance. That said, if we ever go ultralight, the seat will be the first to go. Did I say “to go.” Must everything seem scatological?
Given another few hours together, we might have sorted everything further to reduce weight and maybe cut out one pack so that each canoe would have just two. As it was, two canoes would have two packs and one would have three, in addition to at least one personal gear pack per canoe for such things as rain suits that need to be accessible while paddling. Our main packs weigh between 50 and 80 pounds each. We were moving an army. And feeding one, too. Six people. Ten days out. Think abut $600 in groceries, which is not much money per person for ten days of food but it is a lot of stuff on the Kroger conveyor belt.
Were you to apply backpacking standards to a canoe trip, you could get this load way down. But one of the advantages of canoe camping is that you can take more gear. Backpackingm I take a one-pound tent and a 30-degree sleeping bag that compresses to water bottle dimensions. My Quetico tent is three pounds and my sleeping bag, rated to 0 degrees, is plush with down and compresses only to the size of couch cushion. On a cool night, it is worth every extra square inch and pound. I also brought one more shirt than I needed and perhaps one more layer of warmth. I had three pairs of socks and wore one pair. I brought binoculars that we need took out of the case, Multiply my extra weight times six and you can see where the packs might have been lighter.
We also could have cut food weight had we agreed to eat cardboard – that is, freeze-dried, pre-packaged meals. We instead favored dinners like this one: freshly fried smallmouth along with macaroni prepared with olive oil, seared pine nuts, a quarter of a diced onion, diced garlic also seared, sliced dates, a cup of chicken bouillon, a little butter, and, for those who wanted it, a sprinkle of parmesan. None of that is too heavy by itself (a garlic clove is nearly weightless but adds a lot of flavor). There is a price in weight to eat like this.
Once we were prepped, loading to leave was easy enough on Thursday afternoon. Nonetheless, we barely met our deadline to be on the road. There were the inevitable last-minute things, work and personal. I had some “must do” things at the office before going off the grid for 10 days, and a dental appointment that morning. Mike Hammons, it turned out, needed some emergency dentistry, too. We both had lost a cap on a tooth. We would later find out how prudent we were to get this attended to. A friend who did not ended with a serious and stubborn infection.
By 3 p.m., we were on the road to Ely. Rush hour in Indianapolis slowed our progress and then, in mid-Wisconsin, we heard disturbing noises from behind our vehicle. Looking back, a tractor-tailor in the next lane zigged right, then zagged back. No idea why.
Since it was approaching the dinner hour, we pulled off I-65 to fuel our van and ourselves. Inspecting the trailer, it became immediately obvious what the trucker had dodged. The right tire on the trailer carrying all of our gear and the three canoes was missing its tread and running on threads. Our trailer was missing a fender. The tread must have peeled off, flew up, knocked the fender loose (noisy), and then the tread and fender flew into the interstate, which the trucker skillfully avoided.
We sat about changing the tire before ordering cheeseburgers. The tire would give us more fits later but for the moment we were back on the road.
Driving through the night, we arrived in Ely around 7:30 a.m., which was about an hour later than expected.
In Ely, we got a cup of coffee, some last-minute supplies (gear is good), and headed to LaTourell’s to park our vehicle – Mike and Katie Scheper’s Toyota mini-van, which easily sat six of us and pulled the trailer. It suffered a little in gas mileage for the load but did fine. We got to Ely well-rested. With six drivers and 17 hours of driving, no one was at the wheel too long. The spare tire on the trailer, however, was already deteriorating, and would need to be replaced before we returned home. We could take care of than later.
The routine at LaTourell’s is straightforward: check in, pay for a boat ride to the border, arrange a pickup date and time (Sunday, Sept. 11, 9 a.m., Prairie Portage), then unload the trailer and carry everything down to the dock. LaTourell's folks next load the packs and us in their boars (they took us in two) for the 45-minute ride to the border in a johnboat with canoe racks and an 25 HP Evinrude that pushes the load over the lake like it was 125 HP.
At Prairie Portage, we would carry the canoes and packs across a modest portage, sit it all down on the gravel beach, and then check in with the ranger, where we paid our camping fees ($21.50 in Canadian currency per person per night), listened to a stewardship talk with flip cards (don’t pee in the lake, dispose of your fish entrails properly, and extinguish all campfires), and picked up a copy of the fishing regs. We got some current conditions info: Some trails were overgrown from lack of use during COVID but most were passable. There were no active forest fires, unlike last year when we went to the Boundary Waters under a campfire ban. And there had been no appreciable bear activity to worry about.
Around 11:30 a.m., we loaded the canoes and began to paddle, destination Woodside Lake, two days away.
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There are three ways to enter Quetico from Prairie Portage and to then head to Agnes Lake, which is the route we had a permit to use. The easiest goes over Singing Brook Portage, which is about as pleasant as a portage can get – as you can perhaps tell from the name. Considerably more difficult is the North Portage, which exceeds a half mile and is, in some section, uphill.It is rocky and, after any rain, muddy, although park crews have made it much better in recent years by building stone and gravel beds in the low spots that used to be bogs. By either of these routes, paddlers must first cross the Bailey Bay of Basswood Lake. It sits in a wind tunnel and even a modest wind can make it choppy. A stronger wind makes it plain hairy. I’ve paddled it through three-foot waves, which make for a six-foot differential. Not fun.
The other way to get to Agnes Lake is via the Poacher Lake portage. Few people take it because it is well over a mile long – but that distance on land is well worth the work if Bailey Bay is kicked up. It was not on this day but we took Poacher because it puts you deeper into Quetico and avoids padding across Sunday Lake, which can be choppy.
It took 40 minutes to walk Poacher with a fully loaded pack (or with a canoe and day pack). Since we have to double portage to get seven packs and three canoes from one lake to the other, that meant nearly two hours on the Poacher portage. Then there’s a lake, a small portage followed by a stream and small portage before Sunday Lake. From there, it’s a short portage two back-to-back portages everyone calls “the Twin Agonies” into Agnes. The first is three-quarters of a mile, the second is a little shorter but rockier.
It’s a lot of work to get to this point. Seventeen hours of driving. Five portages with heavy packs. But at the end of the second Agony, beautiful, long Agnes lies ahead. The lake was rippled but not turbulent, which would make padding it comparatively easy. We now had only to find a campsite.
A good one is right across the first bay from the portage but our goal was an area we call “Half Agnes,” as it is halfway up this 21-mile lake. Getting there for the first night would position us perfectly for the trip we had planned to Woodside, which is three portages west of the northern terminus of Agnes. We wanted to spend four or five nights on Woodside, so the sooner we got there the greater the probability that we could have time in the Quetico interior.
But the sun was setting. It was low on the horizon already and we preferred not to set up camp in the twilight. So halfway to Half Agnes, we started looking for a campsite. There were not many. One was taken. Another was too little for six people. I urged us to keep going to Half Agnes and said we could be there in 25 minutes. Mike Scheper laughed and said, no, maybe an hour. He was right, and for the rest of the trip, when someone asked how far something was, the answer was always 25 minutes. You could have asked, “How far to China?” and the answer would have been, “25 minutes.” Ah, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!
The sun would finally set as we unloaded at Half Agnes, set up tents, started a fire, and prepared a dinner of sausage and gnocchi – an easily prepared, tasty and filling meal. We said goodnight early, as everyone was exhausted, but then got up to see the Northern Lights, which stretched broadly across the northern sky, which is nicely exposed from the Half Agnes campsite situated on a peninsula with a bay on the west and Agnes on the east.
It was a cool, not cold, night, the water was calm, the moon not yet bright enough to wash out the lights, and it was a time described well by the words of Sigurd Olson: “At times on quiet waters one does not speak aloud but only in whispers, for then all noise is sacrilege.”
Welcome to Quetico.
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Simple things matter in life and in Quetico. Like coffee.
On a backpacking trip, I take Cafe Bustelo packets, which are all but weightless and make a decent cup of stout coffee. Boil water, add, stir, drink. Passable.
A canoe trip permits a little more weight so I pack real beans, ground and ready for a French press. We bought a nice Plexiglas press several years ago that can endure being inside a portage pack that is tossed around. On the first morning, I have to remember how many scoops is the right amount to get the coffee at the right strength. The answer is four heaping scoops. With luck, I'll remember that before I go next year and thus eliminate the guesswork. I bought beans from a local shop, Roebling Point Books and Coffee, with locations in Covington and Newport -- the old river cities of northern Kentucky, where I live. Roebling takes its beans and its roasting seriously, and it is enjoyable in Quetico to have this taste of home with us and, upon the first sip, to think of the little bookstore from whence these beans came and the great collection of literature that surrounds you when you walk in to buy a morning coffee.
A steaming cup of coffee beside the first flames of a campfire restarted from the barest of coals beneath ashes left from the night before is a luxury no five star hotel can replicate. The lake around you is often a perfect mirror of the shoreline's trees,as the day's breezes have not yet arrived. Maybe there's a little fog left from the night. The sun, round and insistent, is rising to burn if off but still looks moon-like behind the fog.
In this hour, the mind reflects on being here, on having been here in the past, on the day ahead. Once you are in Quetico for a couple of nights, this more singular reflection gains strength and displaces things you think about at home. Gone are all worries over the price of gasoline going up or the stock market going down. All of the awful, divisive politics of America in 2022 dissipate. Likely, at some point in the morning, you think of your family and miss them. Mowing? The house payment? Which Medicare Part B plan to selelct? Distant memories for the time being. You're in a Quetico state of mind.
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People often ask me after a Quetico trip how far we went, and I’m usually unable to answer. We measure travel in time, not miles, and it takes considerably more time to cover a mile when paddling into a headwind than when padding with no wind or a tailwind. Generally speaking, the distance from Prairie Portage to Woodside Lake is two days. Whether those are short days or long days depends on the conditions. Some years back, paddling in a headwind against brutal waves and driving rain, my wife, Kate, bore down against it all and repeated to herself, "I've given birth to children. I can do this." This trip, we had only favorable water and wind.
We used our first day, about seven hours of portaging and padding, to get to Half Agnes. It as a hard day, coming as it did after our long drive to Ely. We then took a zero day; that is, we stayed on Half Agnes for the day, relaxing, reading, fishing. We had our first fresh fish meal that evening. We left early the next morning and were on Woodside by early afternoon on Sunday, traveling all day at times involved light tailwind (we set up a small sail) and at other times no wind.
But, newsflash, I can tell you our distance this year because Wade Morris had an app that tracked and mapped our progress each day. Here’s the summary:
Friday, Sept. 2: Prairie Portage to Half Agnes, 18.2 miles, 8 hours, 26 minutes, five portages.
Saturday, Sept. 3: Layover day at Half Agnes.
Sunday, Sept. 4: Agnes to Woodside, 12.5 miles, 5 hours, 41 minutes, three portages.
Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 5-6: Layover days on Woodside.
Wednesday, Sept. 7: Woodside to Trant, 4.1 miles, 3 hours, 15 minutes, one portage.
Thursday, Sept. 8: Layover day on Trant.
Friday, Sept. 9: Trant to lower Agnes, 15.6 miles, 8 hours, 40 minutes, seven portages. This included a stop on Agnes Lake to see Louisa Falls, with a walk uphill to the head of the falls and back down.
Saturday, Sept. 10: Lower Agnes to Inlet Bay, 10.7 miles, 4 hours, 27 minutes.
Sunday, Sept. 11: Our Inlet Bay campsite on an island within sight of Prairie Portage, so this was a five minute paddle to our exit point, where – on the other said of Prairie Portage – the Latourell’s boats picked us up and took us back to their docks and our vehicle.
One other interesting tidbit from Relive, the app that Wade used: When we were canoeing, we sometimes traveling 5 to 6 mph. The average speed of a canoe is said to be about 3 mph, so we were booking it despite our heavily laden vessels. We paddled three Minnesota II Wenonahs, perhaps the best lake canoe ever made for long trips with gear. The oldest belongs to Mike Hammons, and he bought it used from a livery in Ely probably 20 years ago. The newest is Dan Hassert’s, and he bought it from me five years ago after I discovered it at our local REI for less than half price because it was a misorder and the manager just wanted to get rid of it. Eric Krosnes owns the third one, which also once was mine but I traded him for a Bell Mystic, a somewhat legendary design that is no longer made. The Minnesota II is swift, stable in rough water, and light to portage. They are made of Kevlar and though 18.5 feet long weigh barely more than 40 pounds – easily lifted and carried on the shoulders of one person.
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I’ll start with a little story about the the past two years, when the US-Canada border was closed, and so our “Quetico” trips were, in 2020 and 2021, to the Boundary Waters, which is something of a mirror image of Quetico except more lightly regulated. The United States generally has lagged Canada in protecting its portion of this unique region. It costs less to visit the Boundary Waters. More people are allowed in and the lakes tend to have more campsites. There's a permanently installed fire grate and toilet at each campsite, whereas in Quetico you bring your one grate and dig your own six-inch hole for the other (and either burn or carry out your TP). In Quetico, fish hooks must be barbless. In the Boundary Waters, barbs are still approved. Etc.
On those two COVID-era Boundaary Waters trips, unoccupied sites were desperately difficult to find on the way in and out. A secluded smaller lake, Boulder, was our destination the first year. Though isolated, its main campsite was occupied when we finally got to the lake. We were confined to a cramped, mosquito-infested, hilly campsite on the butt end of the lake away from the good fishing. In 2021, we returned to Boulder and the island was empty. Nice place. But after we left Boulder's isolation, we were back among the Boundary Water party scene. People everywhere. Everyone says “hi.” Everyone is friendly. Everyone is having a good time. The problem with everyone is they are everyone. Quetico is solitude, especially this year.
Woodside multiples Quetico’s solitude. It feels more remote and wilder in ways that I cannot explain. This year, it also seemed more necessary after the previous two years.
I’ve been to Woodside now three times, and we’ve never seen another soul on it. No one even passes through during our stay. Canoe campers tend toward trips that make neat loops, circling back to starting point. Woodside puts a little oblong bump in this loop. Were this route a foot, a detour to Woodside would be a bunion. See how unappealing that is? Hence, most people who come to Quetico avoid the extra work of getting to it.
Once settled in, we explored a little. Eric and I bushwhacked to a small lake, unnamed on the map. There is no trail to it. No campsite on it. No reason to go to it except to see what a lake on the map looks like actually. A breeze lathered its surface into an even grid of ripples, and was strong enough to turn one lily pad red-side up. The shore was too untamed to walk. Several seasons of downfall cluttered much of the places were land met water, and where there were no dead trees there was abundant brush. We stood on a granite outcropping to see and to listen, then followed an animal trail to a larger rock to do that same. The trail is a reminder of how animals can travel through the woods more easily than we can. We found ourselves climbing over more deadfalls, stepping into fields of moss that were like walking on a pillows, and stepping through grassy bogs that required an exact placement of each step to avoid plunging into something wet and squishy.
The island where we camped faces north with a broad open view of the sky. This means you can see the Northern Light if they come, and this year they came every night we were on Woodside, once is fairly spectacular fashion. To sit on a big, round stone by the lake on a clear, still night and see the lights is a magnificent experience, and Woodside is designed for the experience like the Vegas stage was designed for Elvis. Not that anyone should, but you probably could sync a video of the lights to “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”
Like Boulder, arriving on Woodside comes with the anxiety of whether there will be someone on the island campsite – and anxiety heightened by the fact that the island has the lake’s only campsites. It has two but they are so near that they like one and its annex. Unlike Boulder, I’ve not come to Woodside and found either site occupied. Read this. But don't go there. Leave it be. Please.
Clearly, people do come here because Woodside has a unique feature – which might better be called a weird legacy. Some unknown number of years back, someone decided to dig a hole on the island and leave discarded items there. That this was done is well known in the Quetico community. When I first thought of going to Woodside, I looked for information about the lake on a popular message board. People mentioned this oddity. Sure enough, walk the island’s backside and there it is, today with some kind of plastic box that looks sort of like the bottom of a cartop carrier. Inside was a Katadyn water filter, the Hiker model, missing the replaceable filter and the requisite hoses, sides of some kind of aluminum stove, a bush saw, some footwear and assorted other odds and end. One year, we set about eliminating this blight, burning what was combustible in that evening’s campfire and carting the rest of it home. But it’s back with a vengeance. We even found the top of the plastic box as we returned from seeing the unnamed lake. A big wind must have carried from the island to a resting place in the mainland’s woods. We brought it back to the island at, at the very least, all of the trash would be in one place instead of two.
I don’t think there is any good explanation for this stupid tradition of leaving something behind on Woodside, but is a reminder of how rare trash is in Quetico. When we hike at home in Kentucky, the amount of trash encountered is depressing. In the Red River Gorge, which should be treated with the kind of love Quetico receives, the most remote trail will be littered with a Mountain Dew or Bud Lite bottle if not both. In Quetico, one bottle would be remarkable. I do not recall ever seeing one. The Gorge should enjoy such stewardship. Instead, things are moving in the opposite direction with plans for a big luxury lodge on the drawing board. Raise your voice against that. We need some places to remain as untouched by the modern world as we can achieve. Maybe we need a few wolves howling in the Gorge.
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We came to Woodside to fish. That is not the only reason but it was on the list. High on the list. Past trips here were too short, but long enough to suggest the lake’s promise as a place where good-sized smallmouth live. One year, Mike Scheper was my canoe mate and we sat in rocking waves and a comfortably chilly drizzle, catching two- and three-pound smallmouth steadily. Another year, Eric Krosnes fed us handily by casting from the east shore about an hour before dinner. There are fish in Woodside. Good fish.
Monday, September 5, would be a day to fish. Eric and Mike Hammons caught fish from the shore before their morning coffee. By late morning, we were all on the water, Eric and I in one canoe, both Mike’s in another, and Dan Hassert and Wade Morris in the third. Each boat found a shore to work.
Eric takes the bow in our boat. He began casting a pumpkinseed Rooster Tail, a colorful little spinner with a long, thin blade in front of brown and tan hackle draped over a spotted brown shell over the shaft. It drives smallmouth nuts, as if their territory is being invaded by some tiny alien that must be driven from the water. They smack it with the ferocity of Mike Tyson biting off an ear. This happened time and time again as I sat in the stern, moving the boat slowly along the shore, in and out of the routine trouble of submerged rocks and deadfalls was drifting a fly from my rod. Mostly, I was having a slow day, getting a hit or small fish every 15 minutes or so, during which Eric would catch five or six keeper smallmouth.
It was getting a bit tiresome, catching so little, and had me doubting the wisdom of committing to fly fishing this trip despite knowing that Quetico is most effectively fished with a spinning rod, which can place a lure further, deeper and with more precision than a flyrod – as least, a flyrod in my hands. But I’ve been committed in recent years to my flyrods and to flies I select or tie. Also, with Eric and his spinning rod up front and two other canoes on the water in productive lake, we would be eating fish this evening. I did not have to catch anything toward that.
And I didn’t. We were on the water for maybe four hours. Our stringer, with several plump and feisty smallmouth, was a representative sample of Eric’s haul. Back at camp, both of the other canoes had good stringers, too, so we set about freeing all but five or six fish, enough for dinner.
About midway through the day, I felt a hit, set the hook, and watch my flyrod bend double. This was quite a fish! Even the smallest smallmouth fights against your retrieve. It is common to think you have a big fish only to reel in a 10-inch specimen punching about its weight. But when you have big fish, you know this because, until it pulls affirmatively, you realize you might just be snagged on a rock. Your prey is that solid. When it does begin to run or rise to jump, that solid tug does not change. But the rock comes to life. And this is the thrill of fishing. You must adjust the drag. Let line out when the fish flees, reel line in when it comes toward you, keep the rod tip up and then quickly put it down if the fish begins to rise to jump. Smallmouth jump, and when they do they can throw a hook – especially a barbless hook, as Quetico fishing regulations require – if the rod is not pointed down to retain tension. This is a Moby-Dick moment. You are Ahab or maybe Santiago, and this smallmouth is now a metaphor for something beyond its golden scales and those eyes that, having seen them before, you know are both cold and fiery. Your arm actually tires in the battle, which makes you laugh a little – to know you have canoed for hours and miles and days with no fatigue in your arms and now, a few pounds of Micropterus dolomieu flesh is wearing you out.
And then the line snaps. It goes limp. The fish is gone.
The end of a leader on a flyrod is tapered, and this leader was nearly threadlike at the end, with perhaps 4-pound test monofilament. It’s thin so as to be less visible to the fish and also to give the fish a fighting chance. It is less sporting to have heavy line. Thin though it is, a good leader is tough and does not just break so long as the drag on your reel is properly set. If the fish pulls harder than the strength of the line, the drag gives more line. This is part of the art of fishing, setting the drag at exactly that point where you can make progress reeling the fish toward the boat but loose enough to give if the fish starts to pull too hard.
One of probably four things happened. My drag was too tight and the line broke. The fish, though not as toothy as some species, bit the line in two. The fish drug the line over a rock or tree, breaking it. Or my knot gave way. This was the most likely. I’ve been trying a new knot, and I likely tied it imperfectly. When I reeled the line it, the dangling end of the leader had the telltale squiggle in its final inch of a former knot. Score an error on the fielder.
Back at camp, the mood was exuberant. Everyone, someone said, had caught fish! What a day!
Rather than blame my knot tying, I blamed my hat. I brought a collapsible straw hat, figuring the brim would be good against sun. It was, I concluded, unlucky, and would not be worn again. The next day, I switch back to a ballcap from Montana with the word “Blackfoot” and a graphic rendering of a bend in that famous river. It was a gift from an acquaintance. A kindness. And it brought luck. Henceforth, I contributed to our evening meals.
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We had a plan for our stay on Woodside that was a secret. Mike Hammons turned 70 just before our trip, and we wanted to celebrate the occasion in Quetico. We did so in this manner: First, we sang an out-of-tune version of Happy Birthday to him as Eric deposited some crystals into the fire that turned its flames a variety of colors, most notably azure. He then flipped a switch to turn on a festive string of LED lights that had our campsite looking weirdly like a lūʻau. With the mood set, we presented Mike with a small gift: a purple CuloClean.For those unfamiliar with this contraption, it is a camping bidet. It replaces the cap on a water bottle. Squeeze the bottle and a jet of water comes out the side of the CuloClean, leaving one's bottom refreshed. No more need to manage the supply and demand of TP.. No more embarassment carrying your used TP wad to the fire to burn it, which you cannot do if food is cooking (we have rules).
How could one live 70 years and just not possess something as great as the CuloClean? We even made sure Mike had an empty water bottle so he could use the gift sooner rather than later. A couple of campsites back, he asked if the bottle was trash since it was empty. No, no, no, we told him. Keep that. We need that. Don't burn it.
Five years ago, when Mike was 65, a conversation ensured among a couple of people who were new to Quetico. They knew me but not Mike.
"Mike is amazing for his age!" said one (I'm protecting the names, as no one had ill intent."
"No kidding! What is he? Seventy-two, I think," said the other.
I happened to hear this and corrected the record. But fo the record, Mike is amazing, both for his age and overall as a human being. He's also amazing at collecting firewood, amazing at offering thanks before a meal, and amazing at being kind from dawn to dusk and, so far as I know, in between as well, although he snores. Everyone does.
Happy birthday, Michael Hammons. And many more, preferrable in "the" Quetico with us.
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We had good days, and nights, on Woodside, and had planned to stay longer. But it seemed by Tuesday that a change of scenery was in order, and so we departed for nearby Trant.
On a portage coming toward Trant from Woodside, Wade Morris tore the meniscus in one of his knees, probably as he leaned to lift one of the heavy packs out of the canoe and then pivoted to hand it to someone on the shore. His was one of a few injuries and health scares this trip. A few other injury and health scares cropped up. Eric had chest pains one evening, which didn't last, and he also suffered a problem abdomal hernia. Mike Hammons banged his arm on rock and it swelled quickly and large. I found myself too dizzy to stand for a moment, probably from dehydration. Each incident was a reminder of our frailty and our distance from medical care beyond the little First Aid kit. We carry a satelite phone just in case the trouble exceeds the capacity of its gauze and ointments.
Some years back, we had a needle and thread, and another Dan, Dan Michalski, announced with an perculiar joy, "I want to sew something up." That Dan was handy, and if you needing sewing up, he was the man to do it. When my brother David put a hook through his thumb, Dan was over the moon. David was not.
Therein lies an aspect of our accumulation of Quetico trips, stretched over years and involving more than 50 different people who have been on at least one of the excursions: When something happens on one trip, it trips the memory about something that happened on another. And a story is told.
Just to mention David reminds me of the joy of being in Quetico with my brother. Our last trip together was in 2015, and we had come a long way on the first day and had futher to go. We had paddled across two large lakes, one small one, a large bay, crossed five portages, including three long ones and one that went straight up a hill, and made our way through a snaking beaver stream.
A word about "beaver streams."
A beaver stream (our term, not science's) is a series of narrow ponds created when beavers dam a small stream between two lakes. Such impoundments are a particularly lovely feature of Quetico, as they meander through reeds and rushes. The best ones eliminate the need to portage, and they offer a change in scenery from the big lakes lined in granite and forests. But they come with a price. As you slog over them from one pool to the next, the footing is sketchy. The navigation of where best to cross without damaging the beavers' admirable industry is tricky, First, you find a low point with a little water flowing over it. Then you line up a heavily loaded 18½-foot canoe in a passage that twists in tight turns which often are not themselves 18½ long.
The dams are not enough of an obstacle warrant unloading the canoes -- and where would you put the packs? So you tug the loaded boats over the sticks and branches that comprise these Corp of Engineers (rodent division) structures. The boats squeak and squeal as Kevlar scrapes against the dams. Canoes cross one at a time. A bow paddler exits first and pulls the canoe about halfway over so the stern paddler can step onto the dam or at least in the shallower water near it. The bow paddler climbs back in and the stern paddler pushes the canoe the rest of the way over the dam, then steps back into the boat, pushing it foward as he does. David and his canoe partner, Tim Owens, had attempted all of this on the final beaver stream of the day, and, in the process, David took a mistep and fell into the water, which is a bit mucky. It's unpleasant, unwelcome, and enough to make you not like beavers.
"We're not as young as we used to be," David told me at the end of paragraph of advice about perhaps not trying to go so far in one day -- although I don't think he used the word "perhaps." Perhaps another another word with fewer letters, like maybe four.
We pressed on, but I was mindful of the fading light and distance remaining if we did not alter the day's objective. We came to a little lake well short of my intended destination, Glacier Lake. The little lake was the kind paddlers typically pass through quickly on therir way to a grander place.. But it had an island campsite, was nicely isolated, intimately pretty, and looked as if it might have fish.
“Let’s stop here,” I offered, conceding that maybe I was pushing too hard. David replied, “No, let’s keep going. We might as well.” Glacier was still several portages away but he was resigned to my tyranny. The words had barely left his mouth when he saw Tommy Hammons rod bend. Tommy, Mike’s brother, kept a rod unpacked and fished whenever we tarried. On this tarry, he was about to land a nice smallmouth. Seeing as much, David changed his mind instantly, “This’ll do.”
By dinner an hour or so later, we had enough smallmouth to feed all of us.
Trant was like that in a way. We were not sure what to expect. But it turned out to be a fine fishing lake, populated with both largemouth and smallmouth bass, which were smaller than Woodside's fish but more abundant. It was on Trant that Eric caught his 50 fish in 52 casts.
And it was in Trant that we heard the wolves. It was a magical lake. In years to come, we will, no doubt, talk about our 2022 visit to Trant.
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Leaving Trant, we were on the way out.
There is a solemnity to departure that borders on melancholy. A trip long planned is coming to an end. At home, with all of its stresses, I sometimes put myself to sleep by imagining the rhythmic repetition of paddling a canoe. It is calming, and soon I doze. Other nights, I plan the menu. Friday. Saturday. Sunday. By Monday I am asleep. Or I'll go through the checklist of personal items: bug spray, Booker knife that Dad gave me, book, bathing sponge, matches. I'm asleep before I get to baby wipes. In my waking hours, I sort gear. Or tie a few flies.Or browse the catalog from Piragiis, an outfitting store in Ely. Anything anytime to connect me to Quetico, which, while there, is so real and present. The instant you leave, it is a chimera. Quetico is almost more a time than a place.
With so much invested in being in Quetico, the turn toward home is a reminder that in a few days, this will be over. This paradise is not an eternal one.
This year's trip postponed the melancholy of leaving because we were deeper into Quetico's interior and, also, had elected to exit by purposefully wending.
The direct route was back to Woodside, then due west over three portages that sort of blend into one with small lakes between them into Agnes, the great north-south lake that dominates all routes in this section of the park. Our chosen way out would go toward Silence, a lake that was five small unnamed lakes and six portages away. The shortest of six was 22 rods and the longest 96 rods. A rod is 16½feet, and is an old surveyor's unit that Quetico maps still employ. I'm not sure why, although you hear it said that the reason is because a rod is also the length of a canoe, which was more or less true until canoes got longer. Pre-Kevlar, a longer canoe was too heavy. Post-Kevlar, the speed delivered by a longer design can be achieved while still keeping the boat light enough to carry. A 96-rod portage is not as bad as it might sound. Sauvage Portage on the park's north side is, for our trips, the gold standard for difficulty. It's 305 rods, Nearly a mile. Length tells only part of the story. It has floating bogs that will suck you into oblivion if you step into them. At the very least, you may lose a boot when try to pull your leg out. And you will not smell good. These portages out of Trant Sauvage wannabes; shorter, yes, but no more kind.
The further north you come, assuming you entered Questico from the south, the less traveled the portages -- up to a point. If you reach the park's center, the portages are well-traveled again because there are other entry points, including from the east and north, so now you are in place of convergence from several entry points.
Woodside is perfectly situated just far enough below the middle. What this always means, and what it especially meant this year since so few people had entered from the south because of the COVID ban on entering Canada from the United States at an unchecked border crossing, is that the portages are overgrown from limited use. The forest is beginning to reclaim them. Even the landings, which are obvious further south (or further north) can be hard to spot. Maps help but they are often off a little -- just enough to perplex. So on the way into Woodside, and now on the way out of Trant, we found ourselves hunting for the landings and sometimes getting out of the canoes to explore what looked as though it might be the portage, but what was in fact an animal trail that soon disappeared into a thicket.
The route from Trant to Silence was especially this way, making is Sauvage-like. One passage from one small lake to another flummoxed us more than any other. We spend an hour believing we were on a portage when we were not. The trail, plain as Main Street, at the shore, forked after about an eight of mile. We tried both forks several times, simply not believing this could not be the trail. It wasn't. We reloaded the boats and paddled the shoreline until we found another likely landing. It, too, began in a promising fashion, then split, one route going left into what soon became a thicket and the other going right into what soon became watery. I tried the thicket. Eric, who was carrying the canoe, put it into the narrow, shallow water which was full of downfalls and crowded by low-hanging trees and dense brush on its shores. I heard him call that he thought he had found the correct route, so I returned, trying to follow his voice, which -- though it carried -- seemed to be coming from who knows where.
Finally, I arrived on a rock about six or seven feet above the canoe in the water, with Eric seated in the boat. "Drop the back into the canoe," he instructed. Easier said the done. This pack probably weighed 80 pounds, which is not terrible to carry for a short distance was it is on your back and all of the suspension straps and belts fastened and tightened. But it is very difficult to take off smoothly, and too heavy to handle gracefully. In a sort of swinging motion, I got I off and over the canoe and let go. Gravity did the rest, the pack landed in the canoe, immediately shifting its balance and flipping it sideways. Eric was laying in the shallow water and its mud, one side of his face underwater or nearly so, which meant I saw him in profile, with one eye -- his left eye -- looking up at me as a fish might -- since a fish has one eye on each side of its body. "Help me," he said. Only seconds had passed but it must have seemed much longer to him because was momentarily paralyzed by the turn of events. I still feel guilty about any delay in my assistance. In my defense, I was stunned. "Help me." He said it once but it resonates through might memory in endless repetition. I leaned over, extended a hand, and pulled him upright. We loaded everything, and paddles maybe 100 yards to the other side of this woodland pond -- or whatever it was. Eric said he felt like Charon The River Styx. Our trip, however, would have a happier ending.
Silence may be the quintessential Quetico lake. It is beautifully named, and, as a work of God's hand, beautifully executed. Alternately narrow and wide, it is big enough to take some time to paddle but small enough to feel intimate. It's pines are prominent, and one of its campsites is among the best in Quetico, being carpeted in pine needles that take the edge off the landscape's granite and gritty soil. There are cliffs on one side, low country on the other. Silence seems to showcase all that is Quetico. It is a primary lake on what's called the S-chain, possibly the most popular loop in the park: Shade, Sultry. Silence. Our route would bypass the other S lakes, which were to the west. We turned east, portaging over easily little eight-rod portage into Agnes and toward home.
If anything I've written here about the difficulties from Trant to Silence make you think I did not enjoy it, please allow me to see the record straight. All of those difficulties made this day of travel feel more like another day in Quetico and less like a day leaving Quetico. It was the purest of joys.
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I am writing this account toward the end of a month, September, that began with our entry into the park. It’s seem like it was a year ago. One of the most ridiculous things about a trip to Quetico is how soon if feels like something you did a long time ago.
I am not sure why that is except that our lives are so busy that, when we escape them, it is only for the duration of the escape. They await our return. Five minutes after you drive off from Latourell’s, a cell phone signal is delivered and hundreds of emails arrive along with text messages and voice mails. They want your attention RIGHT NOW. Fifteen minutes after you leave Latourell’s you are at U.S. Customs to check in with the officiious stewards of international travel. Prepare to present your papers. Your vehicle, though it never left the United States, is subject to search. Again this year as in recent years, the station was unstaffed. So we had to read the fine print about what to do. It seemed to ask us to self-report using a QR code. Maybe those who shouted, "Built the wall!" should instead be shouting, "Install a QR code!"
The QR code, however, did not work – neither does the wall, apparently. Mike Hammons called a number and a friendly customs agent checked us back intoour own country. What else where they going to do with us – sent us back to Woodside to live?
Cleared, we headed to Ely for food and some souvenirs, then boarded the van for home. We would pass through lovely Duluth on grant Lake Superior, then through rural Wisconsin, then through Chicago after midnight. Where hours ago we were in the solitude of nature, we would find ourselves the heart of the city with its well-lit skyscrapers, furious traffic. Where we once breezed past ancient cliffs with native people’s pictographs, now we breezed past endless billboard advertising everything from breast augmentation to legal services if a big truck hits you.
And then we were home at daybreak. We unpacked, showered and, this year because we arrived home on a Monday, went to work for the nex eight hours.
My book for this trip was Wendell Berry’s 1990 collage of essays, “What Are People For?” It maybe the best collection of his essays if you want a collection that gives you the essential thinking of this amazing man of letters – although picking his “best” is a bit of a silly exercise. Just read anything you can get your hands on.This collection really zeros in a central question of modern life: Do we exist as people just to fuel an economy that wants our time and effort for its own gain and not for ours? What are people for? Are we not for some greater purpose, that purpose being ourselves, our families, our friends, each other?
Maybe our purpose is to wake up in the night together and hear wolves howl, and, upon hearing them, to marvel.